NHL Free Agents 2011: Power Ranking the Top 11 Players Signed So Far

Franklin SteeleAnalyst IIJuly 4, 2011

NHL Free Agents 2011: Power Ranking the Top 11 Players Signed So Far

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    On Friday, the first day of free agency, over five dozen new contracts were handed out.  The cash value of those deals was in the excess of $260 million. 

    And that was before Brad Richards inked his deal on Saturday, and Tomas Vokoun sat on the sidelines contemplating offers.

    In a day that is usually highlighted by super stars switching sides, the complimentary pieces stole the show (and their fair share of dough as well.)  While there wasn't much outright star power to go around, there were plenty of impact players free to go where they chose.

    Checking forwards, penalty killing specialists and backup goaltenders moved quickly as the thin group of shakers and movers were wooed by GMs. Teams were able to address these specific needs and flush out their rosters as they saw fit.

    Or in the case of the Florida Panthers and Philadelphia Flyers, totally overhaul what had been in place a month ago in an attempt to get that much closer to the cap floor or Cup run, respectively.

    With the increase in the cap ceiling, along with several teams dumping salary with the hopes of landing the biggest free agent fish Brad Richards, a lot of top teams had several million dollars to play with, even after signing their own free agents.

    While there were several questionable signings due to both dollar and term, there were also a few outstanding deals that both met the needs of the team and the player at a decent cap number.

    Here are the top deals up to this point in the NHL's free-agency period, version 2011.

Jose Theodore to the Florida Panthers

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    This is a low risk move for the Florida Panthers that could pay off in a pretty legitimate way.

    Jose Theodore may never again return to his former heights of play, but that doesn't mean that he can't come in and help a team win some hockey games.  Two years at $3 million for a guy coming off his best season in recent memory despite playing as a backup isn't too shabby.

    In 2010, he put up a 15-11 record, while sporting a 2.71 GAA to go along with .916 save percentage.

    Not sparkling numbers, but they were remarkably similar to those of starter Niklas Backstrom.  The Wild weren't awful last season, but they weren't outstanding either.  Look for the same type of performance out of this Frankenstein of a Panthers team.

    Theodore will have every chance to win the number one goaltending spot on this young squad, but he'll have plenty of competition from Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom. 

    The Panthers needed a guy who could buy top prospect Markstrom a little more time and still help the team remain competitive without breaking the bank.

    Check, check and check for Theodore.

Ben Eager to the Edmonton Oilers

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    This may be the only headline (granted it's a sub-headline of sorts) Ben Eager signing with the Edmonton Oilers will receive.  With so many bodies moving over the weekend, Eager's signing flew under the radar a bit.

    And I suppose this would make sense.  After all, Eager isn't exactly the offensive stalwart that tend to get the attention during this time of year.

    But it wasn't too long ago that Eager was flying high as part of Chicago's "Killer B's" line and was lifting the Stanley Cup above his head.  What he brings to a young and flashy Oilers team is something that the team desperately needs, and that's a little bit of sandpaper on the wing.

    The $1.1 million worth of insurance to protect the highly touted group of youngsters that Edmonton possesses seems like a fair price to me.  Eager can also score the occasional goal and tends to chip in timely points during the playoffs as well.

    But he isn't in Edmonton to light the lamp—they have plenty of other players to do that.  Eager is there to protect and serve and never stop moving his feet while playing a bottom six checking role.  And he will do all of these things fine.

    Some teams aren't quite sure what they are getting for their money.  The Oilers signing of Eager isn't one of those moves.

Michal Handzus to the San Jose Sharks

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    Michal Handzus is another known commodity that was scooped up during the opening hours of free agency on Friday.

    In Handzus the San Jose Sharks add more size down the middle and have a guy that can play in front of the net on the power play.  His biggest strength though is his penalty killing, and the Sharks will be looking to him to shore up a PK that was one of the worst in the league.

    Handzus won't replace the goals lost with the trading of Devin Setoguchi, but San Jose doesn't need any more of those.  They were one of the higher scoring teams in the league last year (sixth overall), while also playing some sound defensive hockey.

    The Sharks needed help on special teams, and they found just that in the journeyman center.  The term is for two years, for a total of $5 million—a number that will seem miniscule if he is the last missing cog in San Jose after the team landed Brent Burns at the draft via trade.

Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, Daniel Carcillo to the Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Chicago Blackhawks just got a hell of a lot harder to play against.

    Addressing a need that has overshadowed the talented team since the 'Hawks were forced to trade away their grit and sandpaper players after winning the Cup, the team added several veteran forwards that will be able to step in and fill that void immediately.

