To a hockey junkie, like myself, the NHL Draft and free agency are almost as exciting as the game itself. Maybe it’s the intertwining of conflicting philosophies during these two periods that entice me so much. At the draft, teams are focused on methodically building for the future, while the opening day of free agency is a free-for-all of ludicrous spending by general managers looking for the next big thing to put their club over the top. Maybe it’s simply the prospect of something new that draws me in. Or, quite possibly, it’s the fact that, as a Flyers fan, I never know what to expect from the front office. Either way, the early stages of the NHL off-season are an exciting time for fans, media, and hockey professionals, alike.
Unfortunately for some organizations, it is moves made during these summer months that can handcuff that team for years down the road. On the other hand, an apt move here or there can be enough to put a franchise over the top. Winners aren’t necessarily built during free agency, but they’re certainly supplemented. And that brings us to the purpose of this writing: winners and losers of the off-season. Who made all the right moves? And who fell on their proverbial faces? So let’s take a closer look at those clubs who made a misstep or two, the losers.
Toronto Maple Leafs- Additions: Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, Paul Ranger, Jonathon Bernier, TJ Brennan
Probably the most active team of the off-season, the Leafs spent as if there was no tomorrow. First they gave Phil Kessel’s personal center, Tyler Bozak, a 4-year $21 million extension. Despite the fact that Bozak is nothing more than mid-level talent. Then, GM Dave Nonis handed free agent power forward David Clarkson a ridiculous 7-year $36.25 million contract, eventhough Clarkson has never scored more than 46points in any of his seven NHL seasons. That’s not to say that all the moves made by the Leafs were asinine, because acquiring Bolland and Bernier were both smart moves. However, all the wheeling and dealing may seriously hinder Nonis’ ability to re-sign some core pieces over the next few seasons. Currently budding star Nazem Kadri and steady blueliner Cody Franson are without contracts. And next summer it gets even worse as Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, James Reimer, Nikolai Kulemin, and Jay McClemment are all due new deals.
Vancouver Canucks- Additions: Brad Richardson, Yannick Weber, John Tortorella (Coach)
For the Canucks, being categorized as a “loser” isn’t necessarily about what they added, but rather, what they lost. For well over a year, GM Mike Gillis had been actively shopping aging (and expensive) netminder Roberto Luongo to make room for potential franchise goalie, Corey Schneider. However, Luongo’s excessively long contract (9 years remaining) made him virtually untradeable and that left Gillis in a tough position. So, instead of continuing the goalie roulette of the previous few campaigns, the Canucks opted to ship out Schneider instead. Their goalie of the future was traded to New Jersey, at the draft, for the 9th overall selection (Bo Horvat), despite the fact that there were much better deals on the table. Gillis and his team bungled this situation so badly that it’s left this declining squad in a terrible spot. They now have an aging, overpriced goaltender, who doesn’t particularly want to be in Vancouver, to go along with an over-the-hill roster, heading in the wrong direction. Things aren’t looking too bright for this former perennial contender.
New Jersey Devils- Additions: Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, Ryan Clowe, Rostislov Olesz, Corey Schneider
The Devils were more active this summer than they’ve been in a long, long time. Normally, veteran GM Lou Lamoriello builds methodically, through the draft, but the “retirement” of Ilya Kovalchuck back to Russia left him with plenty of cash to play with. The addition of netminder Corey Schneider, to supplant Martin Brodeur, was, by far, the Devils best move. And it only cost them a 1st round pick. After that, however, it was downhill. Ryan Clowe, despite scoring just 3 goals a season ago, signed a 5-year $24.25 million deal. Because of Clowe’s age (30), lack of production, and rash of serious concussions recently, his contract is a legitimate liability. The Devils are then banking that NHL legend and former Flyer, Jaromir Jagr, still has some jump left in his 41-year old legs. And Michael Ryder, a steady 20-goal scorer, was added as well. It’s difficult to believe that this Devils squad is only a season removed from a Stanley Cup final appearance. Gone over the past two off-seasons are stars Zach Parise (Minnesota), Ilya Kovalchuk (KHL), and power forward David Clarkson, only to be replaced by the likes of Jagr, Clowe, and Ryder. Any pundit, fan, or expert would tell you, that’s not an even trade.
Edmonton Oilers- Additions: David Perron, Boyd Gordon, Andrew Ference, Anton Belov, Philip Larsen, Jason Labarbera, Mike Brown
When new General Manager Craig MacTavish was hired prior to the draft, he announced that he would be making bold changes in Edmonton. Sadly for the Oilers faithful, Andrew Ference and Boyd Gorden weren’t exactly the earth-shattering names they were expecting. Ference is a steady defender but Edmonton is still extremely weak on the blueline. Picking up forward David Perron from the Blues was probably the splashiest move, but it’s not enough to improve a struggling franchise. The Oilers have not sniffed the playoffs since making an improbable run to the Finals in 05-06. And, unfortunately, because of relative inactivity this summer, it’s likely this club will be teeing off at the golf course when the NHL playoffs begin next spring.
It’s important to remember that, just because a team has an unproductive summer, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee an unsuccessful season. Some clubs are unable to make large investments due to internal budgets. Others prefer to build their teams with homegrown talent, through the draft. But there are instances where a lousy summer translates over to an unsatisfactory campaign. Just last summer, the Flyers swung and missed on Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, and Shea Weber. They were clear losers in the off-season, and their inability to improve the roster led to one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory.
Up next, the Winners…