THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE

 

Hey, listen!  Do you hear the buzz?  If you listen closely, you can hear the collective gasps of excitement and disbelief all at the same time, as teams have gone on an all out free agent shopping spree, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, and most likely won’t ever see again.

I’ll be the first to admit – all the movement we’ve seen over the past few weeks is making my head spin.  I feel like we’ve reached the trading deadline to end all trading deadlines, even though the fact of the matter is, there haven’t been too many trades to speak of, and it’s not over yet!  I’ve gone from feverishly updating the Puckin’ Around website with new signings to just hyper-linking to a page which updates as the deals happen, as I don’t have the time nor the patience to sit in front of my computer 24/7.  Thank heavens my partner in crime Stephan “uLAr” has come back from hiatus to help with the season preview.

I can’t even begin to imagine just how many pounds of paper and how many bottles of toner have been used in the NHL’s office fax machine over the past little while, let alone in every respective team’s front office.  All I know is Staples or whoever the league’s official supplier is must be raking in some serious dough.  I wonder if they’re keeping the coffee 20 minutes fresh.  Never mind.

Before we sort out who’s going where, as promised, let’s take a moment to reflect a bit on the abbreviated 2005 NHL Entry Draft, which really helped set the stage for the madness we have witnessed recently.

THE DRAFT

They said it was the deepest draft in years, and they were right.  Scaled down from an arena which can seat almost 20,000 people to a classy hotel ballroom with a capacity of just under 1,000, the 2005 NHL Entry Draft certainly wasn’t without its interesting moments.  Ottawa has Gary Bettman’s commitment to “do it right” next time around.  Next time will be in 2008.  Even still, there was enough buzz created by the smaller draft to leave one optimistic for the future of the NHL.  After all, the players selected on this day are the proverbial carriers of the torch, the ones who will define our game and help put it back on the map.  These kids are the future of hockey as we know it, and believe me when I tell you there is no shortage of talent, but having said that I wonder if all this talent was properly distributed and if teams met not only their immediate needs but also their needs down the road.

We knew the draft order well over a week prior when the NHL announced a new CBA had been ironed out, but what happened during the draft has not only baffled me, but many others who work close to the game.  It wasn’t the number one pick, we all knew the who and the where, it was where everybody else picked.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins – Sidney Crosby (Centre): - No surprise here whatsoever, as we’ve only been talking about this guy for about the past five years.  Pittsburgh must feel as if they’ve won a bigger lottery than the one which decided the Pens would get the right to draft the biggest hyped player in over a decade, and they’ve taken full advantage of it, surrounding him with an astonishing core of veterans and exciting up and coming players (more to come later).

So what makes Sidney Crosby so highly touted?  He can do it all – he can shoot, score, he can grind it out in the corners, he can skate, he makes players around him better, and he carries a good head on his shoulders.  At the tender age of 18, he has already appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he has signed endorsement deals the likes of which haven’t been seen since Shaquille O’Neal was drafted, and he is expected to be the Next One as the Great One Wayne Gretzky predicted.  And do you know what?  He can and will do it.  Whether or not one or more of the Great One’s records will fall in the process remains to be seen, but he has excelled at every level of the game he has ever played at – midget, junior, international and even at the recent Memorial Cup.  Although he never got his name on it, he did help lead the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic to a championship, and appeared in the aforementioned cup final versus the eventual winners – the OHL’s London Knights.  Now he’ll enter a situation where Le Magnifique himself Mario Lemieux will take him under his wing and show him the ropes before he skates away into the sunset, then this will be Sidney’s team and league.  Pittsburgh’s long run of futility ends here and now.  The Penguins will challenge for the Stanley Cup this year, next year and for many years to come.  If this doesn’t get them the new building they so desperately need and deserve, then perhaps a city like Las Vegas, Portland, or even Winnipeg will be happy to welcome a Stanley Cup contender into their community.

