More NHL Free Agency Winners and Losers

By Dan Rubin

The National Hockey League’s offseason the past 10 days has produced us some great moves, some not so great moves, and some overall general weirdness that is commonly associated with the great sport of hockey.  Since the heat started to bake my body beyond all recognition today (seriously, I need to move to Nunavut where it’s the Arctic Circle in Canada), I’ll spare you the superfluous beginning and just dump right into the second batch of winners and losers of the NHL Free Agency period.

I’m not looking for the best players; I’m looking for the right ones.  –Herb Brooks

The Minnesota Wild had one gigantic, gaping hole last season – goal scoring.  They were a full 20 goals below league average, and they had only one player go over 20 goals.  Only two Wild skaters posted 50+ points (RW Martin Havlat with 62 and C Mikko Koivu, also with 62), and they got murdered in the plus/minus category (-10 and +4, respectively).  Minnesota needed one guy who could step in as the game-changer and immediately perform as the face of the franchise.  So the Wild went out and got Dany Heatley, a mercurial, controversial winger, in a trade that sent last year’s team-leading scorer (Martin Havlat) to San Jose.

Dany Heatley has been moved to Minnesota

Now I know there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t on the Heatley bandwagon.  He had a considerable drop in production after Ottawa sent him packing for California.  But he was also asked to shackle his game and stop playing the way he was in Ottawa.  When he was a Senator, Heatley put up two 100+-point seasons in consecutive years (’05-’06 and ’06-’07), including a 2006-2007 campaign in which he netted 10 game-winning goals.  Both of those 100+-point seasons included 50 goals even.  In his time with the Senators, he was to the NHL what Alexander Ovechkin is right now, only with more of a mean streak.  Heatley has a reputation as being a little bit of a malcontent and a problem, and he’s been sent packing by three teams.  But the Wild need a guy that they can give the puck to and let him go do his thing.  Heatley instantly gives Minnesota offense, and he’s a guy who can both score and pass.  For a team that couldn’t really do either last year, that’s adding a lot even though they subtracted their best goal scorer in the process.  I like the deal.

My biggest complaint about the Washington Capitals is that they played the worst style known to man for their roster last year.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Bruce Boudreau.  He made my HBO slightly more vulgar in the weeks leading up to the Winter Classic.  But he fumbled the Caps season away very badly by having that team play defensive hockey.  Now, I understand that this is a two-way game, and defense wins championships, but that team was far too talented offensively to play a defensive game.  Compounding matters last season was that the Capitals tried playing defense in front of a goalie who was not very good (I’m not sold on Michael Neuvirth or Semyon Varlamov – who I’ll get to later on).  With no experience in the crease (they didn’t have a single netminder over 22 years old), the Caps went out and signed Tomas Vokounto a one-year deal.  I love Vokoun; he’s going to give you a 93% save percentage and a 2.50 goals against average, which is similar to the youngsters, but he’s got intangibles of coming up with big saves when necessary.  With the offensive team in front of him, he might finally have a huge breakout after flying under the radar with the Predators and Panthers.  If nothing else, he only cost Washington $1.5 million.

Adios and farewell, Tomas Kaberle.  I like the Kaberle-to-Carolina signing on multiple fronts.  The Bruins committed to not bringing back Kaberle for the long haul after they won the Stanley Cup even with the poor play from Kaberle.  The Bruins brought him in to quarterback the powerplay, which promptly went the first two rounds of the playoffs without a goal.  The Bruins also played solid defense regardless of who was on the ice, and they won the Cup because of a team effort.  Kaberle, considered an All Star-caliber player, was relegated to the Bruins’ 3rd defensive pairing by the end of the playoffs.  There was no point to sign him and bring him back, even at a discount, when Steve Kampfer is waiting in the wings with the chance to step into that pairing.

Kaberle’s a good fit for the Hurricanes roster and style of play, which allows for chances on offense thanks to the goaltending of Cam Ward.  In Boston, Kaberle had to play a real defensive style, which put the cuffs on his style of play.  Carolina is going to skate much more wide open, and he’ll find more freedom to move, especially on the powerplay (where the ‘Canes don’t run a set play, for the most part).  Carolina had to make a move, so they sent Joe Corvo, a journeyman they acquired during the 2009-2010 season, to the Bruins in a move that felt like a “finder’s fee.”

For the Bruins, it’s a great deal.  They didn’t need to bring back Kaberle, and they acquired a veteran thumper of a defenseman to step in and mentor Kampfer.  Corvo will be 34 during the upcoming season, and he’ll have new life playing for the defending champions.  If Kampfer falters, Corvo will be able to fill that role, possibly even playing on the second pairing with Johnny Boychuck or Adam McQuaid (who really stood out as a star in the playoffs).  If nothing else, it doesn’t pressure the youngster to play night-in-and-night-out.  It’ll give the Bruins a gloves-off approach that they used with Tyler Seguin and all it cost the Bruins was a 4th-round pick and the decision to not resign a guy that really stunk in the wake of how heralded he was coming in.  Bravo to both sides.

