NHL free agents: Nathan Horton signs huge deal with Columbus Blue Jackets

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Prime free agent Nathan Horton's choice of Columbus bodes well for the Blue Jackets franchise. (Getty Images)

Nathan Horton signed as a free agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets

By Allan Muir

Moments after Mike Ribeiro and the Phoenix Coyotes agreed to the biggest deal (four years, $22 million) of free agency's opening day, Nathan Horton and the Columbus Blue Jackets blew it out of the water.

Horton, arguably the top free agent on the market, signed a seven-year, $37.1 million deal with Columbus this afternoon.

But even that couldn't top the jaw-dropping impact of Daniel Alfredsson's decision to leave the Ottawa Senators after 17 years to sign with the Detroit Red Wings.

It was less than a week ago that the 40-year-old winger thrilled Senators fans with word that he would return for at least one more season. It probably never entered their minds that he would be back in any sweater other than Ottawa's.

MUIR: Alfredsson stuns Ottawa | Clarkson, Clowe  break bank with risky deals

But Alfredsson, either concerned about the willingness of the Senators franchise to spend enough to win or enamored of the idea of playing with the Red Wings, spurned both Ottawa and Boston to sign with Detroit.

Horton was looking for a lower-key market where the team was covered in a less intrusive fashion and Columbus certainly fits the bill. He'll fill an obvious need for a physical presence and scoring on the team's first line, but the Jackets will have to wait for both. He requires surgery on the shoulder that he injured while fighting Jarome Iginla late in the season and will miss as much as three months at the start of the season.

This is a significant moment for Columbus, and not because they just added a player who finished tied for second in playoff scoring (7-12-19 in 22 games). Horton is the first highly-coveted player in the prime of his career to choose the Blue Jackets over several equally compelling alternatives.

In years past, this team was regarded only as a last-chance option for bottom-of-the-barrel players desperate for someplace to play. But the franchise turned a corner last season with the signing of new GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the emergence of Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The Horton signing affirms that Columbus is now on its way to becoming a destination of choice.

Outside of the significant seven-year commitment made by the Jackets, the early trends of the day have seen shorter terms and more reasonable Average Annual Values.

FREE AGENT TRACKER: Who's available, who signed

The Alfredsson deal was just one year and $5.5 million, but only $3.5 million of that is guaranteed salary. The remaining $2 million can be earned through a series of bonuses that can be assigned to the 2014-15 salary cap, which is expected to be considerably higher than the $64.3 million set for 2013-14.

Tyler Bozak re-signed with the Maple Leafs for $4 million per year, a rate that's a steal for a first line center and fair value for a second liner, which is where Toronto hopes he'll slot when the seasons starts.

And only two deals -- Horton and Ryane Clowe, who just signed for five years and $24.25 million with New Jersey -- topped four years in duration.