Posted: Thursday July 1, 2010 6:34PM ; Updated: Friday July 2, 2010 12:26AM
Jim Kelley
Jim Kelley>INSIDE THE NHL

Early returns indicate the big free agent bucks aren't out there

Story Highlights

Three journeymen's deals don't bode well for Evgeni Nabokov or Marty Turco

Defenseman did fairly well on the first day, but there's no Brian Campbell money

Day 1 showed that teams favor youth over veterans and want offensive upside

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evgeni-nabokov.jpg
Signings by the Flyers (Michael Leighton) and Sharks (Antero Niittymaki) did nothing to drive up Evgeni Nabokov's asking price.
AP

No one is ever going to confuse Martin Biron with Martin Brodeur.

If you want to put a finer point on it, it's not likely that Biron will be compared to Marty Turco or Evgeni Nabokov, generally perceived to be at the top of a heap of fair-to-middling free agent goaltenders. But no one should ever accuse Biron of not having brains and a healthy dash of foresight.

The veteran netminder moved himself to the head of the signing pack seemingly as early as inhumanly possible. The opening bell rang at noon July 1. By 12:04 p.m., tweeters were twittering that the former Sabre, Flyer and Islander had signed a two-year deal with the Rangers. Though salary was not disclosed, the initial postings indicate it will average about $875,000 per season. That's not great for a former first-round draft pick (16th overall in 1995) who used to be a starter, but consider what Biron did:

In a year when many teams have threatened to spend closer to the floor than the newly conceived salary cap of almost $60 million for the 2010-11 season, Biron got a gig backing up one of the league's premier goalies (Henrik Lundqvist), and he likely won't have to sell his house or even move the wife and kids to Manhattan. He can take the train to work from Long Island. He avoided the always-sticky mess that would have been Montreal if he'd signed as a French Canadian backing up the still-distrusted Carey Price and, on the eve of what appears to be the start of the double dip in a double-dip recession, he's got at least two more years of not having to worry about how long Congress will keep extending unemployment benefits.

For free agents of moderate talent, this is the way things are in the newest version of the "new" NHL. To ignore today's state of hockey's economy is to put oneself in a situation not unlike the one affecting millions of workers. If you don't have a job, do whatever is necessary to get or keep one. If that means being underpaid or underemployed or even underappreciated, so be it.

It won't go that way for everyone who is seeking what used to be near automatic riches at the start of the NHL's summer silly season, but it will for a significant number. There was a time when GMs awaited this day like Ralphie anticipating the arrival of his Red Ryder BB gun in A Christmas Story. No player was too expensive. Nothing would stop a well-monied franchise from sending a billionaire owner and a charter plane to whatever city, town or vacation spot to dispense cash and gifts to the chosen one in hopes that he may grant them the right to overpay for his services. But this could very well be the year that front office types finally learn a lesson about mindless spending.

In fairness, it's a bit too early to tell, but at the time of this posting, the supposed big three in this year's free agent pool -- Ilya Kovalchuk, Nabokov and Turco -- were still waiting for a phone call let alone a jet, and some of the players who have already signed seemed to move as fast as Biron did for offerings far below the historic marks established just a few seasons ago.

Consider some of these right-from-the-get-go price points:

The Canadiens, in desperate need of a backup who can mentor Price and maybe even be his replacement should he falter, went with veteran journeyman Alex Auld at $1 million for one season. The first wave of reaction: They could have gotten better for less.

And look at what the Sharks did. They'd been paying Nabokov $6 million per season and though he never got them to a Stanley Cup Final, it's fair to say he performed well enough for the money. The Sharks opted not to keep him and today signed Antero Niittymaki -- still looking to establish himself as a bona fide No.1 -- to a two-year deal at $2 million per season. Match that with the surprising decision by the Flyers to re-sign journeyman Michael Leighton for two at $1.55 million per season, and the consensus is the Sharks and Flyers will not be pushing up the market value of Turco and Nabokov and are finished with their dealings at the position.

Where does that leave Turco and Nabokov? Well, maybe the Flyers will come back to one of them, but if it happens it will be at a price point not all the much higher than Biron and Auld. Too early to call it a trend, but it's reasonable to say that Marty Biron wasn't wrong to jump at the first offer that came his way and for a price that Marty Turco and Evgeni Nabokov might someday envy.

Defense spending

If there is any one group who appear to be doing reasonably well in today's market, it's defenseman. But even then there are two somewhat large "buts" ...

Offensive-minded defensemen seem to be doing significantly better than their defensive-minded brethren and even the most highly sought-after blueline guns aren't breaking any financial barriers.

Sure, Sergei Gonchar, late of the Penguins, got a decent deal from Ottawa (a reported $5.5 million per over three seasons), but he's said to have taken that because the Sens were willing to add a third year for a player who will be 39 by then and with more than a few battle scars, including around his knees. Gonchar is a both a risk and a lot of money for the Sens, but not when you compare him to what the Blackhawks gave free agent defenseman Brian Campbell on July 1 2008. That's the day hel signed a seven-year deal averaging $7.1 million per season -- after reportedly turning down several other deals said to be worth even more.

There isn't a GM outside of Chicago who would touch the Campbell contract today. According to several sources, Chicago would like to be out from under it if they can't have a do-over. One can state with certainty that the Campbell deal alone cost Dale Tallon his job and elevated Stan Bowman to the position. Because of it and a few other financial mistakes, Bowman has been dealing off pieces of a team that won the Stanley Cup in June just to get under the most recent salary cap so he can re-sign players who will undoubtedly be asking for more now that they've helped produce a champion.

Smart two-step by Penguins

Almost before the door hit Gonchar's backside on the way out, the Pens moved to get younger and, to a degree, cheaper at the position. They signed Michael Zbynek away from Phoenix for $20 million over five years, an average of $4 million per. They also won a sweepstakes of sorts for Devils defenseman Paul Martin, signing him for five years at $25 million, an average of $5 million per.

Martin is 29, so the money seems pretty good for the number of years that he should be a top-flight defenseman. Zbynek is 27. One could argue that the Penguins, who came to market hoping to rebuild their defense to where it can help lift them back to the Cup Final, got the two most desirable free agent defensemen at a price almost any team could live with. This two-man approach is nothing short of masterful regarding Penguins GM Ray Shero, who had obtained the rights to negotiate with another coveted free-agent defenseman: Dan Hamhuis.

Hamhuis left Nashville, who'd sent his rights to Philadelphia. When the Flyers couldn't sign him, Shero picked up the rights and used them as an option or a screen and got Martin and Zbynek. Hamhuis was then rumored to be going to Toronto, but ended up at "home" in Vancouver, reportedly for the relative "bargain" price of $4.5 million per over six years. Again, a far cry from Campbell money.

The deals will continue to come in, but the early returns indicate that price points have dropped in the NHL and that youthful talent is favored over veterans, especially at the goaltending and forward positions. Defenseman are doing only marginally better and usually only if they have an offensive upside.

 
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