Mid-July NHL Off-Season Analysis

July 12, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

This year I have had to wait a little longer to bring you my analysis of the NHL’s free agency signing period, which began on July 1, because with the salary cap not going up drastically for the first time since it was instituted coming out of the lock out in 2005, there are still general managers making moves, as evidenced by the Caps inking of center Brendan Morrison this past Friday night.

Despite the fact that the salary cap increased just $100,000 to $56.8M next season, there are still teams who have been very active and spent a lot of money, such as the Blackhawks, Rangers, Maple Leafs, and Canadiens. However, the interesting thing that is happening this summer that has not occurred in years past is there are some familiar players who have not been signed yet, such as forwards Alex Tanguay (made over $5M last season in Montreal and has had his named bantered about in Nashville) and Maxim Afinogenov (Buffalo), and those guys are running out of time to find a chair before the music eventually stops.

Below is a summary of what several teams have done so far and my thoughts on the impact of those moves. I am including in this analysis any trades and significant 2009 draft choices. In general, my opinion is that the teams that did not spend a lot of money this summer on free agents did well.

Chicago Blackhawks – GM Dale Tallon has been wildly active and his biggest move was the signing of former Detroit Red Wings forward Marian Hossa to a 12-year, $62.8M contract. Hossa has been on the losing end of the last two Stanley Cup Finals and will be playing with his fourth team (Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta) in the last three seasons. They also re-signed some of their current young players giving forward Kris Versteeg a three-year, $9.2M deal and defenseman Cam Barker a three-year, $9.25M extension. 23 year old forward David Bolland, who had 47 points and was +19 in 81 games for the Hawks in 2008-09, also received a five year contract at $3.375M a season. Tallon added forwards Tomas Kopecky ($1.2M) from Detroit and John Madden ($2.75M) from New Jersey. This all comes after the GM inked goalie Cristobal Huet to a four-year deal at $5.625M a season and defensemen Brian Campbell to an eight-year deal at $7.143M a season last summer. The biggest loss was goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who bolted to the Edmonton Oilers, and they also lost forwards Martin Havlat and Samuel Pahlsson in free agency to Minnesota and Columbus, respectively. Chicago went to the Western Conference finals last season before losing to the Red Wings and they should do well in the upcoming regular season, but I have serious doubts about Huet’s ability to carry a team deep into the playoffs. The other big problem for Chicago is after the 2009-10 season they will have to give their two best forwards, Patrick Kane  ($3.725M) and Jonathan Toews ($2.8M), long term contracts with significant raises in order to keep them. Kane and Toews will likely both command around $6M a season. Overall, I don’t like what Chicago did because they spent a lot of money that very well could impact their ability to lock up their two young superstars (Kane and Toews) long-term plus they still have questionable goaltending in Huet.

Montreal Canadiens – GM Bob Gainey came into this summer with 10 unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents on his roster. To date Gainey has not re-signed any of those 10 UFAs and included on that list were top name players Alexei Kovalev, Tanguay, Mike Komisarek, Robert Lang, and Saku Koivu. All but Tanguay are signed by other teams. Gainey has taken the unorthodox route of over turning his roster via trades and free agency. He traded forward Christopher Higgins to the Rangers for forward Scott Gomez, but at $7.35M over the next five seasons. He then gave $6M a season for five years to Mike Cammallieri (scored 39 goals in Calgary last season) and $5M a season for five years to Brian Gionta (spent his first 7 seasons in New Jersey). To quote an NHL scout, “Gainey basically replaced a bunch of small forwards with a bunch of small forwards.” On defense he lost Komisarek to the Leafs but added Hal Gill from the Penguins for $2.25M a year for two seasons and Jaroslav Spacek from the Sabres for three years at $3.833M a season. He also signed forward Travis Moen (third line player) and journeyman defenseman Paul Mara. Overall, I am not sure what Gainey’s long term plan is as this team has gone from a early round playoff out to one that I see just fighting to get into the post season in 2009-10, at best. If I am a Habs fan I view this off-season as a colossal disaster and with the long term contracts this organization has gotten themselves into I don’t see a bright future any time soon.

