Posted by: mdegeorge | July 7, 2011

NHL Free Agency Week 1 Diagnosis: Eastern Conference

The NHL’s free agent market has been open for just over six days. The biggest prize of the shopping spree has been landed (Brad Richards by the Rangers), but there remains another notable big fish out there in Steven Stamkos, whose potential trade from Tampa Bay could trigger another wave of activity the league over. There are also several notable free agents remaining out there for teams still needing to add players (or salary, as the case may be) to snap up.

In the post-holiday lull, it seems a perfect time to reset things and see just what has been accomplished and what teams still need to do.

First up, the grades for the Eastern Conference (all numbers in millions of dollars; salary cap figures according to CapGeek.com):

Soon to be former Lightning Steven Stamkos? (Courtesy of Creative Commons.)

New Jersey Devils

Signed: Andy Greene (4 years, $12), Johan Hedberg (1 year, $1.25).

Lost: None.

There hasn’t been much activity from North Jersey this summer, probably much to the chagrin of fans after an abysmal start to last season that almost was salvaged by a feverish finish. The Devils could still make some moves as they have around $7 million left under the cap, but a sizable chunk of that will likely go to Zach Parise. The team elected to go the arbitration route with Parise, thereby avoiding a potential offer sheet by another team. He’ll get a one-year deal in the range of the $5 million he made last season, a disastrous year in which injuries limited him to six points in 13 games. That leaves the Devils largely hamstrung this year until the contracts of two of their five defensemen making over $2.9 mil a year (Bryce Salvador and Colin White) come off the books next year, as does the big $5.2 million of then 40-year-old Martin Brodeur. For now, the Devils can only stand pat, though picking Parise over older free agent talent and draft picks is the right move. He’ll help remedy a portion of their league-low 174 goals scored, but the inability to get more help than that is a problem.

Grade: D+

New York Islanders

Signed: Mary Reasoner (2 years, $2.7).

Lost: Bruno Gervais to Tampa Bay, Zenon Konopka to Ottawa, Nathan Lawson to Montreal, Radek Martinek to Columbus.

The Islanders are a team that has to save its pennies to sign young talent. Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau are RFA’s this season – Comeau is certain to get good money, while decisions need to be made on John Tavares and P.A. Parenteau after next season. They have one of the best nuclei of young forward talent in the league, and unlike everything else they try their hand at, don’t want to mess it up. They’ll augment those cash reserves with defensemen like Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina, who almost certainly will be traded midseason if (when) they fall out of the race. They still have $26 million left under the cap. A veteran glue guy like Reasoner is good. They should look for a late-20s defenseman with some upside, since they still need to spend about $8 million to reach the salary floor. Reasoner’s a good start, but more is needed once the arbitration of Comeau is settled.

Grade: D+

New York Rangers

Signed: Ruslan Fedotenko (1 year, $1.4), Brad Richards (9 years, $60), Mike Rupp (3 years, $4.5).

Lost: Matt Gilroy to Tampa.

The Rangers made the biggest move of the free agency period by bringing over Richards, the crown jewel – perhaps more appropriately, the diamond in the rough – of this market. They’ll be in wait-and-see mode until arbitration on Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Mike Sauer, and Brian Boyle comes up. They have just under $16 million in cap space left, of which about $12 to $13 will go to securing those four players. That would leave them about $2 million to bring in a sixth defenseman and rule out returns for Alexander Frolov and Vaclav Prospal. If they can get discounts on Callahan and Dubinsky by adding term beyond the arbitrator’s 1-year pact, this could be an excellent offseason for the Rangers. Provided Marian Gaborik wakes up and stays healthy, they’ll be a playoff team, if not a Cup contender.

Grade: B+

Philadelphia Flyers

Signed: Ilya Bryzgalov (9 years, $51) Jaromir Jagr (1 year, $3.3), Andreas Lilja (2 years, $1.45), Maxime Talbot (5 years, $9), Jakob Voracek (1 year, $2.25).

Lost: Brian Boucher to Carolina, Daniel Carcillo to Chicago, Ville Leino to Buffalo, Sean O’Donnell to Chicago, Darroll Powe to Minnesota via trade, Kris Versteeg to Florida via trade.

