'Black Friday' of the NHL as 2011 NHL Free Agency opens with $240+ million spent in one day, meanwhile the Wild stays cautious

'Black Friday' of the NHL as 2011 NHL Free Agency opens with $240+ million spent in one day, meanwhile the Wild stays cautious

Wild

'Black Friday' of the NHL as 2011 NHL Free Agency opens with $240+ million spent in one day, meanwhile the Wild stays cautious

By

Josh Harding

‘Black Friday’ best known for the day after Thanksgiving where bargain-crazed shoppers storm stores, malls, etc with credit card’s ready to go and a voracious appetite to get their Christmas shopping accomplished.  These ‘Black Friday’ diehards will camp out in the parking lot overnight so they can be the first one inside to grab up all of the sweet deals.  Whether they’re really getting a bargain or not is up for debate but retailers don’t mind accommodating these fanatics by even changing their store hours to allow them to shop very early in the morning so the far less casual shoppers can enter the store later in the day without having to fight over cheap DVD players or X-box bundles.  While the NHL trade deadline has its own brand of craziness, there is pretty good insanity to be had each year on July 1st as the opening of free agency begins.  In my opinion, its sort of the league’s ‘Black Friday’ as teams throw out ridiculous contracts especially when you have a limited amount of quality team-changing players available.  Every Christmas, there seems to be a fad item that incites irrational purchases and an over inflation of price.  I remember the buzz created by the availability of Tickle Me Elmo and hearing about shoppers literally slug it out in Target over the last one. 

Tickle Me Elmo

You’re not going to see NHL General Managers throw down against one another (although wouldn’t it be funny to watch Brian Burke fight Glen Sather?) over a free agent but many are rushing to their phones and for some teams like Florida and Winnipeg actually have to spend money just to reach the salary floor.  This summer’s ‘Tickle Me Elmo’ of this year’s NHL free agent class is unrestricted free agent Brad Richards.  With teams offering long-term contracts in an effort to keep its young talent, quality UFA’s (meaning impact players) available each summer is becoming increasingly rare.  Thus, Brad Richards is likely going to have a giant pay day as multiple NHL teams court the former Rimouski Oceanic star as if he’s a member of the British Royal Family.  As if they were members of other European monarchies’ sending their sons as ‘gentleman callers’ to court the King’s daughter.  Teams were allowed in one-by-one to make their ‘pitch’ to Richards who would consider their offer.  The Leafs, the Lightning, the Rangers, the Kings, the Flames and the Philadelphia Flyers all made their case before Richards’ today.  So who will win the Brad Richards sweepstakes?   Perhaps more importantly is this question; at what cost will it be to win and how long will he be under contract? 

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If the Minnesota Wild was a shopper on ‘Black Friday’, they slept in and let the madness happen on its own.  It doesn’t mean Minnesota wasn’t hunting a bit but they were not bidding on free agents left and right like Dallas (5 signed), Florida (6 signed, 1 trade) and Edmonton (5 signed, 1 trade) did.  For some Wild members, they will be wearing new jerseys next sesaon; Andrew Brunette will be in Chicago, Jose Theodore to the Florida Panthers and Cam Barker to the Edmonton Oilers.  The Wild decided to be a more careful and less impulsive shopper, with the re-signing of unrestricted free agent goaltender Josh Harding as their only significant move as he will likely serve as the team’s back up goaltender to a 1-year deal at a pretty affordable price of $750,000 next season.  Harding was hurt for the entire 2010-11 season after blowing out two ligaments in his knee that required reconstructive surgery.  After an arduous rehab Harding says he’s 100% and ready to perform at the team’s training camp this fall.  That’s good news, because the Wild need Harding to be solid for at least 20 games to give incumbent starter Niklas Backstrom a break.  His signing effectively answers the ‘who’s the backup’ question that was really one of the few uncertainties going into the opening of free agency.  Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher made most of his meaningful moves in the days in and around the NHL Entry draft.  For Harding its another 1-year opportunity to prove himself worthy of something bigger, but even he has to realize that the team’s future #1 goaltender is prospect Matthew Hackett who performed brilliantly in his rookie season.  The Wild simply preferred to browse, perhaps go online and surf a bit for sales but didn’t find all that much where they decided to really throw their hat in the ring.  The only major deal for a skater that the Wild tried participate in the bidding war over was for right winger Villie Leino.  It is hard to say how persistent the Wild were in the negotiations but at end of the day the Buffalo Sabres (and their determined owner Terry Pegula) would not be denied and signed the offensively gifted Finnish forward to a 6-year, $27 million contract.  The team also had to buyout 1/3rd of Cam Barker‘s contract as they put him on unconditional waivers, in which the former 3rd Overall pick (2004) passed to become an unrestricted free agent.  Much to my surprise, Barker was signed by the Edmonton Oilers to 1-year contract worth $2.25 million.  Seems awfully generous for a defender who just about no one wanted.  With Harding’s signing and Barker’s buyout the Wild currently have 18 players under contract for a collective cost of $48,763,610 leaving them $15,536,390 in cap space.  The team still has yet to reach a contract with restricted free agent Darroll Powe but that should not be much more than a million per season.  So the team has plenty of space to make a few decent deals but what’s really left at this point? 

