Trading spaces

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:51 AM ET

It may be August and the mercury is pushing 30C but there's a noticeable chill in the air.

Thanks to the free-agent flurry that's gripped the NHL headlines, hockey season is closer than just around the corner.

You have to admit the first week of signings has brought about more than its share of surprises and given plenty to chew on over the water cooler. Plus, you can already see who are the real winners and losers.

Here's the Sun's scorecard for the 30 teams with only 59 days remaining before the puck drops on the 2005-06 season.

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FIVE BIGGEST WINNERS

1. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Bob Clarke isn't far from becoming Mike Milbury but the difference is his moves work more often than not. Give Clarke credit for quickly buying out new Flame Tony Amonte and John LeClair and then trading Jeremy Roenick to give him cap space. He used most of that wisely, too, by bringing in Peter Forsberg, Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher to an already good team that is also looking forward to the arrival of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. However, Clarke will still need to find a few more tricks up his sleeve, since he still needs to sign Simon Gagne, Kim Johnsson and No.-1 goalie Robert Esche.

2. EDMONTON OILERS

OK, Chris Pronger and Mike Peca were not technically brought in as free agents. However, Pronger's long-term deal ensures the huge defenceman won't be leaving for a long, long time, and you can expect Peca's signature on a lengthy deal, too.

It's a great sign for the Oilers, who've been the victim so often of league economics -- though it is interesting to see this team spend to unprecedented levels only a year or two removed from singing the blues about not being able to compete.

The workload for Kevin Lowe isn't easy in the near future, though, with a group of restricted free agents left to sign, including Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres.

3. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

Could the Blackhawks actually be on the right track? Chicago won't likely soon shake its claim of going the longest without winning the Stanley Cup (1961) but there are signs of real improvement.

Adding Nikolai Khabibulin, Adrian Aucoin and Martin Lapointe are all strong moves for a roster that boasts a real up-and-comer in Tuomo Ruutu.

That said, the 'Hawks are already sitting on a 14-man roster costing $27 million with the need to sign Tyler Arnason and a backup goalie and also must trade away goalie Jocelyn Thibault.

4. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

The biggest signing to come in Ohio is the reported five-year, $27-million deal for super sniper Rick Nash but the Blue Jackets have efficiently made key moves for a team that has several pieces in place. Adam Foote provides a solid, stay-at-home defenceman to pair with the offensively gifted Bryan Berard.

The Jackets also made a strong move grabbing backup goalie Martin Prusek, cast adrift by Ottawa, to push the always overworked Marc Denis.

Don't be surprised to see Columbus in the playoffs for the first time.

5. LOS ANGELES KINGS

A team that can afford to spend big bucks did so in a wise manner by grabbing the unheralded Pavol Demitra. Adding Jeremy Roenick will also pay off because the loose-lipped one will sell the game in the City of Angels.

Had it not been for all those injury woes, the Kings would have battled for a playoff spot in 2003-04 and have made themselves better in several areas.

Losing Ziggy Palffy is a hit and there's still a big question mark whether Mathieu Garon can be the No.-1 goalie.

Key RFAs left to sign are Mike Cammalleri and Alexander Frolov.

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FIVE BIGGEST LOSERS

1. WASHINGTON CAPITALS

We understand getting Alexander Ovechkin signed was a key but that's all George McPhee has done. Washington, with only a handful of NHLers under contract, has plenty of cap space to play with and very few quality RFAs -- notably Jeff Halpern, Brendan Witt and Chris Clark.

That the Caps have been a non-factor in the free-agent chase is inexplicable.

The only theory for their inactivity is the desire to ensure a last-place finish to have the best shot at selecting American phenom Phil Kessell in next year's draft.

2. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Sure, GM John Ferguson Jr. has his hands tied but that's because of past mistakes by himself and Pat Quinn. Signing Ed Belfour before the lockout was foolish, an error compounded by not using the opportunity to buy him out.

Then, the club watched.

All the Leafs have done so far is sign potential comeback kid Jason Allison and brought in Jeff O'Neill, another player whose best days are long behind him.

To make matters worse, Tie Domi was signed at $1.25 million per season, a deal made using more heart than head.

The club's inability to develop young players and constantly add oldtimers caught up with the team.

Hey, maybe Quinn can serve as player-coach?

3. BOSTON BRUINS

A team with plenty of cap room went about it the wrong way.

Signing Glen Murray was a good move but that appears to be the only one made by GM Mike O'Connell, whose team is getting older and slower. The best years are long behind Alexei Zhamnov and Brian Leetch, the club's other notable signings.

Monkeying around in negotiations with signing Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov could very well blow up in O'Connell's face. Publicly negotiating by announcing a five-year, $5 million per season deal was offered looks like a pre-emptive excuse for trading Thornton away now or letting him go via free agency down the road.

4. COLORADO AVALANCHE

Maybe this is a bit of bitterness after watching the Avs dominate for so long but there's some perverse pleasure in watching the team begin the slide down.

Losing Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg was expected, so you can't condemn Avalanche management for that. However, replacing those two with Patrice Brisebois and Pierre Turgeon makes the situation worse.

Those signings decreased much-needed cap room for younger, more productive players on the market.

The Avs have 15 players signed for $32 million, including inking Milan Hejduk yesterday to a five-year, $19.5-million US deal, so there's not a lot of room for a club that still must re-sign Jean-Michael Liles and starting goalie David Aebischer.

5. ST. LOUIS BLUES

For years, the Blues foolishly spent without having the revenue and constantly ripped away top players from other teams.

Now, it's poetic justice watching them head right out of the playoffs as players begin their exodus.

So far, they've lost arguably their two most valuable players, Chris Pronger and Pavol Demitra, while hanging on to Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight. Granted, the Blues had to keep somebody, since they've traded away pretty much every young promising player, save for defenceman Barret Jackman.

