The NHL is doing its part to revamp the troubled US home market. Ever since the Red Wings dented Lord Stanley's mug, players have changed cities faster than escaped inmates.
This summer will likely be remembered as the year of the inflated and curiously long term contract for mediocre defenseman, but only four days into free agency, it's not too soon to declare the winners and losers.
The following teams, players and groups are the clear winners after four days:
- Detroit Red Wings: They already have a dinged up Cup under their belt, and going into next year they're even scarier. The only significant losses are Future Hall of Famers (but current spare parts) Chris Chelios and Dominik Hasek; neither a big loss. Apparently, Brad Stuart's agent didn't get the memo that mediocre defensemen deserve 470% raises (yes, I'm looking at you Mark Streit) and signed a perfectly reasonable contract. Then, they got Marian Hossa to agree to a - relatively speaking - reasonable $7 million and change. This guy got $9 million dollar per season lifetime offers after a generally mediocre season, imagine what he'll get after a full year with Datsyuk and Zetterberg? Ty Conklin should be a very solid foil for Chris Osgood too.
- Medicore Defensemen: Mark Streit, Wade Redden, Mike Commodore, Jeff freaking Finger, Ron Hainsey and - to some extent - Brian Campbell all signed long term, high dollar contracts. How many of these end in cap crippling buyouts by next season? I vote two and that none them actually play out their deals. Then why are they winners? Well, they're all set for life. I cannot blame Finger for taking the insane money Toronto offered after getting him confused with Kurt Sauer (credit to Daniel Tolensky on this one) or Mark Streit for cashing in on some impressive, but inflated point totals. Good for them, it's not their fault that GMs cannot do basic cap math.
- Edmonton Oilers: They only make the list after failing to spend like drunken sailors, despite their best efforts. Luckily, Lowe struck out as per Edmonton usual with free agents and decided to build through trades. The man - with the exception of the Pronger deal - knows how to trade assets. He turned a completely useless (for them) Lupul into Erik Cole (by way of Joni Pitkanen). Stoll and Greene for Visnovsky is a win. Whoever gets the best played in a trade usually ends up the victory and while the deal gives the Kings much needed depth, it is an elite puck mover often forgotten by the press in Los Angeles that comes back. Gilbert Brule is more of a risk, but Torres needed to move, so I like that roll of the dice. They're a far better team than they were two weeks ago. The loss of late season revelation Curtis Glencross to Calgary may come back to haunt them though.
- Tampa Bay Lightning: I am not sure if they got better or are just doing their best Steve Carrell from Anchorman impression ("LOUD NOISES!"). Nonetheless, they have no where to go but up and any team that drafts Steven Stamkos is improved. They got crazy return on Dan Boyle to fix their cap situation, they added two thirds of the Pittsburgh Penguins' effective fourth line (Adam Hall and Gary Roberts) and scooped the competitors on three (nearly four) free agents (Ryan Malone, Vaclav Prospal and Roberts). They also cleared out a twenty players off their roster who went to free agency, yet few of them were worth the paper theri checks were printed on, save Brian Rolston and Chris Gratton. Their only misstep was the comical overpayment for Ryan Malone. They just got out from under the insane contract they handed Brad Richards and Malone isn't half the player Richards is. Sadly, it may all be for naught. Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig won't cut it between the pipes.
- Any Team That Did Not Hang Acquire A Cap Albatross: Anyone who didn't sign players to long term, overpriced deals gets a gold star in my books. Fans in "contending" cities who didn't sign anyone major, such as Montreal, Ottawa and Anaheim have teams with the freedom to maneuveur.
- Viewers of TSN: Glenn Healy has left broadcasting. Enough said. Have a long (emphasis on long) and happy career at the NHLPA.
Through the draft and four days of free agency, a few teams, players and groups have taken major steps backwards. So far, there is a lot more to dislike than like, sadly.
