Who found magic in free agency?
Some teams set themselves up for success, while odds are still against others
A day later and it's like looking at the opening scenes of "The Hangover."
Around the NHL, we have this idea of GMs waking up July 2 and going, "I signed who? For how long? And how much money?"
Or something like that.
Too early, probably, for too much buyer's remorse to have set in. And while we looked closely at some of the dozens of deals that were consummated July 1 (and a couple that bled into July 2), here's a look at the bigger picture of where some teams stand after the spending spree and as we head into the true offseason.
Teams that made moves we'll be talking about next spring (maybe)
The Lightning didn't go for the "brand names" but added important pieces to the proverbial puzzle. Locking up Ryan Callahan was key as the Martin St. Louis trade keeps on giving for the Lightning. They traded for Jason Garrison and signed the sturdy Anton Stralman, who impressed so mightily during the playoffs for the New York Rangers. And later adding Stralman's pal Brian Boyle to fill in on the third line after he, too, had an impressive playoff run makes this team not just better prepared to take a run at Boston and Montreal in the Atlantic Division, but at least in theory better prepared for the 2015 playoffs. And in the end, isn't that what it's all about?
It's fashionable to pooh-pooh the Florida Panthers because, well, they're easy to pooh-pooh. But we'll go back to the offseason leading into the 2011-12 season, when GM Dale Tallon added a plethora of free agents, prompting the usual criticism and skepticism. We weren't among the critics. We picked the Cats to make the playoffs and they did, in fact winning the Southeast Division. We're not picking them to win the Atlantic, but we just think Jussi Jokinen, Willie Mitchell, Dave Bolland, Derek MacKenzie, Shawn Thornton and netminder Al Montoya, all signed Tuesday, have the chance to perform a similar minor miracle regardless of whether the deals were sound or not. The skaters are all character guys and, with top youngsters like Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad et al and assuming Roberto Luongo maintains good health, this is a team that could surprise.
If Lindy Ruff can coax better team defense out of the Dallas Stars next season in spite of a blue-line corps still in transition, his revamped offense should catapult the Stars into the thick of things in the suddenly ultracompetitive Central Division. Did we mention we're not enamored with the goaltending depth? We did? OK.
The Blues targeted depth down the middle and got their man in Paul Stastny, who signed a four-year deal worth $28 million. Now, is the goaltending, the subject of so much discussion last season, in good hands with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen? Well, our guess is we haven't heard the last of that discussion, but once again this should be a team to tangle with Chicago and Colorado atop the Central.
GM Jim Rutherford had his hands full salary cap-wise but managed to adequately replace the departing Matt Niskanen with Christian Ehrhoff on a nice one-year deal worth $4 million. The Penguins will miss Brooks Orpik's leadership, but there are lots of young defensemen looking to break into the Pens' lineup and maybe this is the season Simon Despres gets his chance to make it or break it. Patric Hornqvist will have to produce 30 goals or so to make the swap with Nashville for James Neal work, but no reason he can't get to that number. And we like the one-year deals signed by Steve Downie ($1 million), who has better than average skills if he can stay healthy and can play up and down the lineup, and by Marcel Goc ($1.2 million), who was injured much of the time he was in Pittsburgh after coming over from Florida last season. And then there's Thomas Greiss, who signed a one-year, $1 million deal and will battle Jeff Zatkoff to back up Marc-Andre Fleury but may end up pushing Fleury for playing time. Is this team better than the one last season that coughed up a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers? Well, it's different, and for us that means better.
We like the addition of Brad Stuart from San Jose, and the fact the 34-year-old has just one year left on his deal is likely a good thing for an Avs team that still needs to figure out a defensive lineup that will stand the test come playoff time. Adding veterans Daniel Briere and Jarome Iginla may pay dividends next April/May provided they can both stay healthy, even if the final two years of Iginla's three-year, $16 million deal may be less pleasant for the team. But that's the risk of adding players in the twilight of their careers, and no one will think about that if the Avs win a couple of rounds next spring, which they're perfectly capable of doing.
