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Neutral Zone Wrap: Offseason Review

Evan Berofsky

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Whatever We Can't Sign Will Only Make Us Stronger

The summer free agency period used to be so simple. When July 1st rolled around, several suitors would ambush the big names and they'd be signed in the next day or two. Even in the current cap era, most clubs have been able to fill out their rosters within a couple of weeks. However, the latest spending spree hasn't gone quite as planned.

If you're a fan or general manager for any of the 30 clubs, then you've probably been taken hostage by the allure of certain free agents. Curious to see if Lee Stempniak can continue his progress? Well, he's still unsigned. Wanna take a chance on Marty Turco? Go for it. How about taking a run at Alexander Frolov? Grab a pen, a sack of money, and meet me in the back alley.

We usually split up the review into teams and players but since the various destination dilemmas have dragged on, the two sections have been combined in one column for maximum efficiency. And it's better for the economy.

Let's start with the teams (not all of them), where we'll be covering players acquired via free agency, trades, and other means of coercion:

All the Right Moves

Getting the right pieces to fit and not spending a ton to do so. Think shopping at Wal-Mart when others are blowing dough at Tiffany's:

Atlanta: Chris Mason (2 years, $3.7 million) can shoulder the load in case Ondrej Pavelec bolts or starts to slump. A boatload of RFAs to lock up, including recent acquisitions Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager. More Chicago castoffs with playoff experience, in the form of Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel. Wisely are not being coaxed into dumping too much on Maxim Afinogenov or the whole Ilya Kovalchuk kerfuffle, even though the latter Russian definitely has no interest returning to Georgia (the state, not the country).

Nashville: The loss of Jason Arnott hurts, but the pain was quickly extinguished when Matthew Lombardi (3, $10.5M) was signed. They knew they couldn't afford Dan Hamhuis, so off he went to Philly for an able blueliner in Ryan Parent. A competent, albeit flaky, forward in Sergei Kostitsyn became Nashville's reward for the rights to Dan Ellis. The Preds have to re-sign RFAs Patric Hornqvist, Cody Franson, and Parent, but at least they have the space to afford all of them - plus a little on the side to find a backup for Pekka Rinne.

Phoenix: Financial troubles may not be able to lure prospective free agents, but success will. Just ask Ray Whitney (2, $6M), who could've chosen any other club but opted for the desert. He must've been impressed by the commitment shown by Wojtek Wolski (2, $7.6M), Scottie Upshall (1, $2.25M), Derek Morris (4, $11M), and Adrian Aucoin (2, $4M).

Breaking the Piggy Bank

Shopping proves to be a tough exercise, since there's always the impulse to buy everything in sight. You know you've spent too much when Paris Hilton is wagging her finger:

New Jersey: All was quiet on the Eastern front until Ilya Kovalchuk reappeared in Jersey (see more about him in the players section). They inherited an extra chunk of cash ($4.5M) for adding back Stanley Cup hero Jason Arnott. To counteract the departure of Paul Martin, the Devils deemed it necessary to shell out for defensive-style blueliners Anton Volchenkov (6, $25.5M) and Henrik Tallinder (4, $13.5M). The price may not be right for Johan Hedberg (1, $1.5M), since he probably will not appear in more than 10-15 games.

Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar was an inevitable casualty in Pittsburgh's young attack from the back. And like their Atlantic Division rivals, they went hard after Paul Martin (5, $25M) and Zbynek Michalek (5, $20M). Welcoming back Matt Cooke (3, $5.4M) is commendable, but Mark Eaton should have been retained. The Pens look to be a couple men short in the depth department, but their cap crunch will only allow them to shop in the discount aisle.

Vancouver: Dan Hamhuis's (6, $27M) hometown reunion is all warm and fuzzy, but the Canucks already blew draft picks and Michael Grabner for Keith Ballard ($4.2M) when they clearly need help up front. They'll be forced to deal at least one of Kevin Bieksa ($3.5M) or Sami Salo ($3.75M) for supplementary scoring, which has been absent from recent playoff runs. Manny Malhotra (3, $7.5M) is not the answer, due to his general lack of offense and inflated salary.

