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NHL Free Agency: Big names highlight fast-paced first day

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Thomas Vanek was one of many star players landing with a new team Tuesday. (USATSI)
Thomas Vanek was one of many star players landing with a new team Tuesday. (USATSI)

More NHL Offseason: NHL rumors | Rumor mill | Trade Tracker | 2014-15 preseason odds

If Tuesday showed anything, it's that the NHL made a great call in granting teams a chance to speak with pending free agents ahead of the opening day of the signing period. The first day teams were eligible to sign free agents was full of twists, turns and the high drama the league wants to stay relevant when teams aren't playing games.

Most of the big-name free agents that were available found new homes Tuesday, many with lucrative price tags attached.

Interestingly enough, the day began not with a signing, but with a rather sizable trade. Jason Spezza was shipped from the Ottawa Senators to the Dallas Stars in exchange for a package that included Alex Chiasson. That really set the tone for what came to be one of the wildest days in a long time in the NHL offseason.

Top prizes didn't last long, either. Reports of signed deals flooded TVs and Twitter feeds minutes after the clock hit noon to officially open the market.

Christian Ehrhoff was the first name off the board as the former Buffalo Sabres defenseman signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. His being surprisingly bought out by the Sabres just days prior to free agency opened seemed like it really could alter the market for defensemen.

Ehrhoff's availability certainly didn't hinder Matt Niskanen from getting what he wanted. The top UFA defenseman was one of the later signings among the big names, but he got his desired seven-year deal from the Washington Capitals. Niskanen will make $40.25 million over the life of the contract – the most expensive deal doled out on Tuesday. That's a salary that few would have likely believed possible heading into last season. The Penguins actually replaced Niskanen before he was officially gone when they nabbed Ehrhoff, too.

One of the most intriguing forwards available, Paul Stastny, also the top center among free agents, also changed addresses. Not long into the signing period, the 28-year-old signed a four-year, $28 million deal with his hometown St. Louis Blues after eight years with the Colorado Avalanche. His $7 million annual average offered him a raise the Avalanche couldn't afford and gave him the highest cap hit of any player signed Tuesday.

The top goalie available in free agency also found a new home early on Day 1. Ryan Miller signed a three-year, $18 million agreement to join the Vancouver Canucks. He'll head into a rather tenuous franchise looking to rebuild a bit, but there weren't many options for the 33-year-old veteran.

A little later in the day, Thomas Vanek ended up signing with the team everyone seemed to believe he would end up with. He'll return to the Twin Cities after his NHL career took him away from where he spent his college days with the University of Minnesota hockey team. Vanek signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Wild and bolsters an increasingly potent forward lineup.

Those were just a few of the big names that made moves on July 1, here's a look at the 10 most expensive contracts doled out by annual average:

1. Paul Stastny, C, St. Louis Blues – 4 years, $28 million (AAV: $7 million)

2. Thomas Vanek, LW, Minnesota Wild – 3 years, $19.5 million ($6.5 million)

3. Ryan Miller, G, Vancouver Canucks – 3 years, $18 million ($6 million)

4. Matt Niskanen, D, Washington Capitals, 7 years, $40.25 million ($5.75 million)

5. Brooks Orpik, D, Washington Capitals, 5 years, $27.5 million ($5.5 million)

6. Dave Bolland, C, Florida Panthers, 5 years, $27.5 million ($5.5 million)

7. Jarome Iginla, RW, Colorado Avalanche, 3 years, $16 million ($5.33 million)

8. Matt Moulson, LW, Buffalo Sabres, 5 years, $25 million ($5 million)

9. Mike Cammalleri, LW, New Jersey Devils, 5 years, $25 million ($5 million)

10. Anton Stralman, D, Tampa Bay Lightning, 5 years, $22.5 million ($4.5 million)

Looking at this list, it seems like Brooks Orpik and Dave Bolland stick out like sore thumbs, but there they are right in the middle there. There's good reason to believe both those players are on the downsides of their careers and they got major raises and term. How those play out over the life of those contracts is really up in the air, but both look incredibly risky.