Just with this draft pick alone, the Penguins have already gone from one of the lowest attendances in the league to very close to selling out every home game next season.  It’s a safe bet they’ll sell out quite a few road dates as well – especially in Canada – as fans attempt to get a glimpse of the player the minor leagues have already been enjoying for years.  I read a rumor in one of the many hockey forums stating the NHL has already paid to have Crosby’s name inscribed on the Calder Trophy for 2006.  Of course, we still have to play the season, but can you name one rookie right now who will even come close?  We’ll analyse later on the moves and free agent signings the Pens have made to take them from the basement to an automatic contender.

2.  Mighty Ducks of Anaheim – Bobby Ryan (Right Wing): – Wasn’t expected to be drafted until later on, perhaps even below the top ten, but then again, Brian Burke wasn’t expected to keep him either.  Stating right up until he stepped up to the podium that the pick was up for grabs to the highest bidder, he ended up not only keeping the pick, but picking a player who in his mind was fully worthy of being labeled “second only to Crosby”.

I’ve questioned many times in the past Burke’s motives and intentions, but he may be on to something here.  If you ask fans of the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack, Ryan has helped make the team worthy of their name.  As a rookie with Owen Sound in 2003-04 he racked up 22 goals 17 assists, and followed it up in 2004-05 with 37 goals 52 assists in 62 games, good enough for second overall on the team.  He added another 2 goals 7 assists in 7 playoff games.  Ryan already has a love for Southern California and should be a solid addition to a team which will have many exciting young faces when they drop the puck, the most notable being London Knights’ MVP Corey Perry.  It’s questionable whether or not we’ll see this kid for awhile yet, but when we do he’ll be a nice addition to a team which will need offense with the new rule changes coming into effect.

3. Carolina Hurricanes – Jack Johnson (Defense): - On a day when they let one of their top scorers in Jeff O’Neill hightail it to Toronto, the ‘Canes drafted a player in a position where they were already pretty strong.  I would have expected Carolina to draft a goaltender or a forward with star potential like Benoit Pouliot or Gilbert Brule, but instead they took the more conservative approach and drafted a guy who has been compared to the likes of Chris Chelios and Paul Coffey, a real stay at home defenseman at a time when a good puck handling defenseman is going to be at a premium.  He made his biggest splash at the recent Under-18 junior tournament as a cornerstone to Team USA’s defense.

What’s probably most surprising here is the opportunity to draft Eric Staal’s brother Marc Staal was there for the taking, yet Carolina decided to pass on it.  While it’s true Glen Wesley isn’t getting any younger, Johnson may not crack the roster for at least another year.  As good as Johnson is, don’t expect this pick to improve an already mediocre Carolina team, even with the free agent signings they’ve made.

4. Minnesota Wild - Benoit Pouliot (Left Wing): - According to NHL Central Scouting, had the highest possibility of being drafted behind Crosby at #2, but instead was still available when Minnesota stepped up to the booth.  When you look at some of the moves the Wild have made over the summer, adding the Sudbury Wolves’ highest scorer will just add impact to a fairly decent roster.  Even though they were so close yet so far away from being awarded first overall in the draft lottery, fans of the Wild will not be disappointed by this pick.  Pouliot is a tall, fast force to be reckoned with (just ask the Ottawa 67s), and will fit in perfectly with the Wild’s system.  It’s just too bad they’re placing a higher emphasis in the schedule to divisional play rather than inter-conference play.  Whenever it happens though, it will be very interesting to see Crosby matched up against this guy.

5. Montreal Canadiens – Carey Price (Goaltender): - In my humble opinion, the biggest surprise in the draft.  With all due respect to Mr. Price, who will be a great goalie someday, the Habs didn’t exactly enter the draft in a situation where a goalie was a necessity.  The longer I thought about this, the more I wondered if this could mark the beginning of the end of Jose Theodore in Montreal, at least until they re-signed him to a new three year deal.  This draft pick proves to me the franchise is looking ahead to the future more than anything.  I guess there isn’t anything wrong with having a little depth.