    Andrew Brunette—he of many Team Steele Fantasy Hockey League Champions fame—has always been one of the more underrated and consistent forwards in the League.  Locking up a 50 or 60 point player for $2 million is a shrewd and mildly spectacular move by Bowman and Co. in Chicago.

    He's only missed two games over the last eight seasons (!) and is a power-play specialist, scoring nearly a third of his points on the man advantage.  While Brunette may not have a lot of name recognition, but he'll be a big help to Duncan Keith and the 'Hawks power play,

    It may seem like overkill to add a guy like this to a top-five power play, but adding a guy with this much experience and net presence at this price tag is a no-brainier.

    The rest of Chicago's moves make them a lot tougher and at a cheap price tag.

    Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo are both a pain to play against.  They are physical, agitating players who can both get under the skin of the opposition and play important roles in the locker room.  Teams that had their ways with Chicago physically last season can kiss those days good bye.

Maxime Talbot to the Philadelphia Flyers

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    In Maxime Talbot the Philadelphia Flyers add a guy who has a knack for playing the unsung hero when it matters most.

    His numbers don't jump off of a page, but his personality does—Talbot jerseys will be flying off the shelves in Philadelphia in no time.  Much to the chagrin of Penguins fans, who will have to watch one of their best penalty killers and a playoff hero suit up for the cross-state rival Flyers.

    He is fourth all-time in shorthanded goals for the Penguins organization, and Philly hopes he can bring the same smarts and wheels to their penalty kill.

    Talbot won't be earning a whole lot of his paycheck during the regular season, however.  He's a proven, clutch playoff performer who has a nose for the net when the going gets tough.  When all the chips are down, and you need a pair of goals scored to win the Cup, you can count on Talbot.

    Adding him to a group of players that includes Chris Pronger, Danny Briere and Jaromir Jagr suddenly creates a contingent of players who have a history of finding a way to get it done come playoff time.

Steve Sullivan to the Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Steve Sullivan is another low risk, high reward move that shines through all the mucky high risk, mediocre reward deals that were given out on July 1st (here's looking at you Joel Ward and Erik Cole).

    Of course, Sullivan isn't low risk because of his durability—two out of the three seasons since his return from missing an entire year with a back injury have been riddled with missing a lot of games.  Last year he skated in only 44 contests, netting 10 goals and 22 points.

    That wasn't enough to warrant an extension in Nashville.  Enter Ray Shero and the Penguins.  Always looking for help on the wings, Sullivan could be a pretty good fit in a top-six role for a team that is desperate for talent on the left side.

    Best case scenario here is obvious: Sullivan remains healthy and pushes over the 20-goal mark for the eighth time in his career while developing chemistry with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.  If he ends up injured, the contract is light enough where it won't leave the Penguins hurting too badly moving forward.

    Good move for both player and team, and that's what we love to see during free-agent frenzy.

Villie Leino to the Buffalo Sabres

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    The last time Villie Leino was pushed out of town due to cap issues, it worked out pretty well for the Philadelphia Flyers.  Buffalo is hoping that Leino can keep that magic going, and produce at or above his current level for the duration of a six-year deal.

    A $4.5 million cap hit comes with some responsibility, and after being a very solid secondary guy for the Flyers, the Sabres will be looking to him to up the ante just a bit. He scored 19 goals without seeing a whole lot of minutes—which could prove to be a positive or a negative for Leino and the Sabres moving forward.

    At 27, he's an emerging young talent that could really pay off for Pegula and the rest of the management team that decided to green light the Leino deal instead of waiting on a choice from Brad Richards. 

    He's a guy who tends to really bring it during the playoffs and has a lengthy Cup run to draw on, experience wise, for a team who is lacking a bit in guys who have "been there and done that."

    But the Sabres have made good on their promise to bring players to the table that will give them a chance to win the whole thing and soon. 

    Leino is now a central part in that promise and will need to take a step forward in his game to really make this deal a boon for both sides.

James Wisniewski to the Columbus Blue Jackets

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    With a few teams really pulling massive roster over hauls this summer, the Blue Jackets have been lost in the noise somewhat after making a blockbuster deal for Jeff Carter right before the NHL draft last week.

    But in adding James Wisniewski to an already underrated blueline, the Jackets have taken two giant leaps forward towards becoming playoff contenders for the next several years.  In Columbus, it's always been Rick Nash and then everyone else.

    But that is slowly changing.

    The team has tried to bring in defensemen before to help solidify their play through the defensive and neutral zones.  But both Adam Foote and Mike Commodore absolutely tanked, leaving the team with much to be desired.

    The Jackets faithful hope that the third time's a charm.

