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NHL free agents: Clarkson, Clowe deals prove genius of Chicago GM Bowman

NHL free agent Ryane Clowe signed with the New Jersey Devils Ex-Ranger Ryane Clowe is a pricey and risky replacement for David Clarkson in New Jersey. (Getty Images)

By Allan Muir

It's been less than a week since Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman signed playoff hero Bryan Bickell to a four-year, $16 million deal.

That deal is looking like a bargain now.

Bickell, who was eligible for unrestricted free agency before coming to terms with the Hawks, emerged as a game-breaking power forward during Chicago's run to the Stanley Cup, exactly the sort of player that several teams were looking to add in free agency. Bowman recognized that he couldn't expect a hometown discount for a player who was that hot, and signed him at full value even though he had to trade Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik to create cap space.

Turns out that Bickell might have been able to stuff his pockets with a little more green if he'd shopped his services. The other power forward types on the market, David Clarkson and Ryane Clowe, used his deal as a starting point and encouraged suitors to keep adding to the pile.

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Clarkson ultimately agreed to a seven-year, $36.75 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs that pays him an Average Annual Value of $5.25 million per.

Clowe was tabbed by the New Jersey Devils to fill the spot vacated by Clarkson. They'll pay the former Shark and Ranger $24.25 million over five years, for an AAV of $4.85 million.

The 30-year-old is coming off a down season that saw him put up just three goals and 16 assists in 40 games with San Jose and New York. More troubling than his zero-goals-for-San Jose start are the three concussions he suffered, including one in Game 5 of the first round against Washington that sidelined him the rest of the way. He's since been medically cleared, but those cement hands and that eggshell skull make him a serious risk for such a lengthy contract.

Clarkson isn't a much safer bet, although it's not his health that's at issue. The 29-year-old made his way in the league as a plumber until 2011-12, when he broke through with 30 goals for the Devils. It wasn't a fluke. He started shooting more, and that earned him more ice time, especially on the power play where he feasted down low. Next thing you know, he's an All-Star goal scorer at 28.

He followed it up with a solid 15-goal season this year, but he was also exposed as a player whose bag held about three moves that became easier and easier to defend, especially at five-on-five. And while he can make an impact with his fearless physical play even when he's not lighting the lamp, he's not being paid $5.25 million grind it out or provide an imposing presence in the crease. He needs to be a top-six winger to justify that money, and seven years is an awfully long time to commit to a player with such a limited resume.

Both the Devils and Leafs will crow about these signings, and there will be times when they pay off. And Bickell comes into his own deal having to prove that he can be an impact power forward on a consistent basis. But there's no doubt that signing the safest, smartest deal has Stan Bowman looking like the genius here.

FREE AGENT TRACKER: Who's available, who signed

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