Friday, July 4, 2008

Free agent season begins with a bang in opening three days

When the clock struck 12:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time in New York City on Tuesday afternoon, it was off to the races for the thirty National Hockey League teams to scramble and scoop up the best available players on the free agent market.

The 2008 free agent pool did not provide a large crop of superstars, but there were plenty of quality players to be had. What made it easier for owners and general managers is that the NHL had just raised the salary cap to $56.7 million, that in turn leaves more wiggle room to tuck those salaries underneath that ceiling.

Brian Campbell signed with the Chicago Blackhawks
on July 1, 2008.
(photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

The biggest prizes to be reeled in were obviously paid the big bucks. For the second time in six months, defenseman Brian Campbell will be changing addresses. He signed an 8-year, $56.8 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday. Chicago also signed goaltender Cristobal Huet to a 4-year, $22.4 million contract to create a tandem between the pipes with Nikolai Khabibulin. Huet helped lead the Washington Capitals on a successful late-season finish to win the 2007-2008 Southeast Division title and reach the postseason.

But Campbell wasn't the only defenseman to land a lucrative contract with a new team. The New York Rangers signed Wade Redden to a 6-year, $39 million contract after he played his first 11 NHL seasons in Ottawa.

The Rangers also made a number of moves within the first three days of the free agent season. They signed former Minnesota Wild forward Aaron Voros to a 3-year, $3 million contract and Patrick Rissmiller away from the San Jose Sharks. New York completed a trade on Wednesday with the Columbus Blue Jackets in which they acquired forwards Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche in exchange for defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman.

But the Rangers made their biggest splash with the signing of former Vancouver Canucks captain and five-time All-Star forward Markus Naslund to a 2-year, $8 million contract on Thursday.

The 34-year-old Naslund stated that New York was his top choice in where he wanted to land as a free agent following 12 seasons in Vancouver.

"Initially, there were quite a few teams contacting me," Naslund said after Rangers general manager Glen Sather announced the signing. "I gave him (my agent) instructions early on that there was only a limited number of teams that I was interested in playing for, and the Rangers were on the top of that list. Right from noon on July 1, my eyes had been set on the Rangers."

New York also added former Buffalo Sabres blueliner Dmitri Kalinin for at least the 2008-2009 season. But they did retain three of their own free agents by inking defensemen Michal Rozsival (4 years, $20 million), Paul Mara (1 year, $1.95 million) and goaltender Steve Valiquette.

To replace some of what they lost in trading away Zherdev and Fritsche, the Blue Jackets signed defenseman Mike Commodore to a 5-year, $18.75 million contract and former Calgary Flames forward Kristian Huselius for 4 years at $4.75 million.

Sean Avery signed with the Dallas Stars on July 2, 2008.
(photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

As a result of their latest roster moves, it effectively marked the end of forwards Sean Avery and Jaromir Jagr's tenures in New York. Avery signed a 4-year, $15.5 million deal with the Dallas Stars, a destination that many observers didn't expect or favor. With Avery, the Rangers were 50-36 during the regular season and 10-8 in the playoffs while faring just 9-16 without him. Despite already having a player with skill and an in-your-face style of play in forward Steve Ott, Stars co-general manager Brett Hull was happy to add master agitator in Avery to their lineup.

"His skill keeps improving every year," Hull said. "He is feisty and tenacious. Sean has the ability to score and make plays and he is fearless. I think he's a very good compliment to Brenden Morrow. We like our team, but the thing I think we were lacking was a little bit of sandpaper and some grit, and we also improved our skill level with Sean."

Hull added, "He made the Rangers a much better team. In talking to some of the guys on that team, they are very sorry to see him go. He's a great teammate. He'll do anything for the team, he'll do anything to win."

While Avery's desire to win isn't questioned, but once again, Dallas already has Ott, a player that has blossomed into a more well-rounded and valuable player. So many eyes will be on the Stars to see if Avery fits into their system and doesn't cause any distractions for the team.

With Jagr standing firm with his request for a new multi-year contract and the team's unwillingness to commit beyond farther than one season, the Rangers and the former captain decided to part ways after a three-year marriage in the Big Apple. Jagr will either sign with another NHL team or consider an offer already on the table from Avangard Omsk of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

According to John Dellapina of the New York Daily News, Jagr was seeking a two-year, $7.5 million deal from the Rangers, but with the roster moves made by Thursday night, Sather had no more room under the salary cap to meet Jagr's contract demands.

