July 03, 2009

2009 NHL Free Agency

I am in from camping for a little bit. I wanted to keep up with most of the NHL free agency news. No doubt you have too, following all the happenings on national television or on other top websites.

Here's just a few thoughts:

1. Daniel and Henrik Sedin stay in Vancouver. I can not emphasize enough how happy I am with this move. My long time readers know I am a life long Vancouver Canucks fan, and I also am a fan of the increasingly rare days when the core of a hockey team stayed together for a generation. I truly despise all the player movement that there is nowadays. Maybe I am just an old fogey talking, but I can't seem to form an emotional bond to a particular team when the key players are constantly changing. One season the player is supposed to be our hero, the next he is the arch enemy, and vice versa. The Sedins represent an emotional attachment for me and for many other Canucks fans. Many Canucks fans felt the same about Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, but for me the emotional ties have been lacking since Mike Keenan and Mark Messier chased Trevor Linden and Martin Gelinas out of town. I always want the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup, but I want to see the Sedins factor in that significantly.

Of course, hockey decisions have to me made with the mind, not the heart. Taking the emotion out of it I do realize the Sedins are not quite at hockey's highest elite level with the Sidney Crosbys and Alexander Ovechkins. But in the summer of 2009, I truly believe keeping the Sedins was the smartest thing the Canucks could do.

The 2009 free agency pool really lacked star power. Of the big names to switch teams, I would only place Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik and Jay Bouwmeester ahead of the Sedins. Had the Canucks either let the Sedins go, they would be forced to enter the bidding war for Hossa and Gaborik, almost certainly overpaying. The Sedins are the Canucks top line, the heart of their offense. Replacing them would mark a huge cultural change. Some fans argue with merit that that change needed to take place, but there was no real replacements in line.

Hossa would have been a 12 year commitment. Gaborik would likely have been an $8M commitment, a ridiculous sum for such an injury prone player. In the Sedins the Canucks kept their top two forwards. They are very good on offense and quite solid on defense. They are remarkably durable, rarely missing a shift let alone a game. They can be counted for 160 points. They are very popular in Vancouver, a solid piece of any marketing campaign.

At $6.1M each, they come in at a cap friendly number for first line players. Five years is just about perfect for each party. The Canucks get them for the remainder of their prime years, but are not committed to their declining years. The Sedins will be 33 when they are next up for contract talks. That could give them one last shot at big cash call to finish their careers.

All in all, a good deal for both sides, and for the fans.

2. Tampa Bay Makes A Smart Move. I can't believe I'm going to say this, but for the first time in the Koules/Barrie/Lawton disastrous reign of error, the Tampa Bay Lightning made a real nice move signing Mattias Ohlund. After acquiring giant Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman with a no brainer of a draft selection, I kind of worried about Hedman (or any other young player) entering the Tampa Bay mess. But after watching Ohlund very closely for all of his career, I can certainly attest that there is no better defenseman to take Hedman under his wings. Ohlund is an extremely competent defenseman in all areas, though flashy in none. Even before this move I saw Hedman as a bigger version of Ohlund. Having Ohlund mentor Hedman is a very good thing for Tampa Bay Lightning fans.

The Bolts also got Matt Walker at $1.7M a year for 4 years. Walker impressed in Chicago after seemingly coming out of nowhere. I like Walker's play and intensity, but I hope his progress does not stall in Tampa. In Chicago he had gotten a lot of good coaching from Joel Quenneville. Coach Q is not only one of the best coaches in the game, but a former long time NHL rearguard himself, playing a similar style to that of Walker.

One question though - How is it any player can sign with a new team just 15 minutes after the deadline has passed? I suspect the Canucks allowed Ohlund to talk with any team in advance, out of respect for his many years of service. But does anyone really believe teams and players and agents aren't talking to each other before they are supposedly allowed to talk?

3. Colorado Snags Craig Anderson. It was hardly the biggest news of the day, but I think it may have been the savviest. Looking to improve their goaltending situation, the Colorado Avalanche are rolling the dice on Craig Anderson with a 2 year deal worth $1.8M per year. I really like Anderson, as he has shown in the past couple of seasons that he may be ready for the big time. He had a real strong season with at-times struggling Florida team last year. The Avalanche are weaker than the Panthers, so improving the blue line in front of him is necessary. But I think when we look back at the free agency signings a year from now we will be saying Craig Anderson was a real steal.

4. The Marians. I already touched on the Marians a bit in my Sedin commentary. Why any team signs any player to 12 year contracts I do not understand. I realize this is done to lower the salary cap number, but has no one noticed that NY Islanders goalie Rick Dipietro basically has not played in 2 years after signing a 15 year contract. The injury does allow for cap relief at some point, but in the mean time it becomes very hard to replace their contributions to the line up. As for Gaborik, he may be one of the top 5 most dynamic players in the NHL, and he will finally be set free from the stifling Minnesota system. I hope he does well, because it will be fun to watch. But history tells us he will miss a lot of time with injuries. At $7.5M a season that could be a costly gamble.

5. Montreal's new look. The new era in Montreal seems to be about overpaying. First they acquired Scotty Gomez in a trade. Forget about his ridiculously inflated $8M per year salary, they actually had to give up at least one good prospect in addition to solid player Chris Higgins to get him. Then they went out and landed his old New Jersey linemate Brian Gionta, who at 5'8" is hardly the remedy for the Habs size and grit problem. And they're paying him $5M a year even though his goal scoring totals have dwindled significantly since the lockout? Sharpshooter Mike Cammalleri may look good on Gomez's left wing. At $6M he better have a good season to earn that money.

That's a grand total of $19M a year for Canadiens' new first line. That will only add to unbelievable pressure in Montreal.

Some other quick observations:

- Substituting Martin Havlat for Gaborik in Minnesota was a smart move. They are in many ways identical players, but Havlat saves the Wild $2M to $3M a year.

- Brian Burke could only land Mike Komisarek, a nice addition and at a better price than I expected. There is always a premium on defenseman when it comes to free agency. Still, why is it so many star players avoid Toronto?

- Mike Knuble's big body presence will be a nice fit in Washington.

- Karlis Skrastins may be the most underrated player in the league. Good job Dallas

- Erik Cole's best days are behind him, but he still works really well with Eric Staal. Cole's $2.9M contract is much friendlier now.

- Edmonton tried to make some noise by signing the biggest name on the goaltending UFA list. The market was all theirs really, as not a lot of teams were looking for a starting goalie. There was not a lot to choose from, either. Still, Edmonton is now on the hook for 4 years of an aging Nikolai Khabibulin. He played very well last year, but has been up and down over his career. I don't like Edmonton's gamble. If they wanted a veteran goalie, they should have ponied up to keep Dwayne Roloson.

- Roloson is headed to the Islanders with a two year deal by the way. Remember what I said earlier about team's not learning from the Rick Dipietro contract. Signing Roloson must mean the Islanders are fearing Dipietro's days are done.

- Montreal also upgraded their defense signing Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill at decent numbers. Both are solid veterans, but, despite Gill's intimidating size, neither are punishing physical players. Montreal has lacked grit for years, and will continue to be a middle of the pack team until they get some sandpaper.

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