Monday, July 03, 2006

The weekend's biggest winners

If you thought the first few days of the free agent shopping would be slow and decided to take the long weekend off and head up to the cottage, I imagine you've come home with your head spinning. Zdeno Chara a Bruin? I know, it’s hard to believe.

It was certainly an interesting 48 hours and with guys like Michael Peca, Sergei Samsonov, Brian Leetch, Jaroslav Spacek, Eric Lindros, Bill Guerin, Brendan Witt, Mark Recchi, Brendan Shanahan, and Anson Carter still without a home, it's far from over.

So here it is: the five teams I think did the best job this weekend. If you missed my maddening, ongoing thoughts on each signing as they occured, don't fret.

1. Vancouver Canucks

Though the Canucks only signed one UFA in Willie Mitchell, Vancouver earned this spot for inking three of their key RFAs to new deals before that as much as any new faces brought in. The Mitchell contract, at $3.5 mil per year over four seasons, will end up being one of the better steals of the shopping season, I believe. He’s a gritty, tough defenceman who will work his ass off every shift and can play against every team’s better forwards with success. Canucks fans know all about this, having seen it first hand in the 2003 playoffs when Mitchell shut down Todd Bertuzzi. Him paired up with Mattias Ohlund should give Western Conference skaters the shakes. Getting Mitchell for $3 million less than it would've cost to keep Ed Jovaovski in the fold will end up being a wise move. Locking up the Sedins with three-year deals for a little more than $3 mil per season should also win Dave Nonis some favor. The twins really came into their own last season, and I’m not of the opinion that Anson Carter was responsible. If anything, he benefited from being paired with them. And the Roberto Luongo contract, though excessive, solidifies for the foreseeable future what’s long been their Achilles’ heel. Luongo still has to prove he’s a playoff goalie, but I can’t see that being an issue, because in the big games he's been thrust into at the international level, the netminded has shined. Their defence has some holes, with the departure of Jovanovski and the loss of Bryan Allen in the Luongo trade (I think they'll miss him more than Bertuzzi), but it sure seems like Nonis is up to the task of filling them.

2. Minnesota Wild

Did someone inhabit Doug Risebrough’s body? In the last week they traded for Pavol Demitra and signed impact players Kim Johnsson and Mark Parrish as well as adding depth to their defence with Keith Carney. Their blueline did take a hit with three of their rearguards (Mitchell, Filip Kuba, and Andrei Zyuzin) leaving for what they think are greener pastures (Kuba for $3 mil per season was one of the more absurd contracts dished out), but I like the enthusiasm and comittment to improving the Wild demonstrated. In all cases, they probably overpaid, but to get most players to come to Minnesota, I guess that is what it takes. Johnsson, at nearly $5 mil per season, is a risk because of his considerable concussion history, but one I would’ve taken if I had their cap room. Johnsson can rush the puck, anchor a powerplay, and has gotten much better in his own zone over the years thanks to playing under Ken Hitchcock. If he’s able to stay healthy, and that may be a big if I know, this deal will look good in retrospect. Parrish going to Minnesota was seen by a lot of people as a lock given he’s a native of the area. He brings something the team desperately needs: pure scoring. He’s a decent sized skater and can use his body but the guy is basically a natural goal scorer and can light the lamp on a consistent basis. Dropping him into that line-up means, right off the bat, Minnesota’s offence improves dramatically. The one that may not have been wise was Keith Carney, who at 36 years old could be on his last legs and therefore a two-year deal worth over $2 mil per could end up being too rich. He struggled in Vancouver last year but perhaps that was just because of the chance of scenery, as when players leave a team they’ve played for for a long time the transition can often be difficult. Carney has a whole summer to get accustomed to his new team and maybe that will make a difference.

3. Boston Bruins

Did they ever send a message to both their fanbase and the rest of the NHL. That message: we’re not fucking around. They devoted over $11 million per season to two players, which could have been too much, but I believe it necessary, and just like that, they’re a measurably better team. $7.5 million is more than I would’ve spent to keep Zdeno Chara in Ottawa (by about $3 million), however, thanks to boneheaded moves by the previous administration, the Bruins were in an unfortunate position where they had to overpay to do what was needed, which in this case was bring in a player of significance. The Nick Boyton for Paul Mara deal they made days earlier with Phoenix will end benefit both clubs I believe but with Chara they suddenly have one of the better bluelines in the league (Chara, Mara, David Tanabe, Brad Stuart, and keen youngsters Andrew Alberts and Milan Jurcina). They’ll need it because I’m not completely sold on Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen as a legitimate goaltending threat for a team contending. Adding Orleans native Marc Savard gives them a playmaking center for Glen Murray to line up with, assuming they don’t decide to deal him. And Shean Donovan, the former 67 workhouse, will provide a strong effort and desire every time he touches the ice. It might just be a new era in Beantown after all.

