Perhaps the most sought after forward this year was Zach Parise. Many people were speculating that Parise would sign with a cup-contender and teams like the Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks, even the Los Angeles Kings were being thrown out there as possible homes for the 5-time 30 goal scorer. In the end Parise chose to sign with Minnesota for 13 years at $98 million. That same day, defenseman and fellow American Olympian Ryan Suter signed an identical deal with the Minnesota Wild as well.
Just like that two of the most highly valued players on the free agency market had both signed with a team that had only made the playoffs twice in the last 7 years. Having traded Brett Burns and Martin Havlat last off-season in separate deals with the San Jose Sharks, the Wild bolstered their offense receiving Dany Heatley and Devon Setoguchi among others in return. In adding Parise and Suter this year, the Wild become a legitimate threat in the West, but adding this type of elite talent acts as a reward to the high end players who have admirably suffered through the teams struggles these past few seasons.
Mikko Koivu has consistently put up good numbers despite not having any quality wingers to play with. Last year was supposed to change with the arrivals of Heatley and Setoguchi, but injuries saw Koivu reduced to just 55 games last season. He was still able to amass 44 points in that time though.
With Zach Parise likely playing alongside him on the top line, Koivu will finally have the chance to show just how much he can produce provided he can stay healthy.
On the back-end, I’ve always considered Niklas Backstrom to be one of the best goalies in the league. He’s spent the entirety of his 6-year NHL career with the Wild producing a 160-109-42 record with 26 total shutouts and a .918 SV% and 2.42 GAA. He’s good despite being on a bad team. The addition of Ryan Suter places one of the league’s elite defensemen in front of him. Having spent the last few seasons playing alongside possibly the best defenseman in the NHL in Shea Weber(pictured), Suter is coming off a 46-point season and served as one of the alternate-captains for the silver medal winning Team USA at the 2010 Olympics.
Moving forward, another smaller market to benefit massively from free agency this year was Carolina as the Hurricanes were successful in signing Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin (pictured). Since winning the Stanley Cup in the 2005-06 season, the Hurricanes have become a largely irrelevant team despite having two bonafide superstars in center Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward and a decent pool of budding talent that includes Justin Faulk, Jamie McBain, and the 2010-11 Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner. Averaging just under 17,000 in attendance per game last year, the Hurricanes are a far cry from the spotlights found in Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, and so forth.
So this begs the question, why would two prominent free agents be interested in playing in Raleigh?
In the case of Jordan Staal, one would assume that the reasons are two-fold. Despite the Pittsburgh Penguins being perennial cup contenders, Staal was constantly found outside of the spotlight. Suiting up alongside Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can have that kind of effect. In Carolina though, Staal will have more of an opportunity to display his abilities as he likely find most of his ice-time coming on the first or second lines as opposed to being buried on the third line. Also the chance to play with big brother and team captain Eric Staal likely made the decision much easier. Sibling rivalries notwithstanding, playing with your siblings is always better than playing against them.
For Alexander Semin, a fresh start was extremely necessary for his career. After back-to-back seasons that saw the 2002 13th overall pick dip below the 30-goal mark and a ton of scrutiny after years of team-wide playoff disappointment with the Washington Capitals, Semin was perhaps a little more interested in playing in a quieter market. In either case, both acquisitions give the Hurricanes a much needed boost in returning to the NHL’s promise land.
However, even with all the movement that has occurred thus far, some of the biggest news has come from players choosing to re-sign.
As pointed out earlier, Shea Weber is perhaps the best defenseman in the game today. As such he was always likely to fetch a hefty price tag when his contract with the Nashville Predators. An offer sheet from Philadelphia at 14 years and $110 million substantiated that.
Seeing Nashville match those numbers and retain their anchor was a good day for the NHL. For years the Predators have been building a strong team and losing Weber to free agency would have undone that work setting the franchise back while strengthening another big-market team. Instead, the Predators will go on with a man who has become the heart and soul of their team for what is likely to be the rest of his career.
Don’t be mistaken, hockey at the NHL level is as much a business as it is a sport. General managers rightfully should do whatever they can to ensure that the best available players are suiting up for their team and not the competition. To that end, players also have every right to play wherever they wish for whatever reason they so choose. Sometimes the motivation is as simple as money or a chance at a championship.
Recently the New York Rangers traded to get Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets. The superstar winger leaves a small market team where he was drafted and played the entirety of his NHL career and heads to the Broadway where he will probably form one of the scariest forward lines in the league with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. In this instance Nash very simply wants to play for a team that is likely to win a Stanley Cup and he probably wants to play in a city where his skills will actually get noticed. There is nothing wrong with that. But where super-teams are ruining some of the other major sports leagues, the NHL doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as affected.
Seeing Minnesota, Carolina, and Nashville all bolster their roster with some of the best players in the league is a sign that smaller markets will be able to build competitive teams that can be legitimate playoff contenders, and that is the way it should be.