OFF SEASON FROM HELL

 

Is it just me or is something seriously wrong with this NHL off season?  OK – so I’ve (almost) gotten over seeing my beloved Oilers lose to Carolina in Game 7 of the finals, yet there’s a new aura of mystique skating its way around the league.  I go through days and nights checking the free agent trackers and wonder out loud “what’s going on?”  Surely I can’t be the only one?

I’ve seen more movement in the first week of free agency than we saw at the last three trading deadlines combined.  I’m hearing players say they didn’t want to leave their existing teams (a few of them reduced to tears as they said it), they would have taken less money to stay, yet are excited for the opportunity elsewhere and were looking at the bottom line – they need a job next season.  The business side of the game rears its ugly head yet again – and with the advent of the new salary cap era it’s only become more intriguing.

Of course, what we’re seeing here is nothing new to fans of the NFL and NBA, two sports operating under a cap system for some time now.  We all know the “only one team can win the sacred trophy” story.  The one team both lucky enough and skilled enough to win it all will try as much as possible to retain the core of the championship, and the rest of the league will scramble to catch up.  I expected movement to come yet never in a million years did I expect every summer to see an overhauled league.

Looking at all the movement and free agent signings it appears the only team willing to stay the course with most of their team is the Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes (there I said it), but even they’ve lost two key players in their goalie Martin Gerber (Ottawa) and Doug Weight (St. Louis).  Given the playoff Cam Ward had it’s easy to see how and why Gerber was expendable, but Weight was instrumental in the Canes’ run to the Cup, at least up until he injured his shoulder.  So far, it’s hard to imagine Carolina not making another run for it.  Weight has been replaced by Trevor Letowski and the main components of the team we just saw hoisting the Cup remain.  Of course, 29 other teams will have something to say about whether or not they repeat as champs.

On the other side of the ledger, the Edmonton Oilers are having a rough time even forming a roster for next season, let alone trying to retain some key names.  Just minutes removed from the losing end of Game 7, Chris Pronger quietly requested a trade, citing personal reasons.  Of course as always the media jumped on this story quicker than he can one-time the puck.  So not only did Kevin Lowe have to worry about which free agent players to make qualifying offers to and which ones to give a golden handshake to, he now had to contend with the fact his #1 defenseman wanted out.  The trade to Anaheim for Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and draft picks was inevitable, but also seemed to take the focus away from more pressing issues.  For a short time I thought Pronger would go to St. Louis for Doug Weight, but given how the fans at Rexall Place booed him during the finals I wonder if he would even report to training camp.  While it’s true Lowe has been able to retain two of the most important parts of the playoff run in goaltender Dwayne Roloson, and sniper Fernando Pisani, he was unable to convince Jaroslav Spacek (Buffalo) or big Georges Laraque (Phoenix) to sign on the dotted line.  To make matters worse, Zdeno Chara was apparently offered $7 million a season but he ended up in Boston.  Dick Tarnstrom also seems to be thinking long and hard about whether to play in Edmonton or in Sweden.  Perhaps this was part of the thinking behind the signing of Daniel Tjarnqvist, a fellow countryman and Gold Medalist to boot.  My thinking is at least the goaltender is locked in for 3 years, barring any family matters. Whether or not the torch can be passed on to some of the younger prospects remains to be seen.  I can’t imagine Lowe sitting tight much longer, but then again he’s cleared up so much cap room it’s getting ridiculous.  Did I mention Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll and Ales Hemsky are all looking at arbitration?  Hey Kevin, Teppo Numminen is an unrestricted free agent…

With Pronger now roosting in Anaheim, the Ducks, new shortened name and new logo and all may just have the best one-two punch on defense with Scott Niedermayer on the other side.  How is Randy Carlyle going to distribute the ice time without keeping one of them under 30 minutes?  I’m glad I’m not the coach, but I’ll tell you one thing – if it wasn’t already, the Ducks’ power play just became a lethal weapon.  I wonder about the design of the new uniform – there must be plenty of Toronto Blue Jays fans in Mickey Mouse land.