The Miller contract is a curious one as well as there were so few options for him. It's hard to believe the Canucks had a lot of competition for Miller after his backslide with the St. Louis Blues last season. Not only that, but most teams are set at the goalie position. The Canucks needed to improve in net, but after dealing away Ryan Kesler and Jason Garrison, GM Jim Benning signaled a bit of a miniature rebuild going in Vancouver. The Miller signing suggests otherwise. Throwing $6 million a year at a goalie heading into the late stages of his career doesn't seem the most sensible thing to do.

Overpaying is part of being active in free agency, though. Teams that had needs have to pay a premium, which is why you always hear about championship teams not being built through free agency. Sure, teams will sometimes find that last piece from time to time, but burning cap space on players with well-above value contracts in this day and age just doesn't seem to work.

When a team doesn't get the headlines on signing day, it's not always a bad thing, even though it looks like they're not doing anything. In the salary cap era, improving the team requires delicate maneuvering instead of exorbitant spending.

With that in mind, here's a look at four value buys that may work out really well for the signing teams, at least in the short term:

1. Brad Richards, C, Chicago Blackhawks, 1 year, $2 million

With Richards collecting buyout money from the Rangers, he can afford to take short-term, low-money deals and not feel the sting too badly. This was a gigantic pay-cut, however, and is incredibly low-risk to the Blackhawks. Richards will have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup again, while likely filling the No. 2 center position which had been a black hole for Chicago for years.

2. Ales Hemsky, RW, Dallas Stars, 3 years, $12 million (AAV: $4 million)

Though Hemsky has always been a hard player to get a read on, his 20 games in Ottawa last year showed that if you get him in the right situation, with the right players, he can make an impact. By getting Hemsky at a slight annual pay-cut, the Stars continued to build their second line for next season. The trade that landed them Jason Spezza is bolstered by the Hemsky signing. The super-skilled winger should do really well with a group that includes Tyler Seguin, Jamie Bennand now Spezza. The Stars aren't a one-line team anymore.

3. Christian Ehrhoff, D, Pittsburgh Penguins, 1 year, $4 million

Ehrhoff was a big name that had only just recently come to be available via buyout from the Sabres. By getting him for one year and just a $4 million cap hit, the Penguins softened the blow of losing both Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik and may yet be able to improve their defensive corps. Ehrhoff is a fantastic puck-mover and should see his numbers tick up with the litany of players he'll have to get the puck to. It's hard to believe Ehrhoff wouldn't have had better offers out there, including some longer-term ones. It turns out that bought out players can be a great value pickup.

4. Tom Gilbert, D, Montreal Canadiens, 2 years, $5.6 million (AAV: $2.8 million)

With P.K. Subban left to sign and Josh Gorges shipped out of town, Gilbert is an under-the-radar addition that could bring great value for the money spent. He put up 28 points in 73 games on a very poor Panthers team, but he could flourish with a more talented group in Minnesota. More interestingly, Gilbert was a positive possession player on that same Panthers club. He's 31 years old, has good size at 6-foot-2, 206 pounds and with good mobility. He'll help the Habs at a minimal cost.

After all the action today, here's a look at some of the top free agents still left unsigned after the first day:

1. Radim Vrbata, RW, 2013-14 stats: 80 GP, 20-31—51, 22 PIM

2. Mikhail Grabovski, C, 2013-14 stats: 58 GP, 12-22-35, 26 PIM

3. Mike Ribeiro, C, 2013-14 stats: 80 GP, 16-31—47, 52 PIM

4. David Legwand, C, 2013-14 stats: 83 GP, 14-37—51, 61 PIM

5. Lee Stempniak, RW, 2013-14 stats: 73 GP 12-22—34, 32 PIM

6. Olli Jokinen, C, 2013-14 stats: 82 GP, 18-25—43, 62 PIM

7. Dustin Penner, LW, 2013-14 stats: 67 GP, 14-21—35, 30 PIM

8. Dany Heatley, LW, 2013-14 stats: 76 GP, 12-16—28, 18 PIM

9. Chris Butler, D, 2013-14 stats: 82 GP, 2-14—16, 39 PIM

10. Steve Ott, C, 2013-14 stats: 82 GP, 9-14—23, 92 PIM

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