    Now fans in Columbus can look forward to seeing two things for the first time in their franchise's history on opening night.  A No. 1 center in Carter and a true, offensive-minded puck moving presence on the blueline.

    In a league where those two types of players are a hot commodity, the Blue Jackets did themselves well to lock up the tough, smooth skating Wisniewski to a long term deal.  And while some folk maintain that he was overpaid, the upside that Wis has surpasses that of any blueliner.

    The Jackets needed help on the power play, and in getting the puck to their forwards in transition, and they're getting what they pay for here.

Christian Ehrhoff to the Buffalo Sabres

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    Buffalo took another step towards returning to their winning ways by signing the top puck moving blueliner available this summer in Christian Ehrhoff.

    The Sabres land a guy who has seen his points total increase steadily and has already made a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.  While he didn't win it with the Canucks, I'm sure dropping it in a Game 7 is a pretty large motivating factor.

    He joins a steadily improving cast that should be competing for a middle of the pack playoff spot by the end of next season and could honestly do some damage to any team that sleeps on them.

    Out of all the blueliners available, Ehrhoff may be able to make the biggest instant impact on his new team.  While Wisniewski has tremendous upside, the Sabres could have just signed themselves a perennial 50 point defensemen who isn't too shabby in his own end.

    By bringing in Robyn Regehr and Ehrhoff to flesh out a core on the blueline that already boasts the likes of Jordan Leopold and Tyler Myers, Buffalo has set itself up to succed by building from the net out. 

    With all-world goaltender Ryan Miller between the pipes and this contingent in front of him, the Sabres could be one of the better defensive teams in the league.

Brad Richards to the New York Rangers

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    I had to double check the figure.  In that, I'm sure I wasn't alone.

    Brad Richards signed on with the New York Rangers for less than a $7 million cap hit.

    I for one didn't see that coming for a handful of reasons.

    For one, Richards was rumored to be looking for something in the excess of $8 million.  People close to the situation insisted that he wasn't going to take a pay cut to land anywhere in particular, even to go to his old home in Tampa.

    But in the end he appears to have done just that.  I can't be positive, but my gut tells me that he left a pretty sizable contract offer from Toronto on the table when he signed on with the Ranger, reuniting with old head coach John Tortorella.

    And for two, the fact that the Rangers—the undisputed heavyweight champs in handing out ludicrously lucrative contracts to big name free agents—managed to land their big fish without totally breaking the bank

    I mean, this is a good deal.  I can't remember the last time I looked at a Rangers free agent signing and thought to myself, "Yeah, I can see him being worth that."  But I digress.

    With Richards the Rangers are obviously better now than they were a week ago.  They have landed themselves a legit number one center that should be able to set up Marian Gaborik a few times for a few mercilessly pretty goals.

    He's great on the power play, loves to play on the boards, and brings leadership and a Cup Ring to the locker room.  Sure the deal takes him until he is 40, but the deal is very front loaded and makes sense for everyone involved.

    Almost too much sense.  And this would have been the best deal of them all until...

Tomas Vokoun to the Washington Capitals

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    Tomas Vokoun decided to sign in Washington.

    Sometimes thinks work out in an odd way.  Within the first few hours of free agency, Vokoun's phone has stopped ringing for the most part.  Almost all of the teams that were desperately seeking netminders has shored up their needs.

    In an odd twist of fate—and I don't know if this was always the intention or not—the Capitals helped fill the void that a lot of people felt Vokoun would fill, and that was in Colorado.  So July 1st came and went and the best goaltender on the market had no new emblem to fly.

    Heck, even the Florida Panthers went out and replaced him within the opening hours of free agency.

    As Saturday began to roll by, some wondered aloud if we had seen the end of Vokoun in the NHL.  Was this another case of a netminder over thinking their own value, inflating it to the point where no team can come to terms?

    Apparently not.

    In one of the best marriages of convenience in recent memory, the Washington Capitals scooped up the best netminder available for a paltry $1.5 million. And in doing so, arguably, cemented themselves as the front runners of the Eastern Conference.

    This contract is interesting for a few reasons.  It appears that the Caps are saying, "We can win this in one year with Vokoun as our goaltender," and Vokoun is saying, "I can win a Cup in one year with the Caps and greatly increase my own networth."

    A classic case of you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.

    After Washington clipped back their goal scoring and became a more defensive team, this could be a move that puts them over the top.  Any team in the league would take this guy on for $1.5 million without many questions.

    Vokoun joins a team that is ready to take the plunge into the deep end of the playoffs, and he could be the guy to finally take them there.  After years of getting shelved early, both Vokoun and the Capitals are going to be hell bent on making noise come next year's playoffs.

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