St. Louis last missed the playoffs in 1978-79. Bet on them being back on the sidelines next spring when the post-season dance begins.

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THE OTHER 10 WINNERS

ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS

D Scott Niedermayer was arguably the biggest apple on the free-agent tree, so good on Brian Burke for making that splash. Signing C Rob Niedermayer for $8 million over four years wasn't as astute, though, for a team that has $32 million tied into 12 players.

ATLANTA THRASHERS

C Bobby Holik will be the poster child of the over-paying era of the NHL but the $4 million he'll receive with the Thrashers will be well spent, giving them another centre who will help RW Dany Heatley and LW Ilya Kovalchuk elevate their game. Speaking of Atlanta's dynamic duo, both of them need new contracts.

CALGARY FLAMES

The biggest signing needed was RW Jarome Iginla and that was done quickly. Nabbing F Tony Amonte ($1.85 million) and RW Darren McCarty ($800,000) added to a solid core. Now, they just need to sign G Miikka Kiprusoff.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

Not that adding LW Cory Stillman and D Oleg Tverdovsky is a stroke of genius but getting rid of RW Jeff O'Neill is addition by subtraction. The Hurricanes have some good young players in C Eric Staal and LW Erik Cole to take over this team.

DALLAS STARS

Good on C Mike Modano for coming to his senses and signing a deal that allows him to end his career in Big D and it was a good move to re-sign D Sergei Zubov. Still, the Stars have 13 players signed for nearly $30 million and need to ink C Jason Arnott and LW Brendan Morrow. Additions D Martin Skoula and D Stephane Robidas won't help any.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

With plenty of young players, lots of cap room and a need for leadership, the Panthers did just that by grabbing cagey vets -- all former Flames -- LW Martin Gelinas, C Joe Nieuwendyk and LW Gary Roberts.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

Adding LW Paul Kariya at $4.5 million per season will pay dividends. Trading for D Danny Markov is also a bright move. The Preds still have plenty of work to sign their crop of RFAs, including RW Steve Sullivan, D Dan Hamhuis, C David Legwand and LW Scott Hartnell.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

Scooping RW Miro Satan and D Alexei Zhitnik from Buffalo provides flash, acquiring D Brent Sopel and LW Mike York via trade does add to depth. GM Mike Milbury appears to have made the right moves this time.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

The blocks are in place with C Sidney Crosby ready to take the torch from owner/C Mario Lemieux and LW Ziggy Palffy to be the go-between. D Sergei Gonchar was a good addition, too, but we have to question LW Andre Roy at $1 million per season.

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THE OTHER 10 LOSERS

BUFFALO SABRES

Could have been included in the biggest losers group, having lost RW Miro Satan and D Alexei Zhitnik, while only adding over-the-hill D Teppo Numminen. The Sabres have a solid poker chip with three goalies believed to be NHL calibre.

MINNESOTA WILD

We understand RW Marian Gaborik is the centre piece but this was a golden chance to give the gifted Slovak some help. Instead, the spend-thrift Wild brass has so far brought in enforcer LW Andrei Nazarov and serviceable D Scott Ferguson. All those fans who fill the Xcel Energy Center game after game deserve better from a club that hasn't even re-signed RFA LW Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

Re-signing RW Alex Kovalev is a no-brainer and letting go D Patrice Brisebois was the right thing to do but other than that, the Habs are standing still and watching the world pass by.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

D Scott Niedermayer was good as gone but D Dan McGillis and D Vladimir Malakhov are no replacements. The Devils have a litany of RFAs to deal with, too, such as C Patrik Elias, C Scott Gomez, LW Jeff Friesen, RW Viktor Kozlov, RW Brian Gionta, RW Jamie Langenbrunner and D Colin White. Plus, D Scott Stevens is a UFA.

NEW YORK RANGERS

There have been additions but C Martin Straka, LW Ville Nieminen, D Marek Malik, LW Martin Rucinsky and RW Jason Ward aren't exactly huge steps forward for a club that's completely rebuilding.

OTTAWA SENATORS

The Sens are way more concerned with their bevy of RFAs, including RW Marian Hossa, RW Martin Havlat and C Jason Spezza and really don't have room for bringing in UFAs. G Dominic Hasek is now 40 years old and could either win them a Cup or have more injury problems.

PHOENIX COYOTES

Just like Ottawa, the Coyotes have a roster pretty much set in stone, with a few RFAs to ink, such as D Derek Morris and D Paul Mara. Their weakness in goal wasn't addressed. Getting rid of Brian Savage with a buyout was wise.

SAN JOSE SHARKS

A good team that appears to have tried and failed to grab a couple of high-profile UFAs. With 10 players signed for $13.5 million, the Sharks will have room even after inking their RFA group that includes C Patrick Marleau, LW Alexander Korolyuk, D Brad Stuart and LW Marco Sturm.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Losers because they simply couldn't win. It's nice to think all their key free-agents -- the now departed G Nikolai Khabibulin along with RFAs RW Martin St. Louis, C Vincent Lecavalier and D Dan Boyle -- would all take less to defend the Stanley Cup together but it won't work that way.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS

Re-signing LW Markus Naslund -- $6 million per season -- was the key but it has limited the Canucks, who have RW Todd Bertuzzi ($5.26 million) D Ed Jovanovski ($3.99 million) and C Brendan Morrison ($3.2 million) signed to pricey deals. The team is further hamstrung by the need to re-sign G Dan Cloutier, D Mattias Ohlund, D Bryan Allen, C Matt Cooke and the Sedin brothers. Plus, they're weakened, though slightly, by losing defencemen Marek Malik and Brent Sopel.


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