July 4, 2012
Contracts that had one year remaining a scant 24 hours before no longer exist and players become free agents. In accordance with that phenomenon, the league’s 30 general managers and fans of their respective clubs scour the list of pending free agents, hoping and dreaming of who they might be able to add in order to give themselves a chance at hoisting the Stanley Cup at the conclusion of the season. Agents have their phones perpetually glued to their ear as they try to hammer out the best deal for their clients and talking heads on the television and radio dial discuss what may happen with Player X or what Team Y needs to do.
After the clock hit 12:01 Sunday morning, teams began scurrying to try and contact agents. Nearly a full one-fifth of the players in the NHL were free agents at that point and while they aren’t all superstars, there are players that are capable of helping a team out in their quest to become legitimate contenders for the 2012-13 season. With a flurry of movement between teams at the NHL Draft last week, the span from late June through the first part of July is as exciting as it gets for the league during its downtime.
Of course, there were some players that were locked up by their respective teams before free agency officially started. Jordan Staal, who was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the draft last week, inked a new extension with the Hurricanes that will keep him with the team for the foreseeable future. The deal is a ten year extension worth a reported $60 million and will keep Staal with the team through the 2022-23 season. While in Carolina, Staal will be reunited with his brother, Eric, who is the franchise’s second all-time leading scorer. His younger brother, Jared, is part of the Hurricanes’ organization and plays in the AHL. It makes Carolina a family affair for the Staals and the hope is pairing Jordan and Eric on the team will make both better players.
The goaltender market was thin to begin with and ended up getting thinner as teams attempted to resign talent before they hit the open market. Los Angeles made sure that Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick never hit the market, locking him in to a ten year deal shortly after the Stanley Cup Finals came to an end. Following that, the Montreal Canadiens locked down starting netminder Carey Price to a six year, $39 million extension, removing another key option from the market. Florida inked backup Scott Clemmensen to a new two year deal to keep him in the fold with the Panthers while Martin Biron signed a two year deal to remain with the Rangers.
The only goaltenders that changed locations to date were Chris Mason, who went from Winnipeg to Nashville, and Tomas Vokoun, who was traded by the Capitals to the Penguins. The Devils will maintain their effective but definitely aging goaltending tandem, as Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg both signed new deals with the team. Brodeur is 40, while Hedberg is 39, which means the Devils need to quickly develop a goaltender to take over the reins. Cory Schneider stayed in Vancouver, increasing the possibility that Roberto Luongo would be dealt. Tuukka Rask signed a one year deal to stay with the Bruins and he will be the likely starter with Tim Thomas taking the year off. Josh Harding signed a new three year deal worth $5.7 million to stay in Minnesota.
Wednesday afternoon, on the 4th of July, the two biggest pieces in the free agent puzzle, winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, reached their respective decisions on where they would play hockey for the foreseeable future. To the detriment of 29 other clubs, including the Devils and Predators, Parise and Suter’s former clubs, both players have reportedly ended up in the same location. The grand prize winner in the free agent frenzy is a team that didn’t even make the playoffs a year ago.
The Minnesota Wild inked both Suter and Parise to matching contracts Wednesday. The deals are said to be 13 years in length and worth $98 million apiece. Nashville had an offer out to Suter for 13 years and $90 million, while Detroit had a similar offer on the table for Parise’s services. Both players were highly sought after and had several teams that were considered viable contenders for acquiring their services going forward. The deals will keep Parise and Suter under the control of the Wild through the 2024-25 season should they play out the entire length of the contract.
The Wild finished 12th in the Western Conference and played in a division that saw only division champion Vancouver make the playoffs last season. While it is a fair assumption to say that the Wild have improved themselves by adding the top two free agents on the market, there are still holes to be filled within the club. The team still has issues with depth and the ability to find consistent secondary scoring. Parise will complement Mikko Koivu, more than likely on the top line for the Wild, but who will step up to add more scoring punch to the lineup? After all, the Wild were dead last in scoring a year ago and had no player score even 25 goals; Dany Heatley led the team with 24. Kyle Brodziak was the only other player over 20, he netted 22. All told, the Wild had only six players score double digit goals last season.
Parise has broken the 30 goal mark five times in his career, including a 31 goal, 69 point output last season with the Devils in his first season as team captain. He tallied eight additional goals and tacked on seven assists in the postseason. His best season came in the 2008-09 campaign, when he rung up 45 goals and added 49 assists for a total of 94 points while playing all 82 games. That is something that Parise also adds to the mix for Minnesota besides scoring: durability. In six of his seven seasons, Parise has appeared in either 81 or 82 games. Only the 2010-11 season, in which he played in 13 games after sustaining a torn meniscus in his knee. The Wild needs an infusion of grit and desire that has been lacking in recent years.
It’s unclear as to how Suter will fare in the Wild’s system. He had the benefit of playing with Shea Weber while in Nashville. Minnesota clearly lacks someone of Weber’s caliber on the blueline; Jared Spurgeon led Minnesota’s defense corps with three goals and 23 points last season. Suter posted 7 goals and 46 points for Nashville, while Weber added 19 goals and 49 points for the Predators last season. It’s fair to assume that a drop in offensive production is on the horizon for Suter until Minnesota can find some capable two way defensemen.
With the two biggest names now off the board, it will be interesting to see where secondary players like Matt Carle and Alexander Semin will land. Those two, along with several other players, were in a holding pattern while they waited to see where Suter and Parise went. It’s clear that they’ll attempt to peddle their services to any of the other 29 teams that missed out on the talented duo. What will be interesting to note will be the price tag that comes with them when they do decide to put their name on the dotted line.
Jaromir Jagr parlayed his performance with the Flyers into a one year deal with Dallas worth $4.55 million, and the Stars added another grizzled veteran with plenty of offensive talent with the signing of Ray Whitney to a two year deal. The Stars could well be a team to be reckoned with if they get the same sort of production out of Whitney and Jagr as their previous clubs did. They have Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and they acquired Derek Roy from the Sabres earlier this week in a deal that will help offset the loss of Mike Ribiero to Washington. To replace the loss of Whitney, Phoenix added Steve Sullivan on a one year contract earlier today.
Free agency never is the ultimate cure-all when it comes to trying to fix a club that hasn’t been successful on the ice. The Wild may have thrown $196 million at Suter and Parise but if they can’t find the other pieces that are missing in the lineup to make the team better, the end result will not be what was hoped for in Minnesota. It’s unrealistic for the Wild to have Cup aspirations at this point; while their team is better, there is much work left to be done. Not the words that most NHL fans of any team want to hear after major acquisitions, but the truth nonetheless.
What teams will shake out to be the big winners and losers in free agency?