Free Agency: Eastern Conference Report Card
Just two weeks into the free-agent period most of the unrestricted top free agent talent is gone and several big name players have been moved via trade. While a few talented UFA individuals remain, trade winds are swirling on teams that have too much D (Boston, Anaheim), not enough defense (Detroit, Buffalo,) not enough centres (Edmonton, Ottawa?) and/or still possibly searching for top six wingers (Pittsburgh, Boston). So the landscaping clearly isn't over for many NHL teams.
Consider this an early summer update with the understanding that these grades are for the first two terms of the offseason, with one term left.
Also, in the spirit that we want to include various forms of assessment, we'll be including any and all trade activity that warrants consideration (based on possible impact).
One observation before we indulge in this data...have you noticed how most of the top talent that's been moved/signed over the past fortnight (Wimbledon reference) has gone to the Western Conference?
The names are fairly well known – Jarome Iginla, Jason Spezza, James Neal, Paul Stastny, Ryan Kesler, Marian Gaborik (key-resigning), Tomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, Sam Gagner, Radim Vrbata, Brad Richards, Teddy Purcell, Benoit Pouliot, Ales Hemsky.
Let's see what happened in the East...
The Bruins let Iginla walk, as they were unable to match the dollars that Colorado could offer and the B's weren't excited about giving three years to a guy who just turned 37 on July 1. They may try to address the loss in-house, with Loui Eriksson moving up to the first line and Reilly Smith taking over the second line right wing spot. They could also try move Chris Kelly's contract ($3 million per season). We'll have a deeper look at the situation next month in our "Early Look" divisional.
Grade: B - Sometimes no move is the best move (for now).
The Sabres signed some people! After a horrendous season and a small increase in ticket prices they had to do something. First they bought out Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff in June. Then they signed left wing Matt Moulson, who immediately becomes their best forward, right wing Brian Gionta (from nearby Rochester, NY), veteran D-man Andrej Meszaros, gritty forward tough guy and former Sabre Cody McCormick, re-signed Marcus Foligno and traded for top-four defenseman Josh Gorges.
The leadership card gets overplayed sometimes in the media and by teams to justify certain player acquisitions but in this case it has merit – the younger players on this team need mentoring, even more so than on other more successful teams, so bringing in former Montreal captain Gionta and assistant captain Gorges makes good sense. They are players of high character who play the game the proverbial "way it's meant to be played".
The Hurricanes did nothing except re-sign defenseman Ron Hainey and take back fellow defenseman Tim Gleason after the Leafs bought him out. Oh, and they re-signed Nathan Gerbe and signed a fourth-line center in Jay McClement.
Grade: D. For dull and uninspiring.
The Blue Jackets easily won the trade with Philadelphia, acquiring Scott Hartnell and sending RJ Umberger back. Hartnell's addition could prove to be the perfect tonic to propel Columbus into being an annual viable playoff contender. They'll need a healthy and productive Nathan Horton, in addition to a signed and happy Ryan Johansen (negotiations with the RFA have been rocky).
The Red Wings faltered badly in their attempt at signing a big-name mobile defenseman with a right handed shot. They tried and failed July 1st to sign one of Matt Niskanen, Dan Boyle, Anton Stralman and Stephane Robidas. They eventually settled for re-signing Kyle Quincey for two more years. Now they have to consider moving some young talented forward(s) in a trade for an established top-four defenseman. Would they trade Tomas Jurco? Gustav Nyquist (28 goals/48 points in 57 games), Tomas Tatar (19 g/39 pts in 73) and prospect Anthony Mantha (Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year) are justifiably untouchable. Michael Del Zotto anyone? Sorry, Detroit fans, he's a left shot.
Grade: F, as in failed to improve the defense.
The Panthers added a bunch of guys to get to the cap floor. Some, like Jussi Jokinen, could be valuable additions. Some – Dave Bolland – received way the heck more than market value. But we're not grading contracts today. Bolland will help mentor young centres Alexander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad. It's the 21st century version of the Killer B's in Miami – Barkov, Bjugstad, Bolland – down the middle at center. Another good pickup was Willie Mitchell, This old warrior will be a great inspiration for all the young Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (23), Dylan Olsen (23), Erik Gudbranson (22), Alex Petrovic (22) and No. 1 pickoverall Aaron Ekblad (18). Meanwhile, the Cats also signed Derek MacKenzie to play fourth line center and Shawn Thornton to be the tough guy.
The Habs let go of two prized vets – Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges - because both were looking at more term and money than management could justify. The fact of the matter is that they needed to clear cap space to re-sign PK Subban and they made business decisions that were justifiable. Gionta's production was fading and he was a third line player by the end of his tenure. They then unloaded, amazingly, center/right wing Danny Briere (who will be 37 on October 6) to Colorado for right wing PA Parenteau (who turns 32 on March 24, 2014). Parenteau has more left in the tank, plain and simple. Parenteau plays with grit and can score. He should work well with Tomas Plekanec on the second line. Another top-nine addition that could work is Jiri Sekac, whom they signed away from the KHL. He'll try to land the third line right wing gig. If not Branden Proust will be there.
The Habs weren't done, as they also re-signed Mike Weaver (an excellent late season addition from Florida) and signed free-agent D-man Tom Gilbert, a non-physical yet underrated defenseman who managed 23 even-strength assists last year on a woefully low-scoring Florida team. Gilbert fills out the top four with Subban, Andrei Markov (re-signed for three years) and Alexei Yemelin. Look for youngsters Nathan Beaulieu and Jared Tinordi to take on bigger roles this year, taking turns on the third pairing alongside Weaver.
