Tuesday July 7th, 2009

With the free-agent frenzy slowly starting to assume room temperature after a robust week, there is no clear-cut answer to the obvious question of which NHL team improved itself most markedly in what is akin to a zero-sum game in a league that has capped salaries since the owners lockout of 2005.

There is a sense that the past week has been Shakespearian in scope, full of sound and fury and not signifying a whole lot.

The best guess about the big winner might be the Toronto Maple Leafs, which landed Swedish goalie Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson and signed a pair of top two, or at least top four, defensemen in François Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek. Depending on what general manager Brian Burke now can get for eminently tradable defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who is now excess baggage on a suddenly crowded blueline, the Maple Leafs look like they have made genuine strides. But Toronto still has among the weakest group of forwards in the NHL and seems at least another year away from making the playoffs. Hold your applause until the end.

Or you might be inclined to say the Chicago Blackhawks, who essentially subbed in Marian Hossa for Martin Havlat (who, in effect, became Marian Gaborik by signing in Minnesota in this merry roundelay) and added Tomas Kopecky. By stripping division rival Detroit of a 40-goal scorer and another useful forward in Kopecky, Chicago has dented the Red Wings. But goalie Nikolai Khabibulin wandered off to Edmonton in pursuit of the last dollar, as he always does, leaving GM Dale Tallon with Cristobal Huet as his No. 1. Good luck with that.

If an arbitrator liberates Kris Versteeg because of a procedural gaffe over his qualifying offer, Chicago will not look appreciably closer to the Stanley Cup even if the Red Wings do look a step further away.

You could argue that the Los Angeles Kings, who signed defenseman Rob Scuderi and traded with Colorado for winger Ryan Smyth had a terrific week, but in dumping the fading Smyth's contract and signing a No. 1 goalie in Craig Anderson at a reasonable number, the Avalanche might have had an even better one.

Calgary signed defenseman Jay Bouwmeester but lost winger Mike Cammalleri, a nominal win although the Flames are subtracting 39 goals up front.

If Gaborik is healthy, the New York Rangers might have "won" free agency because the lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference (with the Islanders) added a potential 40-goal scorer. The Rangers also foisted Scott Gomez's five remaining years at a $7.35 million annual salary cap hit to Montreal while getting left wing Chris Higgins and two defenseman, Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko, who should play in the NHL. If a creaky knee or coach John Tortorella's tough love bother Gaborik, however, the Rangers have spun their wheels.

But there is no debate about which team had the oddest week: the Montreal Canadiens.

General manager Bob Gainey's avowed goal was to add a big No. 1 center. Indeed, size up front has been an issue in Montreal for a decade. Unable to trade for Vincent Lecavalier, he dealt for the 5-11 Gomez, a legitimate 16-goal scorer (his total each of the past two years), added a 5-7 winger in Brian Gionta, who has disappeared since scoring 48 goals after the lockout, and the 5-9 Cammalleri, who scored 19 of his career-high 39 on the power play.

This isn't Canada's Team. This is Lilliput's Team.

Gainey did not re-sign a single one of his 10 unrestricted free agents, including Alex Kovalev and captain Saku Koivu, instead lavishing front-line money on players who, for the most part, are second-tier guys. If Gainey is correct and this grand experiment works -- think of being dealt an ace and ditching your other four cards in draw poker -- the sixth year of his five-year plan could be a success. But if this chemistry experiment blows up, Montreal will be mediocre for four or five seasons.

In shunning his own free agents -- only Kovalev and Komisarek received contract offers -- Gainey tacitly admitted that the team he had assembled simply didn't work on many levels. In truth, the Canadiens have not had a truly cohesive team (or dressing room) for more than 15 years.

This was a chance to start as fresh, which Gainey did by adding the three forwards and signing defensemen Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill. At least some of the blame for the problematic dressing room has to go to the estimable Koivu, who could never get it to coalesce. The next wave of leadership was supposed to have been provided by Komisarek and Higgins, a pair of Long Islanders, but now the task will fall perhaps to the happy-go-lucky Gomez, who hardly seems the type.

This was the first week of the NHL's summer merry-go-round. Considering the heights of their presumptive first-liners, the merry-go-round might be the only ride at the carnival the Canadiens will be allowed on.

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