While only time will tell which teams significantly helped or hurt their clubs on Day 1 of the 2011 free-agent frenzy, there's more than enough evidence to suggest some teams have already taken big strides forward, or alternatively, signed pacts that they could soon come to regret.
With a thin free-agent class and a significant salary-cap bump, teams could easily be spending a 20 percent premium over true market value on players signed this offseason. With that in mind, the Carolina Hurricanes should be congratulated on re-signing D Joni Pitkanen and LW Chad LaRose at reasonable prices while signing LW Jussi Jokinen at what works out to be a hometown discount at three years, $9 million.
In addition to being the league's career leader in shootout goals, the 28-year-old Jokinen contributes well on the power play, plays a surprisingly good possession game and scores at a legit top-six rate at even strength. He's certainly much more valuable than RW Tomas Kopecky, who was signed by Florida for the same cap hit.
Additionally, GM Jim Rutherford quietly picked up what could be a couple of diamonds in the rough. Only two seasons ago, Alexei Ponikarovsky was one of the better even-strength players in the NHL with the Leafs, before flopping in Pittsburgh and then in Los Angeles. So $1.5 million seems like a nice bet to take on a comeback.
An even better acquisition may be faceoff specialist Tim Brent, who scored 20 points while playing limited minutes for the Leafs. Advanced metrics suggest that the 27-year-old pivot may be one of the best couple of faceoff men in the NHL.
The 29 other NHL teams can officially watch out for the Chicago Blackhawks, because they only needed to take one step backward before rising again as a top Stanley Cup contender for 2011-12 and beyond.
GM Stan Bowman made all of the right moves last offseason to retain his championship core, while getting out of former GM Dale Tallon's cap hell. Not only did he parlay those moves into picks and prospects to build version 2.0 of the Hawks' championship roster, but he's continued the quick and efficient retool this offseason -- getting out of defenseman Brian Campbell's bloated contract was the Houdini act of the summer.
LW Andrew Brunette may be getting long in the tooth, but the 37-year-old former Minnesota Wild winger can be a more than capable third-line and second-power-play-unit contributor. Signed at only $2 million for next season, he'll provide excellent veteran leadership, as well. Underrated D Steve Montador, coming off a fine year with the Sabres, is a solid addition to fill Campbell's vacated role. And look for a bounce-back from ex-Flyers LW Daniel Carcillo, who drew a staggering 3.0 penalties per 60 minutes of even-strength ice time in 2009-10.
New York Islanders
Islanders GM Garth Snow made the right move in looking to upgrade at third-line center over C Zenon Konopka, who despite the league's fourth-best faceoff percentage (57.7 percent) was really a fourth-liner pressed into a checking-line role. While C Marty Reasoner is likewise one of the NHL's best in the faceoff circle (54.5 percent, and better by advanced metrics), the 34-year-old veteran provides an all-around game. Signing at a reasonable two years, $2.7 million, the journeyman is an instant upgrade for the Islanders' bottom six, and an incremental improvement for a young, talented team that's set to compete for a playoff berth next season.
There are many ways to get to the salary floor, and this is one of them. Trade for Brian Campbell's enormous contract (that GM Dale Tallon signed in the first place, in Chicago), overpay LW Tomas Fleischmann -- coming off a medical condition that may have scared off other bidders -- and throw money at rapidly declining, 34-year-old D Ed Jovanovski, whose deal may already look bad in 2011-12, let alone four seasons down the line.
Yet sometimes the worst deals are the ones that are never made. It's a mystery why the Panthers never dealt elite goaltender Tomas Vokoun at any point over the past two seasons, instead choosing to likely lose him for nothing in free agency. And if Vokoun -- one of the best couple of NHL netminders since the lockout -- in fact doesn't re-sign with Florida, the Panthers can improve at every other position and still likely finish lower in the standings due to the magnitude of his loss.
In what world was D Jan Hejda worth $3.2 million per year? Scoring 20 points in 2010-11 entitled the 33-year-old former Columbus rearguard to an unexplained salary bump of four years, $13 million, courtesy of the Avs. Paying RW Chuck Kobasew even a modest two years, $2.5 million was another head-scratcher. The 29-year-old former first-rounder is several years removed from scoring 0.62 points per game -- in fact, he hasn't scored at even half that rate the past two seasons. These signings are no more than roster filler.
But Colorado's worst move may have been trading what are potentially high first- and second-round draft picks to the Capitals for surplus netminder Semyon Varlamov. It's not that the 23-year-old Russian isn't talented, but the surprising cost given Washington's bargaining position. That, and the fact the move wouldn't have been necessary if the Avs hadn't been beaten, hands down, in the Craig Anderson for Brian Elliott deal with Ottawa last season.
There's no doubt that under the new ownership of Terry Pegula, the Buffalo Sabres have been mandated to win, and by extension, to spend. GM Darcy Regier took on RW Ales Kotalik's salary to bring in shutdown defenseman Robyn Regehr at the draft, and has now further augmented the Sabres' blue line with the addition of ex-Canucks D Christian Ehrhoff, one of the better offensive defensemen in the NHL. Now remade since losing D Henrik Tallinder and D Toni Lydman last offseason, Buffalo's top four of Ehrhoff, Regehr, Tyler Myers and Jordan Leopold may possibly be the best in the NHL. But it took 10 years and $40 million to land Ehrhoff.
That's a defendable contract, but the six years, $27 million gifted to mercurial LW Ville Leino doesn't seem to be. At his best, Leino's a shifty skater and great finisher. At his worst, he's a player the Detroit Red Wings gave up on two seasons ago, only to be picked up off the scrap heap by the Flyers. Sabres fans had better hope that the 27-year-old Finn has found himself for good, otherwise they'll find themselves reminiscing over Tim Connolly's seemingly minor underachievements.
Getting two high draft picks for G Semyon Varlamov may have been a steal. And signing 35-year-old faceoff whiz C Jeff Halpern for less than $1 million was likely a coup. But betting two years, $7 million on continued production from 37-year-old D Roman Hamrlik? And tossing four years, $12 million to checking-line winger Joel Ward, on the basis of scoring 13 points in 12 playoff games? Don't expect that kind of "breakout" from a 30-year-old with 40 career NHL goals.
But really, the biggest question with the Washington Capitals is how this team is going to be much different in character or results than the previous iterations. The head coach and the core remain the same. A few role players are unlikely to make a significant difference in next season's end result.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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