The Devils contine to be like George Allen's "Over the Hill Gang". They added more age with Martin Havlat (33) and Mike Cammalleri (32). Havlat hasn't been an effective scoring winger since 2010-11 but he came cheaply at $1.5 million for one year. While Havlat has played internationally many times on a line with Patrik Elias, the new Devil is not guaranteed a top-six role alongside his countryman. Unlike Havlat, Cammalleri isn't three seasons removed from being an effective player. He'll be in the top six mix, either at center or left wing.
Grade: B -
The Isles added a good goalie in June - Jaroslav Halak then they signed two forwards to possibly play with Ryan Strome – Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. The team is collecting assets as they look to finish out their Long Island tenure with a potentially capable squad. Cory Conacher was a depth signing with an uphill battle to secure a roster spot.
The Rangers lost three important players this July - center Brad Richards (bought out/signed by Chicago), left wing Benoit Pouliot (Edmonton) and D-man Anton Stralman (Tampa Bay) and added only one in free agency – defenseman Dan Boyle. So while the D looks fine the offense has lost two of its top nine forwards.
It was like a recurring bad dream for longtime Sens fans – star forward publicly wants out, thereby reducing chances at a reasonable return. Then star player vetoes a trade. Then team trades star player for less than full value. Six years ago it was Dany Heatley. This year it was captain Jason Spezza. The best player they got back from Dallas in the Spezza trade is 23-year-old right wing Alex Chiasson. Chiasson's a big body (6-3, 210) who has shown some scoring ability early in his NHL career (19 goals in 86 games). With Ottawa adding free-agent centre David Legwand (51 points last year) and re-signing left wing Milan Michalak, Ottawa has an entirely new second scoring line. Michalak has scored at a 25-goal pace as a Senator (96 goals/314 games) while Legwand has actually gotten better in his 30's – two of his best three seasons points-wise have occurred in each of the last two full (non-lockout) NHL seasons.
The Flyers have had a lousy offseason – they can't find anyone to take Vincent Lecavalier's contract and they gave away Scott Hartnell in trade with Columbus getting former Flyer RJ Umberger in return. They added a sixth/seventh D-man in Nick Schultz and fourth line fodder in Blair Jones and mensa member Zack Stortini.
The Penguins lost two of their top four defensemen in free agency – Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. The outlook on defense, however, is far from bleak. Former Canuck and Sabre Christian Ehrhoff (13th among all NHL defensemen in Corsi rating last season) joins what should be a very mobile defense in Pittsburgh with the only slow skating "stay at home guy" being 35-year-old Rob Scuderi. Ehrhoff, along with Paul Martin and Kris Letang, will see northwards of 20 minutes per game which won't be a problem for Ehrhooff, who averaged obver 22 minutes per game in each of the last three seasons. Youngsters Olli Maatta (turns 20 in August, 29 points in 78 NHL games) and Simon Despres (will be 23 later this month, 23 points in 36 AHL games) are both swift skaters with offensive skills. This should be a very effective puck moving team.
At forward the Pens traded Jame Neal to Nashville for right wing scorer Patrick Hornqvist and checking forward Nic Spaling. Hornqvist will likely replace Neal on Evgeni Malkin's line with Spaling joining the third line with Brandon Sutter. Steve Downie is an interesting signing, as he enjoyed success on Tampa Bay's top line in 2009-10 scoring 22 goals and 46 points in 79 games but has been racked with injuries the last few seasons. Downie is a disturber (he had 208 PIMs in 09-10) but he brings much more to the Penguins. Downie will protect Sidney Crosby and he can score 15-20 goals. If Pascal Dupuis (knee) isn't ready to start the season, Downie could get a chance to begin his Pittsburgh career on the first line with Crosby and Chris Kunitz. If not, he'll play on the third line. Forward Blake Comeau was also added in free agency to play a bottom-six role.
The jury is still out on Stevie Y as a GM - he overpaid for Ryan Callahan (6 years, $34.5 million) and Anton Stralman (5 years, $22.5 million) this summer after overpaying for Valteri Filppula (5 years, $25 million) last summer and Matt Carle (6 years, $33 million) two summers ago. But we're not grading contracts, just personnel adds and drops. Jason Garrison was also acquired in a trade, upgrading the defense and giving them another power play option on defense. Garrison has a booming shot and immediately, at worst, upgrades their second power play unit. Finally, Yzerman signed Brian Boyle to improve the checking line and Brendan Morrow to add grit and experience to the third line.
For once the Leafs showed restraint in free agency (after blowing their brains out on David Clarkson last summer). They tried to overpay to re-sign theirthird line center - David Bolland - but Florida over overpaid them. After losing out on Bolland, the Buds took a frugal approach regarding their third line center vacancy in signing free agent Mike Santorelli and former KHLer Petri Kontiola. They also brought back Leo Komarov and Matt Frattin to play top-nine roles on the wingand help make up for the loss of free agent Mason Raymond (Calgary). On defense they bought out Tim Gleason, a classic addition by subtraction based on his play last season.
The Caps blew their brains out on a pair of D-men. Matt Niskanen at least is in his prime (but vastly overpaid) while Brooks Orpikis already on the decline and will be a salary cap albatross within 12-18 months.
Washington lost Mikhail Grabovsky in free agency, leaving their second line center spot available for one of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Brooks Laich or Marcus Johansson. One point that hasn't been mentioned is that Orpik is a tough veteran who will have a large presence in the Caps locker room. Is this an indictment on Ovechkin as team leader? Probably not but Orpik adds to the veteran contingent of Laich, Jason Chimera, Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer and will demand accountability from the youngsters as well as the captain.