Day 1 of free agency went with neither a whimper nor a bang; the level of action was somewhere in the middle. And while big names such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco were still out there after the first deluge of signings, some teams did a lot to help their stock next year. Here’s a look at a couple of those franchises, plus some of their more unfortunate brethren.
FREE AGENCY WINNERS
Vancouver: Despite all the pre-July 1 rights moves, Dan Hamhuis will not reside in Pennsylvania next year, much to the chagrin of the Pens and Flyers. In landing Hamhuis, and Keith Ballard by trade beforehand, the Canucks strengthened a defense corps that too often let down the team late last year. The Canucks don’t have one player who’s ‘The Man’ on their blueline, but with Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Alex Edler, there is balance throughout.
Vancouver also brought in specialist center Manny Malhotra, one of the better drawmen in the league. Along with Ryan Kesler, that gives the Canucks two of the best faceoff pivots around and Henrik Sedin’s pretty good in the dot, too. While the Canucks are short on cap space now, they’re flush with top-six forwards, blueliners and goalies. Bringing up Cody Hodgson or Jordan Schroeder would be the final piece of a dangerous squad.
Pittsburgh: When the Pens lost Sergei Gonchar minutes into free agency, GM Ray Shero didn’t panic; he just went to an effective Plan B. In fact, there’s a lot of upside to replacing the veteran Russian D-man with blueliners Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.
Martin brings the puckmoving abilities of Gonchar and does so with a cheaper contract per year. He’s also younger than Gonchar, whose deal in Ottawa can’t come off the books since he’s in the 35-and-over category. Michalek was the Anton Volchenkov of the West as a member of the Coyotes and he’ll bring his shot-blocking defensive game to a team that missed Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi last season.
The Pens are in a bit of a cap crunch right now, but they still employ Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, so, you know, they’ve got that going for them.
New Jersey: For the first time in years, New Jersey’s blueline didn’t get worse in the summer. True, Paul Martin was their biggest name and he’s gone, but in replacing him with two new defensemen, the Devils got strength through numbers. Volchenkov’s shot-blocking will make Martin Brodeur smile, while the ‘A-Train’ can also summon Scott Stevens with his open-ice hits. And Henrik Tallinder is a solid blueliner who can put in good minutes.
Johan Hedberg is a great addition as Brodeur’s backup and the acquisition of Jason Arnott earlier this summer shores up the offense.
FREE AGENCY LOSERS
Buffalo: The Sabres lost two and gained one, which is bad arithmetic for a team that struggles to attract free agent talent. Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman were both top-four blueliners in Buffalo and their replacement, Jordan Leopold, is on his fifth team since 2007-08. He also has a history of injuries, though he has been healthy the past two campaigns, which is a nice sign. The Sabres only have six NHL defenseman under contract right now and that includes youngsters Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler, who will need to step up if the team can’t find any other suitors.
Minnesota: Wild GM Chuck Fletcher has about $3.5 million to play with under the cap and he still needs a backup goalie and at least one more NHL-caliber defenseman. Matt Cullen will help the team’s pop-gun offense (fourth-worst in the West last year), but he alone won’t make the difference, neither will Eric Nystrom, who seems to bring skills Minnesota already had. The health of returnee Pierre-Marc Bouchard is going to be crucial next season.
Nashville: It’s another summer of bleeding for the Preds, who have already lost Dan Hamhuis, Jason Arnott and Dan Ellis. The franchise currently has only four defensemen under contract and as good as those blueliners are, it goes without saying they’ll need some battery mates. Scoring has always been a problem in Nashville and losing Arnott does not help. How much faith do the Preds have in Patric Hornqvist?
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday.
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