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Random thoughts on the first week of NHL free agency Add to ...

Some random thoughts as the first week of NHL free agency grinds to an end and the consensus, around the league, is - to paraphrase the immortal band Hot Chocolate - Every 1’s a winner baby!

But can it be so?

Even in an era of bonus points for overtime or shootout losses, there are only a finite number of points up for grabs every year. Logically, if one team is better, somebody else needs to be worse. The one prediction you can safely make every year is that while one team will finish first overall, somebody else has to finish last. And 14 teams will miss the playoffs again, same as every year in the 30-team NHL.

So if the Columbus Blue Jackets are better, and the St. Louis Blues are better, who steps back in the Western Conference?

Nobody does more with less than the Nashville Predators, so it is always hard to count them out, not as long as Barry Trotz is their coach. And with Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Pekka Rinne still in place, the core remains. But they’ve lost Cody Franson and Joel Ward, so an already offensively challenged team will be hard-pressed to score again.

By contrast, the two teams operating under NHL financial guidelines - the Dallas Stars and the Phoenix Coyotes - both took big hits to their core, Dallas losing Brad Richards, Phoenix losing Ilya Bryzgalov. Both players made important dynamic contributions to winning on their former teams and will be hard to replace.

Once again, Mike Smith will get the chance to be a No. 1 goalie, but it is unlikely that he can match Bryzgalov’s impact. As for the Stars, they were a 95-point team last season - tied for the most points of a non-playoff team in history - but the loss of Richards could be critical, and leave them thin at centre.

For years, Blues have mostly been a spectator during the annual free-agent frenzy, unable or unwilling to wade into the competition for high-priced free agents because of budget constraints.

But on Wednesday they made two strategic buys that show a desire to fast track what has been a slow and methodical rebuilding process. The Blues picked up two former Stanley Cup champions, centre Jason Arnott and winger Jamie Langenbrunner, both of whom had gone unsigned through the first five days of the free-agent period.

The Blues have been long on potential for a while now; these acquisitions were designed to inject the requisite experience into a lineup that seemed full of promise, but strangely directionless. It was an aggressive move and one predicated on both players returning to form. As recently as February, 2010, Langenbrunner was captain of the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team, where he played on the same team as David Backes, who is now St. Louis’s top forward. A healthy Arnott could provide size and leadership down the middle.

Columbus gave up a top-six forward in Jakub Voracek to land Jeff Carter, then overpaid to get James Wisniewski signed as a free agent defenceman. Both are upgrades over what they had before, but if goaltender Steve Mason cannot regain his rookie-of-the-year form - and he’s had two up-and-down seasons since winning the Calder Trophy - it probably won’t matter anyway.

The San Jose Sharks helped themselves immeasurably by adding Brent Burns on the blue line, provided he stays healthy, but by swapping out Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, now have a bunch of set-up men instead of triggermen in their lineup. Is this the year Joe Thornton starts to shoot more?

New York won the bidding war for Richards, in the same way that the New Jersey Devils won the bidding war for Ilya Kovalchuk, last year’s pre-eminent, high-priced free agent. Kovalchuk had an awful time in the first half living up to the demands of that contract; and the Devils ultimately went backward as a team. In theory, Richards should be the perfect foil to get Marian Gaborik’s game back on track. If what looks good on paper actually translates into performance on the ice, then the Rangers - a team with a deceptively good youthful nucleus and one of the NHL’s better goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist - should be better. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

The Florida Panthers look different, but they are not necessarily better. The Philadelphia Flyers look different, and are better in goal, provided Bryzgalov can play at the same level in a market where the scrutiny will be far greater than what he’s been used to in Anaheim or Phoenix. Washington IS better, with goaltender Tomas Vokoun and some heavy-duty forwards such as Ward and Brouwer to provide a little physical balance to the skill sets of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Buffalo Sabres are deeper on defence, with Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr, but Ville Leino in for Tim Connolly isn’t much of an upgrade at forward. And of course, the Pittsburgh Penguins remain the wild card - with so much of their hopes to get back on track tied to Sidney Crosby’s recovery from a season-ending concussion.

In July, hope always springs eternal. By November, as injuries occur, and coaches try - with varying degrees of success - to get on the same page with all their new players, the promise of massive off-season change can suddenly give way to a cold, hard sober reality.

Chemistry experiments, as we all know, sometimes work - and other times, tend to blow sky high.

 

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