- Toronto Maple Leafs: John Ferguson Jr. had a tough time as the GM, but I think history will remember Cliff Fletcher's second stint as worse. They're so caught up in erasing Ferguson's legacy that they've abandoned common sense. Bryan McCabe's contract isn't great, but this crusade to get rid of him isn't doing them favors around the league. D'arcy Tucker had a tough year, but will bounce back in Colorado and would have been fine. Slightly overpaid? Sure. Worth the cap hit? Not at all. Andrew Raycroft was no gem, but he would have been just as good as Curtis Joseph. Yet, somehow, the teammate unfriendly and owner of last year's most insane contract Jason Blake remains employed. Then, apparently unaware of their own history with overpaid free agent defensemen (Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill, Bryan McCabe) they go out and back the truck up to Jeff Finger's door. They also lost Sundin and decided it would be way more intelligent to give the underachieving Kyle Wellwood away than trade him when there was obviously a demand. To top it all off, they trade a decent prospect and a 2nd round pick for the speedy, but aging prospect Mikhail Grabovsky who is going to make SportsCenter a few times, but will likely be to easy to push around to have a huge impact. In true Fletcher fashion, he marveled at Grabovsky's success at the Worlds this year where the pivot clearly made an impression after notching 0 goals and 3 helpers in 5 games. It makes me wonder if perhaps he got him confused with someone else as well? To top it off, they paid a premium for the right to draft Luke Schenn, a solid prospect no doubt, but likely to be a solid 3-4 guy, not the type of difference maker the Leafs need.
- Ottawa Senators: I've never seen a team go from Cup contender to fringe team as quickly as these Ottawa Senators. Anyone remember early this season when they were being compared to the '72 Canadiens? Then the wheels came off. The only thing they've done right is not signing anyone to absurd long term contracts. The most obvious flaw? Alex Auld and Martin Gerber. Seriously? Auld and Gerber? That's got to be the (second) worst goaltending duo in the league. Jarkko Ruutu is a nice little player, but he won't replace the departures of Cory Stillman, Randy Robitaille and Martin Lapointe. And since he doesn't play defense, he won't help replace Wade Redden, Mike Commodore and Luke Richardson. They're descimated on the back end and in net, their two weakest positions and their forwards are getting alarmingly thin. This team better wake up in a huge way or the years of high draft picks may be back.
- Mats Sundin, Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr: They may yet become winners, but these three should know by now whether or not they want to play. In the cap era, you cannot dilly-dally. Jagr is headed to Russia after the Rangers got tired of waiting and signed Markus Naslund. Selanne is likely done, unless he's willing to move on from the cap-challenged Ducks, and Mats Sundin may well end up playing his final seasons with the soon to be last place Toronto Maple Leafs after every contending team gets too close to the cap. His only out seems to be Montreal, where Bob Gainey said he's done spending unless Sundin changes his mind and has the cap room to follow through.
- New York Rangers: Glenn Sather continues to show an inability to navigate the cap era. He's up against the wall right now and the team can barely ice a full roster. They are woefully thin at forward after the top four (Drury, Gomez, Naslund and Zherdev). They've got $11.5 million inexplicably commited to Wade Redden and Michael Rozsival and both on long term deals. They've lost Jarmor Jagr, Sean Avery, Brendan Shanahan, Paul Mara, Marek Malik, Christian Backman, Fedor Tyutin and Martin Straka. And while their four man swap with Columbus looked good on paper, the don't have the cap space to resign Dan Fritsche.
- Colorado Avalanche: Andrew Raycroft and Peter Budaj? Giguere actually managed to assemble a more AHL ready goaltending tandem than the Senators. Impressive.
- The Eastern Conference: There has been an exodus of talent from the East to the West, which will further shift the balance of power that was already grossly out of whack. The only teams that looks like they've improved out East are Tampa Bay, who will still likely miss the playoffs; and Montreal, who added Tanguay and Laraque and saw their young core tick one year closer to their primes.
The West is going to be a battle this year as the good teams, mostly, got better and the non-playoff teams all look like they could challenge. In the East, the only thing that looks safe is that Montreal should make the playoffs and is the early favorite to lose to Detroit in the finals. Pittsburgh should continue to do well, but the they lost top end talent (Malone and Hossa) and almost all their depth (Hall, Taffe, James, Beech, Ruutu, Laraque, Roberts) up front. I cannot call them a loser though since they did get Brooks Orpik to sign a sane contract and locked up their core long term (Malkin and Fleury).
There is plenty of summer left, but it looks like the strong have gotten stronger, while the weak have gotten weaker. The cap was supposed to bring parody, but borderline criminal management from the majority of Eastern teams has expanded the gulf between conferences.