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Free Agent Frenzy: Winners, Losers and Too Close to Call

by Bruce LeVine / Dallas Stars

Radek Dvorak
July 1 is a day of celebration in Canada. For many it commemorates a national holiday, for a select few it is the day the Gross National Product of Canada jumps by 30%.  The first day in the month of July is the day the next NHL season really begins, Free Agent Signing Day. Twenty four hours that can change the course of a franchise for better or worse. This day is so important that TSN provided 5 LIVE hours of coverage. There are some Canadian TV networks that won’t provide 5 hours of coverage when a new Prime Minister is elected. (The number can vary depending on the schedule for Hockey Night in Canada.) For 2011 several factors fell into place to make this free agency period one of the craziest ever.

1)    Salary Cap Ceiling raised: The new number of $64.3 million gave extra bargaining power to teams at the top end of the salary scale. Instead having to overhaul their entire lineup, such as the Blackhawks did in 2010, teams at the high end of the payroll list had to make a few easy moves to fit under the cap and become active players in free agency.  (Think NY Rangers and the buyout of Chris Drury as exhibit #1)

2)    Salary Cap Floor established at $48.3 million: In many ways the Salary Cap floor had more bearing on the insanity that occurred than any other factor. It’s one thing to want to spend money on players it’s another when you HAVE to spend money just to be in accordance with the CBA. By some accounts the Florida Panthers were twenty million dollars below the floor when the signing period began. The Dallas Stars were 10 million beneath the minimum. Teams that are trying to be financially responsible and grow from within, still had to be involved in free agency to reach the floor. When the rules call for non-traditional hockey market teams to have to spend millions, then smart GMs look to get the best players possible to improve their on ice product. As any good agent will tell you, the more bidders, the higher the signing price will be.

3)    Last year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement: It may be a coincidence, but exactly 12 hours before the NHL started signing, the NBA shut down. Labor negotiations in pro sports are once again as friendly as Charlie Sheen at a CBS stockholders meeting. The NFL is looking to avoid missing training camp and some believe the NBA Armageddon has just begun.  The current NHL CBA ends after the 2011-12 season. As the salary cap rose beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, there will be some severe negotiations ahead.  For this signing period some teams offered more money for shorter term contracts. This allowed General Managers an easy “out” for unsuccessful signings once a new CBA is completed. For the players it meant a quicker return to free agency and hopefully another bidding war on their services.
All these factors plus the simple desire to win hockey games resulted in a spending frenzy not seen since Al Czervik arrived at the Bushwood Country Club Pro Shop.  (“Hey, orange balls! I'll have a box of those and give me a box of those naked-lady tees, gimme two of those, gimme six of those... Oh, this is the worst lookin' hat I ever saw... Huh you buy a hat like that you get a free bowl of soup.”) While the true value of the signing period won’t be known until the season begins, it’s never too early to speculate. Let’s break down the winners, losers and those too close to call.

Brad Richards - Winner: It didn’t take a psychic to see this one coming. Richards gets to play where he wants, for a coach he likes and with a team set to contend for the Stanley Cup. Most people did not think he would get more than a six year deal but instead the highly recruited pivot signed for nine years and 60 million dollars. Richards may have taken fewer dollars on the contract to go to NYC but he will make that money up in endorsements. That’s right, sponsorship dollars will make this a more lucrative deal than just the contract. The Rangers are the most visible hockey team in the league’s largest market. Ranger players have been making extra money from endorsements for years, cash unavailable to smaller market clubs.  Consider this, in 1979 the Rangers advanced to the Stanley Cup finals and four players became spokesmen for…….DESIGNER JEANS. You read that correctly, hockey players were well-compensated spokesmodels. Sasson paid thousands of dollars to plaster Phil Esposito’s butt on billboards all over Manhattan, not to mention one of the most talked about TV ads of the year.  If Richards can adjust to life in the fishbowl, (NY media is vicious compared to Dallas or Tampa) 60 million will only be the beginning.

NY Rangers - Winner: In true George Steinbrenner fashion, the team with the most money got the best player available. The only element New York was lacking (great goalie, Lundqvist, good young D-corp) is an offensive star. They now have it with the signing of Richards.  Flashback to last April when the Rangers were destroyed by Washington in the first round of the playoffs, the Blueshirts went 1-20 on the power play during the series. That will not happen with Richards quarterbacking the PP. The best part for the Rangers is this contract is really a six year deal.  Of the reported 60 million dollar agreement, 57 million is to be paid in the first 6 years. If at age 37, the Rangers feel Richards is no longer needed, he is an easy buyout for the club.  This was a signing for here and now, Stanley Cup or bust.

