Seventeen minutes after NHL free agency season officially opened Friday morning, Andrew Ference tweeted a picture of himself as a young boy, wearing an Edmonton Oilers’ sweater. That was the first confirmation of news that quickly followed: Ference agreed to a four-year, $13-million deal with the Oilers, leaving the Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins for a team that he believes has a chance to win soon.
Ference grew up in Edmonton and his wife is from there and so there were a lot of good reasons off the ice why he would want to go there. But the overriding decision was the Oilers’ potential – a team that has invested four seasons into a scorched-earth rebuilding program and has missed the playoffs for the last seven years. Ference believes the turnaround may finally be at hand.
“Definitely, Edmonton jumped off the page,” Ference told TSN. “They have a situation where they have a ton of talent, a lot of young talent, a team that needs just a little nudge to get over that hump. It’s going to be a pretty neat time. I’ve seen that before. I’ve been fortunate enough to play in cities that care about and love hockey and I wanted to keep doing that.”
Ference was just the first of three transactions completed by the Oilers in the first hour. They also signed two former Phoenix Coyotes players – goaltender Jason Labarbera and centre Boyd Gordon as free agents. Gordon will replace Eric Belanger on the roster as a penalty-killing and face-off specialist, while Labarbera will be the new back-up to No. 1 goaltender Devin Dubnyk.
The Oilers also completed a trade that sent captain Shawn Horcoff to the Dallas Stars for defenceman Philip Larsen and a 2016 seventh-round draft choice. The fact that the Oilers could trade Horcoff rather than issue him a compliance buyout had a lot to do with the structure of his contract, which was heavily front-loaded. While it carries a salary-cap charge of $5.5-million, the actual dollar amounts that he will receive for the next two years are $4-million and then $3-million, more in line with what he can currently contribute. For a team such as Dallas, which won’t be spending to the cap any time soon, the extra cap charge doesn’t matter at all. In fact, it was just two seasons ago when the Stars had to add players in order just to spend to the salary-cap floor.
The additions will help general manager Craig MacTavish reshape his team, but do not represent the sort of “bold” moves he promised when he took over from Steve Tambellini. MacTavish’s boldest move to date was hiring Dallas Eakins from the Toronto Maple Leafs to replace Ralph Kreuger as coach.
In Ference, the Oilers get a relatively undersized defenceman who nevertheless has played in three Stanley Cup finals since 2004, two with the Bruins and one with the Calgary Flames. He became expendable in Boston largely for salary-cap reasons, but also because the Bruins have a handful of NHL-ready defencemen in their player pipeline, including Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski, both of whom played important minutes at different times during their run to the Stanley Cup final.
Ference was able to make his decision quickly because of a new two-day negotiating window created in the new collective bargaining agreement, which permitted him to speak to both MacTavish and Eakins and get a sense of how he would be deployed.
“I thought it was great,” said Ference. “It really gave me a good opportunity to talk to them and made me really excited about joining up with what I believe is a group that is not going to leave anything to chance and leave it all on the table and work extremely hard to get that success. That’s something I want to be a part of.”
Typically, the first day of NHL free agency features a sort of domino effect, with teams signing players to replace others that left them. Aware that they were going to lose David Clarkson as an unrestricted free agent, the New Jersey Devils took the step of signing Ryane Clowe to a five-year contract. Clowe possesses many of the same qualities as Clarkson, a physical forward, who goes to the front of the net and scores goals from the dirty areas. Clowe’s injury history is the only issue there, but the Devils determined the risk was worth it.
With new ownership in Phoenix, the Coyotes were given permission to spend more money and immediately went out and grabbed the highest scoring available forward from last year, centre Mike Ribeiro, who had 49 points in 48 games for the Washington Capitals last year. Ribeiro will be reunited in Phoenix with coach Dave Tippett, for whom he played in Dallas. Ribeiro joins a Coyotes team whose leading scorer last year was a defenceman, Keith Yandle, who managed just 30 points.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the bidding war for defenceman Rob Scuderi, who signed a four-year deal with the team for a $3.375-million annual average salary. Scuderi won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins back in 2009 and then won another with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012. Scuderi wanted to go back east for family reasons.
Anticipating his possible departure, the Kings had previously signed prospective free-agent defenceman Robyn Regehr to a contract extension during last year’s playoff run, and then also inked young defenceman Keaton Ellerby to a one-year $735,000 contract on Thursday.