Price was the highest rated goaltender in the draft, and for good reason.  He’s placed in the top ten of all Western Hockey League goaltenders during regular season and playoffs for the past two seasons.  If he gets a chance to play in Montreal, he definitely will challenge for at the very least a backup position.  Most likely though, he will be sent down to Hamilton of the AHL for the next season or two.

So there you have the top five players to watch over the next year or so.  Crosby is a given, as he is expected to play this year.  The other four may take some time to develop, but as is the case with every draft, it is expected these players will carry the future torch of the game.

Other names to look forward to include Vancouver Giants star forward Gilbert Brule, who was drafted 6th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets; Slovenian forward Anze Kopitar, who is now property of the Los Angeles Kings (11th overall); Jack Skille, the talented right winger who led Team USA at the World Under 18 tournament, now property of Chicago (7th overall); and Brian Lee, bringing yet more defensive depth to the Ottawa Senators (9th overall).  Let’s make no mistake, every one of these respective teams general managers would have traded their first round picks with Pittsburgh in a heartbeat, but that just wasn’t going to happen.

Most surprising for me was some of the players taken in later rounds who could have an impact on a team right away.  The one name which keeps standing out for me, was Danny Syvret, the cornerstone defenseman of the London Knights, who has just recently signed on for three years with the Edmonton Oilers, who actually acquired the pick from Philadelphia.  Syvret was drafted in the third round, 81st overall.  Given how good he was for London throughout the entire season, it’s shocking to see he was still available by the time Edmonton stepped up to the podium to make their third round selection.

Los Angeles got Kopitar with their first round pick, who has yet to really live up to his potential, at least from what I saw in the World Hockey Championships, but they got a real gem in the second round, Sidney Crosby’s former line mate Dany Roussin, a left winger picked #50.  They could have picked this guy in the first round and nobody would have even blinked.

Derek Joslin, one of the big star defencemen of the Ottawa 67s playoff run, wasn’t picked until Round 5, 149th overall by San Jose.  The Sharks then waited until Round 6 to draft 67s captain William Colbert, another defenseman, 185th overall.  Both of these guys will give the Sharks the defensive depth they’ve been lacking in recent years.  With a roster that already has former 67s forward Alyn McCauley, the Sharks scouts have clearly had an eye on Brian Kilrea’s squad the last little while, as well they should.

Look to see a lot of new faces on the ice when the puck drops on the new season.  Don’t forget, top picks from 2004 such as Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin (who will remain in Russia this year), New York Rangers’ Al Montoya, Ottawa’s Andrej Mezaros, and Edmonton’s Rob Schremp, have all yet to play an NHL game.

To look at all the players picked, past and present, be sure and check out the following link at the NHL’s web headquarters:

http://www.nhl.com/futures/index.html
 

FREE AGENT FRENZY

I feel like I’ve just come home from an amusement park after having ridden one of those roller coaster rides that go upside down and inside out.  Ironically enough, the yearly Super Ex just finished here in Ottawa last weekend with a “big bang” – The Rolling Stones were in town.  But my head’s spinning for another reason – all of the astounding movement we’ve seen all summer in the NHL.  They said to prepare for it, look out, there will be so much movement you’ll never be able to keep up.  I don’t think I truly believed it until the floodgates opened with the Nieuwendyk and Roberts signings, not to mention Foote and Pronger.  Let’s just put it this way, before you watch your first game this year, be sure and check out nhl.com and check out the updated rosters, or you will be lost, believe me.