Hey, that Brooks Orpik deal is a head-scratcher for sure (five years at $5.5 million per) and his former mate Matt Niskanen's seven-year deal at $5.75 million annually is a whopper, but adding those two blueliners helps redefine the Caps' defensive corps, one of the top priorities for this team. The team still lacks depth down the middle (hey, remember when Mike Ribeiro was collecting a point a game in 2013 for the Caps, just saying). But with Barry Trotz behind the bench bringing a fresh look at things and the Orpik/Niskanen adds, we think the Caps are better than they were and they weren't that far from a playoff berth last season.
Teams still looking for some magic
So, who's going to get the puck to newly acquired sniper James Neal? Craig Smith? Calle Jarnkrok? Filip Forsberg? Maybe. Olli Jokinen, who was signed to a one-year, $2.5 million deal Wednesday? Sorry, but didn't that ship sail many moons ago? Could the Predators jump back into the playoffs after a two-year absence without a significant upgrade down the middle? Maybe. But it puts a lot of pressure on the kids to step forward. Take a look at the Central Division after Tuesday and, apart from aimless Winnipeg, the Predators are by far the thinnest down the middle. And that's not necessarily a recipe for playoff participation.
What happened to the Wings' cachet? Matt Niskanen and Dan Boyle both eschewed the once mighty Red Wings in favor of Washington and the New York Rangers, respectively. Could Mike Green help if he's deemed expendable by the Caps? Maybe, but that costs assets and the Wings are just now seeing some of their top young players emerge as NHLers. The last thing GM Ken Holland wants to do is to offload youth for a guy like Green whose impact would be questionable. Can the Red Wings return to the playoffs without getting some significant help along the blue line? Our guess is no.
Mathieu Perreault? That's the answer? Hmmm. If the question was, "How do we keep our streak of never winning a single playoff game alive?" then the Jets seem right on track. While every other team in the Central Division has made a step forward, the Jets seem content to maintain the status quo in the hopes that somehow, someway their young players -- and there are some good ones like Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler -- will miraculously take this team by the throat and guide it into the playoffs. Last season they finished 14 points back of fourth-place Minnesota and seven back of Dallas, which snared the second wild-card spot in the West. No way are they that close now. Perhaps GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will turn around and trade Zach Bogosian or Evander Kane to shake up his moribund club, but teams that might be interested in acquiring those assets have filled in holes via free agency. We're interested to see how the Jets backfill their goaltending situation with Al Montoya gone to Florida. This is a key move for the Jets given the swings in Ondrej Pavelec's game.
So, basically what the Leafs are saying is, "Remember that precipitous collapse last season that followed the precipitous collapse in Game 7 of the opening round of the 2013 playoffs? Don't worry about that." Because the team has made few alterations since the end of the season to suggest anyone really feels this team needs to change. Same coach and GM, although there's a new president in Brendan Shanahan. The Leafs returned Leo Komarov after a season in the KHL and veteran defender Stephane Robidas, whom we think the world of, but he is 37 and coming off a broken leg. And they swapped Carl Gunnarsson for Roman Polak. That's it. History tells us that's not nearly enough.
New York Rangers
If there was one glaring deficiency for the Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals against the Los Angeles Kings it was their lack of depth down the middle. If there remains one glaring deficiency as the free-agency feast of spending passed Tuesday it's a lack of depth down the middle. Maybe GM Glen Sather has a Plan B, but it's hard to see the team as any better than it was a day ago after shedding Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle and Brad Richards and adding another aging former Tampa Bay Lightning in Dan Boyle.
Hmmm. Looks pretty much like the same team that got bounced in the first round last spring, only not as good, after swapping Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger and adding defensive depth in Nick Schultz. Guess that's what happens when you box yourself in with unhappy contracts like the one handed out to Vincent Lecavalier last summer at this time. Maybe Ron Hextall has a move or two up his sleeve, but this doesn't look like a playoff team right now.
So, the popular Josh Georges and his contract are gone. So is captain and all-around good guy Brian Gionta. GM Marc Bergevin cleared salary-cap room and he did bring in Manny Malhotra, who is a solid if aging defensive forward and good dressing room presence. But is this team more complete than the one that went to the East finals? Hard to see it that way. And where will the leadership come from? Who's going to wear the "C"? Andrei Markov? Nope. P.K. Subban? No, way too early for that. Right now this looks like a team poised for a step backward.
Hello. Anyone home? Not sure standing pat is the answer for a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2009. Hello? Anyone?
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