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The frenzy started minutes after the opening bell when the Ottawa Senators jumped in first and signed free-agent defenceman Sergei Gonchar to a three-year, $16.5-million (all currency U.S.) contract. It never let up: Alex Tanguay went to Calgary, Colby Armstrong to Toronto, Manny Malhotra to Vancouver.

As the day moved along, there was drama. Coveted defenceman Dan Hamhuis left money on the table to join the hometown Canucks and give them a much needed physical element.

There was slapstick. The Flames reprised one of their biggest goofs of all time by bringing Olli Jokinen back, some four months after shuffling him out of town to the New York Rangers in a deal that was an unqualified failure on so many levels, including the fact that they are still stuck with Ales Kotalik's burdensome contract.

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If you were like me, you had to double-check the calendar when the Jokinen news broke.

Yup, it really was July 1.

Not April 1.

Big names moved fast, especially on defence, where the first 11 defencemen signed earned a collective $152-million. A year removed from their Stanley Cup championship, the Pittsburgh Penguins helped themselves in a decisive way by landing two of the top five defensive prospects, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. The New Jersey Devils scooped up Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder as useful replacements on the blueline. Only the Los Angeles Kings came up short, although they were concentrating on getting the premier forward, Ilya Kovalchuk, to agree to terms.

In contrast to all the action on the bluelines, every one of the six goaltenders who signed new contracts all did so on heavily discounted deals. The big winner: Antero Niittymaki, who gets a chance to do for the San Jose Sharks what Evgeni Nabokov couldn't, and get out of the Western Conference in the playoffs. Niittymaki pulled down the biggest goalie deal of the day, just a modest $2-million a season.

Virtually all of Niittymaki's peers among the second tier of NHL goaltenders - Dan Ellis, Chris Mason, Martin Biron, Johan Hedberg, Alex Auld - also found homes. The bigger, more high-priced names (Marty Turco, Nabokov, Jose Theodore) were left at the starting gate, for the time being anyway, pricing themselves out of the marketplace.

Even the Chicago Blackhawks were active again, sending restricted free-agent winger Andrew Ladd to the Atlanta Thrashers for a draft pick and a prospect. Of the 12 forwards who were in the lineup on the night the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, five - Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and John Madden - are no longer in the organization, as well as a couple of spares: Colin Fraser and Adam Burish.

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In all, it was a big, bold day of moves. TSN actually had no difficulty filling its programming hours, largely for the most counterintuitive of reasons: Because the free-agent class of 2010 was considered relatively weak at the top end compared to other seasons, the vast majority of general managers felt they had to jump in fast, or miss out entirely.

That was especially true on defence, where all the key players were scooped up within three hours of hitting the market. Gonchar left Pittsburgh for Ottawa, which needed offensive help on the blueline. Gonchar is a proven commodity, perennially in the top five among scorers on defence, and he would have made it again last year had he not missed 20 games.

He fills a need in Ottawa in the same way Tanguay theoretically did in Calgary, a team desperate for a playmaker to play on a line with Jarome Iginla. Tanguay left Calgary two years ago, demanding a trade because he didn't like the way then coach Mike Keenan deployed him as a penalty killer (Kristian Huselius earned all the power-play time with Iginla).

Even at that, Iginla scored 50 goals that year playing with Tanguay at even strength. Tanguay has had two awful seasons since leaving Calgary, but he is a playmaker, something that Jokinen wasn't and never will be. As the Flames tried to make that partnership work, Iginla had one of the more ordinary years of his career, and that's partly why Calgary failed to make the playoffs for the first time in six years last spring.

Bringing Jokinen back was a head-scratcher of the kind you don't see much any more, a move so bizarre that it really defied analysis. Darryl Sutter is notoriously stubborn. Since things cannot possibly be any worse than they were the first time around for Jokinen and the Flames, maybe they figure there is no place to go but up.

About the only greater risk for Sutter would have been to sit on his hands and do nothing. Rome is burning, at least Nero took a little time away from his fiddle to fan them flames a little higher.

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Fascinating stuff. The only way it can get any weirder is if LeBron James were to forgo basketball and jump to the NHL as a free agent. Even then the Jokinen signing would give that story a run for its money.

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