Willes: You can't fix a team's problems with a chequebook


Can Radim Vrbata be the hero for the Canucks that Luongo never was?

Can Radim Vrbata be the hero for the Canucks that Luongo never was?

Photograph by: Jonathan Hayward file photo, CP

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Before an emergency meeting of the parade committee is convened, let's take a look at the teams which were most active during the NHL's free-agent feeding frenzy.

The Florida Panthers were like a Kardashian sister on two-for-one day at Nieman-Marcus. The Panthers, in no particular order, added Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Willie Mitchell, Shawn Thornton, Al Montoya and Derek McKenzie. Those six players will represent just under $17 million in cap space next season. Then again, Jokinen did score those 21 goals last season.

Not to be outdone, the Buffalo Sabres signed Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, Cody McCormick, Andrej Mezsaros and Marcus Foligno in addition to picking up Josh Gorges’ salary from Montreal. The cost for those five players? Around $20 million on next year’s payroll.

From there, we move to a group that didn't quite reach the Panthers-Sabres' level but still had a high old time of it this week. Washington added Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik and Justin Peters. The Islanders signed Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski, Cory Conacher and some other spare parts. Calgary's take was Derek Engelland, Jonas Hiller and Mason Raymond. New Jersey picked up Mike Cammalleri and Marty Havlat in addition to re-signing Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier.

As for your Vancouver Canucks, they'll have $11 million tied up next season in Ryan Miller and Radim "The Dream" Vrbata as well as three depth players for the organization.

Now, here's our question. Look at those teams that were spending like sailors on shore leave and see if you can identify a common denominator. The clock's ticking. The music is playing for Final Jeopardy. OK, time's up.

Did anyone come up with the right answer? That's right. Roughly none (zero) of those teams made the playoffs last season.

The NHL's silly season is drawing to a close and, while it again provided no end of entertainment, it reinforced the one hard and irrefutable fact about free agency: You can't fix your team's problems with a chequebook. True, many tried, and they've created some level of excitement in their respective markets. We also acknowledge some of those teams had to spend to get up to the salary floor.

But when the NHL reconvenes in the fall, those teams will be looking at their lineup and their payroll and asking themselves, 'What were we thinking?' Or maybe you truly believe Benoit Pouliot — who's never scored more than 16 goals a year in eight NHL seasons — is worth five years and $20 million.

If history has taught us anything, it's taught us free agency is a criminally inefficient way to rebuild your team. If you're lucky, you're already a playoff team that can add a helpful piece or pieces (see Tampa and Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman and Evgeni Nabokov). If you're extremely lucky, maybe you can hit that one home run (see St. Louis and Paul Stastny) which changes your team.

But when you look at the cost, the quality of the available players and the risk factor associated with each, chasing free agents is a desperate, ultimately futile, course of action.

The best organizations have already answered their big questions and have ready-made solutions to the smaller ones. Off the top we told you about Florida, Buffalo, Washington, the Islanders, Calgary, New Jersey and Vancouver. By way of comparison, contrast their week with the moves made by the NHL's resident powers. Los Angeles added Adam Cracknell and someone named David Van Der Gulik. Total outlay: $1.1 million. Chicago rolled the dice on Brad Richards, but at one year and $2 million, that's a pretty cheap roll.

Anaheim and Dallas, meanwhile, were able to make deals for Ryan Kesler and Jason Spezza respectively because a) they fit in their payroll and b) they could afford to part with young assets. Those are two big pieces to add, two potential game-changers, but both the Ducks and Stars are still loaded with good young players.

That's a consequence of drafting well. Maybe one day the Canucks will be in that position.

OK, it's a little different in the East, which lacks a clearly defined power structure. But Boston wasn't very active in the market, nor was Montreal. The Bruins and Habs, in fact, lost some key pieces but didn't try to replace them in free agency. Instead, they will look within to replace a Jarome Iginla or Gorges or Thomas Vanek.

This brings us back to the Canucks. To be sure, they filled two gaping holes in their lineup without getting tied to absurdly long contracts. But what's the best-case scenario for the locals? Miller shores up the goaltending, Vrbata chips in with 25 goals and the Canucks are respectable next season. Unless you believe they're just a couple of moves away from competing with the Kings and Hawks — and we should all be so optimistic — that's about the best you can hope for.

That isn't a reflection on new GM Jim Benning, who impressed in his first real test on the job.

It is, however, a reflection of the mess he inherited.

No, Miller and Vrbata aren't going to make the Canucks a winner over the long term. That will only come if Bo Horvat, Hunter Shinkaruk, Jake Virtanen and some of their other prospects develop into legitimate impact players.

Then the Canucks can start dealing from a position of strength. Then, to use a phrase which has become part of hockey's vernacular, they don't have to chase the game. That's when you know this team has arrived.

Radim Vrbata, after all, can't be the answer to their problems. If he is, the Canucks are in better shape than they appear to be.



Can Radim Vrbata be the hero for the Canucks that Luongo never was?

Can Radim Vrbata be the hero for the Canucks that Luongo never was?

Photograph by: Jonathan Hayward file photo, CP

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