4. New Jersey Devils

For a couple reasons. The first, Lou appears to have learned his lesson from last summer and isn’t overspending based on name value. It’s a shame others didn’t, but I guess you have to make the mistakes yourself before you realize the error of your ways. Witnessing others do so isn’t enough. Locking up Patrick Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner to lengthy but still reasonable deals makes the Devils big winners in my book. With all the talk of Elias possibly getting close to max money from some teams desperate for his scoring, a seven-year deal at $6 million a year is a tremendous steal and goes to show all the loyalty and familial environment the Devils try to nurture is useful (see Martin Brodeur’s contract for further evidence). Other teams could learn from that as well. Langenbrunner for less than $3 mil is also an excellent deal considering what I would’ve paid for him if I was a GM. The Devils still have their work cut out for them with two very key RFAs to sign in Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta but based on the strength of the weekend’s moves, I doubt it’ll be a problem. By keeping their key pieces in place, the Devils move in the right direction.

5. Nashville Predators

The Preds only really made one move, and that was the previously mentioned signing of Jason Arnott, however, it's one that I'm a big fan of. At this point in his career, Arnott, often labelled a chronic underachiever, finally looks capable of being the number one center he was supposed to be when the Oilers drafted him in the first round 13 years ago. He was the best player on a very good Dallas team last season, and it wasn't because of the pieces around him. In the dozen or so Stars games I saw, it was Arnott elevating the games of those around him. I fully expect him to be able to do the same in Nashville and provide even more leadership to a team that has been knocking on Western Conference supremecy for a few years. They tried to make a run at it this year with Yanic Perreault, Scott Hartnell, and later the recently departed Mike Sillinger in that role, and try as they might have, they simply weren't up to the task. Arnott will be. Tremendous move by David Poile and his crew. Some might think the $4.5 mil per season over five years is a hefty price to pay, but given what he’ll bring to the team, and where he’ll play, it’s more than reasonable to me.


At 7:12 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Most of what you say is correct in pure hockey analysis. However, some of the moves for instance Boston, Vancouver and New Jersey have committed huge percentages of their budget to very few players. On a value for money means of analysis you have to wonder how these teams are going to ice 4 lines and 6 defensemen with the amount of money that they've already committed. I mean only JFJ seems to be Isiah Thomas bad..but still they're painting themselves in a corner and rendering themselves very vulnerable to any RFA's being poached.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

Well then let's look at each case:

1) Vancouver
They've tied up a lot of money in goal, but the big albatross is a contract from last summer, and that's Naslund's $6 million. That's the move I'd make if I was Nonis, assuming there is a market for him. For his $6 mil they can get two top six forwards. Now that Bertuzzi & Jovo are gone, might as well get rid of Naslund as well, as they've pretty much gotten over the whole "WE MUST KEEP THE CORE TOGETHER" nonsense.

The 'Nucks will be close to the cap either way, but what I like about their deals is they've locked up key pieces long-term. Luongo's contract won't look bad, at all, in a few years. The Sedins at just over $3 mil would suck for a one-year contract but a three-year committment is decent. And Mitchell at $3.5 for four years is an excellent arrangement.

2) Minnesota
The only one that doesn't make sense from a financial perspective is Carney, which I said. But they had holes to fill on the blueline, and will be able to fill one with a cheap youngster in their system, so they could afford to spend a little more. Minnesota had a ton of cap room last season so they'll be fine even with the big contracts of Demitra, Johnsson, & Parrish on board.

3) Boston
They overspent, no question. But they had to. However, even with Chara's $7.5 mil, they will be able to ice six d-men due to the relatively cheapness of Alberts & Jurcina. Top of their top six forwards, Boyes & Bergeron, will come cheap considering their role, unless the Bruins are looking to lock them in long-term, which I can't see them doing until next summer at least. No need to do it now. The problem for them will be if Zhamnov doesn't retire and they're on the hook for that salary, but all indications seem to be that he will. I have to think they wouldn't be so stupid to make these moves unless they were certain that was the case, however, NHL execs do dumb things all the time.

4) New Jersey
They'll be close, but they had to keep Elias, and $6 million for seven years is tremendous. If it was a two or three year deal at that price I might feel otherwise but at the rate salaries seem to be escalating, getting one of the 10 best forwards in the NHL at that price for so long seems great to me. Either way, they too will be close against the cap, but that's just tha nature of what they do. When you develop players as well as the Devils do, and you want to keep at least some of them and not just for sentimental reasons, it'll cost ya.

5) Nashville was far under the cap last season, so the big Arnott contract won't hurt them in that sense. It might seem excessive to pay Jason Arnott $4.5 million but he's going to be their #1 center, and that's the going rate.


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