Free agent winners, losers and head-scratchers...so far
Nothing suggests Olli Jokinen will be better in Calgary his second time there
Someone will have to work very hard to top the value of the Penguins' signings
The Canucks will pay Dan Hamhuis like a first-unit defender, but he's not
As silly season settled into a nice, lazy Day 2 stupor, here's a look at the deals so far that have made sense...or made one suspect that the GM in question had been nipping at the cleaning products.
Admit it. Your first reaction was that someone was pulling your leg, right? Unless, of course, you're a Flames fan. In that case, you had to wonder whether GM Darryl Sutter had his eye on a particular prize in the 2011 draft.
You'll probably hear a number of opinions, including this one: At $3 million per, Jokinen is not being paid like a first line center anymore. And he shouldn't be judged by those standards. Playing softer minutes on the second line, he might actually earn that paycheck if he can put up something north of 20 goals and 50 points.
But honestly, there's a reason why the Flames were so desperate to get rid of Jokinen just a few months ago that they took on the brutal contracts of Chris Higgins and Ales Kotalik just to expedite the process. Jokinen may be strong on the puck, quick on his feet, and a much-needed injection of size down the middle. He's also a guy who has proven that he cannot make players around him any better. Scratch that. He can't even get the best out of his linemates. He's a self-contained unit who will continue to madden with his inconsistent play.
So, what's changed? The coach is the same. The system is the same. Is there any logical reason to suggest the results will be better?
This feels more like Sutter trying to vindicate his decision to acquire Jokinen from the Coyotes two years ago than a clear-headed effort to improve the Flames. There's no other rational way to look at this.
No surprise that the offensively-gifted Gonchar was the first big fish to be reeled in. What was a bit of a shock was whose bait he took.
The Sens had a puck-moving defender at the top of their wish list, and they paid handsomely to land the best in show. Gonchar has netted at least 50 points in nine of his last 10 seasons (injuries broke the streak in 2003-04) and, after scoring more than half of his 684 career points with the extra man, it doesn't take a highly paid analyst to tell you that he'll bolster an Ottawa power play that ranked just 21st last season.
But where Gonchar could really earn his cash is with his ability to motivate the frustratingly gifted Alexei Kovalev. It won't be the same relationship he shared with the younger Evgeni Malkin, but Gonchar brings a locker room presence that demands accountability. It won't hurt impressive young defender Erik Karlsson to have a virtuoso like Gonchar around, either.
But there's still an element of risk to the deal. It'll be Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson -- not Sidney Crosby and Malkin -- on the receiving end of Gonchar's seeing-eye passes, so his results may vary. And at 36, his body breaking down has to be a concern. Remember: his contract will count against the cap for the next three seasons even if he quits hockey tomorrow to raise llamas.
Still,you have to love GM Bryan Murray's aggressive (i.e. longer term) approach and Gonchar's willingness to move to a small-market city. This feels like a winner.
There were at least half a dozen teams pursuing the 25-year-old winger, whose abrasive style is an undeniably ideal fit for GM Brian Burke's vision of the Maple Leafs. Armstrong brings some skill, but his ability to make Toronto tougher to play against will ultimately be what turns the Leafs into a better team. Even so, Burke ends up paying $3 million a year to a player who struggles with responsibilities beyond the third line. It's not a brutal overpayment, but this feels like one of those deals that ends up looking not so swell when you consider Armstrong's value in a tight cap situation. Still, call it a win...for now.
I'd argue that there were better, more affordable options on the market (see Pittsburgh's haul below), but give GM Mike Gillis his due. He set his sights on Hamhuis and dazzled him with both term and dollars in order to lure him home. After this signing, and the Keith Ballard trade last week, the Canucks look at least a full step closer to being legitimate Cup contenders.
The trick might be in managing expectations. Hamhuis is being paid like a first-unit defender, and that may well be his role with the Canucks. But he was a second unit guy in Nashville, where Shea Weber and Ryan Suter did the heavy lifting. Hamhuis didn't do enough of anything to push either of them out of their job. Gillis has to believe we haven't seen Hamhuis' best hockey yet.
His presence, or more to the point, his salary, also creates a need for a trade, maybe two, to clear the logjam of contracts on the blueline. How Gillis manages those assets should be almost as vital to how this deal is ultimately viewed as Hamhuis' play on the ice. For now, though, chalk this up as a win for the Canucks.
