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Analyzing the Biggest Moves in NHL Free Agency

by Photo of Sam Cohen

The best and worst deals of the early NHL free agency season.

Analyzing the Biggest Moves in NHL Free Agency

Before I get into some of the big moves that were made on July 1st, the first day of NHL free agency, it is important to explain why NHL free agency is so much different than free agencies in other sports. Leagues such as the NBA and MLB have very serious rules with regard to tampering. These rules prevent teams from talking to potential free agents before free agency begins. So if free agency starts on July 1st in the NBA, teams can't talk to available players until July 1st. The only exception to this rule is that the player can talk to the team he finished the previous season with before July 1st. 

The NHL, on the other hand, allows teams and players to talk well before free agency starts. This gives players a chance to see what their worth is and teams a chance to figure out which players they will go after. What's great about this is that by the time the first day of free agency ends, most free agent players will have signed.

July 1st was the first day of NHL free agency this year and almost all of the big names available found new homes. Some teams made great moves and, as always, some made very questionable moves. Let's take a look at the biggest moves whether the move was good or bad.

Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to the Washington Capitals

The reason I put two players here is because the Capitals gave both Niskanen (pictured above) and Orpik ridiculous contracts. Orpik is a good player at age 33, but he battled injuries for most of last season and when he was healthy, he didn't look like the player that Penguins fans came to adore. That doesn't mean he won't help the Capitals, as he gives Washington a veteran defenseman who has been in the league for a long time and is a great leader, but he is nowhere near worth the five year, $27.5 million deal that Washington handed him. That is a lot of money to give to a soon-to-be 34-year-old on the decline and certainly too many years. It will be very unsurprising in two or three years when the Capitals try to get Orpik's deal off the books.

Niskanen was the top defenseman available this summer, so the Capitals obviously greatly improved their pretty terrible defense. But seven years for $40.25 million for a player who had never been a top-pairing defenseman before the middle part of last season is too much. The 27-year-old Niskanen would be a very good third or fourth defenseman on most teams, but the Caps clearly believe he can be a top defenseman for a really long time. Seven years, in fact. His 46 points in 81 regular season games last season is nothing to laugh at and his nine points in the Penguins' 13 playoff games last season showed that he can step up in big moments. It is just unlikely that he's worth $5.75 million a year, especially when he hits his thirties.

The Capitals definitely improved their team in a big way yesterday. That being said, the team did it by spending way too much money. If the Capitals don't win a championship soon, these will be two very regrettable deals.

Paul Stastny to the St. Louis Blues

Stastny was the top free agent this summer and the Blues got the star center they were looking for. Stastny, 28, had 25 goals and 60 points in 71 games last season, very solid marks that he should be able to improve on this season. In a Western Conference loaded with amazing centers, the Blues would've been at a severe disadvantage had they not solved their issues at center. Not only did they take a huge step forward yesterday, but this deal makes way too much sense.

St. Louis got Stastny for four years and $28 million. That's only $400k more than he was making in Colorado, so if the Blues overpaid, it wasn't by much. The four years is great for St. Louis because by the end of the deal, Stastny will still be playing very good hockey. The move was also a great one because St. Louis needed a goal-scorer, as the team decided to trade for goalie Ryan Miller at last year's trade deadline instead of trying to add another offensive piece. This move backfired on the Blues, as they had trouble scoring goals in the second half of the season before losing to the Blackhawks in the first round.

This was a great move for St. Louis and watching Stastny play alongside T.J. Oshie should be very fun. The Blues are serious about competing and the team took a huge step in the right direction by signing Stastny.

Brad Richards to the Chicago Blackhawks

As a New York Rangers fan, I have mixed feelings about Brad Richards. He was a solid player and a great leader both on and off the ice, but he was a disappointment. After the Rangers gave Richards a nine-year deal worth $60 million, expectations were sky high. He was expected to score anywhere from 65-90 points, though his 66 points in 2011-2012 were by far the most Richards scored during his tenure with the Rangers. He was also very inconsistent on the power play, as there were times where he looked like the power play wizard he had been during his years in Tampa Bay and Dallas and there were times where he looked absolutely lost. And don't get me started on Richards' playoff woes. He was a healthy scratch during the playoffs two seasons ago and was demoted to the fourth line during last season's playoffs. The Rangers did not hesitate to buy out Richards with six years left on his deal.

Yes, Rangers fans like myself were left wanting more from Richards, but he is worth far more than the one-year, $2 million deal he signed on July 1st. The Blackhawks may not be getting the 91-point scorer that Richards was only a few years ago, but this couldn't be a better fit. Richards, 34, can still put up 60 points in a season and if he underperforms, the Blackhawks are still loaded with offensive weapons, including Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Richards will slide right into the second line and won't be relied upon on the power play as much as he was in New York.

His ability to be a leader and his lengthy playoff experience could be exactly what Chicago needs to beat the L.A. Kings and get to another Stanley Cup Finals. Chicago got possibly the biggest bargain of the summer and Richards will prove to be far more valuable than his contract suggests.

Christian Ehrhoff to the Pittsburgh Penguins

If the Blackhawks didn't get the bargain deal of the day in Richards, then that award would go to the Penguins after signing defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to a one-year, $4 million deal. Ehrhoff didn't put up eye-popping stats the past three seasons since he played for a lowly Buffalo Sabres team, but he is a very solid second-pairing defenseman that contributes a lot offensively and on the power play. The fact that he's making almost $2 million less than Matt Niskanen is astounding. The Penguins essentially let Niskanen go and replaced him with a much cheaper Ehrhoff, who is just as good.

The Penguins have to be ecstatic. The team watched as two of their defensemen from last season were severely overpaid and replaced most of that lost production by signing a very reliable defenseman to a team-friendly deal. That is a win-win in just about anybody's book.

Deryk Engelland to the Calgary Flames

Brooks Orpik's deal with the Capitals is puzzling, but his deal isn't even the worst one given to a Penguins' defender this summer. When the Calgary Flames signed Deryk Engelland to a three-year, $8.7 million deal, anyone who has ever watched the Penguins had to believe that this deal was a joke. Well, it's not.

The Flames are getting a player who made $575,000 last season and was often a healthy scratch. He was a number six defenseman and finished with 12 points on the season. Yet, he's making about $1 million more than Brad Richards, a veteran center who plays every day and can realistically put up 60 points. Engelland isn't a bad player, as he has the versatility to player defense or wing and he is a very good fighter. But besides fighting, he doesn't do anything else very well.

The Flames also aren't going to be a playoff team for a while, so giving out this much money to a very mediocre 32-year-old player is puzzling. Flames fans should be furious with this contract.

While there aren't many names left in the free agency pool this summer, there are some notable names to look out for. Martin Brodeur, Daniel Alfredsson, and Mike Ribeiro are three free agent veterans who can still make a big difference on a team. July 1st was a very interesting day this year to say the least and hockey fans should be very excited for what should be an amazing season in the NHL.

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