Friday May 9th, 2008

The news that Fabian Brunnstrom officially has signed with Dallas had to bring some solace to Stars fans still stinging from their Game 1 loss to Detroit.

Despite their recent run of success on the ice, no team needed to seal this deal more than the Stars. Having divested themselves of their first round picks in 2007 and 2008 through a pair of ill-advised deals that led, in part, to the firing of GM Doug Armstrong, Dallas desperately needed an infusion of high-end talent.

The late-blooming free agent was hotly pursued by as many as 15 teams, all of whom coveted his blend of size, speed, work ethic and offensive flair that had scouts evoking the names of Daniel Alfredsson and Tomas Holmstrom. But what makes Brunnstrom most appealing is that, at 23, he can be penciled into the lineup next season, not three or four years down the road. And even at the entry-level max, it's a bargain price for a wingman for Brad Richards, who deserves better than what he's been saddled with since joining the team.

Here are five other recent signings you might have missed whose impact could be felt next season.

Sabres sign forward Nathan Gerbe

In the new NHL, nobody can be ruled out simply based on size, but when a guy is just 5-5, he cuts it pretty close.

You have to be a pretty special player even to get a sniff at that height, but Gerbe, a fifth round selection of the Sabres in 2005, looks to be pretty special.

Playing for national champion Boston College, Gerbe led the nation in scoring (35-33-68 in 43 games) and was MVP of the Frozen Four. He's gifted with the puck, but his speed sets him apart from other mighty mites. The Hobey Baker finalist isn't just swift on his feet- -- he has the ability to think the game quickly, to exploit the holes that open for just a moment.

The decision to forego his senior season of college shows commitment both from him and the Sabres, who'll pay Gerbe the rookie max in a three-year deal potentially worth $2.55 million. Buffalo has room up front for someone with his creativity and touch, so while it wouldn't surprise if he started next season in the AHL, he should get a long look at some point in 2008-09.

Blackhawks sign goaltender Antti Niemi

Experienced Euro goalies have been all the rage the past few years, but will the 24-year-old Niemi develop into the next Nicklas Backstrom...or the next Juusso Riksman? Niemi, who stands 6-foot-4, caught the attention of several teams hoping to boost their depth (and height, apparently) in net when he went 26-6-14 with a 2.35 GAA and .927 save percentage in 49 games with the Pelicans of Finland's SM Liiga. His addition could signal that GM Dale Tallon will look to shop veteran Nikolai Khabibulin at the draft, but more likely means that Patrick Lalime will not be re-signed as his backup. That will leave Niemi and Corey Crawford to compete for the role in 2008-09. Both could then be in place when Khabibulin's contract expires after next season.

Rangers sign goaltender Miika Wiikman

Inked to an AHL contract by the Hartford Wolf Pack prior to last season, the 23-year-old free agent outplayed Al Montoya to such an extent that the Rangers moved the former first rounder at the trade deadline, in part to prove their commitment to Wikman. It was a gamble, given that he was free to sign with any NHL club, but he chose to stay with the team that gave him his chance.

The Finn earned their faith with a 21-8-3 record, a 2.30 GAA and a .919 save percentage. He's now No. 2 behind Henrik Lundqvist in the pecking order, which means he could stay in Hartford one more year to continue his development, or suit up as the understudy on Broadway. It also likely signals the end of David LeNeveu's short affiliation with the franchise. The former Coyote, a pending UFA acquired in the Montoya deal, could be retained for Hartford, but he'll probably pursue options elsewhere.

Bruins sign goaltender Kevin Regan

They don't yet have the enviable reputations of their counterparts in New Jersey and Detroit, but the scouting staff in Boston has done an exceptional job clawing value out of mid-round picks. Regan, a little-known high schooler when the Bruins snatched him 277th overall in 2003, has matured into an outstanding prospect after four seasons at the University of New Hampshire.

The Hockey East Player of the Year is now No. 4 on the Bruins' depth chart, but that situation could be fluid. Boston is likely to go into next season with Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez as their tandem, but either could be moved if another team runs into injury problems, giving Regan or Tuukka Rask the chance to see some early NHL action. Though Regan is still unproven, there are some scouts who think his aggressive style will make him more successful in the NHL than first-rounder Rask, an athletic stopper who tends to play deep in the net.

Oilers sign defenseman Tom Gilbert

You think the Dustin Penner deal got the name of Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe scratched from a few Christmas card lists? This one isn't as much of an eye-catcher since Gilbert was teh Oilers' property, but the six-year, $24 million pay-for-potential agreement sent shockwaves through the league just the same.

It was a stunning offer for a defensively shaky player with just 94 games on his resume, even if he did score 33 points and block 159 shots as a rookie. Gilbert had no leverage, yet now his contract is out there as a comparable for other RFA and UFA defensemen like Wade Redden, Ron Hainsey, John-Michael Liles and Michal Rozsival to use this summer. Little wonder it ticked off rival GMs. And that doesn't even consider the damage it does to the Oilers themselves, who have to get RFA Joni Pitkanen under contract this summer.

Allan Muir is the senior editor of Beckett Hockey magazine and serves as the NHL's official scorer for Dallas Stars home games.

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