Jake Dowell
For those who believe Richards will play out his entire contract consider a similar type player in Wayne Gretzky. At age 32, The Great One scored 15 goals in the playoffs to lead the Kings to their first and only appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Just six years later, Gretzky scored a measly 9 goals for the entire season and retired from hockey at age 38. Richards will be 40 when this deal runs its course.

Toronto Maple Leafs - Losers: The Leafs put all their eggs in the Brad Richards basket and came away empty. The most popular team in Canada made some nice moves early in the off season but could not land the one superstar their fan base so desperately craved. Toronto was able to sign Tim Connolly but he is no Brad Richards. There will be early calls for the firing of Ron Wilson and Brian Burke if the Leafs get off to another slow start in October.

Philadelphia Flyers - Too close to call:  The boys from Philly made some big noise with the trading of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Factor in the loss of Ville Leino and this team has to find a way to make up for the loss of nearly 80 goals during the regular season. The Flyers jumped out on a limb, grabbed the checkbook and landed a 39 year old who hasn’t played in the NHL in three seasons.  Welcome back to the Show, Jaromir Jagr.  Paul Holmgren’s off-season has made Philadelphia the biggest risk takers since the Vikings resigned Brett Favre. Jagr has not played in the NHL since 2008 and was not the ticket to the promised land for either the Capitals or Rangers. Jagr did win two championships with the Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins, but this was at a time when he rocked the best mullet in all of sports. The Flyers have changed the image of the team going with Simmonds, Schenn and Bryzgalov. For Philly to achieve their goals, Jagr is going to have to play like he performed back when he and Billy Ray Cyrus went to the same hair stylist. A huge gamble on a player who only scored 19 goals last year while playing in the KHL. There is a fine line between remodeling and demolition. What side of the line the Flyers land is still uncertain. One thing is for sure, Holmgren will either be in the running for GM of the year or looking for work by the end of the season.

Buffalo Sabres  - Winner: On behalf of Stars enthusiasts everywhere can we please find out if Terry Pegula has a business partner interested buying Dallas?  Last September, Pegula donated $88 million dollars to his alma-matter Penn State in order to start a varsity hockey program. (No truth that he donated a million for each year Joe Paterno has been coaching football at the school) Then in February, he purchased the Sabres for $189 million dollars. That’s more than a quarter of a BILLION dollars spent on hockey in a span of five months. As a former season ticket holder, Pegula’s stated goal is to spend whatever is necessary to bring a Stanley Cup to Buffalo. So far in the off-season he has lived up to that pledge. First, he got on a plane to Saskatchewan to convince tough guy defenseman Robyn Regehr to waive his no trade clause and come to Buffalo. Then in a span of 24 hours, traded for the rights for former Canucks blue liner Christian Ehrhoff and signed him to a 10 year-40 million dollar contract. Finally, Pegula capped off a huge week by signing the 2nd best UFA forward available with a multi-year deal for former Flyer Ville Leino. The Sabres may be the most improved team in the NHL and gave up little or nothing to bring in all the players they targeted. It all happened because the organization has Pegula, an owner who loves the sport and loves his Buffalo Sabres even more.

Florida Panthers - Losers: In reality Dale Tallon did a great job in signing or trading for talented players. Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanovski, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim and Marcel Goc and Jose Theodore have all taken their talents to South Beach. The problem is Florida cannot afford these players and had to make the moves to get to the Salary Cap floor.  South Florida Sports fans are notorious for not being overly interested in their local teams unless it is the cool place to be seen. The world was able to witness this apathy during the NBA finals when Dallas seemingly had more fans in the arena for game #6 than the hometown Heat. If Miami fans won’t show up for an NBA championship game they are not going to flock to the rink to watch a vastly improved Panthers team. Tallon’s moves will result in a better product on the ice but it will not translate to significantly bigger numbers at the gate.  Florida will win more games but still lose a ton of money this season. When the CBA ends after next season, this organization will be the poster child for why the system needs to change. On the bright side, no matter how bad the monetary numbers end up for Florida they will still be much better off financially than the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Dallas Stars - WINNERS: Remember the mantra “Draft and Develop”? Let’s add one more D to the mix, DEPTH. Joe Nieuwendyk and his staff were able to turn the departure of Brad Richards and the expanding salary cap into six players who should contribute immediately. Each free agent brings a unique skill set to the club and add to the Stars vision for the 2011-12 season.

