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Teams waste no time signing free agent talent

Friday, 07.01.2011 / 7:26 PM / NHL Free Agency 2011

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Teams waste no time signing free agent talent
More than 60 players put their names on the dotted lines in the opening hours of free agency, though the biggest name, center Brad Richards, is still unsigned.
If this was a "lean market" for free agents, imagine what a busy one would look like.

While some of the big names -- including Brad Richards and Tomas Vokoun -- enter Saturday unsigned, more than five dozen players came to terms Friday on a day that saw teams make salary commitments of more than $260 million.

That total will go up a lot higher when Richards decides what city he's going to call home next season -- and for the next several years. He's mulling big-money offers from several teams, including the Rangers, Maple Leafs, Kings, Flyers and Flames, and decided to sleep on it before making his decision, which is likely to come on Saturday.

The barrage of signings was accompanied by a major trade -- Washington sent goalie Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional second-round pick in 2012 or 2013. The Avalanche are working to sign Varlamov, who was is a restricted free agent, in order to stave off his reported temptation to return to Russia to play in the KHL.

Jaromir Jagr also got what he wanted to stay out of the KHL this coming season -- but it wasn't from the Pittsburgh Penguins or Detroit Red Wings, as was initially expected. Jagr instead signed for one year and a reported $3.3 million with the Flyers after the Penguins and Red Wings pulled their one-year contract offers off the table.

The Flyers later took another former Penguin away from Pittsburgh by signing Maxime Talbot to a five-year contract worth a reported $9 million. Pittsburgh also lost forward Mike Rupp to the New York Rangers, who signed him to a reported three-year, $4.5 million deal.

Buffalo, Montreal, Florida, Colorado, Columbus, Washington and Dallas also made splashes by giving out big-money deals.

The Sabres, who proved with the pre-July 1 signing of Christian Ehrhoff (10 years, $40 million) that they were going to be a major player in free agency, continued to remake the franchise under new owner Terry Pegula by signing forward Ville Leino to a six-year deal worth a reported $27 million.

Leino is coming off a career year with the Flyers. He scored 53 points in 81 games after registering 21 points in the Flyers' postseason run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010. The Sabres plan to make him a center.

The Canadiens gave out a chunk of money and years to bring in former Hurricanes forward Erik Cole, a former Stanley Cup winner. Cole got four years and a reported $18 million after scoring 26 goals and 52 points last season for the Hurricanes. It's possible he lines up on Tomas Plekanec's wing to start the season after playing with Eric Staal for many years.

Tomas Fleischmann, whose 2010-11 season was cut short due to blood clots, received the same money and term as Cole did from the Florida Panthers, who were arguably the most active team of the day.

With plenty of money to burn just to get to the salary cap floor of $48.3 million, the Panthers also signed Ed Jovanovski and Scottie Upshall to four-year contracts, Marcel Goc to a three-year deal, Sean Bergenheim to a four-year pact and goalie Jose Theodore for two years while also acquiring Kris Versteeg in a trade from Philadelphia.

Factoring in $18 million for Fleischmann, $16.5 million for Jovanovski, $14 million for Upshall, $5.19 million for Goc, $11 million for Bergenheim and $3 million for Theodore, the Panthers added a combined $67.69 million in salary commitments in six five signings. Versteeg is also due $3 million for the 2011-12 season.

The Panthers gave the Flyers a second-round pick and a third-round pick for Versteeg.

Theodore's signing likely signals the end of Vokoun's run in Florida, as Theodore is expected to be the Panthers' No. 1 goalie.

Vokoun remains in limbo entering Saturday. He's regarded as the best goalie on the market, and Colorado was considered a likely destination -- but the odds of that happening fell dramatically with the Avalanche giving up a hefty ransom of draft picks for Varlamov and then signing Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

Prior to bringing in Varlamov and Giguere, the Avalanche added some defensive help by signing Jan Hejda for four years. Hejda spent the last four seasons in Columbus. The Avs also signed forward Chuck Kobasew from Minnesota.

The Blue Jackets figured Hejda was going to leave, so they didn't wait until 12 p.m. ET to sign defenseman James Wisniewski to a six-year contract reportedly worth $33 million. Columbus acquired Wisniewski's negotiating rights from Montreal on Wednesday and was able to lock him into a contract before he hit the open market. His $5.5 million cap hit was the largest taken on Friday.

A short while after dealing Varlamov, Washington GM George McPhee was back at it with a couple of significant signings. He brought ex-Predators forward Joel Ward into D.C. for four years at a reported $12 million and soon after signed ex-Canadiens defenseman Roman Hamrlik to a two-year deal worth reportedly worth $7 million. Veteran center Jeff Halpern also joined the Caps on a one-year deal.

Dallas already knew Richards was leaving, but it brought in some offense by signing Michael Ryder to a two-year contract worth $3.5 million. Ryder cashed in on a big postseason as he helped the Bruins win the Stanley Cup by scoring 17 points in 25 games, including 6 points in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Stars also signed Sheldon Souray, Vernon Fiddler, Adam Pardy and Radek Dvorak. Souray, who was bought out by the Oilers, got a one-year deal to try to resurrect his career in Texas. Fiddler got three years totaling $5.4 million; Pardy got two years and $4 million while Dvorak got one year at $1.5 million.

Chicago GM Stan Bowman, who was held hostage by the salary cap last season, opened his checkbook to bring in five veteran players early in the day, signing Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, Sean O'Donnell and Brett McLean and Daniel Carcillo to one-year contracts.

Phoenix made a bit of a splash as well by signing forwards Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon along with goalie Mike Smith, who served as Dwayne Roloson's backup in Tampa Bay for the second half of last season. Smith, like Theodore, is expected to go from a backup to a starter. Forward Radim Vrbata also re-upped for three more years in the desert.

The backup goalie market was also active with the Hurricanes, Canadiens, Lightning, Senators, Devils and Wild locking up their guys.

Brian Boucher signed for two years in Carolina, Peter Budaj did the same in Montreal and Mathieu Garon also got a two-year deal with Tampa Bay. Alex Auld inked a one-year deal with Ottawa while Johan Hedberg re-upped for another season in New Jersey and Josh Harding did the same in Minnesota.

While still considered the frontrunners for Richards, the Rangers kept busy by adding Rupp -- TSN reported they actually won a bidding war for Rupp with several other teams -- and keeping Ruslan Fedotenko.

Edmonton jumped into the mix with three signings and a trade built on adding toughness and a bit of skill.

The Oilers inked enforcer Ben Eager and playmaking center Eric Belanger to three-year contracts. They also brought in Cam Barker on a two-year contract and traded for Andy Sutton, giving up Kurtis Foster to Anaheim.

The thought is that Eager will provide some protection for young future stars such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi and Sam Gagner. Belanger will also provide some veteran leadership down the middle while Barker and Sutton join a blue line that already included Ladislav Smid, Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert.

Detroit was able to lock up Jonathan Ericsson on a three-year deal. Sami Salo returned to Vancouver for two years. Soon after announcing they were no longer in the Jagr sweepstakes, the Penguins re-signed Tyler Kennedy for two years.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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