New York Rangers – When GM Glen Sather worked in Edmonton he routinely complained about having to manage a small market team. However, Sather always seemed to overcome those problems and annually had the Oilers in contention for the playoffs and often with a decent chance to go deep into them. In 2000 the former great Oilers coach became President and GM of the Rangers and the Blueshirts promptly missed the playoffs their first four seasons despite the fact that the GM took advantage of the large budget afforded him. With the salary cap in place since 2005 Sather would appear to be more constrained but that hasn’t stopped him from getting the Rangers tied up in some outrageous contracts such as the deals given to Gomez, Wade Redden, and Chris Drury. New York was basically in salary cap jail coming into this off-season but thanks to Marcus Naslund retiring and the Gomez trade it looked like Sather might finally be able to back up his statements about giving the younger Rangers players a chance to develop and play. That plan lasted less than a day as Sather couldn’t resist throwing around more money and signed often injured forward Marian Gaborik, formerly of the Minnesota Wild, to a 5 year deal worth $37.5Million. Gaborik, when healthy and motivated, can be one of the best players in the league but the problem is that doesn’t happen very often. Sather also overpaid for former Sabres forward Ales Kotalik (three -year, $9M deal) and former Caps enforcer Donald Brashear (2 years for $2.8M total). Higgins, obtained in the Gomez trade, should do well in New York given that he is a Long Island native. The Rangers also lost Mara, Nik Antropov, and Colton Orr via free agency. I didn’t like the Rangers team last season and I don’t like it for 2009-10 either. The best thing they have going for them is goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who single-handidly took the Caps to a seventh game in the first round of the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs – When Brian Burke took over as GM of the Leafs mid-season in one of the worst kept secrets ever, you knew he wasn’t going to stand pat and just build through the draft. Toronto has a massive fan base,  loads of financial resources, and with that comes the pressure to win right away. Fortunately for Burke he inherited arguably the Leafs best draft pick of the last 10 years in defenseman Luke Schenn (drafted fifth overall in 2008). After that Burke was smart to announce that anyone else was available via trade. The savvy GM then was able to get Thrashers GM Don Waddell to take on defenseman Pavel Kubina and his $5M salary for next season and in return received 1999 first round Atlanta draft pick in Garnet Exelby (he also received Colin Stuart in the deal). Then Burke used the cap room afforded him to sign former Canadiens defenseman Komisarek to a five-year, $22M deal and former Ducks d-man Francois Beauchemin for three years at $3.8M a season. In Tomas Kaberle, Schenn, Komisarek, and Beauchemin the Leafs have a very good top four group of defensemen. The next three best defensemen on the roster are Exelby, Mike Van Ryn and Jeff Finger but those seven total close to $23M in salary cap space so look for Burke to deal another one of that crew either before October or during the season. The Leafs still have the expensive Vesa Toskala (one more season at $4M)  in net but Burke also just signed Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson, who led Farjestads to the Swedish Elite League championship this past spring, to a one year deal at $810,000. This could turn out to be a major steal in the long run. Of course the Leafs still are weak up front. They drafted forward Nazem Kadri of the London Knights with the 7th overall pick in the 2009 draft and he could turn out to be a first line player, although I have concerns about his size. Overall I think the Leafs really improved their team and you can bet that Burke will continue to make changes. But Leafs fans, who are prone to overestimating their own team, should not even think about a parade on Yonge street any time in the next two seasons, at least. Making the playoffs in 2009-10 would be a major step up for Toronto and with head coach Ron Wilson’s defensive philosophy they could pull it off.

