Defensemen find riches in many new places in wild 1st day of NHL free agency

By Ira Podell, AP
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Defensemen fly off NHL free agent racks in a hurry

NEW YORK — It was a great day to be a free agent defenseman in the NHL.

While basketball free agents LeBron James and Dwyane Wade hosted several high-powered meetings with NBA teams from coast to coast, their NHL counterparts just needed to sit by the phone Thursday and wait for the big-money offers to come through.

Once they started at 12:01 p.m., they didn’t stop for the greater part of the day. Forget long-term negotiations, these hockey deals got done faster than a soaring slap shot.

“The surprise I had was how quickly everything happened,” New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. “It almost looked like 12:05 and then there were decisions made. More quickly than normal.”

The biggest name on this year’s free agent board, high-flying forward Ilya Kovalchuk, remained available into Thursday night. His pricey demands could keep him on the market for a little bit longer.

That can’t be said for many other Grade-A players.

Sergei Gonchar got things kicked off less than an hour after teams could begin talking to free agents from other clubs. The defenseman, who can turn around any team’s suspect power play, quickly heard what he wanted to from the Ottawa Senators and left the Pittsburgh Penguins for a three-year, $16.5 million deal.

“We made a call right at 12:01 and basically made a proposal,” Senators general manager Bryan Murray said. “I’m very happy. It adds a great deal to our team.”

The Penguins desperately wanted to keep Gonchar, even making a post-midnight pitch to entice him to stay, but they weren’t willing to go beyond two years with the 36-year-old offensive-minded defenseman who won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009 but has struggled with injuries in recent seasons.

“I’m very happy to be there because I’m going to play in Canada, which is pretty special for me,” Gonchar said. “I believe Ottawa has a pretty good team. … We played against them last year in the playoffs and it’s not easy to play against that team.”

If the Penguins were disappointed to see Gonchar go, they didn’t let it show. They shook off his departure and dipped right into the free agent pool to come up with a pair of blue-liners — Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.

Pittsburgh signed both players to five-year deals, giving Martin a $25 million deal, and a $20 million contract to Michalek.

Martin, who made $4.5 million with the Atlantic Division-rival Devils last season, was viewed as the top two-way defenseman on the market this year. Michalek had three goals and 14 assists in 72 games with Phoenix last season. He logs a lot of ice time, is strong in the defensive zone, and is an excellent outlet passer.

“I was pretty clear about addressing our defense. By getting Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, I think we’ve done that,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. “We’ve got a great corps of defensemen right now that are signed for a number of years. They’re at the right age. From our staff and coaches’ standpoint, we’re pretty thrilled.”

It then became the Devils’ turn to raid the defenseman market.

After being unable to retain Martin, New Jersey struck in a hurry to replace him with its own pair of defensemen. The Devils signed Henrik Tallinder away from the Buffalo Sabres with a four-year, $13.5 million deal and then grabbed Ottawa’s Anton Volchenkov by agreeing to a six-year, $25.5 million pact.

“We’re just delighted,” Lamoriello said. “We’re going to be tougher to play in our end. They are two different types of players. Tallinder is a puck-moving defenseman and the other (Volchenkov), you know what he brings. He plays the role like Scott Stevens played it. We’re better on defense today than we were last year and I feel we can still get better.”

One way they could is by re-signing Kovalchuk, who was acquired by the Devils in February. One drawback, beyond his wishes for a lucrative deal, is the fact that he has only won one postseason game in his NHL career. New Jersey was eliminated in five games by Philadelphia in the first round of this year’s playoffs.

Lamoriello hadn’t given up his pursuit of a deal to bring Kovalchuk back to New Jersey.

“We’ll see,” Lamoriello said. “We’re still working on it.”

In the meantime, defense was a position in which there were the most available impact players.

Dan Hamhuis, whose negotiating rights were traded to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in recent days, found a home — close to home — with the Vancouver Canucks. Hamhuis left the Nashville Predators for a six-year, $27 million deal.

Buffalo, which had already lost Tallinder to New Jersey, said goodbye to defenseman Toni Lydman, who inked a three-year, $9 million deal with Anaheim. They recovered by signing Pittsburgh defenseman Jordan Leopold to a three-year contract.

The Phoenix Coyotes came to terms with Derek Morris on a four-year contract worth $11-million, and Carolina signed Anton Babchuk for one year at $1.4 million.

The Coyotes also picked up veteran help on offense by agreeing to terms with former Carolina forward Ray Whitney.

Another area with a good deal of depth was goaltending. The New York Rangers wasted little time in targeting former New York Islanders goalie Martin Biron to be the backup to workhorse No. 1 netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

Biron signed on for a two-year, $1.75 million deal.

San Jose found its replacement for longtime goalie Evgeni Nabokov — who didn’t land in a new home Thursday — by agreeing to terms with former Tampa Bay Lightning netminder Antero Niittymaki on a two-year contract worth $4 million.

“We were pretty proactive once we decided Antero was our guy,” Sharks GM Doug Wilson said. “We thought we’d be a pretty attractive fit for a goaltender like that. It came together quickly.”

Dan Ellis, whose rights were traded to Montreal this week, didn’t stick with the Canadiens. He took Niittymaki’s old job with the Lightning, signing a two-year, $3 million contract.

Tampa Bay also agreed to a four-year extension with popular forward Martin St. Louis that will last through the 2014-15 season.

Former St. Louis goalie Chris Mason landed in Atlanta, Andrew Raycroft signed on with the Dallas Stars, who are moving on from Marty Turco, and New Jersey signed Johan Hedberg to back up Martin Brodeur in goal.

In addition to Biron, the Rangers were very busy. New York re-signed forward Erik Christensen to a two-year deal, brought back productive winger Vinny Prospal, and replaced enforcer Jody Shelley with Minnesota’s Derek Boogaard.

Shelley was seeking a three-year deal and got it along with $3.3 million from Philadelphia.

The Flyers also re-signed defenseman Braydon Coburn for $6.4 million over two years, defenseman Sean O’Donnell for one year and $1 million, and traded a second-round pick in the 2012 draft to Tampa Bay for defenseman Andrej Meszaros.

The Toronto Maple Leafs continued to get tougher in the way general manager Brian Burke wants them by signing gritty winger Colby Armstrong to a three-year, $9 million deal. In addition to his toughness, Armstrong also has an offensive game. He had 15 goals and 29 points in 79 games last season with Atlanta.

The Minnesota Wild capped off a flurry of activity by signing center, and Minnesota native, Matt Cullen to a three-year contract.

AP Sports Writers Alan Robinson in Pittsburgh, and Tom Canavan in Newark, N.J., contributed.

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