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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Early Returns, Part 2: The Worst of Free Agency '09

Continuing HockeyZonePlus's look at NHL free agency 2009, today we look at the team's who made moves that will almost certainly turn out badly during the league's annual free agent frenzy. Note that we'll include trades made since the draft too, and that the Winners of free agency can be found in a previous blog post here.

Losers

Edmonton
- Most people would suggest the Oilers had three problems going into next season: the lack of a top line winger to team with playmaker Ales Hemsky, no starting goaltender, and a general lack of grit and size, both up front and on defense. What have they accomplished so far? They've embarrassed themselves by getting caught up in all this Dany Heatley nonsense and thrown a lot of money at an aging and fragile Nikolai Khabibulin. The Heatley saga is, if nothing else, worth it's own column, so look for that another day, but Khabibulin? The Oilers let last year's starter Dwayne Roloson walk because they weren't willing to give a two-year contract to a 39-year old goalie. Apparently, though, a four-year deal for a 36-year old goalie was acceptable. Anyone else sense a disconnect here? Not only that, but this is such a soft goalie market that Edmonton and Colorado were really the only teams looking for a starter at all, though several teams signed backups; with goalie Martin Biron still available and several talented goalies reportedly available via trade (including Josh Harding in Minnesota and Kari Lehtonen in Atlanta), Edmonton showed a distinct lack of patience by giving Khabibulin $15 million over 4 years. Because he was over 35 when he signed, his contract is on their books whether he plays those four years or not. Had the Oilers kept their cool they could've waited a couple of weeks, a month at most, offered both Biron and Khabibulin $2 million per for two years, take it or leave it, then if neither accepted made a trade offer for Harding or Lehtonen. Not only that, but because the team was too busy messing around with Heatley, free agency pretty much passed them by, outside of Khabibulin. That means no big, tough defenseman, no gritty top nine forward, and, outside of moving centre Kyle Brodziak to Minnesota for draft picks, no clearing of the logjam the Oilers have up front of about 16 NHL-level forwards, most of whom are 6'1 or under and not quite scorers, but not quite premium two-way players either. October could be the start of another long season in Edmonton, where the fan base is getting impatient for a winner.

Montreal - Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't Montreal's mandate this summer to get bigger up front? Specifically on their top two lines? They were going to let Saku Koivu walk because he's too small, Alex Tanguay because he's small AND fragile, and Alexei Kovalev because he plays like he's small. So who do they add? Scott Gomez, who we'll call 'Tiny' (he's 5'11), Mike Cammalleri, 'Tinier' (5'9), and Brian Gionta, you guessed it, 'Tiniest' (5'7). Sure, the Habs desires to make a big trade for Tampa Bay star centre and 6'4, 220 pound Quebec native Vincent Lecavalier were probably unrealistic from the start, and yes, outside of second-tier free agents like Mike Knuble, Nik Antropov and Erik Cole, none of whom are first line forwards anyway, there wasn't a lot of size and talent on the free agent market. Still, they dealt more than they should've to the Rangers for Gomez and his nearly $7.5 million per season salary and overpaid for Cammalleri at $6 million/season for five years, though that one's almost forgivable, since somebody was bound to overpay around that much to Cammalleri anyway. But the real topper is Gionta, who's goal totals have gone down each of the last four seasons (from 48 to 25 to 22 to 20). He'll be paid $5 million a season for the next five years, so the Habs better hope being reunited with his old Devils centre Gomez reverses his downward trend of goal-scoring, even though at 30 years of age he's looking a lot like a player in decline. They did manage to add some size on their blueline in Hal Gill, even if sometimes he looks like he can barely skate anymore, and hopefully some power play points in the inconsistent Jaroslav Spacek. But even though one of GM Bob Gainey's virtues is supposed to be his patience, all these moves show a huge lack of it. Gainey would've been better waiting for some of his young prospects, led by goaltender Carey Price, who, no matter what Gainey does, is still a few years away from prime time, to mature. Instead, he's moved one of his best prospects, college defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and Chris Higgins, one of the team's leaders, for Gomez, lost all his cap flexibility by signing Gionta and Cammalleri too, and added a couple of aging veterans in Spacek and Gill to take up roster spots that he'd have been better off giving to a younger player.

San Jose - General Manager Doug Wilson promised some big changes after his Sharks were bounced in the first round of the playoffs this past season by Anaheim, a playoffs the Sharks entered as the #1 seed in the West and one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup. So far, he hasn't delivered; in fact, it's looking more and more like the Sharks might enter next season with almost no changes to their core players at all. Wilson did enter the free agent season with the notable disadvantage of being fairly close to the salary cap, but he didn't help his cause by re-signing defensemen Rob Blake and Kent Huskins to $3.5 and $1.7 million contract extensions, respectively. Now he has over $22 million locked up in seven defensemen, the same ones that, outside of Dan Boyle and Huskins, who didn't even play against the Ducks after being acquired from them at the last trade deadline, looked so ineffective against Anaheim. Forget making changes, with so little cap space left now, the Sharks might have trouble getting enough forwards under contract to fill out their roster next season; they only have eight under contract with only about $1.5 million left to spend. For that reason alone, the Sharks must have some kind of move forthcoming, if only so that they can ice a full team. Forwards Patrick Marleau ($6.3 million next season), Milan Michalek ($4.33 million average for the next five seasons), Jonathan Cheechoo ($3 million average salary the next two seasons), and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff ($3.1 million average the next two seasons) look like prime targets to be moved, but really, who's going to want them at those salaries, let alone give the Sharks fair trade value for them? Wilson seemed to have the right idea heading into the off-season (he all but came right out and said that he needed to shake up his team's core with a trade) but thus far his execution is sorely lacking. With a lot of teams already close to being set with their salary committments for next season, outside of some kind of blockbuster trade what exactly can Wilson do? And if that blockbuster means Dany Heatley, like some rumour sites are suggesting, is getting him going to help change this team's reputation as a squad with no heart that can't take the next step towards being a champion, or make it worse?

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