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Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun, of the Czech Republic, makes a first-period save during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Friday, Oct. 23, 2009. (Gene J. Puskar)
Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun, of the Czech Republic, makes a first-period save during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Friday, Oct. 23, 2009. (Gene J. Puskar)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

Bargain hunt could pay off for Capitals Add to ...

Mostly, the first 72 hours of the NHL's free-agent frenzy is all about smoke and noise - and which team can lavish the most extravagant riches on players who timed their market entries just right and cashed in beyond their wildest dreams.

But there is always the second part to the equation.

Did all the player movement (60-plus and counting) and all the money spent actually put a team in the winner's circle? Certainly, if you cast a critical eye backward, you'd be hard-pressed to find too many examples, beyond the Boston Bruins and their acquisition of Zdeno Chara, of free-agent acquisitions that made a tangible, integral difference in winning a championship.

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For the most part, in the post-lockout NHL, teams have won with homegrown talent and even some of the biggest free-agent contracts handed out (by say, the Chicago Blackhawks to Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell) landed them supplementary pieces of the championship puzzle, not primary difference makers.

But this past weekend, that may have changed in Washington, where the Capitals landed the biggest bargain of them all, signing goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a one-year, $1.5-million (all currency U.S.) contract. Vokoun, who had the 10th-best save percentage in the league (.922) last year, was anxious to get out of Florida, where the Panthers have been in a perpetual state of rebuilding ever his arrival. Now, he'll get a chance to win a Stanley Cup with the Alex Ovechkin-led Capitals, who have supplemented last year's team with a handful of other key additions (Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik, Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern).

The sequence of Washington's moves demonstrates a canny bit of horse-trading by general manager George McPhee, who made all of his acquisitions and still landed something for tomorrow - first- and second-round draft choices surrendered by the Colorado Avalanche for goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Potentially, that 2012 first-rounder could be a lottery pick depending upon how Colorado fares next year.

Not only do the Capitals still have two quality young goalies in reserve - Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby - they now get an established netminder in Vokoun, who was willing to sign for minimal dollars and term. It was reminiscent of a deal that Paul Kariya took back in 2003-04, when he took the largest pay cut in NHL history ($8.8-million) on a one-year deal to try and win a Stanley Cup with Colorado.

It didn't work out, largely because of injuries, but it was the sort of commitment that some players will occasionally make in order to give themselves a chance to win - and in the salary-capped NHL, that sort of willingness to find a niche on a team's payroll pecking order is even more critical.

A couple of other teams did well over the weekend, but not to the extent that Washington did. Once the New York Rangers landed Brad Richards by signing him to a nine-year, $60-million contract, two of his primary suitors went looking elsewhere, Toronto for Tim Connolly on a two-year, $9.5-million pact, and the Los Angeles Kings, for Simon Gagné, on a two-year, $7-million deal. Gagné to Los Angeles probably should have happened last summer already, but the notoriously slow-moving Kings stayed in the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes too long and missed the boat. This year, there's an added attraction. Gagné played half of his Philadelphia Flyers career alongside Mike Richards, who just happens to be with the Kings now, as is Justin Williams, another long-time teammate from the Philadelphia days.

Among the more prominent free agents, only Tomas Kaberle remains unsigned, the last of the defencemen on the open market and thus attractive to any team that fell short in the first burst of signings. But Vokoun's place in Washington solidified them in goal - and there is a chance, come next June, that of the $300-plus millions spent these last few days, it may be the wisest investment of them all.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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