I don’t mean to pick on Colorado, but remember last year I predicted they’d miss the playoffs?  Well even though I was wrong, this year I’m guaranteeing it.  Jose Theodore in net, no Rob Blake, no Alex Tanguay?  Most importantly, no Pierre Lacroix!  Oh yeah, Joe Sakic is back for one more year, but he is only one player and he isn’t getting any younger.  Somehow, the general manager sees something Chicago and Ottawa couldn’t see in Tyler Arnason.  For the Avalanche’s sake I hope the training staff has stocked up on enough propecia to go around.

Another team I’m predicting will either miss the playoffs or go out in the first round (again) is Detroit, as funny as it sounds.  It seems the team has told Manny Legace they’re going in a different direction (and what’s most surprising is not one of the remaining 29 teams has so much as made a phone call).  As for the number one goaltending job, it will either go to Ed Belfour or Dominik Hasek (if they’ll have him back).  Given the age and injury woes of both over the past couple of years don’t expect much from the Wings.  This is further complicated by Steve Yzerman’s recent (and proper) decision to hang up the skates after what has been a fine NHL career.  It’s also not certain if Brendan Shanahan will return.  At least they still have iron man Chris Chelios who will probably skate until he’s 65, and Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom.  I guess the only question is, which one gets to wear the “C”?

If the battle of Alberta wasn’t already heated enough, expect it to reach another level this season.  The Calgary Flames were expected to build upon their 2004 Stanley Cup run, but couldn’t score enough to get them past the first round.  Recognizing this, the Flames have added some scoring power to support Jarome Iginla, and some exciting young prospects to carry the torch when the stars either move on or retire.  Alex Tanguay and Jeff Friesen both give both a veteran presence and more scoring.  With the addition of Andrei Zyuzin from Minnesota, an already strong defense is solidified.  Jamie McLennan will step in when needed to give Miikka Kiprusoff a rest now and again.  And don’t think for a second nobody noticed their first round draft pick was also a goaltender, (WHL) Everett’s Leland Irving.  With the Flames and Oilers both getting so close to glory you can bet the eight games these two play against each other will be the most meaningful in two decades.  Wouldn’t it be nice to see them clash in the post season again?  I guess I’d better be careful what I wish for.

After missing the playoffs by the skin of their teeth last season, John Ferguson Jr. of the Toronto Maple Leafs wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again (and probably knows he’ll be solely to blame if it does), so he’s done everything possible to right the ship, starting with the hiring of Paul Maurice as head coach, and almost a complete overhaul of the team (at least by Toronto’s standards).  In a move that surprised even me, the Leafs bought out tough guy Tie Domi, and not so surprisingly decided not to pick up the option year on Ed Belfour.  A trade on draft day sent Andrew Raycroft from Beantown to the Big Smoke.  After it seemed like it would never happen, top defenceman Bryan McCabe was inked to a multi-year contract.  Not long after Tampa Bay’s Pavel Kubina accepted a four year deal and Boston’s Hal Gill signed a three year term. Talk is cheap, but the Leafs apparently aren’t done.  Any day now expect Michael Peca to sign a free agent contract, and the Big E. may be back too.  Anson Carter is rumored to be in negotiations with Ferguson as well.  The scariest move for me is the new coaching staff.  Expect a new attitude from the Buds this year.  All this change almost makes them likeable again.  Before you check my temperature, I said almost.

