TORONTO — NHL teams wasted little time shelling out almost half a billion dollars on the first day of free agency, shifting the league’s landscape in the process.
The Vancouver Canucks signed Ryan Miller to a US$18-million, three-year deal, suggesting they may not be in rebuilding mode as much as everyone thought, while the Buffalo Sabres significantly improved their young roster with Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson and Josh Gorges and look less like a team gearing up for a run at the first overall draft pick in 2015. Meanwhile, the Ottawa Senators in trading Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars, took a step back from the edge of the playoffs.
By getting Spezza and signing Ales Hemsky, the Stars have moved toward the top of a fiercely competitive Western Conference.
“To be one of the elite teams, you’ve got to become that, and we knew we had to get even better,” general manager Jim Nill said. “We think we’ve kept up to them. We still think we have a ways to go, but over the course of last season we thought we matched up very well against these teams.”
The Stars were joined in that quest by the Minnesota Wild, who inked top free agent Thomas Vanek to a $19.5-million, three-year deal. Two years ago the Wild signed defenceman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise, and after adding Vanek, looked like they could come close to challenging the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks in the West.
“It takes good players to get good players, and we’re starting to get some good players here,” Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher told reporters in St. Paul, Minn.
A lot of good players signed on Day 1, including centre Paul Stastny getting a $28-million, four-year deal from the St. Louis Blues as a direct answer to the Stars’ trade for Spezza and the Anaheim Ducks’ trade for Ryan Kesler last week. As those dominos fell, the Chicago Blackhawks also got their No. 2 centre in the form of Brad Richards, who signed at a bargain-basement price of $2 million after being bought out by the New York Rangers.
Top defenceman Matt Niskanen got the richest deal of the day at seven years and $40.25 million from the Washington Capitals, who also gave his former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Brooks Orpik five years and $27.5 million.
“It’s a big commitment from Washington,” Niskanen said on a conference call. “That’s no small thing.”
No team committed almost $70 million to its defence like the Capitals, but the rebuilding Sabres gave Moulson $25 million over five years and former Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta $12.75 million to augment a young core.
“We’re more competitive,” GM Tim Murray told reporters in Buffalo. “The long-term is that your young players get better. Your young players become pros. They’re not just good players, they’re good NHL players and I think that this group of people that we’ve added today can help in that regard.”
Similarly, the Florida Panthers signed centre Dave Bolland (five years, $27.5 million) and winger Jussi Jokinen (four years, $16 million) in the hopes of moving to that next level as a playoff contender in front of veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo.
The Canucks, who traded Luongo at the deadline less than a year after sending Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils, brought Miller in to stabilize the goaltending position. At 33 years old, Miller is still considered a top-tier netminder and has the ability to steal games and keep this team from falling too far off its recent pace.
“We think he is going to be very instrumental in the success of our team going forward,” Vancouver GM Jim Benning said. “He is a ferocious competitor. He is focused, he is intense. He wants to win. Those are the types of players we want in our organization going forward.”
Vancouver’s signing of Miller — coupled with getting two NHL players in return for Kesler — signalled that retooling might be a better word for what’s going on there.
The Senators might be a different story. Despite re-signing winger Milan Michalek to a $12-million, three-year deal Tuesday, they lost Hemsky to Dallas and recouped only young winger Alex Chiasson, two prospects and a second-round pick for Spezza.
Ottawa missed the playoffs in 2013-14, but GM Bryan Murray didn’t seem like he was putting up a white flag for next season.
“We’re going to have a good hockey team,” Murray said. “We’re going to compete. We lose a little bit at centre ice, we gain a little bit on the wing, we’ve got a couple of young guys coming that are going to be a different brand of player. … I think our team is going to be really competitive, hard-working group of people.”
Hard-working is one thing, but the best teams in the league need talent above all else. That’s why the Tampa Bay Lightning signed defenceman Anton Stralman for five years and $22.5 million and the New Jersey Devils signed former Calgary Flames centre Mike Cammalleri for $25 million over five years.
It’s also a matter of matching up with other teams. Even before the Colorado Avalanche signed right-winger Jarome Iginla to a $16-million, three-year contract, Blues GM Doug Armstrong had his eye on Stastny.
“We’re looking to add pieces to help get over the top,” Armstrong said on a conference call. “We’re not asking anyone come in here with cape on and be Superman. We’re just looking to another strong piece to the puzzle and keep competitive as we chase Colorado down for the division.”
The need to chase down teams that also continue improving is what led the Flames to sign goaltender Jonas Hiller to a $9-million, two-year deal and Mason Raymond for three years and $9.5 million. It’s also what motivated the Edmonton Oilers to give forward Benoit Pouliot $20 million over four years and defenceman Mark Fayne $14.5 million over five years.
“When you look at the moves that Anaheim has made, the moves Vancouver has made, which have been impressive, the position that Los Angeles is in … these teams … are clearly in a different place than what we are,” Oilers GM Craig MacTavish said. “But the potential we now have to get better far exceeds that of the teams we are chasing, and I’m under no allusion that we are chasing those teams. The hope is that gap slowly disappears.”
Teams like the Sabres and Panthers hope the same thing, but everyone knows it won’t happen cheaply. Dallas was considered one of the big winners Tuesday, and despite spending some money Nill could be proud of the arc his team is on.
“In this new cap world, it’s all about financial flexibility and having the assets,” he said. “Between the assets we have and having the money to pick up players, it worked out well for us.”