NHL Free Agents 2011: Winners and Losers After Day Four

Andrew EideCorrespondent IJuly 5, 2011

NHL Free Agents 2011: Winners and Losers After Day Four

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    The NHL free agency blitz began on Canada Day, July 1st, with a frenzy of signings and a lot of loonies and dollar bills thrown around. 

    Three days later, the dust and gun smoke, have cleared and we can begin to see which teams have bettered themselves and which teams have hindered their quest for the cup.  There are still some juicy free agents out there, but so far there are some clear winners and losers.

    Friday saw a lot of money thrown around to players who, while good, may not have been worth the cap hits they took on.  Was this desperation by the NHL teams or did the recently raised cap floor have something to do with it? (Looking in your direction Florida Panthers)

    Whatever the case, the frenzy brought about an exciting and fun flurry of activity.  Reading the Twitter feeds has never been more exciting.

    In reality we need to wait several more months, or even years to see which deals were good or not, but where is the fun in that?

    So here are the winners and loser so far.  Feel free to note anyone missed or express your outrage in the comments section.

Winners: Washington Capitals

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    The Washington Capitals have been one of the league's top regular season teams the past couple of years.  Unfortunately they have bowed out early in the playoffs and are becoming the poster children of under-achieving.

    With a loaded roster they seem like they are on the door step and so far this off season they have made some excellent moves to try and get over the hump.

    They were able to resign Brooks Laich, who without a doubt would have been a target on the open market and then added Joel Ward from Nashville, Roman Hamrlik to improve their defense, and shored up their shaky goal tending by signing veteran Tomas Vokun from Florida.

    These moves all will make the Capitals better, which is saying something. 

    They are hoping that Laich can regain his scoring touch from two years ago and that Ward's 13 points in 12 games playoff performance is a sign of what he can do on a more offensive minded team.

    Vokun gives the Capitals something they haven't had since Olak Kolzig minded the nets, an elite goaltender.

    To make things even better they were able to convince the Colorado Avalanche that goalie Semyon Varlamov was worth a first and second rounder.  If Colorado struggles again this year, and they should, those will be top notch picks allowing the Capitals to re-stock their roster.

Losers: Florida Panthers

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    The Panthers spent a lot of money and picked up a number of named players.  At first glance you would have to say they were winners.

    And yes, these moves will be improvements, but were they sound?

    They threw a ton of cash around to mostly aging veterans in deals that could come back to haunt them.  It appears that their main concern was meeting the salary cap floor.

    They picked up Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc, Ed Jovanoski, Jose Theodore, Scottie Upshall, Thomas Fleischmann,  and Sean Bergenheim.

    Panthers fans are going to need a program this year.

    In all these deals totaled nearly $80 million in salaries.  That’s quite a bit, but you have to wonder in the sanity of giving a 35 year old Jovanoski a 4 year $16.5 million contract.  Jovanoski scored 14 points last year so the Panthers are spending over a million per point. 

    Of all these moves the Bergenheim signing is the best, he is still young and an emerging young player coming off a solid playoffs.

    By signing aging veterans to big contracts the Panthers are banking on them staying healthy, if they don’t this weekend will turn out to be a disaster.

Winner: Brad Richards

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    Brad Richards is a really good player.  Is he a superstar? Debatable. 

    Would he be if he played in a big market? We are about to find out.

    Richards is a winner because somehow he convinced several teams that he was worth throwing the bank at.  He had a lot of suitors who were pulling out all stops to ink him.

    The LA Kings gave him the full court press, sending players to talk to him to extol the wonders of playing hockey in the California sunshine.

    In the end the New York Rangers won the sweepstakes and signed Richards to a front loaded 9 year $59 million contract.

    Whether this makes the Rangers contenders or not is open to debate, but the deal was very good for Richards.

    Richards wanted to play for a high profile team in an established hockey market.  He got that along with an elite contract.

    Some of this is surprising as Richards is good, really good, but no great.  He will play along side Marian Gaborik, and the hope is that Richards play making ability will allow Gaborik to reach his potential.

    Still, it seems that this move alone isn’t enough to put the Rangers over the top in the East where they still are looking up at Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington and Tampa Bay.

    Either way, Richards wins.  If the Rangers become contenders he gets to play important hockey on one of the biggest stages, but even if that doesn’t happen, he has cashed in.

Loser: Vancouver Canucks

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    The Canucks came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup last year.  At least that’s what the sports almanac will say.

    Anyone who watched the finals saw that the Canucks need some improvement.  Specifically in their top six forwards they need a scoring winger or two to play with Ryan Kesler.

    So far in a free agency frenzy full of big splashes the Canucks have managed only a small ripple.

    It wasn’t all bad though. 

    They were able to retain defenseman Kevin Bieksa by re-signing him before he was able to hit the market.  They also retained winger Chris Higgins who had a somewhat productive playoffs, before disappearing like many of his team mates in the finals.