Philadelphia Flyers – Approaching the 2008-09 season trade deadline back in February there were talks that Philadelphia was making a run for a front line defenseman and Jay Bouwmeester of Florida was the name frequently linked to them. Then on the eve of the 2009 NHL Entry draft GM Paul Holmgren sent forward Joffrey Lupul, defenseman Luca Sbisa (Philly’s first round pick in the 2008 draft), their 2009 and 2010 first round draft picks, and a conditional 3rd round pick to Anaheim for defenseman Chris Pronger and forward Ryan Dingle. Next Philadelphia promptly signed the soon to be 35 year old Pronger to a seven year contract extension that averages $4.9M a season. Pronger will count $6.25M against the salary cap in 2009-10 since he is still in the last year of his previous deal. With a big three on defense of Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, and Braydon Coburn the Flyers have an outstanding trio on the backend but they are still weak in net. Holmgrem gave up on free agent goalies Martin Biron and Anterro Niittymaki and signed former Senators goalie (and some would say head case) Ray Emery for one year at $1.5M and the aging Brian Boucher at $925K a season for the next two years. Those moves are head scratchers, if you ask me. The Flyers also added bottom six forward Ian Laperrierre, who can mix it up when needed, for three years at $1.16M a season. Because of salary cap issues the Flyers had to let Mike Knuble go in free agency (Washington). Still on the books is the injury prone and pesky Danny Briere at $6.5M a season for six more years, something Flyer fans can’t be happy about. Overall the Pronger move makes Philly Stanley Cup contenders next season but the price in the long term may be too costly given that they will likely go three years (counting Sbisa) without a number one pick in a salary cap era where building through the draft is a must.

Calgary Flames – Calgary was in such salary cap jail last spring that when they suffered a rash of injuries in March and April they could not field a full team in several games down the stretch which cost them the Northwest Division title and helped put them on their way to a first round playoff exit. GM Darryl Sutter, who is starting to feel some pressure to get his team into at least the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004, took a lot of heat for what some see as salary cap mismanagement. However, Sutter has continued to be aggressive in the off-season and fired coach Mike Keenan and replaced him with his brother and former Devils coach, Brent. Then he pulled off a major coup by trading a third round pick and Jordan Leopold to Florida for the rights to Bouwmeester. Sutter subsequently signed one of the best defenseman in the league to a five year deal at $6.68M a season. To make salary cap room for Bouwmeester they traded defenseman Jim Vandermeer to Phoenix in return for forward Brandon Prust and they didn’t attempt to re-sign Cammalleri. Calgary now has a top four defense of Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf (who struggled under Keenan but should return to top form under his former junior coach at Red Deer in Sutter), Robyn Regehr, and Cory Sarich but it comes at a price of almost $21M in salary cap space. With forwards Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, and Daymond Langkow plus goalie Mikka Kiprusoff accounting for nearly $22.5M in cap space, Calgary is a top heavy team that will need to stay healthy and find the right role players to help them win in the playoffs. Still with the Bouwmeester signing the Flames are a major contender in the Western Conference.

Ottawa Senators – It is never good to be boxed into a corner by a star player but that is exactly what has happened to Ottawa GM Bryan Murray who had to be shocked to hear that superstar Dany Heatley wants to be traded despite counting $7.5M against the salary cap the next five years. Heatley, after playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, began the 2007-08 season with a six year contract extension but he now wants out. Murray, who had to pay Heatley a $4M bonus when he exercised his no trade clause and refused to be moved to Edmonton on July 2nd (despite wanting out of Ottawa), says he will now keep the 28 year old forward to start next season unless he gets a premium deal. Murray did sign Kovalev for two seasons at $5M each and re-signed tough net crashing forward Chris Neil for four years at $8M total. Sens fans are counting on Pascal Leclaire to be the #1 goalie after he was acquired from Columbus at the trade deadline in February. However, the Ottawa defense remains weak with Filip Kuba and Chris Phillips leading the way. Their future totally depends on what happens in the Heatley saga.

