Since the 2011 NHL entry draft, eight players have been handed contracts in excess of $18 million total, and six of them have signed with Eastern Conference clubs. While the Rangers nabbed Brad Richards
, the biggest name in the 2011 unrestricted free agent class, and teams like Florida and Buffalo spent money like it was going out of style, many Western Conference teams took a more conservative approach to this year's weak market. Are they better for it? That's the question on our minds as we take a look at how each Western Conference team did between the draft and the first six days of the free agent period.
Anaheim Ducks – C
The Ducks have decided not to involve themselves in the free agent market, which might not be a bad thing, given how out of control salaries got in this year's market. They did sign Andrew Gordon
, Bryan Rodney
, and Jean-Francois Jacques
to two-way contracts, but it's possible none of them will end up making Anaheim's opening day roster. On the trade front, they shipped blueliner Andy Sutton
for fellow defenseman Kurtis Foster
. The trade fits both of their teams needs' nicely, though Foster is certainly more relevant from a fantasy perspective, as he could record 30-40 points next season.
Calgary Flames – B+
The Flames were busy before the free agent market opened, shipping Ales Kotalik
and Robyn Regehr
to Buffalo for Chris Butler
and Paul Byron
. Butler should be a solid blueliner with Calgary, but the important thing is that they freed up the cap space necessary to ink Alex Tanguay
to a five-year contract. Tanguay has been great on a line with Jarome Iginla
and the two should excel while manning two-thirds of the Flames' top unit for the next few years. After the free agent market opened, the Flames re-signed Anton Babchuk
to a two-year, $5 million extension, which seems like a reasonable price for a blueliner who recorded 35 points and 156 blocked shots.
Chicago Blackhawks – A+
As we mentioned in the draft analysis article, the Blackhawks recently shed a lot of salary by trading away Troy Brouwer
and Brian Campbell
. Since the draft, Chicago has continued their cap cutting measures by dealing Tomas Kopecky
to Florida for a seventh rounder. With some new found flexibility, the Blackhawks signed Sean O'Donnell, Jamal Mayers
, Dan Carcillo, Brett McLean
, and Andrew Brunette
to one-year contracts. The additions of Mayers and Carcillo will make the Blackhawks one of the most physical teams in the league while Brunette could find a spot on one of Chicago's top two lines. The Blackhawks also inked blueliners Steve Montador
to a four-year, $11 million contract, who is solid both offensively and defensively. All in all, the Blackhawks managed to cut costs while simultaneously making their team better.
Colorado Avalanche – C+
Colorado's off-season will be defined by the Semyon Varlamov
trade. They sent their 2012 first rounder and a second round pick in 2012 or 2013 to Washington for Varlamov, so if Colorado ends up near the Western Conference basement again, they'll take a lot of heat. The Avalanche also signed goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere
, who will back up and mentor Varlamov and they re-signed blueliners Matt Hunwick
and Jan Hejda
. They also signed Chuck Kobasew
, who could prove to be a great find at two-years, $2.5 million, if he can put his two rough seasons in Minnesota behind him. In the short-term, Colorado looks better than they did at the end of 2010-11, but we won't know if their moves will be beneficial in the long run until the position of their 2012 first rounder is determined.
Columbus Blue Jackets – B-
After getting Jeff Carter
before the deadline, the Blue Jackets were able to trade for the rights of and sign offensive defenseman James Wisniewski
to a six-year, $33 million deal. That's a lot of money for a guy who never recorded more than 30 points before 2010-11, but between Wisniewski, Nash, and Carter, the Blue Jackets' power play should be excellent next season. Not that we can say with confidence that the Blue Jackets will make the playoffs next season. Rather than get a reliable backup for the enigma that is Steve Mason
, the Blue Jackets decided to roll the dice on AHL goaltender Mark Dekanich
. So at the end of the day, as bold as the Blue Jackets were, we still have to criticize them for failing to address their greatest need.
Dallas Stars – C+
The subtraction of Brad Richards
will be the most noticeable change when the 2011-12 season starts, but it won't be the only one by a long shot. They decided to gamble on Sheldon Souray
, who could be a great offensive defenseman if he can stay healthy, but in addition to the normal injury concerns surrounding him, there's the distinct possibility he'll be rusty after spending a season in the AHL. That being said, at the price of $1.65 million for the 2011-12 season, he's well worth the risk. Dallas also added Michael Ryder
, who should find a spot on one of the Stars' top lines. Beyond that, they added some depth by inking Jacob Dowell
, Radek Dvorak
, Vernon Fiddler
, Brad Lukowich
, and Adam Pardy
. All in all, the Stars couldn't overcome the loss of Richards this summer, but they did nab a potential diamond in the rough in Souray.
Detroit Red Wings – B+
The Red Wings entered the free agent market with plenty of cap space to replace blueliner Brian Rafalski
, who retired this summer, but they balked at the high prices blueliners initially signed to. However, after deciding to roll the dice on defenseman Mike Commodore
to a one-year, $1 million contract, the Red Wings were finally able to find a defenseman they could sign at a reasonable price. Ian White
signed a two-year, $5.75 million contract, which isn't bad for a defenseman who could record 30-40 points in 2011-12. They also inked defenseman Garnet Exelby
, who will probably start the season in the minors and serve as an injury replacement when needed. If this was a race, the Detroit Red Wings would be the slow-and-steady type. They never overreact or let the mood of the market sway them. That means they don't usually make headlines during the free agent period, but it's also allowed them to stay competitive longer than any other team.