Fiscal Frugality

Either the roster is close to complete or there are no available funds:

Buffalo: If you don't see the Sabres on this list, then they've either taken on new ownership or they've discovered the buried treasure on the site of the old Aud. Every offseason, Buffalo loses key personnel but manages to field a competitive lineup up to and including the postseason. This time around, it was time to say goodbye to Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman. Jordan Leopold (3, $9M) is an adequate replacement for one of them, but the going rate proved to be a bit steep. Rob Niedermayer (1, $1.15M) provides a bit of grit and some big-game experience.

Detroit: From lifting the Cup to losing it at home to begging for money in only two seasons. So much has been invested in the veteran contingent (top five skaters will earn $31.65M) that there isn't much left to spend on incoming talent. Jiri Hudler returns from his sabbatical in the KHL, while some Michigan native - and longtime rival - looks destined to become a Red Wing. Other than that, it's business as usual in Hockeytown.

Philadelphia: Somebody give these guys a hand for their stellar playoff run. And while you're at it, could you spare them some pocket change? Even with Simon Gagne and his $5.25M bolting to Tampa, Philly still hang around the cap maximum. Still, the Flyers were busy by inking Nikolai Zherdev (1, $2M), re-upping Braydon Coburn (2, $6.4M), and fulfilling their promise to Michael Leighton (2, $3.1M) - of course, after the whole Evgeni Nabokov/Marty Turco situation didn't pan out.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Who spent money on broken or worthless assets? Who was stubborn enough to act on their convictions, even if others believed they were illogical? Whose front office staff will no longer be trusted to bag your groceries?

Calgary: If Alex Tanguay's (1, $1.7M) second coming in Cowtown can be called a questionable move, then bringing Olli Jokinen (2, $6M) back would be classified as insane. Good thing the Flames have run out of funds or else GM Darryl Sutter might consider re-acquiring Todd Bertuzzi or Jeff Friesen.

Chicago: The recent dismantling of the Cup champs has been hard to watch, but it was an inevitable conclusion from the salary logjam. We can excuse last summer's qualifying offer debacle and the playoff bonuses that count against the cap, but we can't condone Chicago matching San Jose's offer to Niklas Hjalmarsson (4, $14M). Guess they'll have to look in the couch for spare change or else they'll never sign RFA Antti Niemi or be able to afford Patrick Sharp and Brent Seabrook down the road. Barring chloroform or a radio giveaway, there's no way the Hawks will get anyone to take Brian Campbell ($7.14M for the next six seasons) or Cristobal Huet ($5.625M for the next two).

Montreal: Two words: Jaroslav Halak. By shipping their playoff hero to St. Louis, Les Habitants enraged many ardent supporters. Management have since proclaimed their trust in Carey Price, which will allow the oft-troubled netminder to name his own, um, price, in contract negotiations.


Now it's the players' turn. See who broke the bank, turned the crank, and earned their rank:

WANTED: Someone to Count My Money

A few skaters cashed in big time, without having to lower their demands or announce their intentions on TV:

Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey (? years, ? million)

Even though the NHL rejected the Devils' offer based on its front-loading feature and 17-year length, it's assumed Kovalchuk will stay in Jersey. He may have left his heart in LA (on the Kings' expense account, no doubt), but his brain and instinct are saying to take the safe bet. Even if the deal comes out to less money and a shorter duration (original contract: 7, $102M), no one will be crying for the Russian superstar.

Mikko Koivu, Minnesota (7, $47.25M starting in 2011-12)

The Wild locked up their captain presumably for the remainder of his career (he'll be 35 in 2018). Early criticism has brought up the fact the younger Koivu ($6.75M) will earn as much on the cap as Pavel Datsyuk or Nicklas Backstrom (both at $6.7M) when the contract kicks in when his numbers don't necessarily compare to either elite center (although 71 points is nothing to sneeze at). Minnesota management counters by citing Koivu's leadership and character more than easily fill the gap.