Washington Capitals – GM George McPhee said prior to July 1 that the Caps would not be big players in free agency and he was correct. The Caps did sign net crashing forward Knuble for two years at $2.8M a season and potential second line center Morrison for only $1.5M for next season. Those moves aren’t headline grabbers but they are low risk ones that could yield good results. Washington lost 39 year old Sergei Fedorov and underachieving forward Viktor Kozlov to the Russian league but with them went $6.5M in salary cap space. McPhee says the team will continue to build from within. GMGM will likely spend the next couple of months working on a long term deal for Nicklas Backstrom, who at just 21 years old is already one of the top centers in the NHL. The question mark over the next 12 months is what to do with the up and down Alexander Semin. Semin has the talent to be one of the best players in the league but his motivation, at times, and ability to play through injuries has held him back. There is also the danger that Semin could bolt back to Russia to play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The Caps lost tough guy Brashear in free agency and that is a void in the line-up right now but McPhee seems resolved to going without an enforcer stating recently that you only need one for about 10 games a season. Any deal to unload Michael Nylander and his $4.875M salary cap hit for the next two seasons would be a very good one and unreliable goalie Jose Theodore has one more year in DC at $4.5M unless McPhee can move him, but I don’t see that happening until the 2009-10 trading deadline. The Caps did not spend much money so I see their off-season as a good one that could get better if #92 or #60 is somehow dealt.

Pittsburgh Penguins – The Stanley Cup Champion Penguins won their title and now because of the salary cap are paying the price, especially on defense as Rob Scuderi (Los Angeles) and Gill (Montreal) both left for new deals. The good news is GM Ray Shero convinced forwards Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko to come back for one year at $2M and $1.8M, respectively. However, I was not a fan of the decision to sign restricted free agent Alex Goligoski, an offensive but slow moving defenseman, to a three year deal at $1.833M a season. They also signed defenseman Jay McKee, who was bought out by St. Louis, for one year at $800K. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar is under contract for one more year at $5M but they have the physical Brooks Orpik locked up for five more years at $3.75M a season. Pittsburgh is clearly weaker on defense since the Stanley Cup Finals but their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, proved to be a big time netminder in the playoffs and with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and Chris Kunitz signed for at least three more seasons this club will be contenders for the Cup again unless the injury bug hits hard.

Detroit Red Wings – Could the Wings finally be on the way down? They were beaten in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Penguins, then lost Hossa to the Hawks and Mikael Samuelsson to the Vancouver Canucks. Forward Jiri Hudler, who played well crashing the net for Detroit last season, has signed a disputed contract to play in the KHL plus Kopecky bolted to Chicago with Hossa. So that is four of their top 12 forwards gone, if Hudler isn’t legally dragged back to Motown, but they still have forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen signed under long term deals. Superstar defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom is under contract for just one more year at $7.45M and this could be it for him in the NHL as he will likely either retire or head back to play in Sweden after next season. Chris Osgood is still the #1 goalie for the next two years but he is aging. Basically GM Ken Holland has his work cut out for him but he and draft guru Jim Nill always seem to find good players to plug any holes.

Los Angeles Kings – Signed defenseman Scuderi to a four year, $13.6M deal away from the Pens and also traded defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing plus a 5th round draft pick to the Avs for crease crasher Ryan Smyth. If the Kings can get some good goaltending next season (could young goalie Jonathan Bernier finally be ready?), Terry Murray’s young team could make the playoffs.

Vancouver Canucks – Re-signed the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) at $6.1M each for five seasons and inked Samuelsson away from the Wings so they are hoping the Swedish connection works. Goalie Roberto Luongo is under contract for one more season at $6.75M and they have goalie Cory Schneider waiting in the wings in Manitoba of the AHL should they not be able to re-sign the superstar goalie (but if they can’t keep Luongo they might as well pack it in for good). Schneider will spend next season in the AHL again as GM Mike Gillis signed Andrew Raycroft to be the back up at $500K for one season. I can’t see this team going deep in next year’s playoffs as they are currently configured.