    They took a hit when Christian Erhoff bolted for Buffalo, who threw the bank at him, which leaves a hole on their blue line and power play.

    As far as new players their big haul was Marco Sturm, who they signed to a cap friendly, one year deal.  Strum is two years removed from a 22 goal season with Boston, but injuries limited him to only 35 games last year and one wonders if he is a top six forward that Vancouver is desperate for.

    With as quiet as the Canucks have been you have to wonder if they are looking to make a deal this summer. 

    They still have Cory Schneider under contract, and seeing what Colorado gave up for Varlamov you would think the Canucks could bring in some quality for Schneider.

    They will need to, as the rest of the West has improved and the Canucks will have a tougher road back to the finals. 

Winner: Philadelphia Flyers

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    The Flyers made a big splash at the NHL draft by unloading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter in a stunning turn of events. 

    These moves left some big holes to fill.

    They did a good job of re-stocking by picking up Wayne Simmonds (in the Richards trade), Ilya Bryzgalov, Jaromir Jagr, Max Talbot and defenseman Andreas Lilja .

    Jagr could be the key here.  If he has anything left in the tank after spending a few years in the KHL he could end up being a steal for the Flyers. 

    Talbot and Simmonds seem born to play for the Flyers and you have to wonder how Talbot will fare against his now rivals, the Penguins.

    Bryzgalov provides the Flyers with some much needed stability between the pipes.  After last playoffs revolving door in the crease the Flyers needed to bring in a dependable, and elite goalie.

    The Flyers are playing chemist this year, mixing and matching new parts and it will be interesting to see how they make out.  On paper, so far, they are clear winners.

Loser: Dany Heatley

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    The Sharks unloaded Danny Heatley to Minnesota for Martin Havlat.  Heatley has been putting on a good face, saying all the right things in the press about being excited to play for the Wild.

    Has anyone ever actually been “excited” to play for the Wild?

    This marks an incredible roller coaster ride for Danny Heatley, who appears to have been jettisoned by the Sharks.

    Once a sought after player while in Ottawa, he was plucked up by San Jose and fit right into a line with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.  That line was good enough to end up on Team Canada in the Olympics.

    Nearly  a year later, Heatley, and his inflated salary were shipped away for Havlat.  Havlat is a decent player but does not have a resume nearly as impressive as Heatley’s.

    So why this move?

    Heatley struggled mightily during the playoffs and one has to wonder if that was the final straw for the Sharks.  The Sharks have come up short in the conference finals two years in a row and last year Heatley, one of their big guns, was invisible.

    Is this an over-reaction by the Sharks? Possibly, but for Heatley he has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse in two short years, putting him on this list.

Losers: Nashville Predators

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    In last season’s playoffs the Predators finally broke through and won a playoff series.  They bowed out to Vancouver in the second round but the future was beginning to look bright.

    They had a tough, physical defensive team that just needed some scoring to be really dangerous. 

    So far this off season they have yet to land that goal scoring and have only seen their annual exodus of players out of Nashville.

    They lost key contributors like Joel Ward, Marcel Goc, Cody Franson and Steve Sullivan.  In return? Nothing.

    The big worry now has to be what becomes of Shea Weber. 

    The Predators were able to protect Weber by filing for arbitration with the Norris trophy nominee.  This will allow them to retain him for at least another year.

    Weber has stated his desire to remain in Nashville, but you have to wonder if he will still feel that way if the club doesn’t beef up its roster. 

    So far, they have failed to do so and only look like they are taking a step backwards.

Winners: San Jose Sharks

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    The Sharks are winners, more for their trades than any free agent signings. But since they all happened in the last weekend or so, they end up on this list.

    The big move they made was dealing Dany Heatley to Minnesota for Martin Havlat. Heatley took a lot of heat for last year’s poor playoff performance, and it appears that the Sharks have decided that enough was enough.

    They bring in Havlat, whose 62 points last season were nearly identical to Heatley’s. But the fact that they will pay $3 million less for Havlat's similar production is what makes this a good deal for the Sharks.

    On top of that, Havlat did not have the luxury of playing alongside a play maker like Joe Thornton while in Minnesota. Teaming with Big Joe might turn Havlat into a steal for the Sharks.

    San Jose also was able to bring in defenseman Brent Burns, also from Minnesota, on draft day.  The Sharks were is desperate need for a puck-moving blue liner, and in Burns they now have that. In their conference finals loss to Vancouver, the Sharks were a turnover machine, and this move will help improve upon that.

    The Sharks did sign a free agent of note in Michal Handzus to add some depth and to improve their woeful penalty kill.

    The big key for the Sharks may be whether the Heatley deal pays off. On paper, it freed up some cap space and has helped shed them of a playoff disappointment. Those are two good things that makes them winners.