Gare Joyce takes a brief look at the biggest winners and loser from the opening day of NHL free agency.
St Louis Blues
The Blues had the look of a Stanley Cup champion last spring but lost an impossibly close six-game series to the Chicago Blackhawks in Round 1. The one question mark when you looked at the St Louis roster was down the middle: David Backes and T.J. Oshie are front-line players to be sure, but Backes at least might be miscast as a centreman. Enter Paul Statsny, formerly of Colorado and arguably the most valuable forward in this pool of UFAs. Stastny will allow Backes to move to the wing. The Blues signed another centre, Jori Lehtera, out of the KHL. A team that was a couple of regulation goals from knocking off the ‘Hawks might find those goals with the Stastny-enriched lineup.
Last summer Raymond couldn’t get arrested. He had made a cumulative $7.3 million over his three previous seasons in Vancouver, but somehow everybody had run out of cap room or money to spend. He had to suck it up and sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs for $1 million last year, but he reestablished his value with a 19-goal season, a career-high output. Calgary rewarded him with a three-year, $9.5-million contract.
It was only conditional love that Spezza felt in Ottawa, and at some level it beat the odds by lasting as long as it did. Any warm feelings he might have carried on to his next stop were chilled when Senators GM Bryan Murray made his request for a trade a public spectacle, something to avoid the fallout like that from the loss of Daniel Alfredsson the previous summer. Spezza was going to be best served by going to a team where he’d be a No. 2 centre, and that’s what he’ll have in Dallas, behind Tyler Seguin. That the Stars landed winger Ales Hemsky only sweetens the mix.
On the job only a few weeks, the Vancouver GM has had a solid launch. Benning gets the best goaltender out there, even if a bit of the lustre went off Ryan Miller in St Louis. OK, he had to swallow a bitter pill with the trade of Ryan Kesler to Anaheim, but even at that he made the best of a horrific situation. In Jake Virtanen and Jared McCann, the two first-rounders from his first Canucks draft, Benning added two of the best pure skaters in the class. Miller’s signing suggests that Benning might be engineering a turnaround and not digging out the foundation for a rebuild.
The team roster’s had been put through a hot bleach since the mid-season hiring of Tim Murray as GM. Buying out defenceman Christian Ehrhoff made it just about complete. Murray sold off everything but the building fixtures, and it looked like he was putting the franchise on course for the 2015 lottery and possibly two shots at Connor McDavid. (Previous GM Darcy Regier had hosed the Islanders for a first-rounder in the Thomas Vanek deal.) But Murray was able to convince some veterans to sign on with the rebuilding program. Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges don’t put the team on course for the top eight in the East, but they’ll stand as role models for the next-gen Sabres.
The new Penguins GM inherited a salary cap mess, something he had mostly avoided in Carolina. Then again, he also inherited Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Getting Christian Ehrhoff at rock-bottom price point and term cut Rutherford some salary cap relief and proves the magnetic power of Sid and Geno.
Toronto Maple Leafs
After the crash-and-burn second half for the Maple Leafs, you’d have thought the team needed major surgery. Instead: cosmetic changes and blast from the past. Welcome back Matt Frattin, who had a year sabbatical with L.A. and Columbus. And, yes, that is Leo Komarov, back from the KHL. Defenceman Stephane Robidas is a useful veteran second-pair defenceman… at least when healthy, which has been a bit of a problem in recent seasons. This constitutes good news for Leafs fans only if you were wondering what to do with your old Frattin and Komarov sweaters.
As defending Presidents’ Trophy winners with a reasonably deep organizational depth chart, the Bruins aren’t about to drop out of the playoffs even with the loss of Jarome Iginla and his 30 goals last season. Still, the Bruins face a salary-cap crunch and you get a sense that the window has started to close on the core of talent that carries over from the 2011 Stanley Cup championship roster. Zdeno Chara’s struggles were profound against Montreal in the playoffs, and Brad Marchand flat-lined. Standing pat shouldn’t have been an option.
Going into the draft and the July 1 sweepstakes, the Florida Panthers GM needed to come away with immediate help for the top half of his roster, especially up front. The Panthers are a better team today than they were at the season’s dreary end, but only because their most talented prospects are weeks older and the bottom half of the roster has been upgraded. Yeah, David Bolland is paid like a solid second-liner, but on a contender he’d be a third-liner. Willie Mitchell is a useful veteran defenceman, someone who might help out first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad and Erik Gudbranson. Still, Tallon needed to convert his resources and cap room into a first-line scorer and preferably two. It’s hard to see the Panthers as being close to a playoff team and equally as hard to imagine that Tallon will get another kick at it.
The Senators GM certainly didn’t help move Jason Spezza by making a reality-show spectacle out of it. Maybe all he was ever going to get was 30 cents on the dollar for his captain. Still, for the second summer in a row, he allowed the most identifiable veteran on the roster to leave Ottawa with a sour taste in his mouth. And now he just has to convince Bobby Ryan to sign a long-term deal with the club. Good luck.
Okay, granted, James Neal might prove to be a heck of a pickup from the cap-bound Penguins, but he would have looked so much better with Spezza. Predators GM made a bid for the Ottawa captain but knew he was spitting into the gale-force wind and Spezza’s equally stiff limited no-trade clause. Poile complained about the unfairness of it all, but so did Job and to even less avail.
Detroit Red Wings
You had to see Dan Boyle as the natural fit in Detroit, a variation or even an upgrade on Brian Rafalski from not so long ago. But when Boyle signed with the Rangers and Matt Niskanen turned them down, the Red Wings responded by… well, actually, we’re still waiting. Forwards Kevin Porter and Riley Sheahan re-signed, but it sure seems like the Red Wings aren’t quite the UFA destination they were five years ago.