The draft had hardly been over for 48 hours when all of a sudden indications were this was not going to be your ordinary off season.  The madness I referred to in an article last summer before the lockout started is pale in comparison to what has gone on this year (read NHL Gone Nuts if you haven't already done so).  A new collective bargaining agreement is in place which imposes a strict salary cap linked to revenues, something which was promised, but also necessary.  This has forced every team’s general manager to re-evaluate their rosters and “trim the fat” so to speak.  It has also done something else.  It has allowed general managers of every team to put together a roster that is not only competitive, but also allows clubs who wouldn’t otherwise dip into the free agent pool to do so.  Case in point: would Edmonton have ever made a deal for Chris Pronger and Michael Peca in recent years?  Could Pittsburgh even dream of signing a guy like John LeClair?  Would Chicago ever be able to say they have a Stanley Cup goalie on their team (and Ed Belfour doesn’t count)?  The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “no way”.  What this new CBA has done for teams is allow every one of them to operate on a level playing field, something us fans have been screaming about for years, which Gary Bettman, come hell or high water, has delivered.  Bob Goodenow, apparently seeing he was the quote, unquote, loser in all of this, saw it fit to step down as head of the NHLPA, paving the way for Ted Saskin to lead the union into the next few years. I’ll touch on this a little more later.  Now, to try and make sense of all the movement.

Anyone out there who thinks Pittsburgh won’t at the very least challenge for a first round playoff spot please stand up.  I thought so.  It’s amazing what a difference a year and a new CBA makes.  Winners of the Sidney Crosby lottery, one had to think the Penguins would make at least a few moves to surround this future star with some veteran leadership.  If you had told me it would materialize the way it did I never would have believed it.  I already mentioned John LeClair, but feast your eyes on some of these names: Jocelyn Thibault, Zigmund Palffy, Sergei Gonchar, Andre Roy, and Lyle Odelein.  Only thing missing is Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg to reunite the former Philadelphia Legion of Doom, but both of those players decided to sign in Toronto.  Either way, the Penguins have shown their fans they are serious about making a run for it, and this is without even having re-signed Mario yet.  All bets are off right here, Pittsburgh will be the most improved team this season, among a few other teams.  If they can’t secure a new arena now, they never will.

Having missed the playoffs after a promising first half of 2003/04, the Atlanta Thrashers are determined to not let it happen again.  They’ve locked in their coach Bob Hartley to a long term deal, and have made some moves which should not only help them make the playoffs, but should also make them a contender.  They still need to sign Ilya Kovalchuk, but there’s no reason to believe they won’t given what they’ve done so far.  They were one of the first to dive into the free agent pool, and they came out with Bobby Holik, Eric Boulton, Shane Hnidy (actually acquired via trade from Nashville), Ramzi Abid, Scott Barney, and just recently Mike Dunham to help plug a hole in net.  And they weren’t done there.  Don Waddell pulled off arguably the most important trade of the entire summer, a trade he wasn’t expecting to make until Dany Heatley walked into his office demanding a change in scenery.  Less than a week later, Heatley was wearing an Ottawa Senators jersey, and Marian Hossa and Greg DeVries are now wearing the blue and red.  Hossa was a fan favorite in Ottawa who arguably hasn’t yet reached his potential, at least in the playoffs anyway.  It’s downright scary to think of Hossa and Kovalchuk on the same offensive line.  For Ottawa, Heatley brings forth a dimension the Sens have been lacking, as John Muckler put it “a little bit of sandpaper”.  Not only are the Thrashers a much improved team, so are the Senators.  If you don’t believe me, just get updated rosters for NHL 2005 and play a game between both of them.  May the best team win.

Florida made two major management moves last summer by bringing in Mike Keenan and coach Jacques Martin.  This summer, they managed to catch two of the biggest fish in the pond before the free agent frenzy barely got started.  Joe Niewendyk and Gary Roberts are key additions to a team very much in need of a veteran presence.  Goaltender Roberto Luongo is probably wishing he’d accepted the club’s five year $25 million deal, as he lost out big time in the first ever team initiated arbitration case and will have to settle for a one year deal worth half as much.  The deal can’t be renegotiated for one year, and you can bet unless Florida wins the Stanley Cup with him in net the team’s next offer won’t be anywhere near as generous.