 I’ve had great success being a total idiot.  –Jerry Lewis

Rubin is not sold on Colorado's acquisition of Semyon Varlamov

First off, the worst of the worst moves that I got semi-hammered on the first time around.  I think the Colorado Avalanche made the Al Bundy-sized dumb move by signing Semyon Varlamov as their goalie of the future, and as much as everyone’s going to say how they solved their goaltending situation… I’m not buying it.  Yes, I called their signing of Jean-Sebastian Giguere a free agency winner in my last column and that’s because if Varlamov falters, they have a veteran mentor presence to step in.  But too many people are anointing Varlamov as the next Dominik Hasek, and you don’t want to see Giguere playing 50 games (which I think is exactly what’s going to end up happening).

 Varlamov is a former first round pick and former heir apparent to Jose Theodore in Washington.  In the 2009 playoffs, he played spectacularly against the New York Rangers.  He played great against Pittsburgh in the next round, but he ultimately laid an egg in the deciding seventh game, getting yanked after four early goals.  Either way, Washington was happy enough to anoint him as the heir to Theodore’s net.  For the second time, when it seemed he would grab a stranglehold on the Caps’ net, he got hurt.  After the 2009-2010 season, it looked like Varlamov was getting the reigns, but he laid an egg for a third time, losing the net to Michal Neuvirth (who isn’t very good) and was relegated to backup status.  Varlamov was not resigned, eventually having his rights traded to Colorado, where he was given a three-year, $8.5 million contract (roughly $2.8 million per year).  That’s a lot of money for a guy who’s lost the Washington net three times when the organization tried to give it to him.  We’re not talking about a Tuukka Rasktype talent backing up Vezina-winning, Conn Smythe-winning Tim Thomas.  We’re talking about Washington, which has a goal with more holes than a bagel shop.

By the way, not sure if I mentioned this, but the Caps gave up a first round pick for a guy that they could’ve signed to an offer sheet and given away less for.  In the wacky world of NHL free agency, the signing of Varlamov would’ve yielded only a second-round compensatory pick (and Washington had committed to Neuvirth and was not going to sign Semyon).  Instead, the Avs traded a first round pick (potentially a lottery pick) AND a conditional second-round pick for the negotiating rights to a guy they then gave over $2.5 million per year to.  This coming on the heels of reports that Vokoun wanted to sign with Colorado but ended up signing for over $1 million less than Varlamov…with Washington.

I’m not sold on the Varlamov signing, and I don’t like it.  Colorado let Peter Budaj go and brought in a guy who isn’t that great.  Maybe Varlamov will develop into a solid starter, but on sheer numbers right now, which is where I live, they got Hannu Toivonen before they got Dominik Hasek.  I’m thinking the front office got caught in one of those freak Coors Light snow storm trains that randomly show up.

Moving on…

Look, Columbus, I know you made a good splash when you got Jeff Carter.  But you didn’t have to go and screw the whole thing

Jeff Carter

up by signing James Wisniewski to THAT big of a contract.  You gave a six-year, $33 million contract to a guy who’s biggest accomplishment last year was a “vulgar” gesture to Sean Avery, which is a lot like saying, “I punched the bully in front of the principal.”  Ok, yeah, he did have 30 points in 43 games for the Canadiens after he was traded from the Islanders.  But he was -3 in the playoffs against Boston, didn’t score a goal, and didn’t look very good down the stretch for lengthy periods of time.  Clearly the Blue Jackets just had that money burning a hole in their pocket.  They gave him roughly $5 million per season, and all he commanded in his trade to Montreal was a compensatory second round pick and “future considerations.”  Whoops.

Florida came out of the gates like a ball of fire, gaining my giant seal of approval with how they handled the beginning of free agency, with the signings of Ed Jovanovski, Jose Theodore, Tomas Fleischmann, and the acquisition of Brian Campbell (who I really like even if he’s making over $7 million per year).  Then, they forgot the NHL employs this thing called a “salary floor,” which means a team has to spend a certain amount of money.  Unless they overpay for a free agent or trade for a high-priced guy, they sit roughly $20 million under the floor.  That’s a lot of salary, and that means they have to overpay for a whole line of forwards and defensemen in order to get to the minimum salary.  At this point, the best free agents are, for the most part, off the market, and that means, despite all their signings, Florida still operates on the cheap.

There are news reports coming out today that Peter Chiarelli is in talks to resign Brad Marchand.  I get the Bruins won the Cup and I can’t bash Chiarelli or Claude Julien for at least this season unless something goes horribly wrong, but the Bruins need to resign Marchand.  By the way, this is why I didn’t like Chiarelli for a good chunk of the last few years.

We’ll catch you on the flip side with more fun and games on the NHL offseason.  Note to Bruins fans – the Stanley Cup has been randomly popping up around the Commonwealth, so keep your eyes peeled.  

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