By RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

Every year hockey fans are treated to a “Christmas in July” with the arrival of the free agency period. Once the clock hits 12:01pm EDT dozens of NHL player contracts expire and thus the frenzy to sign that key cog in the wheel begins. Thirty teams are all competing to get through the first fax, the first phone call, the first e-mail to available players and their agents in the hopes of luring them to come play hockey in their fair city.

As fans, every year we go in hoping that the marquee superstar available signs with our team. Last year the New Jersey Devils were able to land that superstar, though not without some controversy, when Ilya Kovalchuk signed a long-term deal with the club. At the same time that we want that superstar, we also have an eye on the team’s chemistry and salary cap, hoping that the player will take a “discount” of some sort to play on what will hopefully be a winning club for years to come. For as much as we want a superstar on our team’s roster, we also want to make sure that the contract isn’t so colossal that it handicaps the team’s ability to re-sign current favourites or other quality players that can result in an elite team. Even with a ballooning salary cap, which hit a new all-time high of $64.3M this year, that concern always lingers, in no small part due to the general managers spending obscene amounts of money to lure in players that may only be above-average.

The big names on the free agency list this year included Dallas Stars forward Brad Richards, Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun, Philadelphia Flyers winger Ville Leino, Tampa Bay’s Simon Gagne, and the returning Jaromir Jagr. By the end of the first week, all had found new teams and cashed in big-time in the frenzy. While the additions of these players to their respective new rosters will no doubt boost their clubs, the big names are not the only story of the day. With a couple of additions and subtractions prior to the actual opening of the free agency period, some teams made very large jumps, some forwards, others perhaps backwards. It is now time to evaluate which teams have come out of the early portion of the free agent frenzy as the biggest winners, and the biggest losers.

Winner: Washington Capitals
The Capitals are probably the biggest winner of all the teams so far this summer. They were able to sign Tomas Vokoun to a one-year deal worth $1.5M. Vokoun was coming off the final year of a contract in Florida that paid him $5.5M, so to land a very good goaltender at a discount of four million dollars off his previous contract is a great move. He is 35 years old, but has consistently put up good numbers on a bad Panthers team. General Manager George McPhee’s biggest coup of the weekend, however, was a trade with the Colorado Avalanche in which he swapped the rights to RFA goalie Simeon Varlamov to Colorado in exchange for a 1st round pick in 2012 and a 2nd round pick in either 2012 or 2013. Given the Avs’ woes in recent years, McPhee may have landed himself a lottery selection in what promises to be a very strong draft class. Toss in Roman Hamrlik to help mentor the Caps’ young D corps, and the Capitals definitely come out of July 1st a much stronger team.

Loser: Buffalo Sabres
I am very happy for the Sabres that they have a new owner in Terry Pegula that is willing to spend money to improve the club. For years the long-suffering fans of Buffalo have had to watch home-grown talent bolt for the door on their first available opportunity, but with Pegula that trend has ended. Unfortunately for Buffalo, a new one has begun: grossly over-paying for mid-level talent to excessively long contracts. Former Canucks blueliner Christian Ehrhoff was signed early on Friday to a 10-year contract that is so heavily front-loaded it will see Ehrhoff being paid a higher salary in the 2011-12 season than Sidney Crosby…actually, higher than all but three players in the NHL. This act was followed up by signing Flyers forward Ville Leino to a 6-year contract that will pay Leino $4.5M per season. This is a large amount for a player that has never scored 20 goals in an NHL season. These two contracts are the worst awarded on July 1st, and that makes the Sabres losers in the free agent frenzy.

Winner: James Wisniewski
I like James Wisniewski. He’s a good hockey player and a really cool guy with a fantastic sense of humour. I had a strong feeling that his time in Montreal was going to be limited, as I got a vibe from him that he was looking for a big payday, and once the Habs signed Andrei Markov to a new contract the writing was on the wall. For a guy that made his NHL debut in 2005-06 and was already playing on his fourth team, Wisniewski was looking for a long-term deal that would bring some stability to his life. Thanks to the Columbus Blue Jackets, he got that deal, signing a 6-year contract worth $33M. Some will say it’s a bad contract, but when you look at what “White Lightning” brings to the table offensively, contributing 50 points last year, any other D-man in the NHL with that capability brings in that type of money. A good deal for a good guy.

Loser: Any Team That Thought It Had a Chance to Sign Brad Richards
Ever since LeBron James put on a spectacle of “taking his talents to South Beach,” sports fans have disliked a dog-and-pony show in which an athlete puts on a big production of what his decision will be. TSN coverage of the free agent frenzy would regularly transport viewers to the Newport Sports Management building, showing several team entourages heading inside to woo Brad Richards with their pitch. Indeed, the Los Angeles Kings flew out their entire management team in an effort to convince him to come to the Kings. But it was all for naught. Viewers learned early in the day via Bob McKenzie that Richards had given the New York Rangers the right to match any offer made by any other team, essentially foreshadowing that Richards was going to end up on Broadway and make a tremendous amount of money. The other teams were simply used to raise the bidding price; if you do that on eBay, you get called a shill bidder and people don’t like you. Several NHL teams got taken for a ride, and they all should have known better.

Winner: Playoff Contenders That Stayed Quiet
There is an old adage in sports: sometimes the best deal is the one that you don’t make. When it comes to dishing out contracts at the peak of free agency, occasionally it is in a team’s best interest to lay low on July 1st. They can thus avoid over-spending right off the bat and leave money available to sign the best of the rest of the crop of players that remains on the board after the first wave of signings. While the Kings lost out on the Richards sweepstakes, they scored big-time by landing Simon Gagne on the 2nd. While there may be some concerns about his health, Gagne has shown that he can be an impact player. At only $3.5M for two years, he could turn out to be the best signing not made on the first. There are, at the time of this writing, still some good players available, including Scott Hannan, Steve Bernier, and Fabian Brunnstrom – and that is just the unrestricted free agents. There are now teams that are close up against the cap who still have some restricted free agents to sign; those teams that waited in the bushes this past weekend may now be able to poach quality young players. The Washington Capitals are sitting with only $500K available and have not signed Karl Alzner or Troy Brower. Buffalo has 3 blueliners and Jhonas Enroth left to sign and they only have just over a million dollars in available cap space. The opportunity exists for several clubs to make things uncomfortable for their playoff rivals, a consequence of remaining quiet out of the blocks.

There are of course others out there that are a little bit more ahead, and others that are a little bit more behind, than they were going into the first weekend of the free agency period. Montreal took a step forward in signing hitherto-Habs killer Erik Cole to a 4-year deal and picking up Peter Budaj to back up Carey Price. The Avalanche gave up a lot to land Simeon Varmalov, and signing J.S. Giguere as his back-up/insurance policy won’t help the team climb out of lottery territory. And then there is the great question mark: the Philadelphia Flyers. After going to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, the Flyers suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of the Bruins in 2011, leading GM Bob Clarke to ship out the team’s marquee players, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. The Flyers will be a very different squad in 2011-12, and it will be a while before a verdict can be rendered as to whether they are an improved team after all the changes.

What do you think of the free agent frenzy? Agree with the conclusions above? Disagree? Let’s hear it in the comments section.