Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The NHL has a short offseason relative to other professional sports leagues, so the eagerness to get summer vacation started is always evident on the first day of free agency.
Most of the coveted free agents in the 2014 class put their respective names on the dotted line Tuesday, leaving the cupboards barren for teams still looking to improve via the open market.
Compared to last summer's free agent spending spree, the 2014 edition is short on gaudy contracts like the seven-year, $36.75 million commitment Toronto made to David Clarkson in 2013. Perhaps, the salary cap ceiling being set at a lower than expected $69 million for 2014-15 caused teams to show some restraint.
Paul Stastny signed with St. Louis for four years and $28 million, giving the Blues a potential top-line center for a sensible term. Thomas Vanek's three- year, $19.5 million deal with Minnesota also seems to be a team-friendly contract as did Jarome Iginla's agreement with Colorado for three years and $16 million.
It should come as no surprise that the worst instances of overspending involved teams tying to improve their defenses. True impact defensemen are hard to come by, so teams usually have to pay a premium to lure free agent blueliners.
This was clearly the case with Washington, which dumped $40.25 million on Matt Niskanen's doorstep for seven years of his service while also signing Brooks Orpik for five years and $27.5 million. With Barry Trotz installed as head coach it's pretty clear the Capitals want to play a more defensive game, but if the new style of play doesn't work both of those contracts could look like bad investments in the near future.
With Washington as an example of club reaching a bit too far for an outside solution to its problems, let's take a look at some of the winners and losers at the start of free agency.
General manager Jim Nill landed his club the biggest prize on July 1, although it came via trade instead of a signing. The Stars acquired Jason Spezza from the Ottawa Senators to play a second-line center role and give Dallas the type of forward depth needed to compete for a playoff spot in the stacked Pacific Division. Nill, who also brought in forward Ales Hemsky on a three-year, $12 million deal, will now work on hammering out a long-term deal with Spezza before he becomes a UFA next summer.
Since taking over for fired GM Ray Shero, Jim Rutherford has been taking stock of a Penguins team that in recent years has dominated in the regular season before fizzling out in the playoffs. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still situated as the franchise cornerstones, the new GM has tried to trim the fat from his roster. The first step was trading winger James Neal to Nashville for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling during the draft, a move that could hurt Pittsburgh's top-six forward depth but also help the club's overall offensive situation. Re-signing centerman Marcel Goc to a one-year, $1.2 million deal and inking forward Steve Downie for one year and $1 million also is a good development for Pittsburgh's last two lines. Adding defenseman Christian Ehrhoff on a one-year, $4 million deal and getting backup goaltender Thomas Greiss on the cheap (1 year, $1 million) also were savvy moves.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
GM Steve Yzerman was able to re-sign forward Ryan Callahan before free agency and just kept on adding ex-New York Rangers on July 1. The Lightning gave centerman Brian Boyle $6 million over three seasons and inked defenseman Anton Stralman to a five-year, $22.5 million deal. Both Boyle and Stralman were key parts of New York's run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals and Yzerman is banking they can be part of a similar success story with Tampa in the next few years. Getting veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov for one year is good insurance considering No. 1 Ben Bishop's absence this spring helped precipitate Tampa's early playoff exit.
The Sabres needed to spend some money to get themselves over the salary cap floor of $51 million, so handing out multi-year deals to forwards Brian Gionta (3 years, $12.75 million) and Matt Moulson (5 years, $25 million) was understandable. The real blunder came when GM Tim Murray forked over a second- round pick in 2015 to acquire former Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges in a trade. Gorges could be a dependable player for the Sabres over the next few years, but with Buffalo still in the early stages of a rebuilding process it simply doesn't make sense to part with a second-round pick to get him.
Calgary used four goaltenders last season, with Karri Ramo leading the way with 40 starts, so it made sense to sign veteran backstop Jonas Hiller for two years and $9 million because it gives the Flames a legitimate No. 1 option in the crease. I also don't mind the Flames adding speed with winger Mason Raymond (3 years, $9.5 million) after losing Mike Cammalleri, who signed with New Jersey on Tuesday. However, giving defenseman Deryk Engelland $8.7 million for three years is an unforced error by Flames president Brian Burke. Engelland made just $575,000 with Pittsburgh last season and it's difficult to see what Calgary saw from his 56-game run with the Penguins to justify a raise of that sort. While Engelland wasn't a regular part of Pittsburgh's defensive rotation in 2013-14, this contract means he'll get a chance to play regularly in Calgary but that may not be a good thing for the Flames.
Making a flurry of free agent signings worked once for Dale Tallon in Florida, so why not try it again? The Panthers GM was criticized for adding a ton of salary for questionable talent in the summer of 2011, but was vindicated when the Panthers made the playoffs the following season for the first time since 2000. Tallon will try to duplicate that result with a handful of questionable signings on Tuesday. Forwards Jussi Jokinen (4 years, $16 million), Dave Bolland (5 years, $27.5 million), Shawn Thornton (2 years, $2.4 million) and Derek MacKenzie (3 years, $3.9 million) and defenseman Willie Mitchell (2 year, $8.5 million) enter the fold, but it seems more likely this new crop will just get in the way of a youth movement rather than help that process along.
The aforementioned signings of Orpik and Niskanen throws money at Washington's defensive issues, a strategy that rarely works in the NHL. Unless there is a big trade in the works this summer, it could be another frustrating season for a club that can't seem to build a winner around all-world sniper Alex Ovechkin.