Tomas Plekanec, Montreal (5, $30M)

After a disappointing 2008-09 (only 39 in 80), Plekanec stepped up his game this past season (personal best of 70) - unless you count his last playoff series (zip in five versus Philly). The Czech center has gradually climbed the Montreal ranks to the top of the depth chart and this serves as his reward. As long as he is motivated and continues to be surrounded by competent personnel, Plekanec should consistently hover around the high-60/low-70 point mark.

Taking One for the Team

The following are accepting a little less to be involved in a more ideal situation or location. Some of those who are waiting to sign may want to take note:

Matt Cooke, Pittsburgh (3, $5.4M)

The 31-year old has never been a major point producer (30 last season, career high of 42 in 2002-03), but there's so much Cooke does on a nightly basis. He's proven himself to be a great teammate, playing alongside and protecting any of Pittsburgh's top-three centers. He could've asked for more, but wanted to make sure the Pens could spend elsewhere.

Joe Corvo, Carolina (2, $4.5M)

The short-lived Washington experiment failed (eight points in 20), so Corvo returns to the team where he's found most of his success (including 38 in 2008-09). On a side rebuilding with younger defensemen, Corvo (the senior blueliner at 33) will also serve as a mentor.

Ray Whitney, Phoenix (2, $6M)

The little winger who could may be 38, but that hasn't slowed down his offense recently (averaging almost 70 points the last four seasons). Whitney had several options but ultimately selected the club boasting a solid nucleus who could definitely take advantage of his scoring skills.

Look What I Caught!

The bargains that will help their clubs now and down the road. While stats and success may make the offer, veteran leadership and stability can be highly underrated commodities:

Chris Mason, Atlanta (2, $3.7M)

Mason proved his #1 status in St. Louis (112 starts in two seasons), but his stay was not renewed after the Halak trade. He might not post stellar numbers behind a fresh-faced offensive-minded defense, but fantasy owners and Thrasher fans should be patient. Assuming RFA Ondrej Pavelec is re-signed, Mason shouldn't have to worry about the youngster stealing the top job, at least right away.

Kurtis Foster, Edmonton (2, $3.6M)

With gaudy special-team statistics (26 of 42 on the power-play), many were puzzled as to why Tampa weren't quick to bring Foster back in the fold. Maybe his broken leg from 2008 was still on the mind of prospective buyers, but that didn't scare off the Oilers who are grooming the 6'5” behemoth to become Sheldon Souray's eventual replacement.

Mark Eaton, NY Islanders (2, $5M)

Another veteran lands on Long Island to show the kids what it takes to win. Eaton will never be confused for Mark Streit when it comes to production (topped out with 16 last year), but he'll be counted on for defensive dependability and consistency - something Eaton his shown for most of his 10 NHL seasons.

Stuck in the Middle with Who?!

These guys have either been slowing down or were bought for way more than expected. Also may have trouble adapting to their new environment:

Manny Malhotra, Vancouver (3, $7.5M)

$2.5M a season for someone who is projected to center the third or fourth line. That's nothing against Malhotra, who is not your prototypical scoring machine (his best was 35 with Columbus the previous season), even dating back to his junior days. A definite slap in the face of Cody Hodgson, who has faced several roadblocks since being drafted in 2008 as Vancouver's center of the future.

Olli Jokinen, Calgary (2, $6M)

If a player wasn't productive and clearly had issues with teammates the first go-around, then odds on this individual will not be asked for a repeat tour. All bets were off when it was announced Jokinen would return as a member of the Flames organization for a third time. There should be no debating the Finn's on-ice abilities (should easily net 60+), but you could be suspicious on his future in Calgary from the fact they have traded him on both of his previous stopovers.

Derek Boogaard, NY Rangers (4, $6.5M)

Owners of one skill set usually don't fetch much on the open market or get signed to long-term deals. Someone obviously didn't mention this axiom to the Rangers - or at least they haven't learned from previous adventures with Aaron Voros (3, $3M in 2008, now with Anaheim) or Donald Brashear (2, $2.8M in 2009, waived in February). At least those two examples made minor efforts to broaden their game, whereas Boogaard - with 14 career points and 544 PIM in five seasons - has concentrated on pummeling opponents into the ice.