Some risky moves as free agency opens

The NHL unrestricted free agent (UFA) market opened on July 1 and while it lacks depth and thus hasn’t been as busy in the opening days compared to previous summers, there’s already been several noteworthy signings.

Ottawa Senators — Sergei Gonchar. The Senators lacked a skilled puck-moving defenseman since losing Zdeno Chara to free agency four years ago. Gonchar, who had 50 points in 62 games last season (the eighth time in his career he’s reached 50 or more points), should be a good fit there. But he does come with some concerns, one being his age (36), the other his recent injury history (he’s missed 77 games the last two seasons), making his three-year, $5.5 million per season contract a bit of a risk.

Pittsburgh Penguins — Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. Less than two hours after losing Gonchar to free agency, Penguins GM Ray Shero landed two quality defensemen in Martin (5 years, $25 million) and Michalek (five years, $20 million). They won’t fully replace Gonchar’s offense but are better all-round blueliners who should make the Penguins a tougher team to score against. Unfortunately, these moves leave Shero little remaining cap space (just over $2 million) to bring in badly needed scoring depth on their wings.

Vancouver Canucks — Dan Hamhuis. Canucks GM Mike Gillis landed a quality all-round blueliner in Hamhuis and for a price (six years, $4.5 million per season) that doesn’t break the bank. The 27-year-old Hamhuis will make a quality replacement for departed defenseman Willie Mitchell and further bolsters the Canucks blueline depth. This signing, however, leaves Gillis with a glut of defensemen and has led to speculation he could shop one of them, perhaps Kevin Bieksa.

New Jersey Devils — Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder and Johan Hedberg. Over the past two years there were concerns regarding the depth of the Devils blueline corps and lack of a quality backup for aging goaltender Martin Brodeur. GM Lou Lamoriello swiftly addressed those needs on the afternoon of July 1. Volchenkov (six years, $4.25 million per season) is ranked amongst the league’s top shot-blockers and shut-down defensemen, while Tallinder (four years, $3.375 million per) is a steady, reliable blueline veteran. Hedberg (one year, $1.5 million) has years of experience as a backup goaltender and will be capable of spelling Brodeur for perhaps 25-30 games next season.

Nashville Predators — Matthew Lombardi. After trading away Jason Arnott last month to the New Jersey Devils, Predators GM David Poile needed an affordable first line center. Despite his limited budget Poile was able to sign Lombardi, a swift, play-making center, to an affordable three-year, $3.5 million per season contract. The 28-year-old Lombardi had a career year in points (53) last season with the Coyotes and it’s expected he’ll build on that with the Predators.

Tampa Bay Lightning — Pavel Kubina and Dan Ellis. When Lightning GM Steve Yzerman shipped out defenseman Andrej Meszaros and his $4 million per season contract to Philadelphia, it was seen as a move to clear cap space for new additions. Sure enough, Yzerman inked goaltender Dan Ellis to an affordable two-year, $3 million contract, followed by bringing back former Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina for two years at $7.7 million. Ellis provides valuable depth between the pipes while Kubina is an upgrade at a better price over Meszaros.

Calgary Flames — Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay. Flames GM Darryl Sutter desperately needed to bolster his offensive depth but lacked sufficient cap space to chase expensive talent and lacked sufficient bargaining chips to go the trade route. He opted instead to bring back Tanguay — who’d been run out of Calgary two years ago by former coach Mike Keenan — and Jokinen, who was shipped to the New York Rangers midway through last season in a desperate, failed move to add more scoring punch. They’re the most puzzling signings of the summer so far. If the pair can regain their offensive touch it’ll improve the Flames playoffs hopes next season. If not, they’ll be cited as the main reasons Sutter loses his job.

Phoenix Coyotes — Ray Whitney. At first glance it would seem like madness to offer up a two-year, $6 million contract to a 38-year-old winger, but Whitney is a unique case. With 58 points in 80 games last season, Whitney remains a significant offensive contributor. His experience and leadership paid immeasurable dividends in the development of Hurricanes forwards Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter, and his presence could be invaluable to the young Coyotes forwards.

San Jose Sharks — Antero Niittymaki. When Sharks GM Doug Wilson allowed long-time starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov to depart via free agency, it was expected he’d either bid for free agents like Marty Turco or Chris Mason or perhaps trade for an established goalie. Wilson instead surprised many by signing Niittymaki, a once-promising goalie whose career progression has been hampered by injuries. Niittymaki posted decent numbers last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he’s yet to prove himself a starting NHL goalie and has limited playoff experience. It’s a gamble on Wilson’s part, though at $2 million per season for two years an affordable one.

New York Rangers — Derek Boogaard. The Rangers inking enforcer Boogaard to a four-year deal was arguably the most mocked deal of the opening days of the UFA market. It’s understandable why Rangers GM Glen Sather signed Boogaard, one of the most feared fighters in the game, as he wanted to bring more toughness to his roster. It was the deal — four years, $6.5 million — which evoked the derision of pundits, bloggers and fans alike. That’s a lot of money for a brawler who averages about 8 minutes of ice time per game.