NHL Draft and Free Agency – The Victors

Big Winners

Washington Capitals

In:

F: Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer (from Chi), Jeff Halpern

D: Roman Hamrlik

G: Tomas Vokoun

1st and 2nd round picks in 2012 (Colorado)

Out: 2011 1st round pick (to Chicago), Semeon Varlamov (Colorado)

A very good defensive group got even better with the addition of Roman Hamrlik, who many think was Montreal’s best defenceman last year. Up front, Joel Ward provides them exactly what they need – a big, gritty, two-way winger who saves his best for playoffs. Troy Brouwer is a top-6 forward with good size and some grit, while Jeff Halpern is a solid veteran who will make small but important contributions in the bottom-6.

But the crowning jewel for Caps GM George McPhee is the cloak and dagger artistry he displayed with his goaltending. McPhee dealt young Russian netminder Semeon Varlamov to Colorado in exchange for first and second round picks in next year’s draft – the first of which will almost certainly be in the top 15, and even has the potential to be a lottery pick (top-5). Meanwhile, he managed to sign veteran Czech netminder Tomas Vokoun, giving them a bonafide #1 goaltender, and a mentor to young Czech goalie Michal Neuvirth. While a conference rival like Philadelphia blew up their roster to sign Ilya Bryzgalov to a mamoth 9 year, $51M deal, Washington managed to get an equally good goalie on a 1 year, $1.5M deal, and an early first round pick to boot. The man is a magician. His team, elite.

Buffalo Sabres

In:

F: Ville Leino, Ales Kotalik, Joel Armia (2011 1st round pick)

D: Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff

2nd round pick in 2012 (Calgary)

Out: Chris Butler (D), Paul Byron (F)

The Sabres already possessed a young and dynamic group of forwards with Thomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, and Jason Pominville, and an elite goalie in Ryan Miller. Their pressing need was on the blueline, and GM Darcy Regier did not disappoint. The happiest Sabre on draft day was 21 year-old defenceman Tyler Myers – who now has a big, bruising, veteran stay-at-home defence partner in Regehr who will do the dirty work while Myers is out doing everything else (the kid is a phenom). Then Regier managed to sign Canucks star Christian Ehrhoff to a front-loaded 10 year, $40M contract ($18M in the first 2 years compared to only $22M in the last 8 – courtesy: http://capgeek.com/players/display.php?id=121).

The Sabres then made a brief pitch to Brad Richards – not, I suspect, because they needed him, but because new billion owner Terry Pegula wanted to make a statement to the league – but ended up signing the second biggest forward on the market in Ville Leino. All in all, The Sabres came away with a truly scary lineup – three good scoring lines, a versatile back-end filled with size and skill, and a Vezina-quality goaltender. When combined with a deep and talented prospect pool, they are a Stanley Cup contender now, and well into the future.

Los Angeles Kings

In: Richards (F), Gagne (F)

Out: Schenn (F), Simmonds (F), Smyth (F), 2011 2nd round pick

The biggest acquisition of the off-season came the day before the draft when the Kings acquired Mike Richards from Philadelphia in exchange for Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. Just 26 years of age, Richards has already established himself as an elite two-way centre, and one of the game’s best leaders. He has won a Memorial Cup, a World Junior Championship, and an Olympic gold medal, and led the Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup final. His experience and versatility will be a huge addition both on and off the ice. While Schenn is a promising young forward with the potential to be a top-line centre, LA has a very deep prospect pool to draw from, and with Richards being just 26, it’s not like they sold off their future. Simmonds is a very good two-way winger with second line upside. He will be missed, but is not irreplaceable.

Furthermore, the Kings added Simon Gagne, Richards’ former linemate in Philadelphia. The two-time Canadian Olympian has had injury problems in the past few years, but when healthy he is still a dangerous goal scorer and a responsible winger. He’s a definite upgrade on Ryan Smyth, who sought and received a trade back to Edmonton for family reasons. Like the Sabres in the East, the Kings went out and perfectly addressed their area of need. They already had a deep group of defencemen, led by future Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty, and including Johnson, Greene, Mitchell, and vastly underrated stay-at-homer Rob Scuderi. They have two very talented goalies in Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. Adding Richards and Gagne to a group of forwards that includes Kopitar, Brown, Williams, Stoll, Penner, and Clifford makes LA among the most dangerous teams in the West, and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

San Jose Sharks

In: Burns (D), Havlat (F), Handzus (F), 2012 2nd round pick

Out: Setoguchi (F), Heatley (F), Coyle (F), 2011 1st round pick

San Jose has been on the cusp for some time now. Ever since the acquisition of Joe Thornton in November of 2005, the Sharks have been considered a serious contender in the eyes of many. After years of early round defeats, they’ve been to the Conference Finals two years in a row, and are looking stronger than ever.

