A couple lessons picked up during the breakneck-paced opening to NHL free agency:
First: If you want to compete in the West, you'd better load up on centers. All-Star type centers.
Second: When it comes to spending, the salary floor is more impactful than the salary ceiling.
And third: This new negotiating window doesn't cut out the crazy.
For a crop that was considered a bit on the thin side, this year's unrestricted free agents managed to inspire a Lucullan orgy of spending that saw more than $500 million in salary committed to 80 players in a matter hours. Clearly, the new five-day charming period, where teams and agents could gauge mutual interest and map out the parameters of deals ahead of signing day, worked to the benefit of everyone. The Canadian TV networks, whose anchors barely had time to draw a breath between announcements of new deals, were probably thankful as well.
It all started with Dallas' bold acquisition of Jason Spezza from Ottawa in a five-player swap, which led to St. Louis inking Paul Stastny and Chicago signing Brad Richards. Colorado, set at center, added Jarome Iginla while Minnesota took the risk of repatriating Thomas Vanek from Montreal.
It was refreshing to see several small, sober agreements, like Pittsburgh's one-year, $4 million deal with Christian Ehrhoff or Jonas Hiller's two-year, $9 million deal with the Flames. But there were plenty of the usual head-scratchers too, with Florida and Buffalo spending madly on aging or otherwise limited-demand players (two years and $8.25 million for Willie Mitchell?) just to get to the cap floor of $51 million.
Crazy, but at least with those you could understand why those teams were forced to inflate their offers. It's a bit tougher to grasp the motivations behind the three most baffling deals of the day, all of which involved ex-Penguin defenders.
The Washington Capitals committed seven years and $40.25 million to Matt Niskanen, a 27-year-old with one solid season on his resume, and then handed $27.5 million over five years to Brooks Orpik, a 32-year-old who has two speeds: slow and standing still. But those looked positively frugal compared to the deal awarded to Deryk Engelland. The 32-year-old best known for his pugilistic skills who went from making $575,000 last season to $8.7 million over three years courtesy of Brian Burke's Calgary Flames. Yowza!
If you missed the action today, scroll down to get a sense of how it played out in real-time.
5:45 p.m. SIGNING: Matt Niskanen signs with Capitals for seven years, $40.25 million
Niskanen’s game has come a long way since he was that deer-in-the-headlights kid who came over from Dallas three years ago as a throw-in in the James Neal trade. He's matured, almost unexpectedly, into a reliable, puck-moving defenseman who scored 46 points in his breakthrough season, tops among all UFAs at his position. His +33 rating was indicative of his impact on Pittsburgh's injury-riddled blueline and his possession numbers were excellent (a + 7.4 CorsiRel last season). Easy to see why his skill set might draw some attention.
But there's no denying that Nisky's a very risky acquisition. Last season was the first in which he played a consistent top-four role. It was also the first in which he scored more than 20 points and was asked to be an important player. Maybe that's a sign of great things to come ... or maybe it was a fortuitous confluence of opportunity and execution that led to an unrepeatable career year.
The Caps just bet $40 million (and a partial NTC) that he's just scratching the surface of his ability, and if that is indeed the case and he steps onto the first pair and is an effective puck mover, then this deal could provide excellent value. But if Niskanen merely caught lightning in a bottle last season, this one could hurt.
5 p.m. SIGNING: Brad Richards signs with the Blackhawks for one year, $2 million.
Another Western Conference team, another second-line center deal. Richards' game has a few warts—his speed is on the decline, he tends to shrink in physical games and he's not as consistent as he once was—but he's still a massive upgrade, offensively speaking, from Michael Handzus. And his arrival buys another year of development time for the heir to the role, Teuvo Teravainen.
At 34, Richards is coming off a 20-goal, 51-point season, so he still knows what to do with the puck. All he has to do is use that crazy hockey sense to feed Patrick Kane or Marian Hossa or Patrick Sharp or whatever All-Star caliber winger Joel Quenneville lines up beside him. He won't get the first power play time he enjoyed in New York, but the chance to play with those boys could improve his numbers and set him up well for another contract next summer.
Have to hand it to GM Stan Bowman. This is a low-risk deal that addresses his team's biggest (and longest standing) need. It did bust the Hawks through the cap ceiling, but he has plenty of time to erase that $2.2 million overage. And Richards will be off the books next summer, clearing some space for the impending Kane/Jonathan Toews extensions.
4:30 p.m. SIGNING: Dan Boyle signs with the Rangers (two years, $9 million); Anton Stralman signs with the Lightning (five years, $22.5 million).
