Column: Exciting summer for NHL ensures winter fun

The NHL free agency window opened up July 1, and one thing is already certain: An already strong Eastern Conference has gotten even better.

The Philadelphia Flyers, who were at times the best team in the East last season, are leading the way in these first 10 days.

The buzz is of course circling around Jaromir Jagr, the 39-year-old winger who is returning to the NHL after a stint in the KHL. Jagr was originally expected to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that deal fell through and he decided to head to Philadelphia. The Flyers were already solid offensively with Daniel Briere and Claude Giroux, and Jagr’s explosiveness can make the team even more dangerous. Philadelphia was also wise to only commit to him for one year in case the addition of Jagr backfires.

Even more intriguing, though, is that the Flyers also signed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to a 9-year $51 million deal. Over the past two seasons, Bryzgalov, who was with the Phoenix Coyotes, has been arguably the best goaltender and could be the missing piece for the Flyers’ pursuit of the Stanley Cup after downright atrocious goaltending on Philadelphia’s part in the past. With these two players, the team has to be next year’s favorite.

The New York Rangers also have to be recognized for the rather intriguing signing of Brad Richards. There was little doubt that Richards, who had 28 goals with the Dallas Stars last season, was the best free agent available and that the Rangers wanted him after getting the eighth seed in the playoffs. Paired with Marian Gaborik, Richards and New York could have one of the league’s best forward lines. Ridding itself of Chris Drury, whose tenure in New York was nothing short of disappointing, could also mean addition by subtraction for the team.

Rounding out the Eastern Conference teams that have really made a big impact have to be the Buffalo Sabres. New owner Terry Pegula said at his introductory press conference that the financial restraints of the new owners would be lifted, and he has not lied, as the Sabres currently have the league’s top payroll. The focus for Buffalo was simple: Find at least two defensemen to help goalie Ryan Miller and a center to replace the oft-injured Tim Connolly. General Manager Darcy Regier did just that by acquiring defensemen Robyn Regehr in a trade and signing Christian Ehrhoff, both of whom can help develop rising star Tyler Myers. Up front, Buffalo committed to Ville Leino for six years, and he is expected to move to center. The pieces are in place for coach Lindy Ruff to have a great season.

However, all of that could be overshadowed by Steven Stamkos. The 21-year-old has been unable to agree to an extension with the Tampa Bay Lightning and is currently a restricted free agent. With so much upside for a player who scored 45 goals last season, it shouldn’t be a surprise if he gets offered a big deal. The Los Angeles Kings and Flyers are both rumored to be interested, but it’s going to take a lot of money to pry him away from the Lightning. Because he’s a restricted free agent, Tampa Bay has the right to match any deal any other team offers him, and the team appears to be committed to matching any amount of money he’ll see.

With all that has already happened this summer, next winter should provide some great hockey and storylines to follow. With the futures of the NFL and NBA seasons in uncertainty, sports fans may have to rely on the NHL anyway.

_Greg is a senior in Media. Follow him up Twitter @thegregzeck._