Did any GM do more to improve his club on Day 1 than Ray Shero? Within hours of losing aging No. 1 defender Gonchar -- and after failing to come to terms with the recently-acquired Hamhuis -- Shero inked a pair of understated defenders who change the face of Pittsburgh's back end and re-assert the Pens as serious Cup contenders in 2010-11 and, with five years on each deal, well beyond.
If you listen to the Moneyball-type stat geeks, Martin ranked as one of the best defenders not just on the market, but in the game. He's a player whose tools contributed to more shots-for and fewer shots-against the Devils when he was on the ice in 2008-09, his last full season. Hard to argue with that metric. He'll eat big minutes, and while he's no Gonchar, he'll move the puck effectively and chip in on both special teams.
Michalek is more defensive-minded and is ideally used in a shutdown role, but with his puck skills, he probably has more to offer offensively than he showed in Phoenix, especially when given a chance to play with talent like he'll suit up with in Pittsburgh. Both men are character players who will bring something positive to the Pens' room.
Unless someone signs Ilya Kovalchuk for pennies on the dollar, it'll be hard for any team to top what the Pens accomplished after the opening bell of free agency.
The NHL has always been a copycat league. If something works for one team -- say, the neutral zone trap -- you can bet the wannabes will crowd the proven path the following season.
No shock then that the playoff success of "no-name" goalies like Antti Niemi, Michael Leighton and Jaroslav Halak was catnip to GMs looking to improve their teams' records and ease the strain on the cap. That includes Doug Wilson, who can't be blamed for choosing to spend his cash last week on Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski rather than Evgeni Nabokov, the $6 million man who was unable to backstop the Sharks beyond the conference finals.
But is Niittymaki the answer? Despite some international success (he was the MVP of the 2006 Olympics), he's never really grabbed a starting job and made it his own. So what makes Wilson think that'll change once Niittymaki is in teal? The GM likes the way Niittymaki takes care of the bottom of the net. Plus, he'll be surrounded by better talent than he's ever enjoyed outside of his role with Team Finland.
That said, he's done nothing in the NHL playoffs (he has just 72 minutes of postseason experience). That didn't stop Niemi from winning the Cup, but it'll be an issue that is sure to dog the Sharks, a team that, like Niittymaki, has a lot to prove.
The Coyotes took a big hit when Michalek bolted for the Pens, but forward depth had to be a bigger concern for a team that passed on center Matthew Lombardi. ("We weren't even on the same page," said GM Don Maloney.) The Yotes are also likely to lose second-half scoring hero Lee Stempniak. The addition of Whitney was critical to maintaining an effective top six. It might have been that urgency that made Phoenix the only team apparently willing to offer a multi-year deal to the 38-year-old winger.
While it'll be hard for some to get past that number, Maloney is right. At that price, "Whitney is an excellent value." He does his best work on the power play, an area that befuddled Phoenix all season, and his presence will allow Wojtek Wolski to move back to his natural center position. This might seem like a quiet move, but look for it to be one of the day's most effective.
The honeymoon between fans (and the media) and new GM Steve Yzerman is nowhere close to being over, so it wasn't surprising to see all the drool spilled over this deal. Me, I don't get it.
Ellis is a fair goalie coming in at a reasonable price, but is he really a significant upgrade over Niittymaki? After putting together a decent season in 2007-08, and stealing the starting job in Nashville from Chris Mason, Ellis failed to hold off a charge from rookie Pekka Rinne and spent much of last season opening the gate. Maybe reuniting with Mike Smith (his teammate when the pair were in the Dallas organization) will help Ellis rediscover his game, but I'm not counting on it. Going by the mediocre numbers he put up while playing behind Barry Trotz's defensive system in Nashville, it's hard to expect him to do any better with the Bolts. He won't hurt them, but he's not the answer, either. After Yzerman knocked one out of the park by re-signing Martin St. Louis, this looks like a dribbler to the mound.
It's no longer even worth asking how Rangers GM Glen Sather keeps his job. Clearly there are no standards of accountability in that organization. A year after the Donald Brashear debacle, Slats misfired again by giving the admittedly intimidating Boogey Man both term and dollars that sail well beyond the absurd. With so many glaring holes in his lineup -- wouldn't one of those defenders have been a better use of his cap space? -- Sather instead adds a goon who brings the team no closer to being competitive on any level. Just a joke of a signing.
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