Trying to separate winners from losers on the opening day of NHL free agency is usually a fool’s game. Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish made the point a few weeks ago – 80 per cent of the contracts signed in free agency tend to be poor deals in the long run. Privately, most of his peers would agree. If there are any bargains to be found in free agency, they’ll occur later in the summer, when the frenzy has dissipated and the remaining unsigned players are suddenly just looking for jobs.
On opening day, it’s all about overpaying to fill in the gaps on your team – which is why the Washington Capitals paid a ridiculous amount of money – more than $65-million (U.S.) – to sign a pair of 21-minute-a-night defencemen in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, clearly the greatest act of desperation on a desperate day.
The only way to accurately assess the impact of free agency is to wait until next June, when the smoke clears on the 2015 Stanley Cup champion. But the team that made the most tangible gains was the Dallas Stars, who added Jason Spezza in a trade with the Ottawa Senators and then signed Ales Hemsky to play with him on the second line and only gave up one roster player to get them both in the fold.
Alex Chiasson, the primary asset going the other way, may have an upside playing for Ottawa, but he was not a core piece when the Stars unexpectedly made the playoffs last season and then gave the Anaheim Ducks a scare in the first playoff round.
Stars general manager Jim Nill needed to take the scoring pressure off his top duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn – and he did just that. Spezza, playing as a No. 2 centre behind Seguin, will not face a steady diet of shutdown defencemen, or if he does, then that will free up Seguin and Benn to flourish against lesser rearguards.
Spezza led the Senators with nine power-play goals last season; his presence should help bolster the Stars play with the man advantage. Among teams that made the playoffs last year, the Stars had the second-worst power-play percentage, trailing only the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
It was slightly reminiscent of the move the Minnesota Wild made two seasons ago, when they added Zach Parise and Ryan Suter via free agency. The $196-million in total committed by the Wild to the pair was an outlandish, outrageous sum, but Parise and Suter were among those rare free-agent birds: They actually delivered on their promise. Minnesota has made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons; and this year, won a round. The Wild swapped out Dany Heatley’s expiring $7-million-a-season contract and replaced him with Thomas Vanek, an upgrade, even though Vanek’s underachieving playoff with the Montreal Canadiens means he arrives with lots to prove to his new employers.
But unlike the Stars, few other teams were able to add assets without losing players at the same time. The Colorado Avalanche, for example, waved goodbye to centre Paul Stastny and then added Jarome Iginla. One top-six forward in; one top-six forward out. The St. Louis Blues signed Stastny for a cool $7-million per season, big dollars for a player who hasn’t scored 70 points since the 2009-10 season – but Stastny filled an organizational need for a playmaking centre and they didn’t give up any assets to get the deal done.
They’re better today than yesterday as well.
Last season, five teams in the Central Division made the playoffs and based on their actions Tuesday, all are as good or better than they were a year ago. Pity the Winnipeg Jets, trying to make up all that ground, with only Mathieu Perreault added to the mix and Olli Jokinen (who signed with the Nashville Predators Wednesday) subtracted.