GM Doug Wilson made a splash at the NHL draft when he acquired defenceman Brent Burns from Minnesota in exchange for winger Devin Setoguchi, forward prospect Charlie Coyle, and a 1st round pick. In trading Setoguchi, Wilson took from an area of great strength (Sharks had tons of offensive forwards) and addressed his team’s greatest need – a top-pairing defenceman. Burns is big and mobile, with great hands and a big shot. He’s been a bit inconsistent in his young career, partly due to injuries (concussions), but this former forward (turned defenceman after being drafted) is one of the most talented defencemen in the league. Along with Boyle, Murray, and Vlasic, he solidifies the top-4 D, bringing balance to an otherwise championship caliber roster. Setoguchi is a good young winger, more than capable of scoring 30 goals (has already done so once), and Coyle is a good young prospect, but if Burns can be re-signed to a long-term deal, (and remains healthy), then this deal will pay dividends.

As if that wasn’t enough, Wilson made an even bigger deal, again with the Wild, exchanging the uber-talented but inconsistent Marty Havlat for the uber-talented but inconsistent Dany Heatley. The deal comes down to two things: cap space, and playoff performance. Wilson looked at Heatley’s bloated $7.5M salary, payable for the next 3 years and wondered if he was getting enough bang for his buck. Then he looked at his ‘premier’ sniper’s goal totals in his playoff career as a Shark – 32 games, 5 goals. With that, he shipped him off to Minnesota with a huge grin on his face, getting a player in Havlat who has 12 goals in his last 26 playoff contests. He also saves $2.5M per year, which he’ll need to re-sign Burns to an extension sometime between now and next summer. With Thornton, Marleau, Havlat, Clowe, Pavelski, and Couture up front, this team is as dangerous as ever, and with an improved blueline, they have to be considered one of the leading contenders in the West.

Other Winners

Minnesota Wild

In:

F: Heatley, Setoguchi, Coyle

Draft: Brodin (D), Phillips (F)

Out: Burns (D), Havlat (F)

For the last few years, the Wild have been a somewhat competitive team going nowhere. They either made or missed the playoffs by a small margin, generally falling between 15th and 20th. They made no deep playoffs runs, nor top draft selections. They were stuck in the middle. GM’s must always balance the needs of today with the potential of tomorrow, and are often left with difficult decisions – Kudos to Fletcher, who managed to improve his team now and in the future.

The Burns-Setoguchi draft day deal made as much sense for the Wild as it did for the Sharks. Prior to this deal, the majority of their NHL-quality prospects were on the blueline, with only one legitimate prospect having top-6 potential. (Finnish playmaker Mikael Granlund). Unable to sign Burns to a contract extension, GM Chuck Fletcher instead acquired a package of young forwards from San Jose, including Setoguchi, 2010 1st round pick Charlie Coyle, and the 28th overall pick in 2011 which they used to select Saint John’s Sea Dogs forward Zack Phillips. Setoguchi will help right away, while Coyle and Phillips could become important cogs in the top-6 one day. While no one will be able to replace Burns on the blueline, they do have some young d-men coming up –Marco Scandella is the most promising – Jared Spurgeon and Justin Falk also look to have careers.

Knowing that Burns was on his way out, the Wild used their first round pick to select Swedish defenceman Jonas Brodin. Brodin was touted as the smartest defenceman available, with excellent vision, awareness, and anticipation. Due to his reliance on these attributes, one could legitimately compare him to Nicklas Lidstrom, though he is certainly not as skilled. Nonetheless, Brodin is a safe bet to become a fixture in the Wild’s top-4 one day.

And then there’s the Heatley trade. As much as I like the deal for San Jose, I think it actually helps both teams. Prior to the acquisition of Setoguchi, Minnesota had no snipers, and while Havlat was a tremendous playmaker, his skills were duplicated on the roster by the likes of Koivu and Bouchard. Adding Heatley further improves their balance up front, which should help generate more offence for a team that ranked 26th in goals last season. Overall, Minnesota improved their prospect pool considerably, and may have also done enough to get themselves into the playoffs this coming year.

Columbus Blue Jackets

In: Carter (F), Wisniewski (D)

Out: Voracek (F), 8th overall pick in 2011

The Columbus Blue Jackets have been in the NHL ten years and made the playoffs once. This off-season, they made significant strides in becoming a playoff contender. The acquisition of Jeff Carter from Philadelphia gives them the best centre iceman they’ve ever had, and a great complement to franchise winger Rick Nash. The addition of James Wisniewski gives Columbus the powerplay quarterback they’ve craved for years, as well as a top-4 d-man who can play 20+ minutes per game. Perhaps even more importantly, these additions will allow their top prospects more time to develop in lower leagues rather than being thrown into the fire prematurely as were Blue Jackets of years past. With perennial playoff teams like Detroit, Chicago, and Nashville, the Central Division is a tough go, but the Blue Jackets look like they’ve finally turned the corner and are ready to become a playoff team.

Coming soon: Losers of draft/UFA day

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