NHL Free Agency 2011: Southern Teams Dominate Signings During Opening Day

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NHL Free Agency 2011: Southern Teams Dominate Signings During Opening Day
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New studies now show that hot temperatures in fact make NHL GM's more likely to spend.

Well, perhaps those reports are still a bit unconfirmed. Still, though, the opening day of NHL Free Agency 2011 made it seem so, as a few unexpected southern teams from across the United States took the league by storm to dominate an insane Opening Day.

Leading the hot weather crew were the Florida Panthers, who found it difficult to go 15 minutes without considering themselves too inactive and pulling another move. New GM Dave Tallon re-united himself with some players, went after several more-overlooked targets, battled for the biggest names, and even let some disposable players walk away; in essence, he did it all.

New Panthers will soon be arriving in from all corners of the country, from Minnesota to Phoenix to Philadelphia. Tallon dished out over $24 million in cap hits to eight new arrivals today in addition to the $7.0 million that Brian Campbell will earn after his trade to Florida a week ago, and he probably isn't done yet.

For Florida season ticket holders with seats along the sideboards, we advise you to take a glance at some of the new names in town so you won't worry that you drove to the wrong arena for the home opener, because the wings, without doubt, had the biggest overhaul during Tallon's frenzy.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Former Flyer Kris Versteeg is one of a slew of new players headed to Florida.

Tomas Kopecky, whose rights came in a trade from Chicago on Wednesday, was signed to a four-year contract worth $3.0 million per season this morning. He was soon followed by Scottie Upshall, who was signed away from Phoenix mid-afternoon with another four-year deal worth $3.5 million per season.

Tallon then added in a reunion date with former signee Kris Versteeg to his calendar, acquiring him and his one remaining contract year (worth $3.1 million) in a deal from Philadelphia, sending 2012 second- and third-round picks in exchange. Just a couple of minutes later, the Panthers gave former Avalanche winger Tomas Fleischmann a four-year contract worth $4.5 million per season, surpassing David Booth for the highest paid forward on the roster. And to cap off the flood of forwards, 2011 postseason breakout star Sean Bergenheim was rewarded with a massive pay raise and a four-year, $11 million deal, carrying a cap hit of $2.75 million.

But that wasn't all.

With Tomas Vokoun in all likelihood departing this summer, Florida added some insurance to the goaltending situation with former Minnesota and Washington netminder Jose Theodore, given a two-year, $1.5 million-per-season cap hit contract. Tallon awarded Campbell with a suitable first-pairing partner in Ed Jovanovski, who agreed to a ludicrous four-year, $16.5 million offer at age 35. Finally, the Cats finished off the day by adding some depth at center in Marcel Goc, inked to a three-year deal with a salary of $1.7 million for each.

Which southern team came out of the best on Opening Day?

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While the Florida roster chart—and checkbook balance—struggled to keep up, Tallon quietly cleaned up a couple former Panthers that no longer fit in with the re-created team: aging forward Darcy Hordichuk heads to Edmonton, while Marty Reasoner is bound for Long Island, N.Y., joining draft tradee Ratislav Olesz (sent to Chicago for Campbell) on the list of rejects out of Sunrise, FL.

Meanwhile, 1,093 miles away but the same on the thermometer was Dallas, TX, where Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk was running a steady stream of free agent acquisitions for his own reconstructed team.

The Stars, with plenty of cap space to work with, brought in six NHL-ers of their own without letting anyone walk. For Dallas, though, it was about creating an experienced lineup that knows how to win and has done so in the past.

Nieuwendyk completely re-created his third and fourth forward lines by nabbing former Coyote Vernon Fiddler (three years at $1.8 million each), '10-'11 Panther Radek Dvorak (one year at $1.5 million) and Jake Dowell (one year, $0.8 million) from Chicago.

The signing of Michael Ryder, in addition to those others, for two years at $3.5 million each will add another scoring touch and a still-fresh Cup victory to the Stars' unit of top six forwards. After the five additions to Dallas' collection of now 15 forwards, they'll have plenty of flexibility and depth—and cap hits—to manage this season.

Jimmy Jeong/Getty Images
Sheldon Souray is a risky but possibly brilliant small-contract signing for the Stars.