Vernon Fiddler: When Coach Glen Gulitzan said he has certain non-negotiable items to make his team tough to play against, this signing is an example of what he meant. Vern Fiddler is the ultimate non-negotiator. He kills penalties, is tough in the defensive zone and strong on face-offs (54% win rate). When the Stars are leading by one goal with 30 seconds to play and the draw is in their end, remember this signing. Little known fact: Fiddler’s first ever playoff game as a professional took place in Little Rock, Arkansas in front of 835 people. Luckily he didn’t board the next available flight back to Edmonton. He developed as a player and through hard work found a niche in the NHL. His ability to be a “stopper” will mean trouble for opposing forwards and will let Stars fans breathe a little easier in one goal games.

Michael Ryder: Stanley Cup champion. Four times has scored 25 or more goals in a season. Should know a thing or two about the defensive end after playing for Claude Julien in Boston.  Former linemate with Mike Ribiero in Montreal. Solid choice from every possible angle.

Radek Dvorak: A veteran of more than 1,100 NHL games, Once scored 31 goals for the 2000-01 Rangers. As Razor pointed out in one of his first Tweets, (Welcome to the Twitter world, Mr. Reaugh) Dvorak is a native of the Czech Republic and should be a good mentor to the young and improving Tomas Vincour.

Jake Dowell: This could be the most intriguing player of the four forwards added to the Stars. There was little fanfare around the NHL when Adam Burish was signed last summer, but as the season played out it became quite evident what the gritty forward meant to the lineup, 38-18-7 record with Burish, 4-11-4 without. Dowell could be 2.0 version of last year’s best signing. Just like Burish, Dowell is a Wisconsin native, playing his college hockey for the Badgers. Just like Burish, he was able to earn a spot in the rotation of a talented group of Chicago Blackhawks forwards. Just like Burish, he kept his spot in the lineup by playing a unsung, yet vital role each night, leading Chicago in blocked shots. (Apparently you don’t get much ice time at Wisconsin unless you are willing to repeatedly throw your body in front of flying projectiles).  Finally, Dowell completed the Burish path by joining Dallas as a free agent.  If Dowell can continue bring the same intangibles every night, the “Badger Boys” will be a tough combination for opponents all year long.

Adam Pardy: Played for Glen Gulitzan in Las Vegas of the ECHL, familiar with the system the coach wants to install here. Injuries slowed his progress last year.  At 6’2” 206 lbs, Pardy could develop into a physical presence needed on the blue line and should bring some depth to the stay at home defensive position along with Nicklas Grossman and Marc Fistric.

Sheldon Souray: The greatest non-gamble-gamble of the free agent signees. For the Stars it’s a non-gamble as the price for this one time All Star is the same as the team would spend on a #6 or # 7 Defenseman. The upside gamble is hoping Souray can play at the level he used to display on a nightly basis. The Dallas team record for most goals in a season by a defenseman is 19, twice in his career Souray has scored more than 20 goals. In fact the Elk Point, Alberta native set the NHL record for defenseman with 19 power play goals in 2006-07. Known for possessing a cannon from the point, Souray should be able to add a dimension to the man advantage that has not existed in recent years. (Note to Brendan Morrow and any other forwards who stand in front of the net on the power play, KEEP YOUR HEAD UP!!!) Also known for occasional toughness, Souray has been known to mix it up at times, including a bout with Krys Barch. After signing a big free agent contract in Edmonton, injuries and a dispute with the front office ended with Souray being exiled to the AHL for last season. This is why the signing could be huge, the talent is there, he should be fresh from playing less than 80 games over the past two seasons and most importantly, Souray should have a HUGE chip on his shoulder. An athlete with something to prove can be a great addition or big disappointment. If Souray can play to his old level, combined with the comparatively small amount Dallas paid to sign him, he could be the steal of the 2011 NHL Free Agent class.

The bottom line to the free agent frenzy can be summed up in one question: Are you are better hockey team than you were before the off-season began? For the Dallas Stars, the answer should be a resounding yes. Brad Richards is gone but he has been replaced by a myriad of players who will upgrade the overall talent base and depth of the franchise. When the ownership situation is finally resolved, Dallas is positioned to make more moves as the team is millions below the salary cap ceiling. Finally, with the talent on display at the Developmental Camp in McKinney, reserves for the future are being restocked at the same time the big league team is improving. Getting back to continual success is a process taken one step at a time. Between last week’s entry draft and free agency this week, those steps continue to be taken. Just 80 or so more days until training camp and the real work can begin.

Bruce LeVine is the post-game co-host for Dallas Stars road games on Sports Radio 1310 The Ticket.  Email Bruce at or follow him on Twitter @BruceLeVine22

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