The Flyers certainly weren’t complacent after finishing first in the Eastern Conference regular season standings. Gone are captain Mike Richards and leading scorer Jeff Carter. To fill the void, the Flyers went defense first with the big signing of Bryzgalov to anchor their net for nearly the next decade. They also signed Voracek as part of the Carter deal and will be headed to arbitration with RFA Wayne Simmonds in the Richards deal. They’re free agent dealings leave some head scratching though. Talbot is a good pickup, but five years seems excessive, provided they rework a contract that violated the collective bargaining agreement in its original formulation. The surprise Jagr deal could turn out to be a good move if the 39-year-old produces, but that’s a sizable if. They’ve got about $5 million left, most of which should go to Simmonds, so another move would have to be small. They’ll also probably keep some of that cash in reserve for the big payday, likely first through arbitration, due James Van Riemsdyk as an RFA next season.

Grade: B-

Pittsburgh Penguins

Signed: Craig Adams (2 years, $1.35), Arron Asham (1 year, $.775), Pascal Dupuis (2 years, $3), Tyler Kennedy (2 years, $4), Steve Sullivan (1 year, $1.5).

Lost: Mike Rupp to New York Rangers, Maxime Talbot to Philadelphia.

After a surprise first-round last season, the Pens management had a decision to make: Stick with the pieces in place and hope that the results of a season in which their top four centers played together in all of one game wouldn’t be duplicated when all are healthy, or make wholesale changes. They went with the former, and it’s an excellent decision. There was initial disappointment at losing Jagr to instate rival Philadelphia. But when you put away the nostalgia and consider that they got two seasons of the 24-year-old Kennedy for just over the price of one Jagr year, it’s a no-brainer. Seeing Talbot and Rupp leave hurt the team’s grit factor, but matching that kind of term is imprudent. Instead, they opted to retain Asham, Adams and Dupuis and add Sullivan as a low-cost, low-risk winger who won’t be asked to shoulder the type of burden (i.e. be expected to produce on a line with Sidney Crosby) that did in the likes of Mike Comrie, Ruslan Fedotenko and Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Grade: B+

Boston

Signed: Benoit Pouliot (1 year, $1.1).

Lost: Tomas Kaberle to Carolina, Michael Ryder to Dallas.

The departure of Ryder isn’t much of a loss for the Stanley Cup champs, and they certainly didn’t want to commit the number needed to make a deal work with Kaberle. They have just short of $9 million left and still have to sign Brad Marchand as an RFA, so another veteran forward could come in for a short-term deal. They’ll likely hold off on bringing in anyone big, since big deals could be in the offing for David Krejci (RFA after next season) and Tyler Seguin (RFA in 2013). It’s a solid start for a team with few needs.

Grade: C

Buffalo Sabres

Signed: Christian Ehrhoff (10 years, $40), Nathan Gerbe (3 years, $4.3), Ville Leino (6 years, $27), Drew Stafford (4 years, $16), Mike Weber (2 years, $1.9), Ales Kotalik and Robyn Regehr via trade

Lost: Chris Butler to Calgary via trade, Tim Connolly to Toronto.

Buffalo hasn’t been sheepish about splashing the cash. They sprung for Stafford late in the season and made a big impact on the market by snapping Ehrhoff and Leino on the opening day of free agency. This leaves them in a bind, though. But defensemen Andrej Sekera (via arbitration) and Marc-Andre Gragnani are RFAs, as is back-up goalie Jhonas Enroth. They have less than $.5 million remaining, which means at least one player on the roster will have to be a makeweight. A forward like Jochen Hecht could move (they already have 13 under contract), while Jordan Leopold and Shaone Morrisonn look likely to hit the market via trade to clear roster and cap space (I’m assuming there was a reason why they traded for Regehr and Kotalik, so they would stay). There could be something interesting afoot in Buffalo this season. But way overpaying for Leino and Ehrhoff and the subsequent squeeze on young talent downgrades them.

Grade: B

Montreal Canadiens

Signed: Peter Budaj (2 years, $2.3), Erik Cole (4 years, $18), Mathieu Darche (1 year, $.7), Hal Gill (1 year, $2.25), Andrei Kostitsyn (1 year, $3.25), Andrei Markov (3 years, $17.25).

Lost: Jeff Halpern to Washington, Roman Hamrlik to Washington, Benoit Pouliot to Boston, Curtis Sanford to Columbus, James Wisniewski to Columbus, Tom Pyatt to Tampa Bay.

The Montreal offseason has been a good news, bad news situation. The good news is that they have an impact forward over 5-foot-9 in Cole. The bad news is that they still have to pay Scott Gomez. The good news is they got out from under a big contract with Hamrlik. The bad news is they gave that money to Markov. They have $8 million and change left to spend on another forward and the arbitration eligible Josh Gorges. They brought in a solid back up in Budaj behind unquestioned number one Carey Price and some solid role players back. The fact that they picked up a big forward and a big defense piece and still have financial maneuverability is impressive.

Grade: B

Ottawa Senators

Signed: Zenon Konopka (1 year, $.7), Alex Auld (1 year, $1).

Lost: Curtis McElhinney to Phoenix.

I’m not really sure what the vision in Ottawa is. There’s still $17 million to spend, some of which presumably would go to raises for Nick Foligno, Peter Regin and Erik Karlsson long-term. For a team in a rebuilding phase without an established star, they’re wise to stay out of the free agent market and overspend on vets that will keep them from high draft picks. So far, they’ve only seen fit to spend for a fourth-liner and a back-up goalie.

Grade: D

Toronto Maple Leafs

Signed: Tim Connolly (2 years, $9.5), Carl Gunnarsson (2 years, $1.65), Clarke MacArthur (2 years, $6.5), James Reimer (3 years, $5.4), Tyler Bozak (2 years, $3).

Lost: Tim Brent to Carolina, Jean-Sebastien Giguere to Colorado.

Losing out on Brad Richards hurt their free-agent aspirations, and throwing a lot of money at Connolly isn’t an equal replacement. It puts a damper on their offseason, and there’s no way their remaining $8 million gets equivalent value in this market. They do save over $5 million by dumping Giguere, which is a victory. There are some players out there that could turn the Leafs into a playoff contender this year, but a Stanley Cup threat they won’t be this year – Richards or not.

Grade: C

Carolina Hurricanes

Signed: Brian Boucher (2 years, $1.9), Tim Brent (2 years, $1.5), Patrick Dwyer (2 years, $1.25), Jay Harrison (2 years, $1.3), Jussi Jokinen (3 years, $9), Tomas Kaberle (3 years, $12.75), Chad LaRose (2 years, $3.4), Joni Pitkanen (3 years, $13.5), Alexei Ponikarovsky (1 year, $1.5), Anthony Stewart (2 years, $1.8), Juri Tlusty (1 year, $.525)

Lost: Erik Cole to Montreal.

The Canes did a nice job locking up their pieces like Jokinen, Pitkanen and LaRose. The arrival of Kaberle bolsters the offense as well, while Boucher is a capable backup who can take some of the pressure off Cam Ward. They still have $17 million to spend, which could at least allow another Ponikarovsky-like flier on a veteran forward (maybe former Hurricane Cory Stillman). Another impact forward is still needed to replace Cole for a team that is already challenged offensively. If they swing that, this grade could sneak into the A-range.

Grade: B

Florida Panthers

Signed: Sean Bergenheim (4 years, $11), Matt Bradley (2 years, $1.9), Tomas Fleischmann (4 years, $18), Marcel Goc (3 years, $5.1), Ed Jovanovski (4 years, $16.5), Tomas Kopecky (4 years, $12), Jack Skille (2 years, $1.65), Jose Theodore (2 years, $3), Scottie Upshall (4 years, $14), Mike Santorelli (2 years, undisclosed), Kris Versteeg via trade, Brian Campbell via trade.

Lost: Niclas Bergfors to Nashville, Tomas Vokoun to Washington, Marty Reasoner to New York Islanders, Rostislav Olesz to Chicago via trade.