You have to be happy for Boyle here. Crushed when he was dumped by San Jose (his rights were dealt to the Islanders), he ends up signing with the one team he's wanted to play for his entire career. So even if he takes a pay cut from the $6.66 million he made in the last year of his previous deal, and even if he left a couple of million on the table when he spurned Detroit's advances, he's exactly where he wants to be. He's got an important role, a chance to compete for the Cup and a much easier travel schedule—no small consideration for a 37-year-old.
Good for him.
It makes some sense from the Rangers' perspective, too. True, Boyle is aging. His legs are a bit heavier than they used to be, and that's only going to become more of an issue as this deal plays out. But New York needed a power play QB to replace the departed (and largely ineffective) Brad Richards, who has signed on with Chicago. Boyle is a right-handed shot, so he'll fit in nicely there with the lefty Ryan McDonagh. And he can still handle a workload. Boyle averaged 21:16 last season, tops on the Sharks, although that should drop to the 18-minute range in New York.
It's a good bet that GM Glen Sather will take some heat for passing on Anton Stralman—a player who helped the Blueshirts earn a spot in the Cup final—at the same $4.5 cap hit, but Boyle brings an offensive dimension that Stralman never will. And Sather only committed two years to Boyle, rather than the four that Tampa Bay gave Stralman. Ultimately, this came down to filling a specific need, and Boyle was a better fit.
3:10 p.m. SIGNING: Jarome Iginla to the Avalanche for three years and $16 million.
This should help soothe Avs fans who were upset by the early defection of Paul Stastny to St. Louis. There's sure to be plenty of talk about Iggy's offense and his veteran presence, but the real value here is that he plays a different game than anyone on that roster. His legs won't move at the speed of Nathan MacKinnon's or Matt Duchene's—one of whom is likely to center the future Hall of Famer—but he gives them an option when games slow down and descend into the muck. Iginla is still a great physical player who is capable of grinding out space and creating opportunities in traffic. His arrival gives coach Patrick Roy a whole new set of options.
It's an interesting deal for Iginla. He was a great fit in Boston, and probably had a better chance to win the Cup there, but he would have had to settle for a one-year, low-dough deal to slip in under the Bruins' cap. He went for the security instead, with a team that has some great years ahead of it. It's hard to imagine the Avs will seriously contend during the term of this deal, but this team spent all of last season proving that it couldn't be taken for granted. Maybe he gets them over the top ... but if not, he'll retire with a whole lot more cash in the bank than he would have had otherwise.
The Bruins knew their cap situation would handcuff their efforts to re-sign Iggy, so as hard as it is to lose a 30-goal first-liner, they were not caught off guard by his decision. I don't expect that they'll look for a replacement in free agency. Instead, they'll likely pencil Loui Eriksson in on David Krejci's wing and explore their options via the trade market. They'd hate to part with defenseman Johnny Boychuk, but he might be the chip that is needed to get them a viable secondary scorer.
3 p.m. SIGNING: Jonas Hiller to the Flames for two years and $9 million.
Karri Ramo showed a lot of promise when he assumed the starter's role for Calgary during the second half of the season, putting up a 17-15-4 mark for the surprisingly competitive Flames, but the prevailing sense held that he isn't quite ready for the full-time job. Neither is Joni Ortio, the team's top prospect at the position. Hiller not only buys that duo time (Ramo has one year left to prove himself on his current deal), he provides veteran experience to a team that overdelivered on most nights, but didn't always give its goaltenders the support they deserved.
Interesting to note that it was current Flames president Brian Burke who was the GM in Anaheim when Hiller was signed as a free agent back in 2007. That familiarity probably helped seal the deal for both sides.
Hiller was the seventh goaltender to switch teams today and not one of them went to Winnipeg. Maybe the Jets weren't going to be in on veteran starters like Hiller or Ryan Miller, but it was thought that their situation would improve with the addition of someone like Chad Johnson (signed by the Islanders) or Justin Peters (Capitals). Unless they're going all in for James Reimer via the trade route, this day is looking like a disaster for a team that desperately needed to make something happen in that area.
2:15 p.m. SIGNING: Thomas Vanek to the Wild for three years and $19.5 million.
