There are three key time periods in an NHL season that many teams use to build a Stanley Cup contender: The trade deadline, the Entry Draft, and the first day of Free Agency. On Tuesday, many general managers used the first day of Free Agency to attempt to fill the holes in their roster, no matter what the cost. With 179 players signed to contracts that totaled over $524 million, it became one of the busiest (and most expensive) July 1 in recent NHL history. The Free Agent Frenzy lived up to its name, thanks in part to the negotiation period that was added to the offseason this year, but not every team ended the day on a high note.
Winners – Given the amount of money that was thrown around yesterday, it only makes sense that some of the biggest winners yesterday were the ones that spent the least. Cup contenders made minor moves at best, or in Los Angeles’ case, made no moves at all. After all, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
Dallas Stars – The Dallas Stars made the biggest moves during yesterday’s opening day, acquiring Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators for spare parts and signing shifty winger Ales Hemsky to fill out their Top 6. They also signed depth forward Patrick Eaves and backup goaltender Anders Lindback. In the NHL, it is notoriously difficult to acquire Top 6 centers. Dallas general manager Jim Nill has acquired two in the past two offseasons. Dallas’ defense is a little iffy, but put them down as a darkhorse for next year’s Cup.
Chicago Blackhawks – After all the rumors about trading long-time winger Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks only made one deal yesterday, but it was a significant one. Veteran center Brad Richards signed with Chicago for a measly $2 million, a severe discount from what he could have received from other teams. It works out for both the Blackhawks and Richards, as Chicago gets their 2nd line center for dirt cheap, and Richards gets a great chance at another Cup run.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Tampa Bay’s season went off the rails a bit after losing superstar Steven Stamkos for most of the year, then being forced to trade their captain Marty St. Louis due to off-ice issues. The team still made the playoffs despite those hardships, but an injury to starting goaltender Ben Bishop ended their playoff run far too early. The Lightning addressed some of the issues yesterday, signing solid defenseman Anton Stralman for five years, $22.5 million and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov for one year, $1.55 million. They also signed bruising forward Brian Boyle, who should pair well with his former New York Ranger teammate Ryan Callahan.
Losers – These teams will likely look back at their moves yesterday and wonder where it all went wrong. Some of the moves made it seem like a contest to throw as much money at players that could not possibly live up to their new contract. In today’s NHL, that is a quick way to earn a buyout or two in the future.
Washington Capitals – The Capitals appeared to be lost in the past, or simply unaware of the toll that age can have on a player. Their two big moves yesterday were signing depth defensemen Brooks Orpik to a 5-year, $27 million contract and Matt Niskanen to a 7-year, $40 million deal. While Washington needed to address their defense, especially with defensive-minded coach Barry Trotz taking the reins, giving out those contracts was not the way to handle it. Orpik, especially, has shown to be reaching the end of his career, so giving him a five year deal made little sense at all.
Detroit Red Wings – The Red Wings are quickly losing their luster as the NHL’s ideal franchise, and their appeal as a free agency destination is dropping as well. Despite offering better deals to Dan Boyle, Matt Niskanen, Anton Stralman, and Stephane Robidas, all four defensemen passed on the Red Wings to take less money on different teams. The Red Wings consolation prize? Re-signing Kyle Quincey to a 2-year, $8.5 million deal, whose tenure with Detroit has been inconsistent at best.
Florida Panthers – The Panthers are not expected to compete for the Cup anytime soon, so it is simply a matter of attempting to reach the cap floor. This makes some of the moves made yesterday a little more understandable. However, signing complementary players like Jussi Jokinen and David Bolland to long term, high price contracts will only hurt the Panthers in the future. After drafting Aaron Ekblad at the NHL Entry Draft, Florida added another solid piece to their young core group of players. By the time that young core is looking to get a raise from their entry-level contracts, Florida better hope, for their sake, that Jokinen’s $16 million and Bolland’s $27 million deals will not come back to bite them.
There is still plenty of time before the start of the 2014-2015 NHL season, giving all the teams ample opportunity to continue to improve their team or fix past mistakes, but yesterday’s Free Agent Frenzy should teach general managers to be a bit more careful with their resources. July 1 may have lived up to its name, but for many teams, they may have been better off not participating in the frenzy.
This article is one in a series, providing coverage, analysis, and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner