Posted by: mdegeorge | July 7, 2011

NHL Free Agency Week 1 Diagnosis: Western 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.

Here are the grades for the Western Conference (all numbers in millions of dollars; salary cap figures according to CapGeek.com):

Former San Jose Shark Dany Heatley. (Courtesy of Creative Commons.)

Chicago Blackhawks

Signed: Andrew Brunette (1 years, $2), Daniel Carcillo (1 year, $.775), Corey Crawford (3 years, $8), Jamal Mayers (1 year, $.55), Sean O’Donnell (1 year, $.85), Alexander Salak (2 years, $1.2), Rostislav Olesz via trade

Lost: Troy Brouwer to Washington via trade, Garnet Exelby to Detroit, Tomas Kopecky to Florida, Jeff Taffe to Minnesota, Brian Campbell to Florida via trade.

Another season, another salary dump from Chicago. Campbell’s $7 million-plus a year was to much to burden, as were the pacts required to keep Brouwer and Kopecky. There aren’t direct replacements for either forward, though Carcillo and Mayers should provide their grit while Brunette and Olesz their scoring. Olesz seems like an odd fit and less value per dollar than the Blackhawks are willing to pay (Brouwer is arguably a better player for about $.5 million less, though they did get good value for him in a first-round pick, he struggled and was injured to end the season and he’s being made expendable by younger players behind him). Brunette’s a good low-risk pickup who can score goals. The interesting decision came in the goalie department, where it appears they’re willing to go with Crawford as the man without a more experienced backup than Salak. The remaining $7 million in the cap will likely go to arbitration for Chris Campoli and Viktor Stalberg and perhaps also to keep Michael Frolik in the loop. The lack of a veteran in net as a plan B is concerning.

Grade: B-

Columbus Blue Jackets

Signed: Grant Clitsome (2 years, $2.5), Marc Methot (4 years, $12), Curtis Sanford (1 year, $.6), James Wisniewski (6 years, $33), Radek Martinek (1 year, $2.2).

Lost: Mike Commodore to Detroit, Mathieu Garon to Tampa Bay, Jan Hejda to Colorado, Scottie Upshall to Florida.

Anyone see a pattern in the free agent tendencies of the team allowing the fifth most goals in the entire NHL last season? It’s all defense for a team that’s counting on Steve Mason to be better than he was a year ago. They addressed the offense by bringing in a second impact player in Jeff Carter. But the bulk of the spending involved retaining young players like Clitsome and Methot and adding some experience like Martinek. The Wisniewski numbers are a bit high for a guy with his sixth franchise in six profressional seasons, though they only had to give up a fifth-round pick to get him. With $8 million left under the cap and most needs filled, the team should probably look for another scoring winger. Either way, it’s nice to see Columbus making some hey.

Grade: B+

Detroit Red Wings

Signed: Mike Commodore (1 year, $1), Patrick Eaves (3 years, $3.6), Jonathan Ericsson (3 years, $9.75), Nicklas Lidstrom (1 year, $6.2), Drew Miller (2 years, $1.675), Ian White (2 years, $5.75).

Lost: None.

With forwards like the corps Detroit has, how needs to add through free agency? It’s clear that the focus this offseason was adding to the blueline for the short-term through Lidstrom and long-term through Ericsson. They also stayed in house to hold onto Eaves and Miller. The only acquisitions came in White and Commodore, the later because he was quite cheap. They have about $8.5 left under the cap, and the only glaring need is a back-up goalie. Jimmy Howard is the number one, and the Wings will likely turn to either Joey MacDonald or Chris Osgood as the backup. Osgood at 38 says he’s healthy after surgeries during the season and will likely retire if the Wings aren’t interested in his services. The Wings haven’t done much, but then again, there’s wasn’t much to do.

Grade: B-

Nashville Predators

Signed: Niclas Bergfors (1 year, $.575).

Lost: Marcel Goc to Florida, Steve Sullivan to Pittsburgh, Joel Ward to Washington.

The Preds have the most money left to spend at just over $28 million. But they’re also in the most flux. It has nothing to do with the fact that they’ve got only one defenseman signed past the end of the 2011-12 season, or that they’ll have to make a decision on both Pekka Rinne and Ryan Suter at the end of next season. It’s that a snafu in the timing of qualifying offers made to seven players could relieve them of their RFA status and make them UFA’s depending on the result of a Players’ Union grievance. The list includes seven names – Sergei Kostitsyn, Cal O’Reilly, Nick Spaling, Matt Halischuk, Chris Mueller, Andreas Thuresson and Linus Klasen – though Kostitsyn has opted for arbitration and Thuresson was dealt to the Rangers. Until decisions are made on this sizable chunk of young talent, the Predators have to wait and see. The team has opted for arbitration on Shea Weber, preventing him from being subjected to offer sheets. It could all go horribly wrong in Nashville this summer.

Grade: Incomplete

St. Louis Blues

Signed: Patrik Berglund (2 years, $4.5), Ben Bishop (1 year,$.6), Matt D’Agostini (2 years, $3.3), Brian Elliott (1 year, .6), Kent Huskins (1 year, $1), Scott Nichol (1 year, $.7), T.J. Oshie (1 year, $2.35), Roman Polak (5 years, $13.75), Vladimir Sobotka (3 years, $3.9), Jason Arnott (1 year, $2.5), Jamie Langenbrunner (1 year, $2.5).

Lost: None.

I really like what the Blues are doing in trying to build a team through young prospects acquired by trades and other moves. They’re sticking with young guys that they drafted like Oshie and Berglund while sprinkling in just enough veteran presence that’s redeemable for more picks if things go downhill. Nichol is an excellent checking center, while Arnott and Langenbrunner bring great leadership. This team was tenth in the NHL is goals scored, so that’s not a problem. If they are able to get the best out of the deal that sent Jay McClement and Erik Johnson to Colorado for Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart (and face it, after Johnson’s injuries and disappointing play, the Blues deserve a break) they could find themselves in the playoffs.

Grade: B+

Calgary Flames

Signed: Anton Babchuk (2 years, $5), Chris Butler (2 years, $2.5), Curtis Glencross (4 years, $10.2), Henrik Karlsson (2 years, $1.75), Alex Tanguay (5 years, $17.5).

Lost: Adam Pardy to Dallas.

The Flames are enjoying the renaissance of Tanguay, though the rate at which they’re paying the soon-to-be 32-year-old is a bit worrying. The Flames were fifth in the Western Conference in scoring last season, and that was with only four games from Daymond Langkow thanks to a neck injury. If he returns, that’ll boost the offense even more. The team did a good job getting younger on defense by re-upping Babchuk and bringing Butler into the fold. They’ve got just one more RFA to look at in Brendan Mikkleson, who shouldn’t cost more than $1 million, leaving about $3 million under the cap with which to play.

Grade: C+

Colorado Avalanche

Signed: Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2 years, $2.5), Jan Hejda (4 years, 13), Milan Hejduk (1 year, $2.6), Matt Hunwick (1 year, $1.55), David Jones (1 year, $2.5), Chuck Kobasew (2 years, $2.5), Ryan O’Bryne (2 years, $3.9), Semyon Varlamov via trade

Lost: Peter Budaj to Montreal, Brian Elliott to St. Louis, Tomas Fleischmann to Florida

It’s pretty clear that the team that allowed the most goals in the league last season by almost 20 wanted some serious structural changes. In comes Hejda to lead the defense, while the goaltending house has been cleaned in favor of Varlamov, who came pricey in a trade from Washington and Giguere, who at $1.25 per season is basically a flier that he’ll be the Giggy of old. They have $28 million and some spending left to do. The team has arbitration dates with Ryan Wilson and Kevin Porter, plus they have RFAs T.J. Galiardi and Kyle Cumiskey to deal with. Decision time is also rapidly approaching for young players like Jones, Cody McLeod, Daniel Winnick, Brandon Yip (UFAs after 2011-12), Matt Duchene, Peter Mueller, Kyle Quincey, and Ryan O’Reilly (RFAs after 2011-12). They’ll have to make at least one other move of decent regard to get over the salary floor, but don’t expect much else from the Avs.

Grade: C

Edmonton Oilers

Signed: Cam Barker (1 year, $2.25), Eric Belanger (3 years, $5.25), Ben Eager (3 years, $3.3), Ryan Jones (2 years, $3), Ladislav Smid (2 years, $4.5), Ryan Smyth via trade, Andy Sutton via trade.

Lost: Sheldon Souray to Dallas, James Vandermeer to San Jose, Jean-Francois Jacques to Anaheim, Kurtis Foster to Anaheim via trade

The Oilers were able to accomplish something. Ok, they’re not going to challenge for a Cup this year. They’re still in the middle of a rebuilding process that’ll take at least another two years. But they got out from underneath the Souray contract. They were able to keep Smyth away from Calgary in what I can only assume is an Alberta farewell tour that at least will keep the fans into it. And they picked up some guys who will have trade value elsewhere midseason in exchange for draft picks. Hey, no one said rebuilding was easy.

Grade: D

Minnesota Wild

Signed: Darroll Powe (3 years, $3.2), Devin Setoguchi via trade (3 years, $9), Dany Heatley via trade, Jeff Taffe (1 year, undisclosed)

Lost: Cam Barker to Edmonton, Andrew Brunette to Chicago, Chuck Kobasew to Colorado, Brent Burns and Martin Havlat to San Jose via trades, Jose Theodore to Florida

Minnesota has the impact scorer it’s been looking for since the departure of Marian Gaborik in Heatley. They also have a decent second-line producer in Setoguchi. But each requires a bit of a leap of faith. Setoguchi was often the odd man out of the top-6 forward conversation in San Jose, while Heatley’s headed to Minnesota because of a so-so season and a deplorable playoff performance, per usual. The two combined for 48 goals last season. Meanwhile, departed forwards Kobasew, Brunette, and Havlat combined for 49. Couple that with a shaky defense, numbers four through six on the depth chart of which count 138 combined games of experience, and I see a lot of busy nights for Nicklas Backstrom. They still have $11 million under the cap, and need to make a signing if they’re going to be a playoff team.

Grade: C

Vancouver Canucks

Signed: Andrew Alberts (2 years, $2.5), Kevin Bieksa (5 years, $23), Christopher Higgins (2 years, $3.8), Maxim Lapierre (2 years, $2), Sami Salo (1 year, $2), Marco Sturm (1 year, $2.25).

Lost: Christian Ehrhoff to Buffalo, Tanner Glass to Winnipeg, Raffi Torres to Phoenix.

The good news is that the Canucks avoided overpaying Ehrhoff and actually got some value out of him in the form of a fourth-round pick from the Islanders. The bad news is that they probably overpaid Bieksa, though the five-year deal is more escapable. Despite the disappointment of the Stanley Cup Finals, there’s little to change in this team. Remember that the Bruins lifted the Cup on Vancouver’s ice while Mason Raymond, Mikael Samuelsson and Dan Hamhuis looked on. Raymond will miss the start of 2011-12 in all likelihood, but otherwise, they’ll be full strength. The only real change here is Sturm for Torres and the gamble that the combination of Alberts and Aaron Rome can handle the sixth defenseman job. The Canucks almost can’t help but get a good grade here.

Grade: B+

Anaheim Ducks

Signed: Jean-Francois Jacques (1 year, $.65), Kurtis Foster via trade.

Lost: Andreas Lilja to Philadelphia, Andy Sutton to Edmonton via trade.

There’s nothing going on in the Ducks’ portion of Southern California. They have a mere eight forwards under contract, though among that number is arguable the best first unit in the league. They have almost $15 million left to spend, some of which will go to Dan Sexton in arbitration. A lot of their patience has been in waiting for Teemu Selanne to recover from July 1 knee surgery and decide if he wants to continue his playing career. But for now, all they’ve managed to do is sign a guy on a two-way deal and swap third-pairing defensemen.

Grade: D

Dallas Stars

Signed: Radek Dvorak (1 year, $1.5), Vernon Fiddler (3 years, $5.4), Brad Lukowich (1 year, $1), Adam Pardy (2 years, $4), Michael Ryder (2 years, $7), Sheldon Souray (1 year, $1.65).

Lost: Brad Richards to New York Rangers, Jamie Langenbrunner to St. Louis.

The Stars had resigned themselves to losing Richards, so the blow of his signing with the Rangers isn’t as severe. They’ve decided to replace him with a cast of players. Fiddler is an interesting signing, while they’ll be asking a lot of Ryder. Dvorak is a good, low-cost veteran winger option. The Stars still have $13 million to spend, but already 24 players under NHL contracts. A bit of shuffling may be in the cards if they plan on adding any other pieces.

Grade: C+

Los Angeles Kings

Signed: Simon Gagne (2 years, $7), Mike Richards via trade.

Lost: Michal Handzus to San Jose, Alexi Ponikarovsky to Carolina, Wayne Simmonds to Philadelphia via trade.

The Kings made some big changes in the acquisition of Richards. It gives the young kings an impressive array of centers, and the addition of a powerful winger like Gagne for decent value is an easy augment to the offense for what should be known as “Flyers West”. There remains about $12 million under the cap, must of which will go to the arbitration of Brad Richardson and Alec Martinez, not to mention what should be a big raise from the $3.475 made by RFA Drew Doughty last year. They lose some grit in the exchange of Simmonds and loss of Handzus to San Jose. But otherwise, it could be a good offseason in A) they can get Doughty squared away long-term and B) they can get enough wing production out of Dustin Penner so as to justify not spending on a potential replacement.

Grade: B

Phoenix Coyotes

Signed: Boyd Gordon (2 years, $2.65), Jason LaBarbera (2 years, $2.5), Curtis McElhinney (1 year, $.625), Mike Smith (2 years, $4 million), Raffi Torres (2 years, $3.5), Radim Vrbata (3 years, $9), Keith Yandle (5, $26.25)

Lost: Eric Belanger to Edmonton, Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia, Vernon Fiddler to Dallas, Ed Jovanovski to Florida.

Losing Bryzgalov could’ve taken some steam out of the perpetually cash-strapped Coyotes’ free-agent endeavors. But they responded well by snapping up the best young goalie in Smith, keeping a veteran backup in the fold in LaBarbera and getting a league-tested vet in McElhinney to stow in the minors on a two-way deal, and all that for around $2 million less than Bryzgalov’s new deal. If Smith can develop the way Tampa once expected him to, that could be an excellent pick up. The loss of Jovanovski was expected, but it was remedied by locking up Yandle long-term. This team is better offensively, too, with Vrbata back, Torres in the fold and Gordon added as a potential top-6 forward. They have decisions to make on RFAs Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker and Lauri Korpikoski, which won’t eat too much out of the $18 million remaining under the cap.

Grade: B+

San Jose Sharks

Signed: Michal Handzus (2 years, $5), Jamie McGinn (1 year, $.68), Martin Havlat via trade, Brent Burns via trade, James Vandermeer (1 year, $1)

Lost: Ben Eager to Edmonton, Kent Huskins to St. Louis, Jamal Mayers to Chicago, Scott Nichol to St. Louis, Devin Setoguchi via trade to Minnesota, Ian White to Detroit

It’s clear that the perennially disappointing Sharks needed t o do something big this offseason. They certainly did that, finding a kindred changing soul in Minnesota. In the Heatley trade, they lose some production compared to Havlat, but save $2.5 million per season. The Setoguchi move dumps a guy who was one of their third-liners for a veteran defenseman to help a young but inexperienced defense corps that includes great talents like Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers. Handzus ably replaces Nichol; they may look to retain UFA Kyle Wellwood to replace he scrappy efforts of Mayers and have $6 million left to plug the holes on the third and fourth lines. With Heatley faltering and the team now rid of the, “Why isn’t Heatley producing?” distraction, the Sharks are a better team than when the season ended.

Grade: A-

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