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Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe gets high grade for busy few days

Kevin Lowe got burned last year when Michael Nylander turned his back on a verbal commitment to Edmonton and a number of other unrestricted free agents thumbed their nose to the Oilers.

It's only one day into this year's free-agency period and the Oilers GM is already a big winner. And he didn't have to sign a player.

Lowe's three big trades this week should be such a boost to a young and upcoming club that we believe his Oilers are possibly playoff-bound next season. And they may not be done.

It's believed Edmonton has made a heavy pitch for unrestricted free-agent winger Marian Hossa, although there was no shortage of interest there Tuesday as the floodgates opened on free agency. Hossa had still not made his mind on his destination of choice.

The Oilers added a top-notch offensive blue-liner in Lubomir Visnovsky on Sunday before acquiring a potential star in centre Gilbert Brule and and a proven scorer in Erik Cole on Tuesday.

Going out the door were a pair of underachieving forwards in Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres and a hugely disappointing defenceman in Joni Pitkanen. They will probably miss defenceman Matt Greene, but it may prove to be worth it.

Picture a power play next season that could include Visnovsky and Souray on the points and Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Cole up front.

While the Oilers were making trades, the rest of the league was shelling out major, major cash.

The obvious lack of depth among top quality unrestricted free agents was evident Tuesday with teams overpaying to get their man:

-The Chicago Blackhawks won the Brian Campbell sweeptakes, dishing out $57.12 million over eight years for the offensive blue-liner. It's believed the Atlanta Thrashers offered $60 million over eight years but the 29-year-old Campbell chose the Windy City, where he'll be trying to hit young forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane with outlet passes.

We think the Hawks overpaid a little for Campbell but they didn't have a choice given the competing bids. Campbell will look terrific with a young team.

-The New York Rangers shelled out $39 million over six years for defenceman Wade Redden. This is a massive coup for Redden, who got the same $6.5-million salary despite a so-called "off-year" in Ottawa last season.

-The Rangers also kept Michal Roszival for $20 million over four years.

-The New York Islanders gave defenceman Mark Streit $20.5 million over five years.

That's big coin for defencemen - much more than most had envisioned.

And then there's forward Brian Rolston. The Tampa Bay Lightning had courted him hard on Monday with a three-year deal worth $4.5 million a year, but Rolston and agent Stephen Bartlett resisted and decided to enter the market. And they cashed in to a tune of $20 million over four years from the New Jersey Devils - $5 million a year.

Hossa remained dangling out there Tuesday night with Edmonton, Detroit, Boston, Montreal and Pittsburgh believed to be in the mix.

The two highest-profile goalies on the market quickly made their choices.

Jose Theodore and Cristobal Huet decided to enter free agency despite immense interest from their former teams. Both made excellent choices. After turning down what was believed to be $3 million a year from Colorado, Theodore got $4.5 million a year in a two-year deal with Washington. Great contract. The Capitals needed a goalie after Huet declined what was believed to be close to $5 million a year over three seasons.

Again, great decision. Huet got $22.5 million over four years from Chicago, a huge deal.

It also makes you wonder about Nikolai Khabibulin's future with the Blackhawks. He has one year left at $6.75 million. That's a $12.375-million salary cap hit in goal for the Hawks next season unless GM Dale Tallon can move Khabibulin.

Colorado lost out in the goalie shuffle, replacing Theodore with Toronto Maple Leafs castoff Andrew Raycroft, who will battle Peter Budaj for the No. 1 job next season. The Avs can't be thrilled with their goaltending right now.

Speaking of Toronto castoffs, we like Colorado's $4.5-million, two-year signing of Darcy Tucker. He's going to bounce back with a big year.

New Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis grabbed a bit of the spotlight Tuesday, offering unrestricted free-agent centre Mats Sundin a whopping $20-million, two-year deal and slapping down the first offer sheet of the season on a restricted free agent. The St. Louis Blues didn't wait long, immediately announcing they were matching the $7.5-million, three-year offer to forward David Backes.

We give Gillis points for making a couple of gutsy gambles, but we know it didn't make him popular with his colleagues around the league.

The Maple Leafs get kudos for bringing back Curtis Joseph to backup Vesa Toskala and finish his career with the team that matters most to him. But Toronto's $14-million, four-year deal with defenceman Jeff Finger is somewhat of a head scratcher.

That's a lot of money for a guy who has played 94 NHL games.



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