Edmonton Oilers – C
The Oilers acquired Ryan Smyth
and Andy Sutton
in separate trades for Colin Fraser
and Kurtis Foster
. Neither player dramatically changes their team, but Sutton should benefit from the change of scenery and serve as a solid defensive defenseman while Smyth is a fan favorite. They also bought out blueliner Sheldon Souray
before signing another team's bought out defenseman, Cam Barker
. They also inked Ben Eager
and Darcy Hordichuk
, who should protect their young stars while playing on one of their bottom two lines. The Edmonton Oilers are still in the rebuilding stage, so we didn't expect them to make any major moves this summer and they certainly didn't do anything to surprise us.
Los Angeles Kings – A-Ryan Smyth
wanted to head back to Edmonton and truthfully, the Kings are better off without his cap hit. We already covered their biggest addition, Mike Richards
, during our draft guide column, but since then they've taken another step in the right direction by signing Simon Gagne
to a two-year, $7 million contract. Gagne missed significant portions of three of his last four seasons due to injuries, but he's a great top-six forward. Kings fans have plenty to be excited about going into the 2011-12 season.
Minnesota Wild – B+
After trading away Brent Burns
to the San Jose Sharks on the first night of the 2011 NHL entry draft, the Wild and Sharks pulled off a stunning second trade Sunday night. They traded away Martin Havlat
and got Dany Heatley
in return. Although Heatley comes with a higher cap hit than Havlat and he had a disappointing 2010-11 campaign, Heatley is still a great goal scorer. He could bounce back in 2011-12 and be the first Wild player to score 40 goals since Marian Gaborik
in 2007-08. On a lesser note, the Wild also added some depth by signing Jeff Taffe
and Colton Gillies
Nashville Predators – D-
At the time of writing, the Predators' off-season has been mediocre and it could range from acceptable to disastrous depending on what they do over the next few weeks. Ideally, they want to sign restricted free agent Shea Weber
to a long-term contract, but they might be forced to settle for a one or two-year arbitrator awarded deal. Beyond that, the biggest news is what they allegedly didn't do. The NHLPA is claiming that they did not present qualifying offers to over half a dozen restricted free agents, which puts them in danger of becoming unrestricted free agents. How that dispute plays out will have a significant impact on their organization going forward. It might have already played a role in the team's decision to dump Matthew Lombardi
's salary on the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade that also sent Cody Franson
to Canada. The Predators got Brett Lebda
and prospect Robert Slaney
in return, which isn't fair compensation for Franson alone, but it allowed the Predators to save a bit of money. The question is: What will they do with it?
Phoenix Coyotes – C+
The Coyotes have made the playoffs in each of their last two seasons, but that streak might be over after losing Ilya Bryzgalov
this off-season. The Coyotes tried to compensate for their loss by signing Mike Smith
, but frankly, we think that Jason LaBarbera
will end up starting in more games. Beyond that, the Coyotes re-signed star offensive defenseman Keith Yandle
to a reasonable five-year, $26.25 contract and lock up Radim Vrbata
for another three years. They also added Raffi Torres
, who should prove to be a good fit on one of the Coyotes' bottom two lines. Overall, we don't think that anything they've done makes up for the loss of Bryzgalov, but we have to give them credit for getting Yandle to agree to a long-term deal.
St. Louis Blues – B+
As the team's young players begin to enter their prime, the Blues are focused on adding solid veterans, who should do a nice job complementing their core. Jason Arnott
and Jamie Langenbrunner
will provide the team with leadership, particularly down the stretch and – if they are successful – into the postseason. The Blues also added Brian Elliott
to compete with Ben Bishop
for the number two goaltender job. All in all, it's been a solid off-season for a team that is closer to being a serious playoff contender than people give them credit for.
San Jose Sharks – C+
The Sharks are getting the worse end of the Martin Havlat
trade. Havlat should do better in San Jose than he did in Minnesota and he has now gone three seasons without suffering a major injury, but Heatley is a point-per-game player who scored between 39 and 41 goals in three straight seasons before taking a step back with a 26-goal campaign in 2010-11. By contrast, Havlat's career-highs are 31 goals and 77 points. That being said, the Sharks are shedding $2.5 million in cap space, which could come in handy when it comes time to ink Brent Burns
to a long-term contract. The Sharks also inked Michal Handzus
to a two-year, $5 million contract. That's more than we think Handzus is worth, but he should do a decent job on the Sharks' third line.
Vancouver Canucks – C-
So what does a team do after losing in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals? Allow a top-tier offensive defenseman slip through their fingers in Christian Ehrhoff
. He ended up signing to Buffalo in a heavily frontloaded 10-year, $40 million deal and the bottom line is that the Canucks are a worse team for it. To their credit, they were able to re-sign blueliner Kevin Bieksa
to a five-year, $23 million contract extension. They also signed Marco Sturm
, who wants to play on one of Vancouver's top two lines. He might start the season in that role, but Sturm will probably be relegated to the third line once Mason Raymond
(vertebrae compression fracture) is healthy. The Canucks are still one of the best teams in the NHL, but if anything, they took a step backwards this summer.