On the day the NHL season ended, if you'd listed all the contracts that absolutely positively couldn't be dumped on anyone by the time training camps opened in September, you'd probably have settled on two: Brian Campbell's eight-year, $56.8-million (all currency U.S.) deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and Dany Heatley's six-year, $45-million deal with the San Jose Sharks.
Campbell's contract came in at a $7.1-million annual average and, even though he's coming off a decent season, it wasn't $7.1-million worth of decent. As for Heatley, whose contract runs out in 2014 and has a cap hit of $7.5-million a season, his struggles to score in the playoffs on behalf of a Sharks team that was entertaining Stanley Cup dreams were well-documented. Heatley had had two erratic seasons under his belt in San Jose. The plans to play him with Joe Thornton stalled at the end of the first season and in 2010-11, playing with Logan Couture and Ryan Clowe, the two-time 50-goal scorer sniped just 26 times in the regular season - and his playoff numbers were worse.
Who, in his right mind, would take on those financial albatrosses? It just wasn't going to happen - that is, until it did. Campbell went to the Florida Panthers at the draft and then Heatley was swapped to the Minnesota Wild for another underperforming star, Martin Havlat, on Sunday night, completing a wild first weekend in what was aptly described as a frenzy, free-agent and otherwise.
Heatley and Havlat played together for one year with the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators, although Havlat's season was shortened to 18 games by an early season shoulder injury. But Heatley had a sensational debut in Ottawa, scoring 50 goals and 103 points in his first year in a Senators uniform - and the next season was even better - 50 goals and 105 points. That seems like an eternity away, but in reality, it happened just four years ago.
Could the bottom have fallen that much out of Heatley's game in four years? Clearly, the Wild figured that some version of those totals remain a possibility for Heatley, which is why they were willing to roll the dice and hope that yet another change of scenery - this time back to hockey country, where the scrutiny is significant - can get his game back on the rails.
Heatley had a limited no-trade clause in his contract with the Sharks, permitting him to list 10 teams he wouldn't go play for. Minnesota wasn't one of them. So now, he'll hook up with a team that also acquired his former Sharks teammate Devin Setoguchi at the draft in the deal for hard-shooting defenceman Brent Burns.
The Sharks' dealings with the Wild suggest they have landed the better immediate results. Minnesota received both a first-round pick and a quality prospect in the Burns deal, however, so the jury will remain out on that one for a long time before the final assessment can be made.
But what a time in the NHL, which for years had remained in roster gridlock, with teams unable to wheel and deal with the sort of reckless abandon that characterized the league before team salary caps were introduced. For whatever reasons, general managers are emboldened these days, more willing to trade problem contract for problem contract, thinking that a change of scenery can re-energize a player who'd grown stale and comparatively unproductive.
Every player that moves carries some sort of baggage nowadays. Havlat, for example, had a slow start to last season and a so-so ending, but an excellent middle third, when his plea for more ice time was answered by then coach Todd Richards - and he responded by briefly playing his way into the top 30 of league scorers.
The Sharks need somebody new to play on the Thornton-Patrick Marleau line. Havlat presumably will get a chance to show that he can be that player.
The Heatley-Havlat swap largely overshadowed a quiet fourth day of free agency. The Calgary Flames locked up hard-shooting defenceman Anton Babchuk, who was testing the free-agent waters, but ultimately decided to stay in Calgary, where he scored 27 points in 65 games for Calgary after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes in the Ian White trade last November. Babchuk's two-year deal is worth a total of $5-million.
As for Havlat and Heatley, they are both 30 and on their fourth NHL teams now. At some point, the realization is going to set in - that the early promise of their respective careers is now behind them. For what they earn and for what they mean to their new teams, it's time to start leading and making a difference to winning.