Columbus Blue Jackets – Re-signed superstar forward and 2002 1st overall NHL Entry draft selection, Rick Nash, to a eight year, $62.4M contract extension that goes into effect for the 2010-11 season. This move alone saves a franchise that had trouble generating interest until their first ever playoff appearance this past spring. GM Scott Howson also signed third line grinder and former Stanley Cup winner (Anaheim) Pahlsson for three years at $2.65M a season as well as getting Pittsburgh backup goalie Mathieu Garon for two years at $1.2M a season, which seems a little high considering that their #1 goalie will be 2008-09 rookie of the year, Steve Mason, who will count only $905K against the cap the next two years and will receive the bulk of the workload.

As for the rest of the NHL, here are some moves that I like, don’t like, as well as some things to keep an eye on before training camps open in mid September.

Like:

Tampa Bay Lightning – Signed defenseman Mattias Ohlund from Vancouver for seven years at $27.M total. This expensive move is a good one primarily because the Lightning are counting on the Swedish veteran to tutor 2009 first round pick and second overall selection, defenseman Victor Hedman, who also hails from Sweden. With last year’s number one overall pick, Steven Stamkos, and Hedman the Lightning have two players to build around plus they still have team captain Vincent LeCavalier locked up for 10 more years (and the Habs have no salary cap space to try and obtain him).

Colorado Avalance – Signed goalie Craig Anderson at $1.8M a season for two years. The Avs aren’t going to contend next year, especially after Joe Sakic retired, and they traded Smyth so this is a good chance for them to see if Anderson can be a bona fide #1 goalie. The other goalie will once again be the inconsistent Peter Budaj, who was re-signed for $1.25M for next season.

Florida Panthers – They lost Bouwmeester and pretty much gave away any chance they had of making the playoffs next season with that move but I did like the signing of former Devils goalie Scott Clemmensen at three years for $1.2M a season.

Dislike:

Minnesota Wild – Rookie GM Chuck Fletcher did a good thing letting Gaborik hit the open market but giving the often injured forward Havlat a six year, $30M deal was a mistake. Other than goalie Nickas Backstrom I do not like this team’s roster at all as it currently stands.

New York Islanders – This once proud franchise continues to make boneheaded decisions. They have goalie Rick DiPietro signed for 12 more years at a $4.5M annual cap hit yet they decide to sign 39 year old goalie Dwayne Roloson for two years at $2.5M a season????? Does that mean DiPietro is still in bad shape??? Well at least I liked that they selected John Tavares first overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft so Islanders fans will have something to watch and cheer for next season. Too bad they can’t seem to get out of that dump of a building in Uniondale (Nassau Coliseum) but perhaps with Tavares in the fold they can figure out a way to change that?

Things Still to Watch in this off-season:

Boston Bruins – Phil Kessel, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft (right after the Caps took Backstrom), is an unsigned restricted free agent whose name was bantered about in a draft day deal that went bad between the Bruins and the Leafs. The Bruins reportedly will re-sign him but they do have some salary cap issues to deal with in order to get the forward who is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery inked long term.

San Jose Sharks – Will GM Doug Wilson stand pat after seeing his President’s Trophy winning team get knocked out by the Ducks in the first round of the playoffs? Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been heavily criticized for not delivering in the post season so is Wilson willing to roll the dice on those two guys again next season?

New Jersey Devils – With the reportedly homesick Brent Sutter now hired by the Flames who will GM Lou Lamoriello get to coach his squad next season? As I’ve blogged before, Dave Tippett would be a great fit there but there has been some talk of former Devils forward John Maclean taking over behind the bench.

Phoenix Coyotes – Off the ice the ownership situation is still up in the air and the NHL is trying desperately to keep the team in Arizona. On Saturday Coach Wayne Gretzky finally got involved in a situation that is not looking too good.

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