Aaron Eckels/Icon SMI)
Currently tied atop the Central division standings, both the Detroit Red Wings and the St. Louis Blue laid some of the groundwork to their success in the off-season through free agency.
With General Manager Ken Holland’s penchant for making excellent free agent signings in terms of production and value, it should be no surprise that Ian White is performing the way he is for the Red Wings this year.
After tasting his first playoff action last year and playing well with the San Jose Sharks, the 27-year-old was one of the best available defensemen when the July 1st unrestricted free agency period opened.
Unappreciated during his years in Toronto and Calgary, White’s solid play with the Sharks opened the eyes of many of the league’s GM’s, including Holland, who liked what he offered at a relatively low price.
Signed to a two year, $5.75 million contract, White has been everything the Red Wings could have hoped for and more. Fitting in almost immediately with his new team, the seven-year veteran has already established a new career-high with 30 points in 62 games.
Already with his fifth different NHL organization, White’s transition to a new team may or may not (note the sarcasm) have been helped along by the fact that he has often been paired alongside future Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. Playing with someone of Lidstrom’s calibre both 5-on-5 and on the power-play made for an almost seamless adjustment and has resulted in White’s +30 rating, which is good enough for second in the league.
Meanwhile in St. Louis, the Blues have gotten tremendous contributions from two free agent signings of their own.
An on-and-off starter for two years with the Ottawa Senators, not much was expected out of GM Doug Armstrong’s signing of goaltender Brian Elliott. A ninth-round pick in 2003, Elliott struggled last year with both Ottawa and Colorado and was left without a contract at season’s end. Looking for an experienced goalie to back up Jaroslav Halak, Armstrong signed the netminder to a one-year deal worth $600,000.
When both Halak and the team got off to a slow start, the door opened for the 26-year-old who made sure to run with the opportunity. Elliott quickly became one of the best stories of the season’s first half, ranking among the league leaders in goals-against average and save percentage while backstopping the Blues to their impressive turnaround. His play not only earned him a two-year contract extension but also an improbable All-Star selection, made even sweeter since the game was held in Ottawa.
Although Halak has since re-claimed the number one job, Elliott continues to provide the Blues with stellar play whenever he is called upon.
The Blues also added power forward Jason Arnott, giving a young team some much needed veteran leadership and center ice stability.
In his 18th season, the 37-year-old Arnott is the type of player who has done it all, including scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime for the New Jersey Devils in the 2000 Stanley Cup Finals.
With 15 goals and 15 assists on the year, Arnott’s offensive production has been a huge addition to the high-flying Blues, but his importance goes well beyond goals and assists. His experience and leadership on and off the ice will only continue to pay dividends as the Blues embark on a playoff run.
Central Division Notes
Chicago Blackhawks – Posting three straight wins in a span of five days, goaltender Ray Emery was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week. The 29-year-old has likely taken over as the Blackhawks starting goalie as the team fights for playoff positioning in the West.
Columbus Blue Jackets – With the circus over his trade status gone, Rick Nash has been able to put all of his focus back on the ice and it is paying off. Since the deadline, Nash has three goals and an assist in three games including a two-goal, three-point performance in Saturday’s win over Phoenix.
Detroit Red Wings – Just as Henrik Zetterberg has picked up the slack for the injured Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall did the same with Nicklas Lidstrom also on the shelf. The hard-hitting blueliner was named the NHL’s Second Star of the Week for recording two three-point games and totalling seven points in the team’s past three contests.
Nashville Predators – After looking a little out of sorts in his first game with the Predators, the recently-acquired Andrei Kostitsyn rebounded with a goal and an assist in the club’s 3-1 win over Florida on Saturday. It was just the fourth multi-point game of the season for Kostitsyn but an effort he certainly hopes will be a sign of things to come with his new team.