Science experiments abound with free agent frenzy

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By Stu Hackel

It's been a stunning few days in the world of hockey. Watching and blogging about the various player movements over the long weekend -- and the days leading up to it -- was more riveting than anyone could have expected. It's hard to actually prove this, but it's possible that there's never been a two-week period during which so many NHL teams transformed themselves.

Two summers ago, when the Canadiens took advantage of a significant amount of salary cap space to trade for Scott Gomez and sign Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Hall Gill, Jaroslav Spacek, Paul Mara, Travis Moen, and (in October) Marc-Andre Bergeron, it opened eyes around the league. SI's Pierre McGuire called it a "science experiment," and it seemed to pay off in the short run as the Habs upset both the Capitals and Penguins in the 2010 playoffs, although credit for those triumphs had to be shared with goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The good vibes didn't have a lasting effect into this past season, although injuries to key Habs played a role in that, along with the fading effectiveness of Gomez, which hangs over Montreal like a dark cloud.

Now, a number of teams have engaged in their own science experiments and, while we'll avoid the knee-jerk "winners-losers" proclamations, it certainly indicates a few things about where the NHL is going. More on that shortly, but here's a quick recap of the teams undergoing major face lifts.

The Flyers got the jump on everyone when they traded both Jeff Carter and captain Mike Richards on the same day. They got back forwards Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn, and were then able to sign goalie Ilya Brzygalov. When free agency took effect, GM Paul Holmgren continued to shock the hockey world by snaring Jaromir Jagr, who wanted to re-enter the NHL, plus Max Talbot and Andreas Lilja. (And this isn't the first time the Flyers bolstered with multiple acquisitions at this time of year; in 2007, they upgraded with Scott Hartnell, Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen, while also signing goalie Brian Boucher.)

The Panthers will look drastically different next season. They traded for Brian Campbell and Tomas Kopecky's rights, then signed him and six additional free agents who should all be in the lineup on opening day: Scotty Upshall, Ed Jovanovski, Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim and goalie Jose Theodore.

Both the Wild and Sharks made changes to the core of their teams, much of them through a pair of trades with each other. The Sharks picked up a star defenseman in Brent Burns and a terrific talent in Martin Havlat, also signing defenseman Jim Vandermeer. The Wild now have Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley (and got some very promising prospects from the Sharks), and today signed Darrel Powe.

The Sabres opened their vault to bring in Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Lieno after trading for Robin Regehr and Ales Kotalik.

Columbus also made changes to their core. In addition to getting Jeff Carter, the Blue Jackets picked up James Wisniewski to be their top offensive defenseman.

The Kings, too, enhanced their top end talent, not only by getting Mike Richards, but also signing a very good all-around winger, when healthy, in Simon Gagne.

The Blackhawks didn't touch their core players, but certainly rebuilt the Stanley Cup depth that they lost through bad salary cap management by signing Steve Montador, Jamal Mayers, Sean O'Donnell, Dan Carcillo and Andrew Brunette.

That's eight teams which, to varying degrees, changed their rosters in significant ways. You can probably add the Rangers to that list even though they only signed Brad Richards and Mike Rupp, considering how much Richards' presence can mean to boosting Marian Gaborik's production plus allowing New York to assemble more productive second and third lines. And Rupp with Brandon Prust could be a formidable and irritating energy duo (with Sean Avery between them, even more so).

And there are other teams (Phoenix, Colorado, Carolina, for example) who did a good job adding multiple players last week to address specific needs, but you get the idea. Now what does it all mean?

First of all, in almost every one of these markets, there is major pressure to win now, and if not the Stanley Cup, then -- in places like Columbus, Florida and Minnesota -- to make the playoffs and change the look of the team (and in the Panthers' and Blue Jackets' case, to win back fans and make these franchises viable and competitive again).

And those pressures result from what is unprecedented parity in the NHL, where it's obvious from last season's playoff races how tightly grouped teams can be. And even in the playoffs, where seven of the 15 series went seven games and two more went six, you can see how close teams are. Even the Stanley Cup champion Bruins came within an overtime goal of getting eliminated in Game 7 of the first round and, probably, being one of the teams we'd be discussing making massive overhauls. Instead, they can stand relatively pat. So changing a few key players can make all the difference -- if they're the right players.

The major overhauls are most interesting, of course, and who knows how they'll play out?  Are the Flyers really better now? They are a different team and how their chemistry experiment works will perhaps be the most interesting of all. But, arguably, no, they're not better, not even with a better goalie than they've had for a while (although Bryzgalov has never been a playoff winner and looked poor last spring against Detroit). They took two players from their core group and you can't say they've really replaced them. Jagr, who would have been a replacement five years ago, is a huge unknown. All reports are that his hands are still exceptional, but his skating could be a liability. He'll be good on the power play, but five-on-five -- which is a Flyers' strength -- he will have trouble keeping up and could even hold back his faster linemates (presumably Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk to start).

The Sharks and Wild will be compelling as well and their two trades will be the subject of "who won, who lost" discussions all season. However,  a real assessment won't be available until after Charlie Coyle and Zach Phillips get into the Wild lineup.

Another point needs to be made on what has just transpired: What it has cost some teams to make these acquisitions is lunacy. Some of it is just questionable deals made by a GM, and the Avalanche surrendering a first-round draft choice (which could be a lottery pick considering how shaky the Avs might be) and a second- or third-round draft choice for a third-string goalie in Semyon Varlamov seems foolish.

But beyond that, the amount of money and some of the contracts lengths that were doled out have to be considered excessive. As we noted when discussing the Brad Richards signing, some above-average players are making star-type money with these deals. That's not new. It has always happened in free agency. But wasn't this collective bargaining agreement supposed to put a halt to that sort of runaway spending? That seems to be an ongoing fiction that comes out of every CBA negotiation.

Not to pick on his deal, because he's not alone, but the money that Wisniewski got is crazy -- roughly equal to that of the Blackhawks Duncan Keith, one of the NHL's top defensemen, and Wiz isn't Duncan Keith. It's great for Wisniewski, and we never begrudge any player making what an owner wants to pay him. It's the owners who just can't come up with ways to curb themselves. You can't blame the Blue Jackets' ownership for wanting to upgrade their team, nor the Sabres' Terry Pegula for that matter -- and Buffalo and Columbus are two small market clubs, so this isn't just a big market vs. small market issue, but rather something systemic. That was evident when the Panthers realized they had to party like its 1999 just to reach the cap floor.

It's not hard to see the consequences. The danger is that when the next CBA is negotiated, the league is going to propose some draconian concepts over and above their hard salary cap that will not be favorably received by the NHLPA. Another work stoppage is certainly not what the NHL needs, but that seems to be what's in the air right now among North American pro sports leagues, so it can't be discounted. Perhaps if the NHL hadn't allowed crazy front-loaded contracts like those of the Canucks’ Roberto Luongo, the Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa, the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg and the Flyers’ Chris Pronger, it never would have gotten to this. Instead, the NHL only decided to crack down after the Devils signed Ilya Kovalchuk, whose deal was too obviously egregious.

But it's too late now and lots of this weekend's entertainment can be attributed to that gaffe. So the party's on. And no one is thinking about Judgment Day.