Here is a list of free agents (31 years old and younger) that are left that I think the team may be interested in with their most recent cap hit listed in parentheses

LW – Simon Gagne ($5.25 million)
LW – Alexander Frolov ($3 million)
D – Ian White ($2.995 million)
RW- Nikolai Zherdev ($2 million)

The team also signed 4th round (102nd Overall, 2006) 6’6″ 227lbs blueliner and Apple Valley-native Kyle Medvec as well as minor leaguers in defenseman Drew Bagnall and Jed Ortmeyer.  That may sound like the Wild stuck around the bin with the 2nd / 3rd tier DVD’s where you could purchase various Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme action movies you want for $5.99 apiece.  Maybe ‘stocking stuffers’ is all the Wild really needed to begin with. 

Under Siege Double Feature

In one day, nearly 60 players and $247 million worth of salary was moved!  So what did the rest of our division end up with on day 1 of the free agent frenzy? 

Chris Butler

Calgary Flames – No moves

Like the Wild, The Calgary Flames most significant moves were prior to the trade deadline.  The Flames were up against the cap ceiling until they managed to trade defenseman Robyn Regehr for Chris Butler who they signed to a 2-year, $1.25 million deal.  The team also re-signed Alex Tanguay to 5-year deal that will pay him $3.5 million per season.  Calgary still needs a defenseman which they certainly can afford having $6.3 million in cap space.  However, throughout of the day TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that the Calgary Flames were making a serious attempt to lure Brad Richards their way.  Considering the fact most sources are saying Richards’ contract will likely be at least $6 million per season if somehow Flames GM Jay Feaster (who was GM of the Lightning when Richards was there) manages to surprise everyone by adding the prize of this free agent class he’d likely have to move another forward salary to have room to sign that additional defenseman.  In that case its speculated the team would look to move Rene Bourque or Matt Stajan

Semyon Varlamov

Colorado Avalanche – G, Jean-Sebastien Giguere; RW, Chuck Kobasew; D, Jan Hejda; G, Semyon Varlamov

Arguably the biggest shock of the opening of free agency came in the form of a trade between the Washington Capitals trading the rights of restricted free agent goaltender Semyon Varlamov which forced Colorado to part with a 1st round pick in 2012 and a 2nd round pick in either 2012 or 2013 (the Capitals’ choice).  The Avalanche certainly wanted to settle its goaltending situation, but the trade which could possibly give away a lottery level 1st round selection seems extremely risky for a team that drafted 2nd overall this season.  The Avalanche still seem woefully underpowered offensively as they will be forced to lean heavily upon the offensive contributions of Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and aging veteran Milan Hejduk.  The team added stay at home defenseman Jan Hejda and former Wild winger Chuck Kobasew and currently the Avs have 19 player signed with $24,754,167 in cap space before they formalize a deal with Varlamov as well as RFA’s T.J. Galiardi, Kevin Porter, defenseman Kyle Cumisky and Ryan Wilson.  Colorado did sign a sort of goaltending insurance policy in veteran netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere but its tough to believe the Avalanche are going to be contending for a playoff spot unless they make some significant moves to augment their offense. 

Ben Eager

Edmonton – D, Corey Potter; D, Andy Sutton; C, Eric Belanger; LW, Darcy Hordichuk; D, Cam Barker, LW, Ben Eager

The Oilers had a clear cut direction in free agency by adding size and intimidation by adding rough and tumble forwards Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk along with former Wild forward/defenseman Andy Sutton (acquired via a trade with Anaheim for Kurtis Foster) who is no stranger to dropping the gloves either.  Hordichuk has already started trash talking as gleefully told the Edmonton press calling out provincial rival the Calgary Flames saying he has ‘old scores to settle.’  Edmonton also added two more former members of the Wild in bought-out blueliner Cam Barker and the versatile center Eric Belanger.  Belanger will give the Oilers a little help at both ends of the ice as well as a competent faceoff man which is something they needed.  The Oilers currently have 21 players signed with about $8,975,000 in cap space. 

Chuck Fletcher

Minnesota Wild – No Moves

It was hardly a big shock the Wild didn’t make any moves.  With 18 players signed and GM Chuck Fletcher hinting the team is wanting to give opportunities to its young players the Wild may just add another forward and perhaps another defenseman on what was a predictably uneventful first day of free agency for the State of Hockey.  With $15.5 million cap space it may wish to use that cushion in case the team is plagued with injuries as it was a season ago. 

Marco Sturm

Vancouver Canucks – C, Andrew Ebbett; LW, Marco Sturm; RW, Mark Mancari

The Western Conference champion’s biggest moves probably were who the team retained by re-signing defensemen Kevin Bieksa, Andrew Alberts and Sami Salo as well as left winger Chris Higgins.  Vancouver was unable to keep Christian Ehrhoff as he signed a giant 10-year deal that will average about $4 million per season.  The Canucks tried to add a bit more skill and experience by bringing in veteran Marco Sturm as well as Buffalo energy winger Mark Mancari.  Former Wild forward Andrew Ebbett gives the Canucks a small amount of depth at center but nothing to make them fundamentally different from last season’s squad.  Vancouver has 21 players signed with just $4.5 million cap space left and RFA Jannik Hansen left to sign. 

It may make the Wild seem cheap not to spend more of the cushion it currently has underneath the salary cap, but take a look for yourself here.  Honestly, who else is really available?  The Wild clearly want to get younger, with Matt Cullen being the oldest at the age of 34 so would they really be interested in any of these players that are left?  Doubtful.  Hey, look what I found?!?!  Owen Nolan wants to play one last season in the NHL!  I guess that $5.99 DVD of Delta Force starring Chuck Norris doesn’t look so bad afterall! 

Delta Force  Hmm, do we keep Cam Barker or do I get this DVD?  Delta Force it is! 

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