The 10 NHL Teams That Have Made the Most of the 2014 Free-Agency Period

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2014

The 10 NHL Teams That Have Made the Most of the 2014 Free-Agency Period

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Barely two weeks into the NHL's free-agency period, most of the best talent has been signed. Many of them were snapped up within a few hours on opening day.

    Much of the focus by fans and pundits is on which teams signed the best players and which were the best contracts. Several clubs made a number of signings or very expensive ones, but that doesn't necessarily mean they made the best moves. It ultimately comes down to which ones best addressed their respective roster needs.

    Quality trumps quantity and salary.

    The 10 teams on this list made the most of free agency this summer. The quality of player, contract value and how the moves addressed their specific roster needs factored into the rankings.

10. New York Islanders

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Notable signings: Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin

    Why they were signed: Grabovski to bolster depth at center, Kulemin to do the same at right wing.

    By signing these friends and former Toronto Maple Leafs teammates, the Islanders added some much-needed veteran skills to their forward lines. The 31-year-old Grabovski is a solid two-way center with three seasons of 20-plus goals and two seasons of 50-plus points on his resume.

    Kulemin scored 30 goals in 2010-11 but is more of a two-way winger than a goal scorer. Adding these two means the Islanders don't have to rush the development of their inexperienced young forwards.

    The Islanders overpaid for the duo, though not by a huge amount. Grabovski received a four-year deal worth $5 million per season, while Kulemin received a similar term averaging $4.187 million annually. These signings also helped the Islanders exceed the $51 million salary-cap minimum, pushing their payroll to more than $54 million for 2014-15.

9. Calgary Flames

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    Notable signings: Jonas Hiller, Mason Raymond, Deryk Engelland

    Why they were signed: Hiller takes over as starting goaltender. Raymond adds scoring depth on the left wing. Engelland provides size and toughness to the defense.

    Signing Hiller provides a much-needed boost of experience between the pipes for the Flames, which was lacking last season. The 32-year-old posted solid statistics (29-13-7, 2.48 GAA, .911 save percentage, five shutouts) last season. His addition also removes pressure from promising Karri Ramo, allowing the team more time to groom him as a future starter.

    Raymond has twice reached the 45-point mark, including last season with Toronto. He brings speed and 20-goal potential to the scoring lines. The 6'2”, 215-pound Engelland will bring the truculence valued by Flames president Brian Burke.

    Hiller's contract (two years, $4.5 million per season) was the most reasonable, while Raymond's is a decent deal at $3.15 million annually for three years. Engelland's was a gross overpayment ($2.916 million per season) for a player of his limited skills, but at least it's only for three years. His contract is why the Flames aren't higher on this list. 

8. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Notable signings: Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Evgeni Nabokov, Brenden Morrow

    Why they were signed: Stralman replaces the departed Sami Salo. Boyle brings size and physicality to the third line. Nabokov will back up starting goalie Ben Bishop. Morrow will bolster the checking lines.

    These signings bring a good mixture of skill, size and experience to a team on the rise. Having already acquired Jason Garrison via trade with Vancouver, the Lightning further bolstered their blue-line depth with Stralman, who played well for the New York Rangers last season.

    Boyle, another former Ranger, had a solid playoff performance. His size (6'7”, 244 lbs) and physical play make him a welcome addition to Tampa Bay's checking lines. Nabokov's experience should make him a good mentor for Bishop. Morrow was a former captain of the Dallas Stars. His leadership and experience should prove beneficial for this young team.

    Stralman's contract (five years, $4.5 million annually) ensures the 28-year-old's playing prime will be spent in Tampa Bay. Boyle (three years, $6 million), Nabokov and Morrow (both at one year, $1.55 million) are on affordable, short-term deals. 

7. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Notable signings: Christian Ehrhoff, Thomas Greiss, Steve Downie

    Why they were signed: Ehrhoff will replace the departed Matt Niskanen on defense. Greiss is an experienced backup. Downie will add toughness to the forward lines.

    Ehrhoff is a superb replacement for Niskanen. He was among the top 30 in ice time last season and led the Sabres in that category (23:54), plus he tallied 33 points in 79 games. The 32-year-old blueliner also reached or exceeded 40 points three times in his career. His puck-moving skills should make him a solid fit with the Penguins offense.

    Greiss has solid numbers as an NHL backup. With Marc-Andre Fleury in a contract year, this could be a good opportunity for the 28-year-old Greiss to challenge for a starter's job. If the oft-injured Downie can stay healthy, he'll provide an extra measure of speed and toughness to the forward lines. He also has decent offensive skills.

    Ehrhoff was bought out of a lengthy contract by the Sabres, making his one-year, $4 million deal an affordable, low-risk signing. Greiss and Downie (one year, $1 million each) are good depth signings for a club with limited cap space.

6. Buffalo Sabres

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    Graig Abel/Getty Images

    Notable signings: Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Andrej Meszaros

    Why they were signed: Moulson and Gionta bring experienced depth on the wings. Meszaros replaces Christian Ehrhoff, who was bought out in June.

    Moulson, Gionta and Meszaros provide a much-needed measure of affordable and experienced skill for the rebuilding Sabres. Moulson is a former three-time 30-goal scorer who also meshed well with the Sabres last season, netting 29 points in 44 games.

    Gionta reached the 40-point mark seven times in his career, including last season. As a former captain of the Montreal Canadiens, he will also provide a solid measure of leadership. Meszaros is an experienced puck-moving defenseman with three 30-point seasons on his resume.

