Early Thoughts On Free Agency

July 1st has come and gone with some surprising events and some not-so-surprising. There were a slew of signings but there were many good players still left searching for their new team; including star winger Ilya Kovalchuk, former Shark tender Evgeny Nabokov and veteran netminder Marty Turco.

This year’s UFA frenzy seems to be moving slower than in years past. This is likely due to a combination of factors: the relatively weak class of free agents, the fact most teams with money have no cap space and the probability teams are finally starting to wise up on the pitfalls of spending boat-loads on free agents. Regardless, despite being 4 days into the signing period, many players sit waiting for the right offer.

Before I look at some of the NHL’s more interesting signings, I’m going to look at what our beloved Rangers have done.

We were unsure how much Glen Sather would try to get done in UFA. The team has made every effort to say they want to build around their young talent and be prudent in the market place. However, with Sather you can never be too sure. Would he package up a high salary with some of our better young players to acquire another big offensive player to pair with Gaborik? Was he planning on overspending on a UFA Center like Matthew Lombardi and cross their fingers he could fill the top Center spot? How about one of the high profile defenders, was Sather going to make a play for one of; Paul Martin, Dan Hamhuis, Zbynek Michalek or even Sergei Gonchar?

Surprisingly, the answers to those questions were a resounding no.

Sather identified acquiring a reliable backup Goalie to spell the King on occasion as a priority. He also wanted a noted tough guy, either a guy from the outside or by re-signing Jody Shelley, to protect our stars. We also had a few of our own to get back under contract; RFA Defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi plus UFA forwards Vinny Prospal and Erik Christensen. So, what did Sather do?

The first UFA signing was announced just a few minutes after the opening of free agency with the Rangers adding veteran backstop Martin Biron. Biron has been around for 12 seasons and has 208 career victories under his belt. Finally, it would appear as if John Tortorella has someone he can feel comfortable with between the pipes to spell Henrik for 20+ games this season.

Biron was signed to a 2-year deal with an AAV (Annual Average Value) of $875,000. When compared to other goalies added via UFA to be backups, this is quite a bargain. Alex Auld signed a 1-year contract with Montreal for $1 million while the Sharks signed a 2-year deal with Antero Niitymaki to compete for a starting role in San Jose.

My call: Solid signing.

After failing to re-sign Jody Shelley, Sather reached back into UFA to grab perhaps the best fighter in the NHL today, Derek Boogaard. The Boogey man was given a 4-year deal worth $6.6 million to come to Broadway.

Sather had offered Shelley a 1-year deal worth $825,000 according to published reports. Shelley ended up agreeing to terms with arch-nemesis Philadelphia on a 3-year contract worth $3.3 million.

My call: At first I was completely against this move. I’ve come around a little bit and I’ll admit something Glen Sather said caused me to come around. Sather said that being an enforcer is a “young man’s game.” He referenced former Oiler Dave Semenko and called him the best ever at the role. Semenko’s career was essentially over by the time he turned 30. That’s why Sather didn’t feel comfortable offering more than just 1 year to the 34 year-old Shelley.

Boogaard is currently the best out there and the Edmonton Oilers were reported to have offered the same term as the Rangers did, 4 years, but a slightly higher paycheck ($7 million total). Boogaard is just 28. Hopefully he continues the job Shelley was performing so admirably; namely protecting our stars and making us forget the waste that was the Donald Brashear contract.

If Boogaard can adequately protect Hank and Gabby while not becoming a liability on the ice then I’ll feel better about this. Yes, the paycheck is higher than what I would have liked to have seen but obviously it’s what the market dictated.

Next Sather turned his attention to re-signing his own. He was able to get Prospal back on a reasonable one-year deal that will pay him $2.1 million assuming Vinny hits some easy to achieve bonuses. Clearly Sather found Prospal to be a bargain relative to the other free agent forwards on the market. Despite his proclivity of alternating good and bad seasons, there is little to worry about with Prospal. Even in down seasons, Vinny is good for a point total in the mid-40’s or better. That’s worth $2.1 million.

Christensen may again assume the #1 Center role by default. Last year he was picked up off of waivers and contributed 26 points in 49 games with the Rangers. That’s not too impressive but there is reason to believe more is attainable.

At times, EC played like the best forward on the ice. He is a speedy forward with offensive ability. The Ranger brass feels EC became more comfortable during his time here. Perhaps being here from day 1 will go far in helping with EC’s confidence. Sather said EC had as much potential as any of the other UFA Centers on the market and I find that believable.