Nevertheless, it wasn't just the scorers that grabbed the headlines in Texas today. Past superstar and more recent salary dump Sheldon Souray will add a ton of name recognition, experience, and skill, even if some of that has diminished by now with age, to a rather young and makeshift defense. The signing out Adam Pardy out of Calgary will also give a new option for the third pairing.

Incredibly, the Stars were able to pull off all of these Opening Day signings without letting a single player walk. While UFA's Brad Richards, Jamie Langenbrunner, and a few other minor players are all long gone and will eventually be signed elsewhere, the Stars were able to keep their RFA's on hold while they completely re-made a new roster for the team... and that, in itself, is impressive.

Yet, as it turned out, even the Stars and Panthers together weren't enough to turn all of the heads around the league and bring all other transactions to a standstill.

Another "heat belt" team—this time, the Phoenix Coyotes—were plenty active on their own. Led by GM Don Maloney, the 'Yotes were able to fill holes at forward and goaltender in a matter of 20 minutes. 2011 Conference Champion veteran winger Raffi Torres and depth center Boyd Gordon were signed to two-year deals worth $3.5 and $2.65 million total, respectively, in draw them away from Vancouver and Washington, also respectively. Then, short-time UFA Radim Vrbata was re-signed to a three-year, $9.0 million contract to keep him in the place he plays best: the desert.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
Semyon Varlamov earned quite a nice return for his former team as he departs to a rather unanticipated location: Colorado.

Sandwiched in-between the three contracts given to the forwards was the acquisition of free agent Mike Smith through a two-year, $4.0 million deal, who, despite never being able to handle a full starting job in many years with Tampa Bay, will add competition to Jason LaBarbera and create an iffy but usable netminding duo.

Back on the East Coast, two Southeast Division teams—the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes—made their mark on free agency during Opening Day.

The Capitals made some of the biggest headlines by shipping young, promising goalie Semyon Varlamov, once reportedly headed back to Russia for the upcoming season, to the Colorado Avalanche. GM George McPhee was able to get a great return on the trade, ending up with the Avs' 2012 first- and second-round draft selections.

McPhee also made the best use possible of some depleted salary cap room by signing three 30-year-old-plus players to solve perhaps the Caps' biggest issue: lack of previous success. The 36-year-old former Capital, Jeff Halpern, comes from Montreal to earn a one-year, $825,000 deal, while gritty 31-year-old Joel Ward out of Nashville received a four-year contract paying $3.0 million each season. The two will add a winning attitude—and some points, as well—to the forwards unit in the nation's capital.

On defense, the new kid in town (even if "kid" isn't the right term) is yet another veteran. The 'Caps second steal of the day out of Montreal is Roman Hamrlik, 35, who gets a two-year deal carrying a $3.5 million cap hit. Hamrlik may be a bit overpriced, but the experience he brings just might be worth it.

Paul Bereswill/Getty Images
Brian Boucher will hopefully be able to give Cam Ward more rest than the 74 games he started last year.

Down in Raleigh, NC, the trend of re-vamped teams across the typically-weak division continued as the 'Canes quietly filled their four most prominent holes all in a four hour time period.

Contracts of two-years, $1.5 million, one-year, $1.5 million, one-year, $0.55 million and two-years, $1.9 million were handed out to Tim Brent, brought in fill a lack of depth at center and provide support on faceoffs, Alexei Ponikarovsky, added to fill a need for mid-line wingers with potential, Jiri Tlusty, eventually re-signed to keep the youth level prominent, and Brian Boucher, inked as a much-needed veteran backup netminder to give franchise cornerstone Cam Ward a break, respectively.

Even as clutch scorer Erik Cole signed with the Habs (though for an erroneous sum), the 'Canes, after scrambling to re-sign Joni Pitkanen, Chad LaRose and Jussi Jokinen over the past few days, can feel very content with their Opening Day performance... just as quite a few other hockey teams across the South should.

While free agency still has a long way to go, it's certainly refreshing to see such unexpected franchises capture the spotlight of the much-awaited July 1st—also a sign that some perennial dynasties might be in for some more competition come next autumn.

And even if it's not yet proven, either, we're starting to learn that cash might not melt in the heat quite as fast as ice does.

 

Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his 34 months so far with the site, he has written over 285 articles and received over 315,000 total reads.

Visit his profile to read more.

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