The Ilya Kovalchuk watch continues which seems a little surprising since he’s the best scorer out there and everyone seems to be looking for more offense these days. Of course Kovalchuk is too rich for most teams’ blood, but there was still plenty of money around for defensemen on day one of free agency 2010.
Back end guys were in the forefront of things all day and ended up signing contracts worth a collective $152 million, with Ottawa kicking things off by signing away veteran Sergei Gonchar from Pittsburgh only moments after the festivities begun. Gonchar’s age, 36, and his increasing propensity for injuries in the last couple of years make him a bit of a risk for three years at $5.5 million per. But if he stays healthy, Gonchar will be an impact player for Ottawa.
The Penguins, meanwhile eased the pain of losing him by signing a pair of other high-end and much younger defensemen to long term deals at pretty fair-market rates. Pittsburgh’s core around the blue was already pretty good with Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, but its much better now that Paul Martin is locked up for five years and $25 million and Zybnek Michalek is signed for $20 million over the same time. That’s a pretty solid solid and mobile back end.
For their part the Devils didn’t waste any time plugging the hole left by Martin, signing veteran Henrik Tallinder away from Buffalo for $13.75 million over four years, and then adding Anton Volchenkov from Ottawa for $27.5 million over six years. Tallinder is a steady stay-at-home type who will be a mentor for a couple of the young Swedes New Jersey expects to have in its lineup next season, while Volchenkov was among the most sought-after defensemen because of his physical game and shot-blocking talent.
A third Atlantic Division team kept pace on the back end as the Philadelphia Flyers picked up Andrej Meszaros from Tampa Bay from Tampa Bay in a trade, re-signed restricted free agent Braydon Coburn and unrestricted free agent veteran Sean O’Donnell. The Flyers rode two units of defensemen to the Stanley Cup Final, but their inability to get any significant minutes from fifth, sixth and seventh defensemen was a big reason they stumbled at the end. Philadelphia added a versatile tough guy in Jody Shelley, an upgrade from Daniel Carcillo last season.
And not to be outdone, the Vancouver Canucks got in on what was the biggest trend of the day, signing much sought after defenseman Dan Hamhuis, who played last season in Nashville and rejected both the Penguins and the Flyers after they acquired his negotiating rights in the last 10 days. Hamhuis may seem expensive at $27 million for the next six years, but he has more offensive talent than he was able to show in the Predators tight system, he’s only 27 and most important, he hardly ever misses a game.
Hamhuis will join a pretty formidable defense that now includes Keith Ballard, picked up from Florida in a draft day trade, Christian Ehrhoff, Alex Edler and Kevin Bieksa. Roberto Luongo is locked up in goal core forwards Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and Mason Raymond aren’t going anywhere for years. With all the roster-shredding going on now in Chicago, right now there is an argument to be made that the Canucks are the best team in the West.
Not a bad way to come out of the first day of free agency.
Some other thoughts about the first day.
Best reward to risk ratio: San Jose signing goalie Antero Nittymaki for two years and $4 million. He could be next season’s Craig Anderson. Nittymaki had a very good year behind a pretty bad defense in Tampa Bay and showed flashes of brilliance before that in Philadelphia. He was the best goalie of the tournament at the 2006 Olympics but has never really been given a good shot at being a No. 1 in the NHL. He’ll get it in San Jose at 30, an age many goalies really come into their own. And at worst, he’ll split the job with a couple of the Sharks youngsters, and give the team a competent and cost-effective tandem.
Best reward to risk ratio II: Phoenix signing LW Ray Whitney for two years and $6 million. Normally this would be a bargain price for a player who is good for 60 to 70 points a year and just creates a lot of offense. But Whitney is 38 and teams are on the hook for the money to players of his age regardless if they retire. For a financially-challenged team like Phoenix, that has to be a concern, but if Whitney can definitely add some offensive punch to the Coyotes
Perfect landing spot: Colby Armstrong went to the Toronto Maple Leafs for $9 million over three years, a 25 percent raise. He’s gritty, responsible defensively, can score a respectable amount of goals and has a real nasty streak that sometimes goes over the edge. In other words, he’s the kind of player Leafs GM
Biggest miscalculation: Chris Mason was offered $3.25 million a season by the Blues not that long ago and held out for $3.5 million. He made $3 million last season but St. Louis didn’t make the playoffs, so they headed in another direction, trading for Montreal’s playoff hero Jaroslav Halak and then signing the 25-year-old netminder to a long term deal. That set Mason, 34, free and he landed with the improving Atlanta Thrashers, but for only $1.85 million in each of the next two seasons.
Strangest signing: I blogged earlier about the Calgary Flames machinations on day one and their deals certainly could fit this category, but how about the New York Rangers signing Derek Boogaard? And for four years and $6.5 million no less. Boogaard is a 6-foot-8, 275-pound goon who may be one of the league’s toughest guys to fight but does nothing else. He didn’t score a goal last season and has only two in four NHL seasons. You’d think the Rangers would have figured out that these kinds of players do nothing for them after signing Donald Brashear last summer.