Sather was able to get EC’s name on a contract for 2 years at $925,000 per season. If he continues to progress and show more offense, Sather may be proven correct in his assessment of the market.

Sather was also able to re-sign RFA Brandon Prust, who was also acquired in the Olli Jokinen trade, to a 2-year, $1.6 million deal. Prust brought energy and a willingness to throw down to the 4th line. He also chipped in with 9 points in 26 games in NY. I’m glad Slats was able to get Prust done quickly and I look forward to having a guy like Brandon on the ice next year.

All-in-all it’s been a quiet few days for the Rangers, relatively speaking. Typically we see the club make impact, big money moves in free agency but so far Sather has stayed true to his word. It may not create for a Stanley Cup contending team for next year but it may be in the best interest of the organization for is future.

AROUND THE NHL

The first major signing, and one that raise some eyebrows, was Sergei Gonchar to the Ottawa Senators. Sergei got the Sens to offer up a 3 year deal worth $16.5 million; a deal similar to what he wanted from the Penguins. The Pens were wary about giving that much time to a 35+ player given that the cap hit is guaranteed regardless of whether the player retires, is demoted to the minors or what have you.

As good a player as Gonchar might be, I find it strange the Senators went after him. I understand a team that feels they are close to winning a cup taking a risk signing Gonchar but I don’t see the Senators being that team. They outperformed their goal differential a year ago in even making the postseason. To me they also have suspect goaltending. I feel they will struggle to challenge for the playoffs again next season too.

I understand Ottawa isn’t a premier destination for free agents and that likely played a part in Bryan Murray having to overpay (so to speak) for Gonchar. But wouldn’t it have been smarter to overpay for a younger guy? What happens if Gonchar’s skills diminish rapidly? The Senators could be faced with a dead cap hit of $5.5 million. To a budget-conscious team like Ottawa, that is a crippling scenario.

Was there a more unexpected signing than that which saw Olli Jokinen re-signing in Calgary? After a 5 month hiatus in New York, Jokinen is back in Calgary. Calgary GM Daryl Sutter supposedly told Olli he never should have traded him to the Rangers back in February.

By all accounts, Jokinen never fit in well with the Flames. He certainly never found any prolonged chemistry with franchise forward Jarome Iginla. Those were the reasons Sutter used to justify sending Jokinen along with F Brandon Prust to the Rangers for Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins. Now, just 5 months later, Sutter is giving Jokinen a 2-year contract to come back? To me, it sounds as if Sutter has no real plan. He doesn’t have a sense for what this team needs. It has the feel of throwing a bunch of crap up on the wall to see what sticks.

The Penguins, after losing Gonchar, signed free agent defensemen Zbynek Michalek (5 years, $20 million) and Paul Martin (5 years, $25 million) formerly of Phoenix and New Jersey respectively. They committed a lot of money but will be better overall defensively. They may miss Gonchar’s offensive contributions but not as much as some think.

In what has become an annual tradition, teams continue to give top dollar to defensemen that aren’t top guys. If I pay $5 million to a defenseman, I expect him to be a consistent 45+ point guy and/or a legitimate shut-down defenseman. Martin is neither. He’s a good two-way defender but isn’t elite offensively and id not a premier shut-down guy. Pittsburgh may not like this deal in a couple of years.

What about Kovy? Who knows at this point. Most experts thought the Kings were the best fit. They had the money and the need for a big name. They were a playoff team a year ago and are looking to take the next step forward. Kovy was a player they identified early on to help them achieve postseason success.

As I write this, numerous outlets are reporting that Ilya has turned down Dean Lombardi’s “best offer,” and by definition, his final offer.

Kovy reportedly turned down offers from Atlanta which would have netted him roughly $100 million over 8 years and another for 7 years and $70 million. If he was looking for those types of offers from LA then Lombardi was wise to stay away.

So with the Kings out, who’s left to pursue the enigmatic winger?

One site identifies 4 teams left in the hunt; the Flyers, Rangers, Islanders and the Devils. Of those teams only the Isles and Devils have admitted making a push. The Islanders came out publicly saying they were in and reportedly offered Kovy a deal in the range of 10 years at an AAV of at least $10 million.

Lou Lamoriello has stated publicly that they are interested in Kovy too. Of course, Lou swung the deal to bring Ilya to NJ and has been adamant that he wasn’t acquired simply as a rental.

Ultimately the best fit may be the Islanders. They could certainly use the star power as they try to get a new arena built. The Isles have plenty of cap space; in fact they still have millions to spend just to reach the cap floor. The question will be how Kovy fits on the ice with the Islanders and their plethora of young forwards.