Today we continue our grading of early off-season moves. Washington tops the class in the Southeast, while in the Central Nashville wears the dunce cap.
Washington Capitals – A
It’s arguable that George McPhee had the best weekend of any NHL GM. He flipped disgruntled goaltender Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for first and second round round draft picks in 2012. That is an incredible return for a goalie who has only played 57 games in the NHL thus far, particularly since the Avs first rounder figures to be in or near the top-10 next June. McPhee then signed Tomas Vokoun for what may turn out to be the bargain contract of the summer: $1.5 million for one season. Vokoun is older at 35-years old, but has been one of the best puck stoppers in the league over the last decade or so.
On top of all that, McPhee retained Brooks Laich for six years at $4.5 million per year. The contract isn’t a huge bargain, but Laich is an effective top-forward who can play center or wing and out-shoot his opponents. He has scored 48, 59 and 53 points in each of his last three seasons and is 28-years old. The Capitals also added tough minutes forward Joel Ward for $3 million per year over four years. Ward’s offensive numbers aren’t impressive, but he has spetn the last several years in Nashville on the wing of avid Legwand, taking the very best opposition night-in, night-out. He is a capable and established checking winger who can face anyone and keep his head above water.
Former Habs Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern were also added at $3.5 million over two years and $825,000 for one season respectively. Hamrlik is getting on in years, but was a steady top-four option during his time in Montreal. Halpern is the sort of veteran center who can be deployed more often in the defensive end and be counted on to win a lot of face-offs. His zone start ratio for the habs last year was just 43.3%, but his face-off win rate was 56.9%. An effective, but cheap, bottom-six forward.
Tampa Bay Lightning – C -
Aside from locking up 41-year old Dwayne Roloson for one year at $3 million and inking his former back-up from Edmonton Mathieu Garon, the Lightning have been mostly quiet in the UFA market so far. Steve Yzerman lost Simon Gagne, Randy Jones and Sean Bergenheim to free agency – all useful players that the club will probably have trouble replacing given how shallow the pool of remaining UFA’s is now. Tampa did take a chance on failed experiment Matt Gilroy by inking him to a cheap, one-year deal, but there’s little chance he is anything more than a marginal third-pairing defender at this point. No blueliner was more sheltered than Gilroy in New York last year and he didn’t do much with his ultra-soft minutes. He still has the strong physical tools that made him a star undrafted free agent coming out of college, but the time is rapidly running out for him to prove he can put them together at the NHL level.
Of course, Yzerman’s primary focus is retaining enough budgetary space to re-sign RFA Steven Stamkos, who is likely looking for a pricey, long-term commitment. Unfortunately, the rest of the team has taken a marginal step or two back while he has wrestled with the Stamkos negotiations.
Carolina Hurricanes – B
The Hurricanes made a number of under the radar moves. They managed to retain Joni Pitkanen for $4.5 million per year for the next three years, which is a decent rate given some of the contracts we’ve seen this weekend and the fact the Pitkanen is probably the best all-around defender for the Hurricanes. Jim Rutherford also retained Jussi Jokinen for $3 millon per season over the next three seasons. Jokinen has grown into an effective top-six option for the Hurricanes since leaving Dallas, so that contract is a good bet to provide value.
Carolina also added depth forwards Tim Brent, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart. Brent is a hard working fourth-liner type who probably shouldn’t venture beyond that role. Ponikarovsky is a former 20+ goal scorer who struggled in Los Angeles last year, partially because the Kings stuck him on a line with Michal Hanzus and made the pair face the big guns. He also suffered from a couple of injuries and a shooting percentage of just 5.3%. He’s never going to lead a team in scoring, but there’s a good chance he’ll rebound to some degree. At just $1.5 million for one year, he’s a decent gamble.
Finally, Anthony Stewart is a former first round pick who has never been able to really find his way at the NHL level. He’s huge at 6’2″ and 240 pounds and did manage 39 points for the Thrashers last year, so he’s not a total lost cause. That said, his ceiling is probably that of a third-line left wing. At $900,000 per year over two years, he’s also a low-risk type move.
Winnipeg Jets – D -
As excited as everyone in Winnipeg is about the return of the Jets, there hasn’t been much to be excited about in their early forays in the UFA market. Kevin Chevaldayoff’s best signing so far has been middle-tier defender Randy Jones at $1.15 million for next year. Otherwise the organization has busied itself collecting marginal players and goons in tweener Derek Meech, tough guy Tanner Glass and pugilist Rick Rypien. Meech played the entire 2010-11 season in the AHL, Glass can’t face anyone but forth liners and Rypien isn’t useful unless he’s punching somebody. The latter was famously suspended last season for assaulting a fan and eventually placed on “personal leave” by the Canucks.
The Jets have a decent enough nucleus to build around, but the team still finished 10th in the Eastern conference last year. They’re going to need a lot more than tough guys and depth defenders if they want to take a step forward this coming season.
Florida Panthers – C -
Everyone knew Dale Tallon had a ton of cap space to spend heading into the long weekend. And spend it he did, inking no less than seven players including Tomas Kopecky ($3 million/year for four years), Jose Theodore ($1.5 million/year over two years), Scottie Upshall ($3.5 million/year over four years), Ed Jovanovski ($4.125 million/year over four years), Tomas Fleischmann ($4.5 million/year over four years), Sean Bergenheim ($2.75 million/year over four years) and Marcel Goc ($1.7 million/year over three years).
As Gabriel Desjardins points out here, Tallon invested a lot of money in relatively long-term deals for a number of just okay players. It probably would have made more sense for Florida to accept one or two salary dumps with only a year left on their contracts that sign, say, mushy-headed Tomas Fleischmann long-term at a price that is probably at the very top-end of his market value. Like Sabres in the Kotalik/Regehr deal, Tallon likely could have convinced a team or two to throw in a draft pick or future asset for the privilege of dumping a bad contract as well.
Perhaps the most surprising contract out of the bunch is the dollars and term surrendered to Tomas Kopecky. A third/fourth line player for most of his career, Kopecky’s 42 points for Chicago last season were a career high and came mostly because of the Blackhawks lack of other options on the wing. He will turn 30 in February and has never crested 15 goals in the NHL, nor has he ever been a defensive, shut-down specialist. Too much for too long for a completely average player.
Detroit Red Wings – C
Aside from re-singing fourth liner Drew Miller, Ken Holland spent his weekend collection defensive depth by signing Mike Commodore, Ian White and Jonathan Ericsson. Commodore and White were both had for relatively good deals ($1 million for one year and $5.75 million over two years total), but the Ericsson price-tag raised a few eyebrows: $3.25 million per year for three years. Ericsson has never been much more than a third pairing option for Detroit, although last season his even strength ice time jumped to more than 17 minutes per night. He faced middle-tier opposition and didn’t get beat up, so perhaps Holland and company figure he’s finally ready to take a firm step up the depth chart now that Rafalski has retired. It remains odd, however, that a guy who scored 13 and 15 points over his last two seasons on a juggernaut like the Red Wings could command north of $3 million per season.
Nasvhille Predators – F
One of the few teams to sit things out entirely, the Predators did little more than bleed talent this weekend. Joel Ward and Steve Sullivan fled to Washington and Pittsburgh while Marcel Goc signed in Florida. On top of those losses, it was announced today that David Poile traded Matthew Lombardi and Cody Franson to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Brett Ledba and Robert Slaney. The Preds rid themselves of some salary/cap commitments, but lose and useful young defender in Franson who was both cheap and starting to come into his own, and acquire next to useless players in Ledba and Slaney.
The club also bought out disgruntled former leading score JP Dumont. All told, the Predators decimated much of their depth and have thus far done nothing to replenish it.
Chicago Blackhawks – B -
Although Stan Bowman has made a number of low-level moves such as signing Andrew Brunette, Sean O’Donnell and Steve Montador, no doubt the biggest win for the Blackhawks so far this summer is dumping Brian Campbell’s albatross contract on the Florida Panthers. With more than $7 million in cap space freed up, Bowman was afforded a bit more wiggle room to pursue players this off-season.
His signings have been of a mixed bag so far. Montador and Brunette are strong depth players at their positions, although the $2.75 million per season over four years seems a bit steep for Montador. Chicago also inked tough guys Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo, neither of whom were of much use to their respective clubs last year. Mayers is a fourth-line grinder at best at this point in his career and he frequently gets out-shot and out-chanced despite rarely stepping outside of the role. Carcillo remains a wildcard on the ice and was limited to just four goals and six points in Philadelphia last year. His season for the Flyers was so underwhelming, they didn’t bother to tend a qualifying offer to the RFA.
Neither Mayers nor Carcillo will cost the Hawks much to have in the line-up ($550,000 and $775,000 respectively), but they aren’t going to add much either outside of some grit and penalty minutes.
St. Louis Blues – C+
Nothing big to talk about when it comes to the Blues so far. Doug Armstrong re-signed RFA Matt D’Agostini to a two year, $1.15 million per year deal which is good value for the 40+ point-getter. He also inked mediocre back-up Brian Elliot to a cheap two-year deal and depth defenseman Kent Huskins for $1 million for next season. Not a lot to like or dislike out of St. Louis yet.
Columbus Blue Jackets – D
The only signing of note made by Scott Howson so far has been the ridiculous James Wisniewski contract ($33 million over five years). A decent but not great middle-rotation, offensive defenseman, Wisniewski had only ever tallied 30+ points once before his high-water mark of 52 for the Islanders and Habs last year.
The Blue Jackets have been desperate for a power-play quarterback for years, but it seems their desperation drove them to grossly overcompensate Wisniewski in their bid to finally fill that hole (sound familiar, Philadelphia fans?). There’s little doubt the franchise will regret the Wisniewski blunder down the road, possibly as early as the coming season.
While Howson was busy fulfilling Wisniewski’s agent’s wildest dreams, the Blue Jackets lost a number of players to the free agent market, including Jan Hedja, Scottie Upshall and Mathieu Garon. It’s been an expensive off-season for the BJ’s with the Carter acquisition and Wisniewski signing, so they may be nearing their internal budget ceiling. We’ll see if they pricey gambits pay off in 2011-12.