The proverbial hockey centre of the universe, Toronto, is at it again.  If you believe the fans of the Maple Leafs, their team isn’t going anywhere.  I beg to differ.  Before long, general manager John Ferguson Jr. is either going to look like a complete moron, or a genius, whichever comes first, perhaps both at some point during the season.  Sure, he lost two fine veterans in Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk.  I’ll rephrase that.  He lost two fine aging veterans.  On draft day, he sent a draft pick to Carolina for the rights to Jeff O’Neill, a player the Leafs have been coveting for a long time.  Now he will finally wear the blue and white.  Another player the Buds have been seeking over the years has been Eric Lindros.  You’ll recall the Leafs were Eric’s first choice when Bob Clarke had him on the trading block way back when.  Careful what you wish for.  Lindros, victim of eight previous concussions, will now skate with a team who has always been perceived as one of the toughest in the league (or at least they’d like to think so).  One more major hit could end his career, if it isn’t already over.  It remains to be seen how effective he will be on a team already with Swedish star Mats Sundin and recently re-signed self proclaimed tough guy Tie Domi.  Ferguson took things up another notch by signing Jason Allison, formerly of the Los Angeles Kings.  Allison hasn’t seen action for more than two years.  He missed half of the 2002-03 season and all of the last NHL season, not to mention the past lockout year.  At least he’s had time to recover from the career threatening neck injury and is 100% ready.  I compare Allison’s situation to Gary Roberts many years ago.  Everyone thought Roberts was finished after having suffered a similar injury, but he’s been able to come back and be a force with two different teams, the Leafs of course, and Carolina.  Here’s a stat I’m sure the Leafs strongly considered before signing him.  In 23 career games played against the Leafs’ provincial rivals in Ottawa, Allison has 18 points – 6 goals and 12 assists, most of those coming when Allison was still in Los Angeles as opposed to when he launched his career in Boston.  Outside of these moves, the Leafs haven’t done too much more, but they’ve managed to retain most of their core team from previous seasons.  Aki Berg, Nik Antropov, Clarke Wilm (who should see more playing time this year), and Wade Belak are all coming back.  Good goaltending will be the key, and for better or for worse, “Eddie the Eagle” isn’t going anywhere, contrary to what the rumor mill may say.  Recent addition Alexander Khavanov from St. Louis adds defensive depth.  At the tender age of 42, Steve “Stumpy” Thomas will be re-signing a free agent deal with the club any day now.  Love them or hate them, the Leafs will still be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference, but maybe there’s a slight chance Ottawa can actually beat them this time around.  At least there’s always hope if you’re a Senators fan.  The rivalry is about to heat up even more with two more regular season games on the schedule.

Chicago fans have been waiting for this day for a long time, and it’s finally arrived.  Nikolai Khabibulin hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head the last time we had an NHL season, and could very well do it again with his new team in Chicago before long.  The Blackhawks have built around a fairly decent “no name” core with some well known names.  We already know about “the Bulin Wall” in net.  On defense, feast your eyes on Adrian Aucoin formerly of the New York Islanders, the return of Jaroslav Spacek from his recent tour of duty in Columbus, Todd Simpson from Ottawa, the departure of Brian Berard, the addition of forward Martin Lapointe, the re-signing of Mark Bell, the list goes on and on.  Chicago has always found a way to ice an exciting team, no matter how good or bad they are in the standings.  I look forward to great things from this team again, and who knows, they may finally end the current longest running Stanley Cup drought.  It’s been a long time coming for any sports team in Chicago, period.

