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Ice Chips: Western Conference Free Agency

July 22, 2008 | By Mike Chen | comment on this post

After reviewing the additions made by Eastern Conference teams, we now turn our attention to how the Western Conference clubs have fared during the free agency period.

The Chicago Blackhawks made a big splash while admittedly overspending in terms of length and dollar amount (hey, at least they’re honest, right?). Brian Campbell leaves the Pacific coast to go to the Windy City, while Cristobal Huet gives the Hawks the most expensive goaltending tandem in hockey history (about $13 million in the crease). For Campbell, that means more of the same — power play time with a very talented core group of players. On the point position, the Hawks have seen a number of different configurations, including the use of their many young blueliners and forward/defenseman/all-around nice guy Dustin Byfuglien. There’s no telling yet who will have the best chemistry with Campbell, and it might even be a forward moving back like Robert Lang (though Jason Williams left via free agency), so the only thing that’s certain is that one of Chicago’s key power play point men will lose ice time to Campbell.

In the crease, no one’s quite sure what will happen with Nikolai Khabibulin, though rational thinking tells us that he will be shipped off so Huet can be the starter come opening night. Still, Hawk management is saying all the right things, such as the team is ready to go with 1A and 1B if need be (and an alternating system similar to what former San Jose coach Ron Wilson did with Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala two seasons ago might be a good way to drive up Khabibulin’s trade value). The bottom line, though, is that Huet will be there for the long haul and Khabibulin will be gone eventually.

Since Campbell left San Jose, what did the Sharks do in return? They got not one but two offensive-minded blueliners. First, the Sharks signed veteran Rob Blake, then they made a blockbuster deal for all-star defenseman Dan Boyle. Boyle immediately becomes San Jose’s go-to point man, but it still remains to be seen how new coach Todd McLellan will handle the rest of the unit. Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski have spent time at the point, and Christian Ehrhoff has shown plenty of offensive potential (and who better to learn from than Blake?). So until McLellan settles on something that works, you can bet that San Jose’s two power-play units will be a mix-and-match test of about ten different guys.

Over in Motown, the Red Wings reloaded by signing Marian Hossa for a one-year deal. It remains to be seen where Hossa will play, but most likely he won’t be lining up with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Instead, look for Hossa to anchor his own line except in special teams and last-minute situations. Because Detroit’s core group of forwards is so deep and diverse, there’s no telling just what coach Mike Babcock will do just yet.

Strange things are afoot in Vancouver (about 20 million strange things sent to one Mats Sundin), but in the meantime the Canucks have jettisoned long-time captain Markus Naslund and brought in Pavol Demitra to be his erstwhile replacement. Demitra, coming off a somewhat disappointing season in Minnesota, was upset with the way the Wild’s defensive system constricted his play. Um, Pavol, you do know that Alain Vignault plays a suffocating defensive style too, right? The Canucks also acquired inconsistent young power forward Steve Bernier, who could wind up anywhere from being the Sedin twins’ crease-crasher to Mike Gillis’ in-game pizza guy depending on how his work ethic goes this season.

The Phoenix Coyotes were a team on the rise last season, and they’ve got an even bigger reason to be optimistic heading into this year. Not only do young players like Peter Mueller and Kyle Turris become a year older, wiser, and stronger, the Coyotes have their first true No. 1 centre since the heyday of Jeremy Roenick in the desert. Acquiring Olli Jokinen cost blueliner Keith Ballard, but it presents so many more options up front for Wayne Gretzky. This looks to be the year the Coyotes turn the page.

The Dallas Stars now have the league’s two most irritating players. Will coach Dave Tippet choose to play newly-signed Sean Avery with superpest Steve Ott, or will he keep them separate to have the irritation spread out? One things for sure: the Stars have the right players to draw penalties — and anger — out of the opposition.

The Ducks kept Corey Perry in the fold with an extension that essentially replicated teammate Ryan Getzlaf’s deal. In need of scoring depth, Anaheim is hoping that Brenden Morrison can revive his career. If Teemu Selanne comes back, it’s almost certain that Morrison will play with the Finnish Flash, most likely with Chris Kunitz, as coach Randy Carlyle hopes to recapture the chemistry that left when Andy McDonald was traded to St. Louis. That’s probably Morrison’s best hope in terms of returning to elite status.

Columbus has been looking for a centre for Rick Nash for a while, and this time, it’s gambling on a young player rather than a veteran like Sergei Fedorov. By acquiring R.J. Umberger, the Blue Jackets are penciling him in to play with Nash and hopefully spread out the offense. They’ll need to succeed since the Blue Jackets’ only other offensive weapon (Nikolai Zherdev) was shipped off to the Rangers for blueline support. Umberger will have every opportunity to reach his potential by playing with Nash, and if the duo manages to find some chemistry, the Blue Jackets will have an offensive anchor to carry them through the near future.

Finally, Calgary signed Todd Bertuzzi. The rest of the world shrugged and laughed.

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