The opening day of NHL Free Agency 2011 has come and gone, and 70 contracts and $250 million dollars later, there are a lot of new faces spread out with new teams across the continent.
While a large number of teams hit the checkbooks running and never once glanced back at the winding trail of money left behind, a few teams—particularly these five—had a much more conservative approach and avoided the chaotic frenzy of July 1st. Though they might not be quite as far along in creating their '11-'12 roster as a good number of other teams are, waiting isn't always a bad thing, either.
We take a look at five clear franchises who avoided the craziness and, in doing so, left themselves many of their items un-checked heading into Day Two. They might be struggling to find key forwards to fill their holes, or simply be faced with the issue of too many players left to sign with too little money.
So, which general managers still have the most left to accomplish with their franchise after Opening Day has come and gone? Here's a few to consider.
In many areas, the Anaheim Ducks are about as stacked as you can get; their top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan is one of the best in the game, and on defense, their new seven-man group headlined by Lubomir Visnovsky, Toni Lydman and Cam Fowler is turning into a very hardy unit. To cap it off, Olympic goalie Jonas Hiller backed up by veteran Dan Ellis is also an almost-impeccable duo.
However, after failing to make much of an impression in Day One of 2011 NHL Free Agency, Anaheim is left without much of a second line to work with.
Aging Jason Blake and Saku Koivu could be used at times if necessary, but the Ducks are running out of time to snatch up some valuable top six forwards that became a fast-selling commodity on Opening Day. Truly, only Simon Gagne and Tim Connolly remain in the group, even though Jason Arnott or Anthony Stewart might work as desperation options.
The Ducks, whether or not they re-sign restricted free agent (RFA) Dan Sexton, don't have the burden of a slew of holes across the roster. What they do have to deal with, though, is simply being perhaps a day too late to the party, and might just pay the price without a sufficient group of top six forwards.
For most teams, the offseason is a time to fill in the gaps far down in the lineup, grab a new asset or two from the free agent market, and make their way into the next season with the same identity they had in the previous one. But, there comes a point when a struggling franchise needs to switch from this to a more desperate approach; a horrific, porous defense might already have seven players under contract, but they must do more than just sit satisfied with the completed unit.
For the Flames and new GM Jay Feaster, this time has come. Calgary has missed the postseason two years in a row and hasn't won a playoff series since their Western Conference title run in 2004. Once the Flames sign RFA defenseman Brenden Mikkelson to a new contract, they'll have an utterly full roster of the standard 13 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies.
But that's not going to cut it. Except for the addition of third-pairing 'D'-man Chris Butler from Buffalo, acquired through a trade no less, every single player under contract for the Flames heading into next autumn played for them last year on a team that finished 10th in the conference.
You want to make the playoffs? Then you need to go out and make it happen. And, so far, the Flames have been simply content not to.
On attack, the Predators, even with only nine forwards signed, would under normal conditions be absolutely fine. Four quality RFA's awaiting new deals would easily help fill out the roster and keep an underrated group of top six forwards together in Nashville.
However, an NHLPA investigation of the timeliness of the qualifying offers given to all four RFA's might disrupt these plans. While we can't see much more than stress resulting from the player's association's grievances, the losses of players like Sergei Kostitsyn, Cal O'Reilly and several other notables would be crushing to Nashville.
Even without controversy, GM David Poile must be worried about the lack of experience and second-pairing-worthiness behind defensive leaders Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Jonathan Blum may or may not be ready for the NHL, and Francis Bouillon has had plenty of injury issues in his past. To add some insurance, security, and stability to their bottom four, they might see out-of-town UFA's like Anton Babchuk from Calgary or Sami Lepisto out of Columbus as much-needed additions.
For the Predators, looted out of four quality players by a league's worth of plundering GM's on Opening Day, more activity is going to be required as the heat wears on in the Music City.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers are in an unfamiliar situation: for the moment, they have the fourth-most cap space in the league.
Soon enough, however, GM Glen Sather is going to be forced to spend a great deal of it. The Blueshirts have just nine forwards under contract at the moment with four "Class A" RFA's waiting on the wings. Add into that the uncertain future of inconsistent mega-salary-eater
Marian Gaborik, a massive blockbuster trade item, and the Rangers still have a group of forwards very much in flux.
Back in their own zone, the problems and holes continue to plague an uneventful offseason in the Big Apple, to date. Just two non-entry-level defenseman are under contract—stars Marc Staal and Dan Girardi—with Michael Sauer as an RFA. We're not sold on youngsters Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonough, either, leaving at least a couple of spots open to UFA signees. We could pick out anyone from Ian White, 27, to Scott Hannan, 32, to Ruslan Salei, 36, being picked up to fill the role.
No matter what happens, Sather has to get going soon if he wants to complete his checklist before most of the rest of the NHL is satisfied with their teams. Expect the Rangers to be in the headlines a great deal over the next few days, because, if they aren't, the Blueshirts might be in for some trouble.
Unlike most of the other teams on this list, the Buffalo Sabres definitely were not inactive on July 1st. The signings of Ville Leino on offense, given a stacked six-year, $27 million deal, and Christian Ehrhoff on defense, negotiated to a massive ten-year, $40 million contract, alone prove that statement.
The Sabres aren't really in need of a lot more signings, either, as they sport a roster of 13 forwards under contract, five defenseman signed with three RFA's soon to come, and one superstar netminder, Ryan Miller.
However, Buffalo isn't without troubles as of July 2nd. Oddly, the Sabres have the least cap space in the league, with just $1.3 million to work with out of the $64.3 million maximum payroll. During a summer in which the salary floor has made more headlines than the typically-infamous salary cap, Buffalo has handed out too much green for their own good.
Two more players have to be signed to fit the minimum requirements, and furthermore, in a perfect world, the Sabres would probably like to keep all of their RFA's: defensemen Marc-Andre Gragnani, Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber and goalie Jhonas Enroth.
This leaves trades as the only option to free up the cash flow, and those trades would likely be for draft picks. As always, those deals would empty up more holes in the roster, and the merry-go-round of cap troubles would just continue spinning around in Buffalo. While overpaid third liners Brad Boyes ($4.0 million), Jochen Hecht ($3.5 million) and Ales Kotalik ($3.0 million) wouldn't be too terribly missed, which GM exactly is going to take them and give up anything worthwhile in return?
The Sabres, on paper, look like one of the most talented and on-the-rise teams in the NHL. We truthfully could see them returning to dynasty status perhaps even this season. But, for now, the burden of the salary cap will keep a lid on Buffalo's excitement until several more moves are made.
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