"Jaromir was very respectful and I informed him that we were moving on. I told him if things didn't work out for him in Russia to call us back."

In addition to Avery, Dallas also signed forward B.J. Crombeen (1 year, $550,000) and brought Landon Wilson back into the NHL for the 2008-2009 season after he spent the last four years in Europe, including the most recent two with HC Lugano of the Swiss Elite League. But the Stars lost two key forwards to free agency as Niklas Hagman inked a 4-year, $12 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Antti Miettinen signed a three-year contract with the Minnesota Wild on his 28th birthday.

Corey Perry signed a new 5-year contract to remain with
the Anaheim Ducks.
(photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The Anaheim Ducks accomplished their main goal as the start of the free agent season arrived. They were able to re-sign forward Corey Perry to a 5-year, $26.625 million contract.

"It's pretty amazing. It's something special," Perry said. "I really wanted to stay in Anaheim. That's home now and I didn't want to leave there. It's a great place to play hockey and it just shows how well that organization is run. You can't ask to play for a better organization than the Anaheim Ducks."

Winning a Stanley Cup championship last year certainly validates Perry's belief.

After signing defenseman Mike Green to a new 4-year, $21 million contract extension just hours before he was eligible for free agency, the Washington Capitals signed goaltender Jose Theodore away from the Colorado Avalanche with a 2-year, $9 million deal while also signing forward Carolina Hurricanes forward Keith Aucoin to a 2-year contract.

As a result of Theodore's departure, the Avalanche signed two former Toronto Maple Leafs players that were just bought out from their previous contracts in goaltender Andrew Raycroft (1 year, $800,000) and forward Darcy Tucker (2 years, $4.5 million). Colorado also signed defenseman Daniel Tjarnqvist for the 2008-2009 season after spending a year in Russia. They also brought back Wojtek Wolski for two more seasons. However, Avalanche captain Joe Sakic has yet to decide if he will continue playing or retire this summer.

But goaltender Dominik Hasek made his decision to retire just three days after the Detroit Red Wings captured their 11th Stanley Cup title in franchise history. As a result of that, they signed goaltender Ty Conklin to a 1-year, $750,000 contract after he posted a respectable 18-13 record, two shutouts, a 2.51 goals-against-average and a .923 save percentage in 33 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. Conklin will compete with Jimmy Howard for the backup job behind starter Chris Osgood.

Marian Hossa will play for the Stanley Cup champion
Detroit Red Wings during the 2008-2009 season.

(photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

But the Red Wings landed the most coveted player on the entire free agent market as they signed forward Marian Hossa away from Pittsburgh to a 1-year, $7.4 million contract. The signing did raise a few eyebrows considering numerous teams wanted to acquire his services and that he left more job security and money on the table than what he settled for in Detroit.

"I wanted the best chance to win the Stanley Cup and I feel like Detroit is the team," Hossa said during a teleconference on Wednesday. "I know I could get more money somewhere else, but the thing that I was looking for for myself was to win the Stanley Cup. It wasn’t easy to throw that much money away, but I know I made the right decision. I truly believe that I made the right decision."

With the departure of Ryan Malone to Tampa Bay and Conklin and Hossa to Detroit, the Penguins also lost agitating forward Jarkko Ruutu to the Ottawa Senators (3 years, $3.9 million). To help make up for the loss of those three key players from the 2008 Eastern Conference championship squad, they signed an enforcer in forward Eric Godard (3 years, $2.25 million) and two forwards from the New York Islanders in Miroslav Satan (1 year, $3.5 million) and Ruslan Fedotenko (1 year, $2.5 million).

But not all the news was bad for Pittsburgh. They were able to secure long-term deals with four other very important members of their team with superstar forward Evgeni Malkin passing up bigger dollars in his native Russia to sign a 5-year, $43.5 million contract extension. They also signed their rising star goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a new 7-year, $35 million contract as well as two blueliners in Brooks Orpik (6 years, $22.5 million) and Mark Eaton (2 years, $4 million).

In addition to bringing Ruutu aboard, the Senators replaced the departed Ray Emery with goaltender Alexander Auld with a 2-year, $2 million contract. They also re-signed forward Shean Donovan to a 2-year, $1.25 million contract.

