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Craig Button looks at free agency winners so far

by Shawn P. Roarke /
NHL Network analyst Craig Button has been watching how free agency has unfolded with a keen eye.

Despite the long weekend throughout Canada, Button has been glued to coverage of the 2010 NHL Free Agent frenzy. With only one big position player left on the board -- high-scoring forward Ilya Kovalchuk -- Button has already formed some ideas about whom the big winners were during the opening days of free agency.

1. Ottawa Senators

The Sens only made one move and it was in the first hour of free agency, but the acquisition of veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar could easily trump all the moves that followed.

"Gonchar is the type of player that makes every offensive player better," Button said. "He made Malkin and Crosby better in Pittsburgh, and now he's going to make (Daniel) Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and (Milan) Michalek better."
How much better?

"I think this helps Jason Spezza become a 90- or maybe 100-point guy," Button said.

He believes the whole Ottawa team will be better because of Gonchar's ability to read the play in transition.

"One pass or one quick play can make all the difference for a team," Button said. "I don't think the acquisition of Gonchar is just about giving Ottawa a solid blue line; it is about improving their offensive thrust."

It's little wonder Ottawa GM Bryan Murray did not hesitate to give Gonchar the three-year deal he craved after Pittsburgh -- Gonchar's former employer -- refused to budge from a two-year deal.

2. Vancouver Canucks

Button absolutely loves what the Canucks have done this week, beginning with the acquisition of defenseman Keith Ballard at the 2010 Entry Draft and continuing Thursday with the free-agent signings of defenseman Dan Hamhuis and center Manny Malhotra.

"The Vancouver Canucks are trying to go to the next level, to get to the Western Conference Finals," Button said. "I'm looking at how do you improve the team to meet the next challenge? I think that Vancouver has done that with the moves it has made."

Button believes Ballard -- a British Columbia boy -- is going to be the key to Vancouver's ability to get to the next level.

"He's going to play a lot of minutes and give Vancouver really good depth on the blue line," Button said. "He's a really good two-way player that completes plays on both ends of the ice."

Button was also keen on Malhotra, who will be a third- or fourth-line center on the team, slotted in behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. That gives Vancouver almost unprecedented depth down the middle.

"Malhotra is a big guy who wins faceoffs," Button said.

Why is that so important?

"Teams that start with the puck tend to be good offensive teams," Button said.

Plus, teams that have puck possession can't give up scoring chances. Button believes that was Vancouver's downfall in the playoffs last season when it fell to the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks in six games. In that series, the Canucks gave Chicago's talented forwards more chances than even a quality goalie like Roberto Luongo could handle.

In fact, he believes that is the same reason why Chicago was able to beat top-seeded San Jose -- and top-tier goalie Evgeni Nabokov -- in the next round and why Philadelphia was able to knock off division champion New Jersey -- and Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur -- in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

"Teams that give up a lot of scoring changes are going to get scored upon," Button said. "It's that simple."

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

Defense was the theme of the first 48 hours of free agency. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that defensemen are all over Button's list. In fact, he rounds out his top three by raving about the Plan B job Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero did when the loss of Gonchar became a reality.

In short order, Shero got both Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to sign long-term deals. Martin, formerly of the New Jersey Devils, will be counted upon to replace Gonchar's lost offensive contributions. Michalek will give Pittsburgh some extra snarl in its own zone.

"Pittsburgh not only got younger with their transactions, but they added elements to their game that weren't there before," Button said.

He believes that Michalek has even more to showcase than he displayed as an integral part of the Phoenix defense for the past few years. Sure, he's a big body that blocks shots at a prodigious rate and keeps things orderly in his own end, but Button believes he will be a better offensive player going forward.

But it's the signing of Martin that has Button so high on the Penguins.

While Button stresses that the bedrock of Martin's game is his world-class skating ability, he becomes unique because of his ability to think the game in a way that complements his skill set.

"He combines great skating with a great hockey mind," Button says. "His cerebral attributes are as good as his physical attributes."

Button says the idea of Martin having the opportunity to hit Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin cutting up the ice in transition should be a nightmare for every team in the East. He says Martin often plays like an attacking midfielder in soccer, dissecting a team's defense and finding weaknesses to exploit.

Button also dismisses the lone knock on Martin, which is that he never really looked comfortable as a power-play quarterback during his tenure in New Jersey. To Button, Martin's struggles in that area had more to do with the fact that New Jersey did not have another threat on the blue line to pair with him and also featured limited threats up front. He knows that won't be the case in Pittsburgh.

"You put him in Pittsburgh where Crosby can beat you from down low and Malkin can beat you off the wall and (Kris) Letang has a bomb of a shot from the point and Martin can be very dangerous on the power play," Button said.

All of that is without ever discussing the underrated play of Martin in his own zone.

"He's like a pickpocket out there," Button said. "You don't know the puck is gone until it is too late."

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