Wings, Flyers looking for answers
A few of the big names remain floating in the winds, but for the most part, the big spending has been done. Teams and their fans are left to reflect on where the offseason shopping spree has left them vis-a-vis their competition -- or in the case of teams that eschewed the lure of free-agent baubles, whether that decision will come back to haunt them next season.
Here is a look at our winners and losers through the first part of July:
Take A Step Forward
No question, the Wild move to the front of the class after landing the two biggest free-agent catches in defenseman Ryan Suter and winger Zach Parise. Both signed identical 13-year, $98 million deals and should vault the Wild back to relevance in their market and into the playoff hunt in the Western Conference after missing the postseason four straight years. Add in toughness in Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell, and Chuck Fletcher has quickly established himself as a general manager who gets things done. Credit must also go to owner Craig Leipold, who loosened the purse strings to make the Wild, at the time of this writing, the second-highest-spending club in the NHL.
The Stars are more and more looking like a Joe Nieuwendyk team as the Hall of Famer-turned-GM jettisoned Steve Ott and Mike Ribeiro, two players he has been looking to move since the trade deadline last season. He landed skilled center Derek Roy from Buffalo in the Ott deal and signed 40-year-olds Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr to add three new faces to his top-six forward contingent. Whitney and Jagr come with the question marks that all players of their age bring. Can they deliver the goods for an entire season? Both were productive for long stretches last season, but both also saw their production tail off in the playoffs. Just making the playoffs is priority No. 1 for the Stars, which have missed the postseason for four straight years. But for a team that had the worst-ranked power play in the league last season, they seem to have addressed offensive issues and look ready to jump back into the playoff fray.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Almost without notice, GM Steve Yzerman crossed off a significant number of things on his offseason to-do list, including getting a starting netminder in Anders Lindback, whom he acquired from Nashville before the draft, and reinforcing a problematic blue line by signing reliable Sami Salo from Vancouver and repatriating Matt Carle, beating a number of teams to the punch after Suter signed with Minnesota. Six years at an average cap hit of $5.5 million is a lot for Carle, but in a thin market, he represents one of the few veteran puck-moving defensemen available. Although he enjoyed his best moments playing alongside Philadelphia captain Chris Pronger, Carle will be expected to help stabilize a team that was dead last in goals against last season.
P.A. Parenteau isn't a household name, but his 67 points last season were better than the totals recorded by established stars Teemu Selanne, Patrick Kane, Brad Richards and Patrick Marleau. Throw in the decision to keep 20-goal guy David Jones, who signed a contract identical to the four-year, $16 million one inked by Parenteau, and the youthful Avs should be in the postseason mix after missing for two straight seasons.
One Step Forward Or Walking A Circle?
Not that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was expected to leap into the Parise-Suter waters with the big boys, but after the former Atlanta Thrashers missed the playoffs for the 12th time in their 13 seasons of existence, the Jets still look like a team in perpetual approach mode, never quite ready to land. Signing Olli Jokinen, he of the six playoff career games, to a two-year deal worth $9 million and Alexei Ponikarovsky, who had little impact with New Jersey, don't add up to much. The Jets did sign Ondrej Pavelec to a five-year deal worth $3.9 million annually, which is fine if he is a No. 1 netminder, but after turning in a 2.91 GAA and .906 save percentage, the jury is still out. Just as it is with whether the Jets are any closer to a playoff berth.
One of the best things about GM Jay Feaster is that he believes passionately that his glass is half full, so acquiring Dennis Wideman from Washington means to him an addition of much-needed offensive jump to the back end, even if it will cost the Flames $5.25 million annually for five years. Likewise, signing Jiri Hudler to a four-year, $16 million deal after a career-best 25 goals last season will help round out a potent top-six forward contingent and push a Flames team that missed the postseason by five points in 2012 into the top eight. If your glass is significantly less than full, you'll see Wideman as a defensive liability who dropped to the Caps' third pairing and was exploited during the playoffs by the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, while Hudler is a guy the Detroit Red Wings passed on even though they had tons of cap space, which should be a significant red flag.
A year ago, we were trumpeting the strides taken by the Sabres under new free-spending owner Terry Pegula, with Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino given big offseason contracts to join Robyn Regehr, who was added via trade. The Sabres missed the playoffs, though, continuing a pattern of disappointment since the team's twin visits to the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007. This summer, GM Darcy Regier has opted to try to change the team's personality (i.e., add character) by bringing in Ott, who might be the most hated man in the NHL given his abrasive style. But he has more than a little skill and could be just the kind of sand the Sabres need. Add monster John Scott and the Northeast Division sure got a lot more interesting.
Jason Garrison is coming off a breakout season with the Florida Panthers and was deserving of the whopper pay raise he received when the Canucks inked him to a six-year deal worth $4.6 million annually. It is also true that Garrison left money on the table to return to his home province of British Columbia. But six years is a lot to commit to a player whose production declined precipitously in the latter stages of the season; he scored just twice in his final 20 games and once in the postseason, when he was bothered by injury and missed three games. If there is a predictable drop-off in production from his 16 goals, then the question is whether Garrison can provide the prerequisite level of defense to offset the loss of the popular Salo in the Canucks dressing room. If so, this is a big win for the Canucks. If not, this is going to resemble the Canucks' ill-fated acquisition of Keith Ballard.
Holes To Fill
GM David Poile will be turning his attention to signing restricted free-agent Shea Weber to a long-term deal. If he can't, look for Poile to make the hard decision to deal Weber, who can become an unrestricted free agent next July. In the meantime, there's the no small task of filling the hole left by Suter's departure. The Preds still have an impressive corps of blueliners, assuming Weber is part of that mix. There's also the issue of offense, as Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov, the midnight cowboys whose late-night high jinks contributed to the Preds' second-round playoff loss to Phoenix, won't be part of the mix next season.
New Jersey Devils
No one should ever sell president and GM Lou Lamoriello short, and he did keep the Devils from falling into complete chaos by re-signing netminder Martin Brodeur to a two-year deal and Bryce Salvador, who was a rock throughout the Devils' run to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals. Still, Lamoriello needs to find a way to replace Parise's point production and leadership, although this remains a locker room chock full of character.
It's not often that GM Paul Holmgren comes up empty, but he could lure neither Parise nor Suter to the Flyer fold. He also saw Carle depart for Tampa and Jagr head west to Dallas, creating areas of concern on both sides of the puck. Giving up James van Riemsdyk in a draft weekend deal to acquire young defenseman Luke Schenn means Holmgren will have to hope youngsters such as Luke's younger brother Brayden, Sean Couturier, Eric Wellwood and Matt Read continue to evolve. Then there is the blue line, where it is unlikely captain Pronger will return, and Carle's absence will put more pressure on Schenn to turn into the kind of player he didn't get a chance to become in Toronto.
The 2010 Stanley Cup winners have bowed out in the first round two straight years, and there are ongoing questions about whether this team, as constituted, has another Cup run in it. Questions remain in goal, and whether Roberto Luongo becomes the answer to those questions or not, it will be a bit of a hard sell for GM Stan Bowman. That might be a better alternative to the status quo, though, which has been the answer so far.
Detroit Red Wings
I don't regularly predict the demise of the Red Wings, but with the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom and the departure of Brad Stuart to San Jose, the Wings' inability to lure Suter to the Motor City leaves a great void along the blue line. This is a team that appears to be at least in a holding pattern, if not outright decline. Still, like Lamoriello, don't count out a team run by Ken Holland until the standings say it's time.