    Signing this trio helped the Sabres reach the salary-cap minimum ($51 million) for 2014-15, pushing their payroll to $51.9 million. Moulson's contract (five years, $25 million) was a tad long for a player turning 31 in August, but the actual salary will decline to $3 million in the final year. The 35-year-old Gionta inked a three-year contract worth an annual cap hit of $4.25 million, but in real dollars it declines from $5.25 million in the Year 1 to $3.25 million in Year 3. Meszaros is for $4.125 million but only for one year

5. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

    Notable signing: Brad Richards

    Why he was signed: To center the second line.

    The Richards signing wasn't the biggest or most expensive of the opening day of NHL free agency, but it rank among the better moves. The Blackhawks lacked a skilled second-line center last season and did a fine job of addressing that need.

    Richards is a respected veteran playmaker with plenty of playoff experience. At 34, he is on the downside of his career but still posted decent numbers (51 points) last season with the New York Rangers. He should be a solid, short-term fit on the Blackhawks' scoring lines next season. 

    The Rangers bought out the remainder of Richards' lucrative long-term contract (worth $6.66 million annually) in June. That allowed the Blackhawks to sign him for the bargain price of $2 million for one year. Though the signing pushed them $2.2 million over the $69 million salary cap, they have sufficient time to become cap compliant before next season begins.

4. Dallas Stars

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Who they signed: Ales Hemsky, Patrick Eaves, Anders Lindback

    Why they were signed: Hemsky will be reunited with former Ottawa Senators teammate Jason Spezza (pictured above), who was acquired via trade on July 1. Lindback will provide additional goaltending depth. Eaves will bring experience to the checking lines.

    Spezza and Hemsky enjoyed terrific chemistry during their brief tenure last season with the Senators. Hemsky collected 17 points in only 20 games after the Senators acquired him at the trade deadline from Edmonton. Reuniting the pair provides the Stars with experienced scoring depth, which was lacking last season.

    Injuries limited Eaves to only 30 games last season, but when healthy he's an effective checking-line winger. The 26-year-old Lindback has experience as an NHL backup and could benefit from a fresh start after struggling last season with Tampa Bay.

    Hemsky was coming off a two-year, $10 million contract, so landing the 30-year-old for three years at $4 million annually was a very affordable move. Eaves (one year, $650,000) and Lindback (one year, $950,000) scarcely make a dent in the Stars payroll

3. Vancouver Canucks

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    JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

    Notable signings: Ryan Miller, Radim Vrbata

    Why they were signed: Miller to take over as the Canucks' starting goaltender, Vrbata to improve their scoring depth.

    Miller is an upgrade over an inexperienced Eddie Lack, who was thrust into the starter's job late last season when Roberto Luongo was dealt to Florida. Though Miller struggled as a rental player in St. Louis last season, he had a solid .923 save percentage in 40 games with the struggling Buffalo Sabres before joining the Blues. He'll now have an opportunity to regroup with the retooling Canucks.

    Vrbata provides a much-needed offensive boost for a team that was 26th on the power play (15.2 percent) and 28th in goals per game (2.33) last season. The veteran right wing has six seasons of 40-plus points under his belt, including a 51-point performance last year.

    The contract terms are also quite reasonable. The Canucks avoided investing too much for too long in two players approaching their mid-30s. Miller, who turns 34 on July 17, gets $6 million per season for three years, while 33-year-old Vrbata earns $5 million annually for two years

2. Minnesota Wild

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Notable signing: Thomas Vanek

    Why he was signed: To bolster the Wild's scoring punch.

    Vanek seems a natural fit with the Wild. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Michael Russo notes the winger resides in Minnesota during the offseason and played his college hockey there. Though Vanek struggled during last year's playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens, he reached the 60-point mark six times while scoring 20 or more goals in each of his nine NHL seasons.

    Landing this summer's best free-agent left wing should provide a significant boost to the Wild, who finished 24th overall in goals per game (2.43) last season. It also improves their competitiveness in the very tough Western Conference. Adding Vanek also means the Wild won't have to rush an inexperienced young player into a top-six role. 

    Vanek could have commanded a lengthy, expensive contract on the open market. The 30-year-old winger, however, was willing to accept a reasonable deal (three years at $6.5 million per season) to come home to Minnesota. Adding a top scorer without breaking the bank was a significant coup by the Wild. 

1. St. Louis Blues

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Notable signing: Paul Stastny

    Why he was signed: To provide experienced skill at center.

    The Blues entered this offseason seeking an offensive center. Signing Stastny, this summer's best unrestricted free agent, more than addresses that need and puts them atop this list. It provides the depth they need to compete with rivals Anaheim, Chicago, Colorado (Stastny's former team) and Los Angeles in the highly competitive Western Conference. His offensive skills and experience should push the Blues closer to Stanley Cup contention.

    Stastny can play first- and second-line minutes. He's a terrific playmaker who is solid in the faceoff circle (54.1 percent) and has good two-way skills. He tallied more than 20 goals and 50-plus points six times in his eight-year NHL career. In this year's playoffs he had five goals and 10 points in seven games. 

    Stastny's contract is another reason the Blues top this list. While it cost $7 million per season to sign the 28-year-old center, they got him for a very reasonable four-year term. The opportunity to return to a city Stastny considers his hometown was too good to pass up. 

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