It’s been nine days since the NHL free agency period began, and in that time most of you have been focused on one name—LeBron James.
Shame on any of you who haven’t been paying attention to more important things, like all of the great defensive signings and the Ilya Kovalchuk saga. I’m actually starting to get a little fed up with how long Mr. Kovalchuk is taking with his decision, but at least he hasn’t gone to Russia to play or set up his own personal news conference.
Free agency teaches us a lot—what teams have good front offices, what fans think of players, and what players actually think about when it comes to the NHL.
Here are five things we have learned from this year’s free agency.
Perhaps the biggest free agency surprise was goaltender Evgeni Nabokov’s departure to the KHL. He signed a four-year deal with SKA St. Petersburg worth approximately $6 million per season.
“It was an interesting decision, a hard decision for me, but I’m also excited right now,” Nabokov told ESPN.com.
Translation—“I’ve realized I’m incapable of winning big games in the NHL, but I’m excited because I’ll be getting more money in the KHL.”
While Nabokov has been a model of consistency in his 10-year career with the San Jose Sharks during the regular season, he falters in the postseason. He is not entirely to blame for the Sharks’ failures, but he tends to let in soft goals in big games and can be a bit of a head case.
Nabokov put his inability to perform on the big stage on display during the Winter Olympics, where he was torched for six goals on just 17 shots in Russia’s quarterfinal loss to Canada.
Regardless of how you look at his career, Nabokov’s exodus for smaller and lesser, yet more expensive things is not good for the NHL.
Why is Ilya Kovalchuk tormenting teams and fans alike when everyone knows he’s heading to the New Jersey Devils?
Because he wants to be like LBJ, that’s why.
After the Los Angeles Kings were the original front-runners for Kovalchuk, then they weren't, then they were again, then not, and now apparently they are back in the running, he has still not made a decision. For the record, the Kings are the New York Knicks of this analogy (except the Kings are actually a good team... burn!).
Kovalchuk and his tremendous goal-scoring abilities would turn most teams an automatic contender. However, Kovalchuk and his tremendous lack of respect for anyone's time and patience is turning most sane people into psychotic hockey fans who will do anything to learn where the talented Russian is heading.
Speaking of Russia, Nabokov might not have been a huge loss for the NHL, but if Kovalchuk follows in suit it will not be good by any means for the league.
Some front offices like to shop for new talent during the free agency period, while others like to re-sign players and keep the team intact. Then there are teams that re-sign players that haven’t been any good with that respective club.
First, there is Patrick Lalime.
In two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, Lalime went 9-21-5. His numbers improved slightly during the 2009-10 season, but he was inconsistent early which led to Ryan Miller starting a lot more games than he should have.
Lalime was also the main reason for the Sabres missing the playoffs during the 2009 season after Miller went down with a leg injury.
Next is Olli Jokinen, who is now back with Calgary Flames.
Jokinen’s first stint with the Flames was a bit of a disappointment. After failing to help the Flames in the 2009 postseason and struggling through the first half of the 2010 season, Jokinen was traded to the New York Rangers. He finished with 19 goals and 50 points in 75 games for the Flames to go along with a minus-five rating.
Jokinen had just 15 goals last season, his lowest total since the 2002 season.
The New York Islanders did their best to be contenders on the first day of free agency, but came away empty handed.
Isles general manager Garth Snow started the day by offering defenseman Paul Martin more money than the Pittsburgh Penguins ending up signing him for (five years, $25 million).
Then the Isles also offered defenseman Dan Hamhuis more money than the six-year, $27 million contract he got from the Vancouver Canucks.
Snow made an honest effort and couldn’t have done much more to entice these players to come to Long Island, but the bottom line is that few players want to be part of the rebuilding process. Where Martin and Hamhuis ended up is evidence enough of the fact that players want to be in prime position to win championships as soon as possible.
It is being rumored that the Islanders offered Kovalchuk the 10-year, $100 million contract he wanted, but Kovalchuk obviously has not accepted and seems to be waiting for the Devils to offer a little more.
If there is any truth to the theory that players do not want to be a part of the rebuilding process, then the Isles will be in for one rough free agency period.
While several "big time" players are still waiting for the right deal to come their way, there were a number of "situational" players who were signed off the market almost immediately.
Krys Barch, Raitis Ivanans, Cam Janssen, Zenon Konopka, Brandon Prust, Jody Shelley, and Shawn Thornton are the "situational" players I am referring to—all of whom have been signed already.
There is one thing that these players all have in common—fighting.
These seven players love to throw down, and combined for 145 fights last season, an average of 20.7 fights per person.
If the previously mentioned Islanders did impress me, it was because they went out and signed the leader of this group of fighters. At 6’1”, Konopka is not the tallest fighter in the league, but that didn’t stop him from amassing a league-high 33 fights in 74 games last season.
There is no doubt that several teams believe there is still a place in the game for fighting.