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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Early Returns, Part 1: The Best of Free Agency '09

It's virtually impossible to correctly gauge the positive or negative impact a free agent signing might have on a team before he's actually played a game for them. Talking wins and losses in free agency at this point, well, it's a sucker's game, purely a thought exercise, a matter of arranging player names on a piece of paper or computer screen with no real significance.

But hey, let's not let that stop us. Here's some early winners from the moves and signings teams have made since the entry draft and the start of free agency last Wednesday. Look for our list of free agency losers sometime in the next few days.

Free Agency Winners

Chicago - Ok, the Marian Hossa contract was easily twice as long (12 years) as any reasonable person might expect Hossa to be an impact player for and could hamper Chicago's efforts to sign young core players Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrik Kane when their contracts all expire next summer. But a $5.23 million cap hit is really not that much, and adding Hossa, Tomas Kopecky, and defensive centre extraordinaire John Madden (in a highly underrated move), as well as getting young centre Dave Bolland signed to a long-term deal, gives the Hawks quite possibly as solid a group of forwards as there is in the league. How about sliding Hossa into Martin Havlat's vacated spot with Bolland and Andrew Ladd, Calder finalist Kris Versteeg playing with developing starts Toews and Kane, and Madden centring big Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Sharp, who missed 21 games last season and still scored 26 goals? That doesn't even include Kopecky, tough guy Ben Eager, Troy Brouwer, who had some success playing with Kane and Toews as well, agitator Adam Burish, and prospects Jack Skille and Kyle Beach, both of whom might be ready. Sure, the 'Hawks aren't far from the salary cap, and Brian Campbell's long term, over $7 million per season deal signed last summer looks like even more of an overpayment, but Campbell, Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and possibly prospect Jordan Hendry give them a core on defense that's mobile and improving. Don't be too surprised to see Sharp and his $3.9 million salary moved for a tough defense-minded defenseman before the season starts. One of Skille or Beach could be used to sweeten the deal too, and defensemen Cam Barker and Brent Sopel both might be dealt for additional cap relief. If Cristobal Huet plays as well as he's capable for a full season this will be a very tough team.

Vancouver - The city of Vancouver's love-hate relationship with the Sedin twins will continue, at least for the next five years, as the Canucks managed to get Daniel and Henrik signed to identical $30.5 million contracts. It's not so much what the Sedins got that makes this a good deal as what they didn't get; most reports suggest the twins asked the Canucks for deals that were twice as long for more than twice that much money. The fact that Vancouver held firm with a more reasonable 5-year offer is a win. Most critics of the Sedins point out that they've never been great in the playoffs, but hey, neither was exactly bad last year either, and they used to say that about Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg too. A quick glance at what other players were getting on the free agent market (Mike Cammalleri: $6 million/season, Marian Gaborik: $7.5 million, Martin Havlat: $5 million, Brian Gionta: $5 million) shows just how hard replacing scoring forwards of the Sedin's calibre would've been this summer, had the team chose to let them walk. Couple that with reports that the Canucks are in talks with superstar goalie Roberto Luongo on a long-term extension and signing former Red Wing Mikael Samuelsson, who should look good either on the Sedin's right or the second line with top prospect Cody Hodgson, to a reasonable 3-year deal and the Canucks are in a very good position for next season and beyond. Now, if they can add a defenseman to replace the departed Mattias Ohlund, so much the better; recent rumours suggest they may have already talked to the Leafs about trading for Tomas Kaberle.

Toronto - Like the Sedins and Vancouver, the Leafs won for what didn't happen as much as what did. Fan interest in Toronto is extreme right now. People were salivating like dogs when GM Brian Burke promised he'd try to move up in the entry draft and get John Tavares. When it didn't happen, their eyes naturally fell onto free agency. It would've been so easy for Burke to give in to public pressure and outbid Montreal for local boy Mike Cammalleri or throw $8 million a season at Marian Gaborik. Trouble is, neither of those moves would've put the Leafs much ahead of where they are now: a bubble team that might squeeze into one of the last playoff spots in the East, but probably won't. Maybe it's that the players Burke really wanted didn't make it to market, as rumours suggested he was interested in Jay Bouwmeester and the Sedins, and maybe making either of those moves if they were possible would've been worth it. But in the absence of players he really wanted, Burke resisted the temptation to instead splurge on inferior replacements, adding only tough defenseman Mike Komisarek and enforcer Colton Orr by free agency and defenseman Garnet Exelby in trade. He also cleared significant cap space by moving Pavel Kubina to Atlanta. His team might not be much better, but they're tougher, so their handful of developing skill players won't get pushed around, and they've got cap space to add talent in the future. All they really need now is a young star forward to build around. Let the rumours of Burke trying to get Taylor Hall begin...

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