Anyone caught off guard by this one? Vanek and the Wild have been wed in rumors for more than a year, so it was no surprise that they consummated the arrangement today. According to beat writer Mike Russo, Vanek will earn $5.5 million in 2014-15, $6.5 million in 2015-16 and $7.5 million in 2016-17. The sniper also says the Wild gave him a full no-move clause—interesting given the impact NMCs have had on recent deals involving Ryan Kesler and Jason Spezza, but considering the team-friendly three-year duration of the agreement, it's a perk that's not too difficult to swallow.
Interesting to hear that Vanek may have left money and years on the table. It was known that competing suitors would have to step up their offers to sway him from his desire to return “home” to Minnesota, but after watching him struggle with the Islanders during the regular season and then disappear when the Canadiens needed him most in the playoffs, I'm skeptical that anyone was backing up an armored car loaded with cash. While this deal was probably the best he could get, it's a long way from the seven-year, $50 million offer from the Isles that he rejected back in February. Not that he's going to be clipping coupons any time in the future, but he has to be disappointed that he couldn't haul down something similar as one of the most dynamic scorers in free agency.
While Vanek was pinched, it's a great deal for the Wild. They're getting a player who's had success with Jason Pominville and will improve an offense that generated just 2.43 goals per game last season, 24th in the league. And Minnesota grabs that asset without taking on the absurd risk of a six or seven-year commitment.
1:45 p.m. SIGNING: Ryan Miller to the Canucks for three years and $18 million.
Eddie Lack wasn't ready to be a No. 1 and neither was Jacob Markstrom, so GM Jim Benning made the smart move by acquiring a proven veteran to backstop a team that's likely to struggle through a partial rebuild next season. Miller's star was tarnished by his failed stay in St. Louis where his aggressiveness was exploited time and time again, but he was still the top keeper on the market. He needs to make some technical adjustments to his style, but he might find the heavier workload he'll face with the Canucks to be more to his liking.
Miller should be happy with the locale—it's the West Coast and his actress wife is currently working in the city. And the Canucks should be thrilled. The term is a winner—the expectation was that he'd demand at least four years—and the $6 million AAV is right in line with the salaries paid for goalies with his track record and ability.
1:35 p.m. SIGNING: Ales Hemsky to the Stars for three years and $12 million.
I mentioned earlier the challenge that Stars GM Jim Nill faced in finding a winger whose style meshed well with the newly acquired Jason Spezza. It took the man less than an hour to get the job done. Hemsky and Spezza showed some real chemistry after the former Oiler was acquired by Ottawa at the trade deadline in March. He had 17 points in 20 games with the Sens and the two were dynamite on the power play.
That's no small consideration for the Stars. Their first unit with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn worked well in fits and starts last season, but the group as a whole connected at just 15.9 percent, ranking a lowly 23rd in the league. Having a second unit based around Hemsky and Spezza should make the Stars exponentially more dangerous with the extra man. Won't hurt a team that was 13th at five-on-five, either.
Good term, good AAV. Seems like a fair deal for both sides.
1:30 p.m. SIGNING: Mike Cammalleri signs with the Devils for five years and $25 million.
The Devils were staggered by the defection of superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk last July and never really recovered. Cammy can help them get back on track next season. No, he isn't Kovy, nor is he the 39-goal man he was back in 2008-09, but coming off a 26-goal, 45-point season in 63 games with Calgary he's still a very reliable top-six winger who can impact the power play. He's also a guy who plays a fast-paced, defensively responsible game, and he actually scored a couple of goals in the shootout last season, so he'll be a nice add for the Devils. You can make the case that five years is a bit generous for a 32-year-old who hasn't scored as many as 50-points since 2010, but he was going to get term from someone on this deal. Better that the Devils gave it to a player whose wheels still work than repeating the mistakes that were made last summer.
1 p.m. SIGNING: The Blues ink center Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million deal.
It's pretty clear that the rest of the West has recognized the advantage that the Stanley Cup-champion Kings had down the middle, eh? First the Ducks grab Ryan Kesler, then Dallas gets Jason Spezza, and now the Blues make their move to power up at pivot by grabbing Stastny. He's not the fastest or biggest player to fill the role, but he's a talented puck mover who knows how the make the most of his linemates. A solid possession player (second among Colorado's forwards with a 50.2% Corsi For last season) and responsible defensively, he's still had issues with consistency, but he's always found a way to put up points. Since his rookie season of 2006-07, Stastny ranks 20th among all NHL centers in goals per game (0.30) and 18th in points per game (0.85.) Those are difference-making numbers.
The Blues seem like a good fit for Stastny as well. They're a team capable of winning the Cup next season and for several years to come, and he'll be the third member of his family to don the blue note, following his father Peter and brother, Yan. This has to be disappointing for the Avs, but with Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon down the middle, they're in a decent position to weather the loss of Stastny.
