Cox: Free agency and the illusion of activity

July 2, 2014, 10:56 PM

The temptation, as always, is to confuse activity with improvement.

To suggest doing something is meaningful, and doing nothing is to fall behind the pack.

History, of course, says that’s nonsense. It tells us, for example, nobody has done less in recent times on July 1 when free agency opens than the Los Angeles Kings, which certainly hasn’t stopped the Kings from winning two Stanley Cups.

A year ago, by contrast, the Red Wings and Maple Leafs made big splashes by signing free agents Stephen Weiss and David Clarkson, supposedly major additions to bolster their lineups.

Which turned out not to be the case at all.

So when $500 million or so was committed to dozens of free agents by NHL teams on Tuesday, the temptation, as always, was to start declaring winners and losers based on who did something and who didn’t.

The fact that the majority of players signed were paid too much, and may eventually have a negative impact on the payrolls of their new teams (Chicago and Philly are both already at least $2.2 million over the cap) didn’t seem to matter to many. The fact that in recent weeks there have been numerous buyouts, compliance and otherwise, of the very same players who in recent years were signed to the very same type of free agent contracts, again didn’t seem to matter to many fans and commentators.

Only activity and spending did. Standing pat, or preferring to stay out of the chaotic day of expenditures, was portrayed as disastrous.

Guaranteed, a year from now, we will know some of these will have been big mistakes, just like Weiss and Clarkson appear to have been, although both will have a chance next season to change that conversation.

The action gets so furious, it seems basic questions don’t get asked. If Montreal’s letting Josh Gorges and Brian Gionta go, why does it necessarily follow that they’re going to make the Buffalo Sabres so much better? The New York Islanders filled the wallets of Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin Wednesday, a day after the market opened, as though paying those athletes as reliable front-line players will suddenly make them reliable front-line players. Calgary increased Deryk Engelland’s salary by a factor of more than five, turning him into a $2.9 million roster player. Do the Flames know something Pittsburgh didn’t know, or was over-spending in Calgary something that had more to do with sending a message to the fans than actually spending wisely?

Radim Vrbata became the latest target of Jim Benning’s refurbishment of the Vancouver Canucks for $10 million over two years, joining Ryan Miller as a significant free agent addition. Whether Vrbata, or even Miller, makes it any likelier that the Canucks will make the playoffs in hockey’s toughest division is certainly open for discussion.

The significance of the Grabovski, Kulemin and Vrbata signings, not to mention giant John Scott heading west to join the Sharks, is that Tuesday’s opening to “Signing Season” wasn’t the end of anything. Business continued on Wednesday, and will on Thursday, and Friday, and throughout the summer. Teams have already made some tough decisions on qualifying offers, and bargains are likely to be had by savvy teams in the coming weeks. The first day was just the first day, nothing more.

When the smoke cleared after the opening 48 hours of the free agent season, how many impact players had actually moved? A handful, maybe. Paul Stastny to St. Louis, maybe Dan Boyle in New York, possibly Miller on the Lower Mainland. Chicago, of course, hopes that bargain basement pickup Brad Richards will deliver handsomely on their investment.

But unless the summer of 2014 is drastically different than previous summers, more mistakes were made on Tuesday than clever investments, and the balance of power wasn’t altered in either conference.

Perhaps Florida made itself a playoff team, but we’ve seen the Panthers do the off-season spending spree on mid-range players before. Hard to say at this point whether raiding the Penguins defence for Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik will cause us to take the Capitals seriously again, while Stephane Robidas, coming off two leg fractures last season, will be sorely tested to become the influential player and locker room presence the Maple Leafs hope he’ll be. Manny Malhotra and Tom Gilbert will have a ways to go to replace Gionta and Gorges.

Bodies changed teams on Tuesday and Wednesday, and more than a half-billion dollars were lavished on hockey players.

By this time next year, it’s possible some of that will have helped deliver a Stanley Cup to one of 30 teams.

But it’s a certainty most of it won’t have changed much at all because it takes more than activity to make teams better.

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