Some question marks remain

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

The first week of free-agent movement was enticing for hockey fans, as one high-profile free agent after another made the news. The spotlight hopped from one team to another.

But in the midst of it all, two of the National Hockey League's more established patsies made some moves that, added together, could turn out to have the greatest impact.

They signed some quality free agents, but also picked up some lesser cogs and, to complete the process, re-signed some of their own players to enhance stability.

One such team is the New York Rangers, technically not a patsy, having finished only one point behind the division-winning New Jersey Devils last year.

But in the longer term, the Rangers certainly qualify and they got blitzed in the playoffs -- which can happen when your best defenceman, your top scorer and your starting goalie are all hurt.

But they re-signed Martin Straka, thereby guaranteeing that Jaromir Jagr will continue to enjoy the support of one of his favourite linemates.

Yesterday, they signed veteran winger and longtime Team Canada fixture Brendan Shanahan. They also signed Michael Nylander, who always plays well when he is not asked to be the team's offensive leader -- which is certainly the case here.

Matt Cullen, pried away from the Carolina Hurricanes, will be a major addition, especially since he will be able to return to his natural position as a centre -- and point man on the power play.

And to stabilize the defence, the Rangers acquired Cullen's teammate on the Stanley Cup winners, Aaron Ward.

In addition, Karel Rachunek was brought back after spending the past two years in the Russian league, where you can't survive if you're not a great skater.

The Rangers, whose salary-cap position is ameliorated by the Washington Capitals' generosity in picking up a large part of Jagr's salary, are not finished yet.

Sources say they are considering repatriating Brian Leetch, who is 38 but still a highly skilled defenceman and a crowd favourite at Madison Square Garden.

The Rangers will need a repeat performance from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist next season, and it wouldn't hurt if Sandis Ozolinsh could conquer his personal devils.

But there is every indication that the Rangers have turned the corner.

The other long-downtrodden club showing signs of emerging from the ranks of the stiffs is the Minnesota Wild.

Despite flawless fan support -- never an empty seat -- the Wild has been notoriously frugal. The excuse, tenuous at best, was that the Wild was waiting for its home-grown talent to develop before surrounding it with expensive players.

Perhaps with better players around, the talent would have developed more quickly.

This time, instead of doing battle with Slovakian superstar forward Marian Gaborik and making him miss training camp, the Wild came to terms on a three-year, $19-million US deal.

Then they brought in his buddy, Pavel Demitra, another one of those players who tends to be undervalued in the eyes of easterners because he plays in the west.

A USEFUL PAIR

The Wild next grabbed a pair of useful free agents who had been established parts of the Philadelphia Flyers, defenceman Kim Johnsson and forward Branko Radivojevic.

Johnsson is especially valuable, as long as his concussion problems are behind him.

Also added were Mark Parrish, probably the best player on the New York Islanders last year, and solid defenceman Keith Carney. In addition, the team re-signed Brian Rolston.

Now, the spotlight is on coach Jacques Lemaire who must realize that in the new NHL, defence alone is not enough.

There is no doubt that Lemaire is a brilliant coach, but the question is whether his pride will let him change his style. If Lemaire adapts, the Wild will make tremendous strides.

As we have seen, the jump from the bottom of the league to the top no longer needs to be a long-term process.


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