The New Jersey Devils didn't sit quietly and watch the rest of the league snatch up quality free agents. They went into "Back To The Future" mode by bringing back two players from their past. After failing to come to terms on a contract to remain in Minnesota, forward Brian Rolston returned to the Garden State by signing a 4-year, $20.25 million deal. The 35-year-old Rolston was a member of the Devils' first Cup championship season as a rookie in 1995 and spent his first 5+ seasons in New Jersey. Bobby Holik was Rolston's teammate during that time while playing 10 seasons as one of the Devils' most important forwards. Following two seasons across the Hudson River with the New York Rangers and the last three in Atlanta, Holik returns to New Jersey for the upcoming season for $2.5 million.

The Toronto Maple Leafs also brought a familiar face back into the fold. After they bought out the remainder of Andrew Raycroft's contract, they signed 41-year-old goaltender Curtis Joseph to a 1-year, $700,000 contract. Joseph begins his second tour of duty with Toronto after he spent four years with the Original Six club the first time around from 1998 to 2002. In what raised a few more eyebrows than the Stars' signing of Avery was the contract terms for defenseman Jeff Finger in Toronto. Despite only putting up 24 points in 94 career games for the Colorado Avalanche during his two NHL seasons, the Maple Leafs signed Finger to a surprising 4-year, $14 million deal. While he was surprised to net the kind of financial terms he received from the Maple Leafs and is excited to get the chance to play in Toronto, he wants to prove he is worth every penny of his contract.

"It's exciting. It's nerve wracking. It's scary in some ways to go to a market like this, but I'm just really excited and anxious to get up there and to prove myself in a market of this caliber," Finger told's Dan Rosen on Friday. "It's the biggest hockey market in the world, bar none. It's going to definitely be exciting. When things go good, it's great there. When they go bad, it's really tough. The only thing that is going to talk is my play."

One day after acquiring him from the Montreal Canadiens for the rights to Greg Pateryn and a 2010 2nd round draft pick, the Maple Leafs signed forward Mikhail Grabovski for the 2008-2009 season.

The Tampa Bay Lightning continued their massive makeover by signing forwards Radim Vrbata (3 years, $9 million), Adam Hall (3 years, $1.8 million), Wyatt Smith (1 year) and David Koci (1 year, $525,000), defenseman Scott Jackson (3 years) and goaltender Olaf Kolzig (1 year, $1.5 million plus bonuses). They also re-signed forward Ryan Craig (2 years, $1.575 million) and defenseman Janne Niskala (1 year, $600,000).

Andrew Brunette returns to the Minnesota Wild after
a 4-year absence.
(photo by David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

To recover from losing Rolston as one of their top forwards on their roster, the Wild re-acquired one of the heroes to their memorable playoff run to the Western Conference Finals by signing forward Andrew Brunette to a 3-year, $7 million contract. Fans remember that Brunette scored the series-winning overtime goal in Game 7 of their 2003 Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Avalanche, effectively ending Patrick Roy's Hall of Fame career.

Minnesota also signed former Phoenix Coyotes forward Craig Weller to a 2-year, $1.2 million deal and completed a major trade with the Nashville Predators in which they acquired defenseman Marek Zidlicky for forward Ryan Jones and a 2009 second round draft pick. The Wild were then able to re-sign defenseman Kurtis Foster to a 1-year, $1.025 million contract.

The Phoenix Coyotes did not stop looking to improve their roster after the draft day acquistion of forward Olli Jokinen. They signed defensemen Kurt Sauer (4 years, $7 million) and David Hale (2 years, $1.4 million) as well as forwards Todd Fedoruk (3 years, $3.175 million) and Francis Lessard. They also re-signed defenseman Matt Jones (2 years) plus got goaltender Al Montoya and forward David Spina under new contracts. After acquiring him from the Ottawa Senators in a June 25th trade, Phoenix signed forward Brian McGrattan for the 2008-2009 season.

With Mike Commodore heading to Columbus, the Carolina Hurricanes dipped into the free agent pool and bolstered their defense. They resigned Anton Babchuk and brought in Josef Melichar, both inking 1-year, $1 million contracts. Fresh off Tuesday's trade from the Edmonton Oilers, newly acquired blueliner Joni Pitkanen agreed to terms on a 3-year, $12 million deal.

