When the NHL’s free-agent market opened for business, the Canadian general managers came charging in with their wallets out.
Mike Gillis lured coveted defenceman Dan Hamhuis to Vancouver, Bryan Murray convinced veteran blue-liner Sergei Gonchar to join Ottawa and Darryl Sutter dropped some jaws by bringing forwards Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay back to Calgary.
Not to be outdone, the other three Canadian GMs also made moves on a busy day that featured more restraint than normal from managers around the league.
The richest contract was the US$27 million Vancouver committed to Hamhuis over six years — and the 27-year-old defenceman turned down more from other interested teams. In fact, his willingness to do so helped seal the deal.
“We’re trying to compete for a Stanley Cup and ultimately players have to do that if they want to be in that environment,” Gillis told reporters on Thursday. “We were thrilled he was prepared to do that and looked at our team as a contending team and was prepared to come here for less money. It was a really good thing for us.”
For a free-agent class that wasn’t considered very deep, a lot of players found new homes. However, the biggest fish of all remained without one as flashy winger Ilya Kovalchuk continued to weigh his options.
Goaltenders and defencemen were in the highest demand.
The Senators grabbed one of the top available blue-liners when they signed Gonchar to a $16.5-million, three-year contract roughly 20 minutes after he hit the open market. Murray was extremely aggressive in his pursuit.
“We made a call right at 12:01 and basically made a proposal,” he said. “I’m very happy, it adds a great deal to our team. (He brings) back end mobility and (plays the) point on the power play, that’s how you win games in the league now.”
The most shocking moves came out of Calgary. A few eyebrows were raised when the team signed Tanguay (one year for $1.7 million) — he asked for a trade the last time he played for the Flames — but there was outright shock when Sutter followed that by bringing Jokinen back as well.
The Finn was traded to the New York Rangers earlier this year, but returns on a $6-million, two-year deal. Even he seemed taken aback by the development.
“I was a little surprised to get a call from Darryl today,” said Jokinen. “When I heard what he had to say, then there were no other options. I wanted to come back.”
Among the other moves made by Canadian teams: Montreal signed goaltender Alex Auld to a $1-million, one-year deal; Toronto landed gritty winger Colby Armstrong for $9 million over three years; Edmonton inked defenceman Kurtis Foster to a $3.6-million, two-year deal; and Vancouver shelled out $7.5 million to get forward Manny Malhotra for three years.
Leafs GM Brian Burke didn’t expect to make any moves when the day started, but was pleased to land Armstrong. His biggest goal was to avoid overpaying for a player.
“Our group makes more mistakes on July 1 and on the trade deadline than we do the whole rest of the year — in fact, the whole rest of any two-year period,” said Burke. “There’s a notion that on July 1 you must do something, you must take steps to improve your team . . .
“I think the key on July 1 is to keep your positional needs in mind, keep your cap space in mind, keep your budget in mind and add if you can.”
With a couple teams looking for help in net, the goaltending carousel took a good spin.
Antero Niittymaki went to San Jose ($4 million over two years), Dan Ellis ended up in Tampa ($3 million over two years), Chris Mason signed in Atlanta ($3.7 million over two years), Johan Hedberg joined New Jersey ($1.5 million for one year) and Martin Biron moved across town to play for the Rangers ($1.75 million over two years).
The Sharks felt like winners after replacing outgoing starter Evgeni Nabokov with Niittymaki.
“We were pretty proactive once we decided Antero was our guy,” said GM Doug Wilson. “We thought we’d be a pretty attractive fit for a goaltender like that. It came together quickly and we’re very, very excited to have him.”
The teams based in Pennsylvania both took steps to bolster their blue-lines. Philadelphia re-signed Braydon Coburn to a $6.4-million, two-year deal, acquired Andrej Meszaros from Tampa for a second-round pick in 2012 and added veteran Sean O’Donnell on a one-year deal worth $1 million.
The Pittsburgh Penguins followed suit. After losing Gonchar, they signed Paul Martin to a $25-million, five-year deal and Zbynek Michalek to a $20-million, four-year deal.
Clearly, GM Ray Shero believes a stronger defence is needed to get back to the Stanley Cup.
Ottawa was all too happy to welcome the most notable player that team let get away. Gonchar had originally hoped to return to Pittsburgh, but is more than happy to make the move to the nation’s capital.
“Playing in Canada is something special,” he said. “Every time I play in Canada I always play better. I really enjoy playing there.”