I’m not really sure what the Panthers are doing, but I’m intrigued. They have completely overhauled their goalkeeping scene, without really upgrading it, and they may be shaking their heads at the kind of money Vokoun got from Washington (a $4.2 million discount from last year’s salary). They’ve picked up six legitimated top-9 forwards, plus Versteeg via trade. And they still have about $15 million to spend, including an estimated $2 million to Santorelli. Scoring may not be a problem this season; stopping pucks though a weak defense and Theodore could be. They may want an extra veteran to solidify the blueline even with the acquisitions of Jovanovski and Campbell, but otherwise I’m impressed with the corps of forwards here assembled. If nothing else, they have the potential to be entertaining, a much needed infusion of life into a largely dormant market.

Grade: A-

Tampa Bay Lightning

Signed: Marc-Andre Bergeron (2 years, $2), Eric Brewer (4 years, $15.4), Mathieu Garon (2 years, $2.6), Bruno Gervais (1 year, $.55), Matt Gilroy (1 year, $1), Adam Hall (1 year, $.6), Dwayne Roloson (1 year, $3), Tom Pyatt (1 year, undisclosed).

Lost: Sean Bergenheim to Florida, Simon Gagne to Los Angeles, Randy Jones to Winnipeg, Mike Smith to Phoenix.

The Lightning’s offseason will depend on the whims of one Stamkos. The team has $15 million left under the cap, about half of which should go to Stamkos in a deal around the 5-year, $37.5 million range according to sources. With the market having been stripped to the degree it has, though, Stamkos is in the catbird’s seat with Tampa knowing they absolutely have to sign him or risk having almost nothing to spend their money on. Bergenheim and Gagne were cleary out of their price ranged, and they overpaid a big on Garon as a backup who might not fit the starter-in-waiting bill. The peculiarity of their moves is that they currently have eight defensemen under contract, but only nine forwards. Three of those blueliners are new additions, which combined with Brewer’s long-term deal makes either Pavel Kubina or Mattias Ohlund expendable. Even if they land Stamkos and take Teddy Purcell through arbitration, they still need at least another top-6 forward and will have only about $5 million to play with unless they make a move. There’s a lot more to go this offseason for Tampa, and they’re just getting started.

Grade: C-

Washington Capitals

Signed: Troy Brouwer (2 years, $4.7), Jeff Halpern (1 year, $.825), Roman Hamrlik (2 years, $7), Mike Knuble (1 year, $2), Brooks Laich (6 years, $27), Dany Sabourin (1 year, $.525), Tomas Vokoun (1 year, $1.5), Joel Ward (4 years, $12).

Lost: Matt Bradley to Florida, Boyd Gordon to Phoenix, Marco Sturm to Vancouver, Semyon Varlamov to Colorado via trade, Jason Arnott to St. Louis.

The Capitals have pulled off some wonderful free agent coups, yet still find themselves over the cap already. All that with Karl Alzner still to sign for next season and John Carlson with a big deal in the offing. First, the positives: Laich is in the fold long term, Ward and Brouwer are younger upgrades for Bradley and Gordon, and Halpern and Knuble are valuable vets. What they pulled off in goal is nothing short of Houdini-like. They were able to get Vokoun, the second-best guy on the market, at a $4 million discount, while earning a high first-round pick from Colorado for wantaway goalie Varlamov. But the free agent changes are a harbinger for trades to come. Laich’s pact means someone is out the door – potentially Eric Fehr and/or Jason Chimera. But they could make a big splash by bidding adieu to Alexander Semin, whose got $6.7 million due in the last year of his contract, a deal that could really help a team near the salary floor. On defense, Hamrlik’s arrival could be the end of Mike Green’s time, as he’s a restricted free agent after next season, or Dennis Wideman’s, a UFA after the season. One way or the other, big names will be leaving Washington. But based on the body of work so far…

Grade: A-

Winnipeg Jets

Signed: Tanner Glass (1 year, $.75), Randy Jones (1 year, $1.15), Andrew Ladd (5 years, $22).

Lost: Radek Dvorak to Dallas, Anthony Stewart to Carolina.

The Not-Thrashers have a way to go reach the salary floor and over $20 million to spend under the cap. That makes them an attractive scenario in the Semin trade rumors, though they did a nice job by inking Ladd long-term. The Jets are going to be patient, with their top priorities being long-term deals for defenseman Zach Bogosian and forward Blake Wheeler. A few veteran forwards would be nice, though they could get over the salary floor, if not in the playoffs, by just re-signing their own guys.

Grade: D+

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