Carolina also signed forwards Dwight Helminen, Ryan Bayda and Wade Brookbank all to 1-year, $475,000 contracts while defenseman Tim Conboy secured a 2-year, $975,000 deal.

The Islanders did not sit idle and watch their two metropolitan area rivals grab free agents. They grabbed one of the Montreal Canadiens' promising defensemen by signing Mark Streit to a 5-year, $20.5 million contract. They also nabbed another player from the Canadiens organization by signing goaltender Yann Danis for the 2008-2009 season. Danis has spent the majority of his five-year professional career with the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs by posting a 71-52-6 record in four seasons. Danis appeared in 6 NHL games for Montreal during the 2005-2006 season where he went 3-2 with one shutout, a 2.69 goals-against-average and a .908 save percentage.

To complete their brief free agent season shopping, the Islanders signed 37-year-old forward Doug Weight to a 1 year, $1.75 million contract.

The Canadiens were able to keep forward Andrei Kostitsyn in the fold by signing him to a new 3-year, $9.75 million contract. They also added some toughness as forward Georges Laraque signed a 3-year, $4.5 million deal and goaltender Marc Denis agreed to a two-way contract for the 2008-2009 season.

After claiming forward Kyle Wellwood off waivers from the Maple Leafs on June 25th, the Vancouver Canucks signed him to a 1-year, $997,500 contract. They also signed forwards Darcy Hordichuk (2 years) and Ryan Johnson (2 years, $2.3 million) plus goaltender Curtis Sanford (1 year, $650,000). The Canucks also retained the services of defenseman Nolan Baumgarter and forward Alexandre Bolduc.

Vancouver was not successful in their attempt to acquire restricted free agent forward David Backes, who played his first two NHL seasons with the St. Louis Blues. The Canucks' 3-year, $7.5 million offer sheet to Backes ended up being matched by the Blues. St. Louis did re-sign forward Yan Stastny to a 2-year contract.

The Boston Bruins finalized an entry-level contract with forward Blake Wheeler, signed forward Michael Ryder to a 3-year, $12 million contract and brought back forward Petteri Nokelainen for two more years at $1.7 million.

Wheeler was originally drafted 5th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes, but on May 29th, he elected not to sign with them and became an unrestricted free agent. Wheeler is expected to forego his senior year at the University of Minnesota and enter the NHL.

The Philadelphia Flyers may not have made the big splash as they did a year ago in signing Daniel Briere to a big contract, but they did bring four new players to the organization. They are defensemen Sean Curry (2 years) and Ossi Vaananen (1-year, $1 million) as well as forwards Glen Metropolit (2 years) and Nate Raduns (1 year). They also re-signed forward Riley Cote (3 years) and defenseman Randy Jones (2 years). Philadelphia did make one minor trade on Tuesday as they sent defenseman Denis Gauthier and a 2010 2nd round draft pick to the Los Angeles Kings for defenseman Patrik Hersley and forward Ned Lukacevic.

The Calgary Flames united two brothers by bringing forward Pete Vandermeer aboard and re-signing defenseman Jim Vandermeer (3 years, $6.9 million). They also signed free agent forward Curtis Glencross on Wednesday. A day earlier, the Flames had acquired forward Kyle Greentree from Philadelphia for defenseman Tim Ramholt and forward Rene Bourque from the Chicago Blackhawks for a conditional draft pick.

Calgary also welcomed back defenseman Mark Giordano after he spent last season playing for Moscow Dynamo of the Russian Elite League.

To help fill some holes in their lineups, the Atlanta Thrashers signed defenseman Ron Hainsey to a 5-year, $22.5 million contract, the Buffalo Sabres inked goaltender Patrick Lalime to a 2-year, $2 million deal, the Florida Panthers agreed to terms with forward Cory Stillman for 3 years at $10.6 million and after losing Campbell to Chicago, the San Jose Sharks added defenseman Rob Blake for the 2008-2009 season for $5 million.

Through the first three days of this free agent season, at least 56 NHL-level players were under contract with new teams. That is just signings alone. More than $300 million had been spent. There sure was a lot of player movement and a lot of money being paid out, no doubt about it.

Yet, this is surely not the end of player movement for the summer.

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