Honorable mention has to go to Philadelphia, the first team to go over the salary cap of $39 million (the very reason Jeremy Roenick was traded), and this was a team who bought out both John LeClair and Tony Amonte!  On paper, the Flyers are a scary team yet again, but this time for good reason.  Funny how what goes around comes around.  Peter Forsberg was originally a Flyers draft pick who was traded along with almost an entire team’s roster to Quebec for Eric Lindros back in the day.  Today, he is returning to the team he never got a chance to play for, but ironically enough, he’s won two Stanley Cups, the Flyers have won none (same goes for Lindros).  The Flyers didn’t stop there.  They have managed to make some of the biggest signings over the course of the summer.  Chris Therien, Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher make up an all star defensive corps.  With Forsberg, Philly adds a dangerous power forward presence, so long as he stays healthy.  In goal, Robert Esche just keeps getting better and better.  Kim Johnsson is back to add to an already dangerous defense.  Simon Gagne, Branko Radivojevic and Patrick Sharp are offensive weapons.  Young prospects Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are ready to compete for a roster spot, not to mention a few of the farm team prospects from the AHL Calder Cup Champion Philadelphia Phantoms should make their way on the team.  There’s a rumor out there right now which if it materializes will see Michal Handzus and possibly another player go to Edmonton for Ryan Smyth.  Personally I don’t see why this would go down, but given what’s happened this summer already, you never know.  We’ll be keeping a close watch on this one.

Speaking of Edmonton, it’s been another summer of tinkering with the roster, but this time for the better.  Chris Pronger comes to an already fairly good defensive system, but the jury is out on whether or not the Oilers gave up too much for him in Eric Brewer and unproven Jeff Woywitka, but for the first time in a long time Edmonton is trying to bring some star names back to a once proud champion franchise.  Exit Mike York, enter Michael Peca, a great power forward who would fit well on any team.  Former London Knights stars Danny Syvret and Rob Schremp should both make the team this year.  Raffi Torres and Jarret Stoll both got to play in the AHL last year, and both should be much improved.  Former Rimouski forward Marc-Antoine Pouliot will get his first shot at the majors.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the younger defensemen like Alexei Semenov and Marc-Andre Bergeron develop under Pronger’s wing.  Igor Ulanov will be back, as will goalies Jussi Markannen and Ty Conklin, challenged very closely by rookie camp hopeful Devan Dubnyk.  At the very least, the Oilers will be looking to end their recent playoff drought, and should be able to get over the outside looking in hump from last season.

I could probably go on for hours about how every team has made significant strides to improve their roster and make an argument for how or why every team deserves to win the Stanley Cup, but this is what it’s all about, the uncertainty about who will go all the way.  The teams I’ve mentioned herein should all be heavily improved when the puck drops, but it doesn’t mean they’ll have any more or less success than they’ve had previously.  Every fan of every team can now be confident their team has a shot every year as opposed to “the big five” swapping the cup every few years.  Tampa Bay seems as though they’re poised to challenge again this season, but there are 29 other teams with something to say before that happens, and rightfully so.

Come on, admit it.  You’re just a tad bit excited about the upcoming NHL season.  Even if you aren’t a hockey fan, just the prospect of getting the world’s most exciting game back in the limelight again has to send even a slight chill up your spine.  No?  I don’t believe you.  Well don’t worry, before long you’ll be back, even if just because you’re curious how the game will look, how exciting a league with parity will look, and how a new economic system will ensure the sport’s future at the pro level.  You’ll be back because you really do care about the game, the players, the Stanley Cup, and for the first time in a long long while we can focus on what happens on the ice as opposed to what happens off of it.  Isn’t that what really matters?

Coming soon, be sure and check out the Sports Byline video game corner for a review of EA Sports latest hockey offering, NHL 06.  I’ve played the demo and I must say they’ve done it again.  I can’t wait to get my hands on the full version.  If time permits, we’ll even review the latest NHL2K game as well.

There are only four more weeks left until the regular season starts, so as always, stay tuned right here for more hockey talk coming faster than a zamboni.  Stephan has returned with his “uLAr Takes” column, and we have added exclusive content you just can’t find anywhere else, including an entire section devoted to the new CBA and another devoted to the free agency signings.  Saturday Night Picks returns with a vengeance in October.  Check it out right from the main page.

And for crying out loud, let’s drop the <bleeping> puck already!!!  I’ll see you all at the rink!!

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