NHL

Free-agency winners and losers

The Hockey News Rory Boylen
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Everyone is going to have their own opinions on what happened in the first week of free agency, but, for the most part, the fans of the teams on the receiving end of players are feeling more optimistic today than one week ago.

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The Panthers paid to get up to the cap floor and the Flyers completely overhauled their roster, but both teams changed so much no one can really determine the effect it will have or how the team will come together. For that reason, I’m leaving Philadelphia and Florida out of this column.

Like it or not, here’s my opinion on the free-agency winners and losers thus far:

 

WINNERS

 

Washington Capitals

The only contract I wasn’t a fan of was the $3 million per season for Joel Ward, but the Capitals needed more grit and character and were willing to pony up for it.

The biggest steal, of course, was the one-year, $1.5-million contract inked with Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun has the best save percentage in the NHL since the lockout and although he hasn't done anything in the playoffs, he's more than worth the risk for the Caps. Washington netted a good return for Semyon Varlamov (more on that later) and the Roman Hamrlik addition will help the power play's second unit. Even if you think the cap hit is a bit much, the term is too short to have any real negative impact.

Chicago Blackhawks

Sometimes it's good to not have any cap room. That way you're saving yourself from, well, yourself. The 'Hawks made a shrewd addition in Andrew Brunette for some complementary scoring. He's on the back nine of his career, but in Chicago’s lineup Brunette is a prime candidate to reach 20 goals and 50 points (which would have been top five in Chicago scoring last season) as the team’s 12th-highest paid player.

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This is in addition to the $850,000 being paid to Sean O’Donnell to provide some veteran dependability in a depth role along the blueline for a year. O’Donnell was sixth among Flyers D-men in average ice time last year (with a plus-8 rating) and will play a similar role in Chicago. Signing Steve Montador for four years at $2.75 million per is the only real question mark.

Colorado Avalanche

OK, first of all, it’s ridiculous to already make the assumption the Avalanche lost the trade with the Capitals. If the Avalanche finish second-last in the NHL again that changes everything. If they improve as expected it’s really not bad. If they make the playoffs it’s great.

They gave up a first- and second-round pick, but who cares? Most people get their back up when a first-round asset is traded away as if that pick is a placeholder for the next face of the franchise. Let’s get this straight: Varlamov had a 2.23 GAA and .924 SP last year, which are both pretty impressive.

A first- and conditional second-round pick shouldn’t automatically step in the way of your team acquiring a 23-year-old goalie with a ton of promise (who then signed for a friendly $2.83 million cap hit for three seasons), especially when you didn’t have a goalie to begin with. This is a known and impressive talent for two unknown commodities — let’s stop going hog wild over any and all mentions of a draft pick and overrate them against legitimate NHLers with low cap hits.

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But I digress. The Avs not only filled their greatest need in the blue ice, but they also beefed up along the blueline with defensive specialist Jan Hejda. It was perhaps a bit of an overpayment (as most things are during the silly season), but Hejda will give them one constant very big man for the next four years as smaller puck-movers such as Kyle Cumiskey and Tyson Barrie start earning some playing time.

 

LOSERS

 

Los Angeles Kings

A year after missing out on Ilya Kovalchuk, the Kings were once more passed over by the season’s biggest free agent. That may be a good thing, given the immense dollars and nonsense invested in the deals, but the fact remains the on-the-cusp Kings had to settle yet again.

Simon Gagne was a very good player until injuries and concussions slowed him down and he would have been a good pickup for a team if they could have got him for a reclamation player’s contract, but a $3.5 million cap hit for two years is too high for my taste. If being in Philadelphia and Tampa Bay didn’t help get him on track, what is to suggest LA will be different? This deal will also handcuff any other big splashes the Kings try to make this season and next summer.

Buffalo Sabres

If Sabres management thinks Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff are pieces that will put the team over the top then they were good moves to make. But I still have to be convinced of both of those decisions.

Ten years for Ehrhoff? To me, those extreme long-term deals are for your star players and, as much as I like Ehrhoff, I wouldn’t commit $4 million of my cap space to him even five years from now. And Leino at $4.5 million for six years? The guy hasn’t scored 20 goals in a season and will go from bit player to big player overnight. I’m not saying these deals will burn the Sabres for next season (Robyn Regehr was an excellent add for a team looking for immediate improvement), but I’m more concerned for a few years down the road.

Montreal Canadiens

The last time Erik Cole left Carolina was in a trade to Edmonton and his season with them was so bad they traded him back to Carolina before it was even over. Now, he did have a strong 52-point season with Carolina in 2010-11, but $4.5 million for four years seems excessive. Has he found his game again or did he just enjoy playing with Eric Staal? You choose.

The Habs also lost two of their defensemen to the market (Hamrlik, James Wisniewski) and settled on Peter Budaj for their backup goaltending position. The decision alone to sign Budaj was bad, but I’m shocked they had to give him more than $1 million.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His blog appears regularly only on THN.com.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

Tagged: Sabres, Kings, Canadiens, Flyers, Avalanche, Canucks, Capitals, Panthers, Wild, Christian Ehrhoff

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