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Ville Leino signed a six-year, $27-million US deal with Buffalo, pushing the Sabres' payroll to the top of the NHL. ((Jim McIsaac/Getty Images))

For a change, it wasn't the big spenders turning NHL free agency into a frenzy.

When the marketplace opened Friday, the Florida Panthers went roaring in and added more than $70 million US in contracts. They found themselves bidding against Dallas, Columbus, Phoenix and Colorado, to say nothing of the suddenly free-spending Buffalo Sabres, who now own the league's highest payroll.

It proved to be a major windfall for players who could shop their services to the highest bidder.

"Today was almost a day like no other on July 1," Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson told reporters in Columbus. "There's so much money in the system. There's some teams that just have to spend the money to get to the floor.

"The players have gone fast and furious."

More than 50 of them found new homes in the first six hours of free agency alone.

Interestingly, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings were among the handful of quiet teams. They both sent delegations to make a pitch to Brad Richards and agent Pat Morris at Newport Sports, but otherwise didn't bring anyone else in the fold.

Richards was left weighing a number of options after a day unlike any a NHL free agent has ever experienced. He held face-to-face meetings at Newport's offices in Mississauga, Ont., and even gained an audience with Kings CEO Tim Leiweke, among others.

The Sabres started the day with hopes of joining the bidding for Richards, but ended up rethinking that approach and handed 19-goal man Ville Leino a six-year, $27-million US deal instead.

"We had plans to go up to Mississauga to meet with [Richards]," Sabres GM Darcy Regier said in Buffalo. "But as the day progressed and even with the number of clubs that were in line with Newport Sports, we really got into a time pressure situation where we had to make a decision.

"We felt very strongly about Ville and we felt that it was important to make sure that we didn't allow a quality player like him to slip by us."

There weren't many that slipped by the Panthers. They inched closer to next year's salary floor of $48.3 million by bringing defenceman Ed Jovanovski back to his first NHL home, acquiring Kris Versteeg in a trade with Philadelphia and signing Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc and Jose Theodore.

Amazingly, Florida finished the day about $3.5 million short of the salary floor, according to capgeek.com.

"We're in excellent shape," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon. "Don't forget we don't play until October so we've got time to tweak this. It's better to get them now than have to get them in September."

Even those that chose not to make themselves available to the highest bidder hit the jackpot. James Wisniewski kicked off the day by signing a $33-million, six-year deal with the Blue Jackets, who sent a fifth-round pick to Montreal to get the defenceman's negotiating rights and avoid bidding against other teams.

Wisniewski and agent Bill Zito surveyed the current climate around the league and figured he was in good position to cash in after a career-best season of 51 points.

"We were well informed that the cap was moving up," said Wisniewski. "When you saw [Kevin] Bieksa sign in Vancouver, [Joni] Pitkanen in Carolina and then [Christian] Ehrhoff sign in Buffalo, you know the guys that are in the group that we're in were starting to dwindle down. We were really aware of that.

"Obviously, being unrestricted, you can always use that to your advantage."

It was a sign of the wild things to come.

After being courted by a number of NHL teams, veteran forward Jaromir Jagr chose to make his North American return in Pennsylvania — but not with the team most expected. He signed a $3.3-million, one-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers shortly after the Pittsburgh Penguins announced they had withdrawn their offer.

The impending end of the collective bargaining agreement seemed to have an effect on how teams acted. The overwhelming majority of contracts were limited to one or two years — a clear sign GMs are reluctant to commit much beyond the 2011-12 seasons.

Montreal made the biggest splash among Canadian teams by acquiring veteran winger Erik Cole on a four-year deal at $18 million. Edmonton and Vancouver were also quite active.

It was unquestionably a good day to be a free agent.

Wisniewski's deal was richer than anything handed out last July 1, when Dan Hamhuis hit the biggest home run by getting $27 million over six years from Vancouver. He might have received even more money if he hit the open market but didn't want to tempt fate.

"I like poker, but I'm not that big of a gambler," said Wisniewski.

Clearly, some NHL general managers don't share that outlook.