12:40 p.m. SIGNINGS: The Oilers have signed Mark Fayne to a four-year, $14.4 million deal, and Benoit Pouliot to a five-year, $20 million contract.
Fayne is a zero on the glamor scale, but he's a solid value signing. He's not the guy who does anything for you in transition, but he's a big body (6-3, 215) who showed in New Jersey that he can play heavy shut-down minutes. The question is, where does he play? The Oilers already have two righties in Justin Schultz and Jeff Petry, and while there's some buzz that Petry might be on the block, Edmonton has to be careful managing that asset to make sure it ends up on the happy side of the ledger.
Pouliot was going to cash in on his good season in New York, but it's hard to figure out what the Oilers were thinking when committing so many years and so much money to a third-line player. This is an absolutely horrible deal, and it's already the leader in the clubhouse for the contract Most Likely To Be Bought Out.
12:25 p.m. SIGNING: Christian Ehrhoff signs with the Penguins for one year at $4 million.
Hard to figure this one out from Ehrhoff's perspective. Why would a player who was arguably the most desirable defenseman on the market settle for a one-year deal immediately out of the gate? Obviously there's appeal to playing with Sid and Geno, and the chance to work the power play with them, ramp up his stats and compete for the Stanley Cup. Maybe that's all there is to this. Or maybe he has his eyes on setting himself up for another big score next summer when the cap will likely be several million higher. Still, an odd decision. Nice to see Jim Rutherford get a win after several missteps in his first few weeks as Pittsburgh's GM. This is a low-risk deal on his part, and it fills the hole on the power play created by the departure of Matt Niskanen. Great signing for the Pens.
11:35 a.m. TRADE: Stars acquire C Jason Spezza and LW Ludvig Karlsson from the Senators for RW Alec Chiasson, F Alex Guptill, LW Nick Paul and a second round pick in 2015
Just when it looked like the Senators might be forced to hold on to their disgruntled captain until training camp or later, Spezza re-weighed his options and decided that the Stars might not be such a bad option after all. The timing couldn't be better for GM Bryan Murray. Moving Spezza today clears $7 million of cap space just in time for the opening of free agency and a period of what's expected to be heavy trading. Look for him to be a big player in those markets.
You can argue the value of the return, but Murray did fairly well given Spezza's no trade clause. Chiasson is a promising power forward, a 6-4, 200-pound winger with decent hands (19 goals in his first 86 games) and a willingness to go hard to the net. The Stars saw him as a potential 30-goal man, but even if he tops out as a 25-goal, second-line winger Chiasson is a nice, affordable and sizable piece of the puzzle for the Sens.
Guptill, a 2010 third rounder, left the Michigan Wolverines to turn pro in March. He's another big forward (6-3, 187), a left-handed shot with good touch. But the former CCHA Rookie of the Year has had some off-ice issues, including a couple of team suspensions, a misdemeanor assault charge and a public urination rap to go along with some inconsistencies on the ice. The potential to be a top-six forward is there, but he's got a hard road ahead of him.
Nicholas Paul was a fourth-round pick last summer, a 6-2, 205-pound winger who projects as a defensive-minded depth forward.
For Dallas, Spezza fills a clear need for a No. 2 center. In fact, he's probably more of a 1A and playing with Tyler Seguin will give the Stars their best 1-2 punch at pivot since the Mike Modano/Joe Nieuwendyk years. His lack of speed is a bit of a concern—they were clearly trying to build a faster, transition-minded team—but he gives Dallas a reliable offensive centerpiece around which to build a second line, something they didn't really have last season. His arrival also allows Cody Eakin to slip back to the third line role where he should be a more comfortable and effective fit.
There's already been speculation that the Stars are looking at Spezza as a year-long rental, but don't buy into that. Dallas is set up to contend for a playoff spot next season and Spezza will be key to those plans...as long as he proves he can stand up to the physical assault he'll face in the West.
Considering what Dallas gave up, it's more likely that GM Jim Nill looks to get Spezza extended before his contract expires at the end of the 2014-15 season.
And with Chiasson out of the picture, Nill has to find the proper players to skate alongside Spezza. That's not as easy as it sounds—just ask Murray, who thought he had the perfect fit last summer when he acquired Bobby Ryan. Brett Ritchie of the AHL champion Texas Stars is an option, but Nill may look for a veteran winger on the market today.