With NHL free agency having launched on Tuesday, July 1, there were a number of winners and losers team-wise. Then there were those franchises that fell somewhere in the middle. Signings and trades that may have prevented a squad from sliding over the line to Loserville:
After adding Ryan Kesler by way of trade, (Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa and a 2014 first and third round pick were sent to Vancouver), prior to the free agent season opening, the Ducks laid pretty low. Having an already rock solid lineup meant cosmetic changes like signing stay-at-home defenseman Clayton Stoner and trading a pair of 2015 picks to the Tampa Bay Lightning for grinding center Nate Thompson. And while letting Mathieu Perreault and aging d-liner Stéphane Robidas to the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs was a good case of addition through subtraction, the big concern was watching elite goalie Jonas Hiller go to the Calgary Flames via free agency. General Manager Bob Murray and Coach Bruce Boudreau seem content to roll the dice with rookie netminder Frederik Andersen although going with bringing Jason Labarbera on as a backup only seems to heighten this risky gamble.
Buffalo wound up buying out Ville Leino and Christian Erhoff, (the former of which many feel was way overpaid by the team when he was originally signed for 6 years and $27 million back in 2011). And while the addition of veteran point producers Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson were quite a coupé, goaltending concerns abound for the Sabres, who are still trying to see if Jhonas Enroth can step into the shoes of the departed Ryan Miller. Former Capital Michal Neuvirth, who was acquired in an early March trade that sent Jaroslav Halak and a third round pick to Washington, is not the answer.
The Flames may have laid low amid the flurry of free agent signings but the players they did sign added some muscle to its lineup. Enforcer Brian Bollig came over from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for the 83rd overall pick in this year’s draft while the team overpaid a bit (three years/$8.7 million) for rugged free agent blueliner Deryk Engelland, who had spent the prior five seasons with the Penguins. Engelland does bring a slight bonus in his ability to play offense. But by far the biggest win for the Flames in free agency was landing the aforementioned Jonas Hiller (two years for $9 million), solving a problem between the pipes that dates back to Mikka Kiprusoff retiring at the end of the 2012-13 season.
One of the most questionable moves made in this off-season was Colorado sending P.A. Parenteau to Montreal for Daniel Briere, thus shifting the Avalanche onto the precipice of loserville. Allowing the St. Louis Blues to overpay for Paul Stastny wound up being a good move as was bringing in aging-yet-effective superstar Jarome Iginla. Then there’s the issue of getting RFA Ryan O’Reilly to resign and beefing up a shaky defensive core that needs more help than veteran blueliner Brad Stuart, acquired from the San Jose Sharks for a pair of draft picks.
Former Islander Matt Moulson, who was originally traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Thomas Vanek, wound up being traded again to Minnesota with Cody McCormick from the Sabres for Torrey Mitchell and a couple of picks in the beginning of March. Moulson has gone back to Buffalo while Vanek, (who wound up going from New York to Montreal) once again crosses his path by signing with Minnesota for a three-year, $19.5 million dollar deal. It works out for the Wild when you take into account that Vanek will be playing alongside ex-Sabres teammate and good friend Jason Pominville, making for a significant scoring line for the Wild.
It’s a thin line between being losers and somewhere in the middle for teams during the 2014 free agent frenzy and were it not for the fact that the Habs managed to send Daniel Briere to Colorado for P.A. Parenteau in a swap that almost makes up for the Ryan McDonaugh-for-Scott Gomez fiasco of a few years ago, Montreal would have easily landed in the former category. Not only did they lose out on the firepower of departed free agents Brian Gionta and Thomas Vanek, but wound up sending Josh Gorges to the Sabres for a 2016 second-round pick. Resigning rugged d-man Mike Weaver and alternate captain Andrei Markov (three-years/$17.5 million), who enjoyed a healthy and productive 2013-14 (43 points in 81 games), were wise moves, but the Habs could easily slide into the loser category if the team is unable to bring back superstar RFA P.K. Subban.
Nashville’s problem throughout its existence has been a lack of scoring punch. With new coach Peter Laviolette in place, GM David Poile tried to rectify that need by sending streaky Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to Pittsburgh for sniper James Neal. While I’m not a fan of Olli Jokinen, Poile taking a one-year, $2.5 million flier on him isn’t the worst move seeing as he put up 61 points in Calgary two years ago. But that was of course before center Mike Fisher ruptured his Achilles tendon and is slated be out from four-to-six months.
New York Islanders
Through most of the first day of free agent signings, the New York Islanders were fully slated to land in loserville when the highest-profile players they were going to be able to bring aboard were Jack Skille, Brent Johnson and Cory Conacher (although acquiring Jaroslav Halak a couple of weeks prior proved to be a deft move). And while the likes of Dan Boyle, Jarome Iginla, Thomas Vanek and Brad Richards took a pass on calling Nassau Coliseum and then Barclays Center home, GM Garth Snow snagged ex-Maple Leaf teammates and good friends Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. While another puck-moving defenseman is still a need for the Isles, this particular duo provides scoring and instant chemistry, setting up two-thirds of a decent scoring line for the Isles.
New Jersey Devils
With GM Lou Lamoriello taking a shot at Martin Havlat via a one-year, $1.5 million contract, it’s a low-risk, high-reward proposition despite Havlat’s injury history. Not only has he put up between 50 and 70 points seven different times, (his high was 77 in 2008-09 with Chicago), but the Czech winger is in line for a bounceback year after his disastrous season with the Sharks led to his being the first player in franchise history to have his remaining contract be bought out. Plus Havlat could wind up having some real chemistry with ageless superstar Jaromir Jagr. Mike Cammalleri, at five years for $25 million, is considerably riskier but the pugnacious winger will add some grit and scoring punch to the Devils lineup.
Executive housecleaning came to Pittsburgh in the form of Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma being shown the door. With former Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford being brought in to fill the same role and former Kings/Canucks assistant coach Mike Johnston hired behind the bench, one of the first pieces of player housekeeping was sending sniper James Neal to the Predators for streaky Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Rutherford did redeem himself by signing gritty power forward Steve Downie to a one-year $1 million dollar contract and shoring up the back end with puck-moving blueliner Christian Erhoff with $4 million for a year fresh off his being bought out by the Buffalo Sabres. That said, bringing in ex-San Jose Shark/Phoenix Coyote Thomas Greiss as a backup goalie isn’t doing much to solve the enigma of having Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes once the post-season starts.
St. Louis Blues
While St. Louis significantly overpaid for Paul Stastny (four years, $28 million—those are Crosby/Ovechkin numbers), Coach Ken Hitchcock has a solid enough core to weather that decision. The real concerns come with letting goalie Ryan Miller walk and leaning on Brian Elliott and prospect Jake Allen to take the Blues to the Promised Land.
To see who the losers are in the 2014 NHL Free Agent Season, click here: