Faced with an important off-season and a thin group of free agents, Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher decided to go about improving his team the old-fashioned way.
In less than two weeks, he pulled off three separate trades to add forwards Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and Darroll Powe to his lineup while choosing not to spend a dollar in free agency.
“Our plan was to aggressively add as many young assets as we could and to find a way to improve the offensive capabilities of our club going in to next season,” Fletcher said Monday on a conference call. “We put a lot of time and effort into this (and) we’re happy with the moves we’ve made.
“We feel we’re a better organization today, both short term and long term, than we were prior to this off-season.”
There have been a variety of different approaches taken by GMs during a frenzied few weeks of activity around the NHL this off-season. The Canadian Press surveys the winners and losers so far:
Minnesota: The Wild have certainly addressed some of their offensive shortcomings with the additions of Heatley and Setoguchi. They combined for 48 goals a year ago and have shown in the past they’re capable of a much higher output. Heatley, in particular, could be an important addition because he’s coming off the first truly down season of his career and seems intent on making amends for it. On a grander scale, Fletcher’s wheeling and dealing indicates that Minnesota is aggressively trying to reverse its fortunes—an important message from an oft-forgotten franchise.
Washington: A couple canny decisions involving goaltenders have arguably shifted the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. Not only did Caps GM George McPhee land a proven veteran in Tomas Vokoun—at an extremely cap-friendly price tag of US$1.5 million—he also obtained a potential lottery pick from Colorado for unpredictable goalie Semyon Varlamov. With the Avs likely headed for another long season, the 2012 first-rounder they sent Washington will likely be a high selection.
N.Y. Rangers: The addition of Brad Richards doesn’t solve all of New York’s problems, but it drastically improves the outlook for next year. He’ll slot in as the No. 1 centre and should make life a little easier for Marian Gaborik, who is coming off a disappointing season. The Rangers made no secret of the fact they coveted Richards and deserve credit for finding a way to get him to Manhattan, especially with all of the other interest he drew. The veteran centre should thrive after being re-united with coach John Tortorella.
Toronto: A patient approach has served the Maple Leafs braintrust well in recent months. Despite immense pressure to start winning immediately, the Leafs have avoided getting in cap trouble by overspending. The team’s only free-agent signing, Tim Connolly, will strengthen a weak group at centre and arrives on a manageable two-year deal. A trade with Nashville landed 23-year-old defenceman Cody Franson, who joins a solid blue-line that includes Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, John-Michael Liles and Carl Gunnarsson.
Buffalo: They overpaid for defenceman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino, but when was the last time you could say that about the Sabres? Buffalo established itself as an off-season winner simply by making a splash in the free-agent pool. Most importantly, GM Darcy Regier identified a few pieces he wanted to add to an already solid lineup and did what was necessary to get them. New owner Terry Pegula has changed the culture around this team and could be rewarded with a playoff run next spring.
Florida: To be fair, the Panthers were pretty much in a no-win situation. GM Dale Tallon acknowledged as much at the draft when he said the need to spend up to the $48.3-million salary floor would actually make his team worse. Tallon spent wildly—bringing in 10 players via trade or free agency—but that kind of overhaul rarely works, especially since the new bodies are largely complimentary pieces rather than difference-makers. Replacing departed No. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun with Jose Theodore also represents a step back.
Philadelphia: It’s always entertaining in Philadelphia, where GM Paul Holmgren has made a habit of doing things his own way. The culture change that comes with the departure of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter probably won’t be enough to overcome the drop in talent that accompanies it. If nothing else, HBO’s “24/7” series should be even more entertaining now that the cameras will be centred on 39-year-old Jaromir Jagr—back in the NHL after three years in Russia—and new No. 1 goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.
Colorado: After letting both of his goaltenders walk away, GM Greg Sherman is taking a bit of a gamble. He’s banking on the duo of Varlamov and J.S. Giguere making his team much better or else the first-round pick surrendered for Varlamov will look excessive. Otherwise, the only additions have been defenceman Jan Hejda and forward Chuck Kobasew—two consistent veteran players, but not the type that are likely to turn the tide in Denver.
Calgary: A team that missed the playoffs a year ago lost veteran defenceman Robyn Regehr in exchange for nothing more than salary cap flexibility. While that certainly has value in today’s NHL, GM Jay Feaster has yet to put it to use. He tried gamely to land Brad Richards and is under pressure to find a Plan B after falling short. However, there aren’t exactly a ton of options available to him—making it possible that Calgary heads to training camp with a roster no stronger than what it had last season.
Dallas: An uncertain ownership issue has made the job of building a team particularly tough on GM Joe Nieuwendyk, who simply couldn’t come up with the kind of offer needed to keep Richards in the fold. Instead, he’s been left trying to find some bargains with the signings of Michael Ryder, Radek Dvorak, Vernon Fiddler and Sheldon Souray. It’s hard to imagine they’ll be any better in 2011-12.