Let’s start with the premise that, with very few exceptions, every team overpaid every player it signed during the first days of the free agent frenzy.
Just wanted to get that out of the way. That, apparently, is the cost of doing business these days. There’s something about July 1 that makes people want to give Derek Boogaard a four-year, $6.6 million contract and Kyle Quincey a 600-percent raise. Colby Armstrong, a 15-goal scorer last year who has averaged 13 goals a season throughout his career, got $3 million a season for three seasons from the Toronto Maple Leafs and the signing is lauded throughout the hockey world. Olli Jokinen, a 15-goal scorer last season who has averaged 23 goals throughout his career, gets $3 million a season for two years from the Calgary Flames and everyone thinks Darryl Sutter has taken leave of his senses.
But that’s what makes all of this so much fun. We all love to quickly pass judgment when it comes to things like free agency. We do the same thing at the trade deadline when we have no idea how the playoffs will turn out and on draft day, fully knowing there will almost certainly be a bust or two among the top 10 and some guy we’ve never heard of drafted 159th will turn into an NHL superstar. And he’ll probably be a Detroit Red Wing.
But in our rush to anoint winners and brand losers when looking back at the first couple of days of free agency in 2010, can we really say that there was one team in the league that actually made itself significantly better? Sure, that was quite a game of musical chairs involving a bunch of really questionable contracts, but were there any real winners?
Well, to hear most pundits, the Vancouver Canucks came out of July 1 with the most to like about their accomplishments. Their signings of Manny Malhotra and Dan Hamhuis, along with the deal to land Keith Ballard at the draft, had most people raving about the work they did.
But are the Canucks really any better with Hamhuis and Ballard and without Willie Mitchell and (likely) Kevin Bieksa? I mean, really? In signing Hamhuis, the Canucks tied up $4.5 million in cap space over the next six years for a player who is a good, solid defenseman, but has established himself as a second-pair rearguard.
So much has been made about how Hamhuis was “stuck” behind Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in Nashville, but what people fail to mention is that Hamhuis was there first and Weber and Suter supplanted him in the top two. Is Hamhuis a quality defenseman? Of course he is, but suddenly expectations for what Hamhuis can accomplish will go way up and he will be the same player he was in Nashville – no better, no worse.
There were five big-name defensemen out there and the Pittsburgh Penguins lost one (Sergei Gonchar) and picked up two (Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin). Of course Martin is younger and has some offensive talent, but are the Penguins actually better without one of the best puckmoving defensemen in the league on the roster? We’ll find out next year when we see what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin accomplish on the power play. Say what you will about Gonchar’s defensive shortcomings – and there were many – but both Crosby and Malkin were far more dangerous when Gonchar had the puck on his stick.
Now Gonchar moves to Ottawa where he’ll almost certainly help a moribund power play and give both Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson a boost. But at the other end, they lost Anton Volchenkov, who played far better defensively than Gonchar ever will and blocked more than 200 shots combined in the regular season and playoffs, many of which will probably find their way to the Ottawa net.
The Devils lost Martin and picked up Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, which will make life easier for Martin Brodeur. But the last time we checked, Colin White and Bryce Salvador weren’t exactly counted among the league’s best puckmovers. It will be interesting to see how Zach Parise and Patrik Elias can take passes in the neutral zone that are coming high off the glass.
At the other end of the spectrum, nobody outside the immediate Sutter family can legitimize what Darryl is doing in Calgary, but if Jokinen somehow returns to the 35-goal form he showed just three years ago in Florida, he will be a huge bargain.
Can that happen? Why not? Will it? Well, let’s just say you probably shouldn’t be looking at Jokinen in the first round of your hockey pool.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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