Column

Phil Kessel's trade to Penguins highlights first day of NHL's free agency

NHL general managers were relatively restrained on the first day of free agency, favoring strategic signings over the throw-money-at-the-problem moves that previously trapped many of them in salary-cap purgatory.

A couple of intriguing trades stole the headlines, led by a six-player deal that sent prolific but often unmotivated winger Phil Kessel from Toronto to Pittsburgh, where he should flourish alongside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

The initial winner in the free-agent chase appeared to be the Detroit Red Wings, who signed puck-moving defenseman Mike Green away from the Washington Capitals for $18 million over three years and lured veteran center Brad Richards from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks for a one-year deal worth $3 million plus up to $1 million in bonuses pegged to the team's playoff success.

The Ducks were among the initial losers but recouped later by signing veteran center Shawn Horcoff for one year at $1.75 million, per Darren Dreger of TSN. Horcoff should be a respectable fill-in for Nate Thompson, who was expected to be idled five to six months after undergoing shoulder surgery in mid-June.

The Ducks lost bruising defenseman Francois Beauchemin, their time-on-ice leader last season, to Colorado's three-year, $12.5-million offer, terms the Ducks considered excessive for the 35-year-old. They also lost left wing Matt Beleskey, who parlayed a career-best 22-goal season into a five-year, $19-million deal with Boston.

The Bruins created salary cap space by trading the contract of concussion-stricken forward Marc Savard to Florida, which can absorb his $4-million cap hit. The Bruins also gave up forward Reilly Smith and got winger Jimmy Hayes.

Beleskey thanked the Ducks and their fans "for 7 amazing years of my life. I got to grow so much as a player and a person."

In preemptive moves last week, the Ducks acquired rugged defenseman Kevin Bieksa from Vancouver and speedy left wing Carl Hagelin from the New York Rangers. Bieksa is expected, as soon as Thursday, to get a two-year, $8-million extension through 2017-18.

The Ducks fortified their minor league depth with two-way contracts for goaltender Matt Hackett (two years), and center Chris Mueller and defenseman Joe Piskula (one year each).

The Kings took two hits they had anticipated but might find difficult to overcome. Right wing Justin Williams, a clutch scorer who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in their 2014 Cup triumph, signed a two-year, $6.5-million deal with the Washington Capitals. Free-agent defenseman Andrej Sekera accepted a six-year, $33-million offer from the defense-starved Edmonton Oilers.

Sekera, acquired by General Manager Dean Lombardi to fortify the defense for a playoff run at the steep cost of a first-round draft pick and a prospect, played only 16 games before he injured his knee — and the Kings missed the playoffs. Lombardi hoped to win his gamble by re-signing the 29-year-old Slovakian, but the Kings' salary-cap squeeze and uncertainty over the status of defenseman Slava Voynov — who is scheduled to go on trial next week on a felony domestic violence charge — limited their spending power.

The Kings made only one significant move Wednesday, signing goalie Jhonas Enroth to a one-year, $1.25-million contract to back up Jonathan Quick. Enroth, 27, split last season between Dallas and Buffalo. He compiled a record of 18-26-2 with a 3.07 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. He replaces Martin Jones, who was traded to Boston for left wing Milan Lucic. Jones later was dealt to San Jose.

Two other forwards from last season's Kings team became unrestricted free agents Wednesday but remained available. Center Jarret Stoll, who last month pleaded guilty to two reduced misdemeanor charges stemming from his arrest in April on suspicion of possession of cocaine and Ecstasy, did not have a deal as of Wednesday night. Nor did center Mike Richards, who became a free agent Monday when the Kings terminated his contract for what they called "a material breach of the requirements" of the contract.

Richards reportedly was stopped on the Canadian side of the Canada-U.S. border last month and questioned over his alleged possession of the prescription pain reliever OxyContin, which is classified as a controlled substance.

Among other notable signings Wednesday was center Antoine Vermette leaving Chicago to rejoin Arizona, which had traded him on Feb. 28. He signed for $3.75 million over two years.

Forward Blake Comeau left Pittsburgh to join Beauchemin in Colorado for $7.2 million over three years, and winger Michael Frolik left Winnipeg for up-and-coming Calgary.

The Pittsburgh-Toronto trade involved six players and three draft picks and centered on Kessel, a five-time 30-goal scorer. Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford said Kessel "doesn't have to be the guy here," potentially easing pressure on him.

And in a changing of the guard, Glen Sather stepped down as general manager of the New York Rangers after 15 years and will be succeeded by assistant GM Jeff Gorton. Sather, 71, was the general manager and/or coach during the Oilers' five Cup titles and was perhaps the last cigar-smoking, backroom-dealer in a sport dominated by executives with law degrees. He retains the title of team president.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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