Free agency begins and NHL general managers get busy

Marian Hossa set himself up for life with a 12-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, Marian Gaborik set a high-water mark by getting a five-year average of $7.5 million from the New York Rangers, and Scott Niedermayer set up for probably his last season with the Ducks, topping the list of players who became very rich on the first day of NHL free agency.

Meanwhile, the Kings watched and wondered when players they consider the “right” fit would consider them the “right” team to play for. Judging by Wednesday’s festivities, the answer is never.

Dispelling the notion that general managers would be thrifty for fear the salary cap will drop in 2010-11, 26 teams stuck a toe -- or an arm and a leg -- into the free-agent pool and snapped up all the premier names.

The Kings, who have about $14 million in cap space and a burning need for a scorer, had promised fans they’d be active but emerged empty-handed, a result that’s tediously familiar.


General Manager Dean Lombardi said Wednesday night he had targeted two right wings: Hossa and Mike Knuble, a six-time 20-goal scorer with good size and character. Lombardi got permission from Detroit to talk to Hossa before free agency began but said he learned Wednesday morning that Hossa was leaning toward a contender and a creative payment plan.

Hossa’s deal, which goes past his 42nd birthday, is worth $62.8 million for an annual cap hit of $5.23 million. Insert your own joke about the Blackhawks being doomed to lose in the Stanley Cup final, as Hossa’s Pittsburgh Penguins did in 2008 and his Red Wings did a few weeks ago.

“He was the one guy we were willing to extend ourselves for,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi called the Kings’ offer to Knuble “more than competitive,” but Knuble left the Philadelphia Flyers for a two-year, $5.6-million offer from the Washington Capitals. “It came down to wanting to stay in the East,” Lombardi said.

Gaborik, dynamic but injury prone, and Martin Havlat, a secondary winger who went to Minnesota for $30 million over six years, were Lombardi’s Plan B. For Gaborik, 27, his offer was a short-term contract with a plea to “show us you’re healthy and get us over the hump” and then look at a longer deal. “We just didn’t feel comfortable extending ourselves a la Hossa,” Lombardi said.

Once the Rangers stepped in, that plan was scuttled too, leaving the Kings without the scorer they urgently need.

Same old story. When will it have a different ending?

“When you break through, like Chicago did,” Lombardi said. “That team belongs to those kids. Their building’s filled and it’s an attractive place.”


Lombardi considered it progress that he could target wingers and didn’t need to fill multiple holes, as he did in a Dumpster-diving spree two years ago. But it’s no comfort that the Kings are being turned down by a better class of free agent than before.

Although some quality players moved Wednesday, free agency is generally an overheated exercise in overspending. In addition to Hossa’s big bucks, the Montreal Canadiens spent lavishly on two small forwards, giving center Michael Cammalleri $30 million over five years and right wing Brian Gionta $25 million over five years. And twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin re-signed with Vancouver before free agency began, each for an average of $6.1 million over five years.

“I thought guys would be a little more cautious, but I guess there’s no reason for me to think that’s going to happen,” said Ducks General Manager Bob Murray, who planned to watch for a while after securing Niedermayer for one season at $6 million plus team-linked bonuses.

“Every year it just seems to continually go and go like this. Why should we expect the players to bring things back in line when every year we go ahead and do the same things?”


Murray made a reasonable deal with Niedermayer, given the smooth-skating defenseman’s impact and talents. Niedermayer said once he decided to return next season -- which will be interrupted by the Vancouver Olympics, with him a member of Team Canada -- he was sure he wanted to stay with the Ducks.

“The last few years I’ve probably enjoyed playing more than I ever have,” he said.

He also said he’s “very excited and comfortable with our team,” even though the Ducks probably won’t re-sign defenseman Francois Beauchemin if he draws offers above $4 million per season. Murray also said he made an offer to center Todd Marchant that was rejected and he hasn’t begun talks with Niedermayer’s brother, Rob, a defense-oriented right wing.

Scott Niedermayer said playing alongside his brother “is not a necessity, but if he is back I’d love it.”


Many other bodies were shuffled and some good moves made, as Montreal got defenseman Hal Gill from the champion Penguins for $4.5 million over two years.

The Edmonton Oilers lost goalie Dwayne Roloson to the New York Islanders but recovered by signing Nikolai Khabibulin for $15 million over four years.

Lombardi said he might add a free-agent defenseman, and trades are another avenue for improvement.

“We’re poised to strike for the right guy,” he said, a refrain that’s getting older, staler and less believable by the minute.