There is little doubt that if you want to be a strong NHL team for the long haul, you have to be successful in the draft.
Nobody hits a home run all the time, but your scouts must provide accurate information, your general manager must make sure the young player fits the way your team plays and your coaching staff must be diligent in working with the young player as he goes through the process of rising through the minor leagues and becomes an NHL player.
But if you want immediate gratification and you don't have the patience to let your players ripen on the vine before making an impact, you have to go to the free-agent market.
This can be a much more risky way of doing business because you are dealing with a full-fledged adult who is usually set in his ways—both on and off the ice—but you also have a finished player.
A top free-agent can step right into your lineup and have a huge impact for your team. You don't have to wait and watch this player go through several layers of transition. If you pick the right free agent, you can see your team make an immediate jump from also-ran to playoff team, from playoff team to serious contender or from serious contender to legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Here are a few examples. The Boston Bruins were a non-descript team when the 2004-05 lockout came to an end. They failed to make the playoffs the first year back and new general manager Peter Chiarelli did not like the makeup of his team.
He did not see a strong defensive team, nor did he see enough players who were passionate. He immediately changed that by signing Ottawa free agent defenseman Zdeno Chara. While the Bruins did not make the playoffs the next year, they became a tougher and much more physical team. They made steady improvement on a year-by-year basis and Chara won the Norris Trophy following the 2008-09 season.
The Bruins would win the Stanley Cup in the 2011 postseason, ending a 39-year drought. Chara, as captain, took the Stanley Cup hand-off from commissioner Gary Bettman in Vancouver and let loose with a roar that could be heard back in Boston.
In the 2011 offseason, the Rangers were tired of being a good, but not good enough team. They signed prized free agent Brad Richards and that move gave them far more credibility in the Eastern Conference. With head coach John Tortorella pushing hard, the Rangers were the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference and made it through two rounds of the playoffs before they were finally eliminated.
During the 2012 offseason, there were two high-profile free agents on the market. Defenseman Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators and forward Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils were available.
The Minnesota Wild had been following a patient approach of building through the draft, but that philosophy had not produced much success. The Wild missed the postseason four straight years and had only made the playoffs in three of 11 seasons.
General manager Chuck Fletcher said enough was enough. If the Wild fans had not run out of patience, Fletcher had. He brought both Suter and Parise into the fold and signed them as free agents.
Once the lockout comes to an end, many sets of eyes will be on the Wild. They will be one of the most interesting teams in hockey.
They should be in playoff contention.
That's something that would have been unlikely with the patient, build-through-the-draft approach.
If you want to make a splash, sign the right free agents.