As John Muckler kept an eye on his provincial rivals at work, he knew he had to do something about his goaltending dilemma.  With all due respect to Ray Emery, the Ottawa Senators have for years lacked the bona fide number one goalie.  While Emery may still end up being the man down the road, this team needs to get over the proverbial hump and now.  But is Martin Gerber really the answer?  Sure, he had almost an identical regular season to Hasek and Emery combined, but like Hasek disappeared when it counted most.  Luckily for Carolina it didn’t cost them, but in Ottawa we all know the story.  Losing Zdeno Chara to Boston hurt big time (pun intended).  Wade Redden is coming back for Chris Pronger-like salary, and they need him dearly.  A nice move was getting Joe Corvo from Los Angeles.  Finally the Senators may have the power play specialist they’ve been missing ever since Steve Duchesne was traded for Christer Olsson (who played a whole 25 games before bolting to Sweden).  The top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza is staying put for another year, but Martin Havlat appears to be commanding more money and a longer contract than Ottawa is willing to offer.  It’s the Yashin and Hossa syndrome all over again.  Expect him to be traded, either to New Jersey (talk is Patrick Elias would like to play with him) or to a Western Conference team.  For the rest of the restricted free agents, there won’t be a whole lot of cap space left, but owner Eugene Melnyk has apparently given the green light to max out the payroll if necessary.  History has shown the rest of management would rather not – but if they want to continue building towards a Stanley Cup they may not have much of a choice.

The team making the most splash this off season is the Vancouver Canucks.  Another team needing a goaltender got one, as they traded Todd Bertuzzi and all of his baggage along with mediocre goalie Alex Auld to Florida for Roberto Luongo.  Historically Luongo has performed best when the spotlight is on him (think back to the semi-final game of the 2004 World Cup and previous IIHF World Championships).  For whatever reason, he just didn’t work out in a Panther uniform.  Now he emerges in what is almost as wild a hockey market as Toronto, with huge expectations to take the Canucks to the next level.  It isn’t going to be easy, however, but they did manage to hang on to Mary Kate and Ashley, er I mean, the Sedin twins, and they were able to secure Willie Mitchell to replace the departed Ed Jovanovski (Phoenix).  It remains to be seen how Markus Naslund will play now without his buddy Bertuzzi on his wing, but he is as professional as they come.  One thing Vancouver has is a lot of depth on the forward lines, whatever they can’t acquire through free agency or trade they should be able to call up from Manitoba.  Let’s not also forget the Canucks, like Toronto, will have a new coaching staff.

In the land of le Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge, it’s business as usual.  The Montreal Canadiens are going with a formula that came very close to pulling off the first round upset of the year (imagine if the Hurricanes didn’t have the guts to put Cam Ward in net in Game 3?).  Bob Gainey will resume his front office duties and step away from behind the bench to allow Guy Carboneau to coach this team back to glory.  There’s talk Kirk Muller may join him as one of the assistants.  Cristobal Huet, with a full season to play should challenge Kiprusoff and the best of them for the Vezina trophy, provided he can stay healthy.  The question is was Huet a one hit wonder?  Fans in Los Angeles will tell us definitely not.  The Habs have brought back many familiar faces and surprisingly enough haven’t had to spend a lot of money to do it.  Perhaps this year we’ll get to see Corey Locke and Guillaume Latendresse finally get their shot at the big league.  You won’t see too many of the players who played smaller roles come back, guys like Raitis Ivanans and Pierre Dagenais weren’t given qualifying offers, but for the most part this team should be more or less the same as it was last year.  It’s hard to say if David Aebischer will be back, but Yann Danis is no slouch.

From worst to first?  If John Davidson has his way, the St. Louis Blues will be an exciting team to watch going forward.  With new owner Dave Checketts and J.D. at the helm, the Blues may need to change their name as they are expected to do anything but sing the blues – on paper.  Doug Weight couldn’t resist leaving a Stanley Cup winner to be reunited with his former Oilers and Team U.S.A. buddy Bill Guerin.  Will they still have enough chemistry to lead the charge?  If not, here’s hoping Jay McKee can fill the void on defense missing since Pronger left.  Petr Cajanek, Dallas Drake, Ryan Johnson and Matt Walker will be back, and Dan Hinote should be at least a 20 goal man.  I was surprised the Blues didn’t make a pitch for goaltender Ty Conklin, another fixture on the national team, but there is talk they are going for a big name.  Although they haven’t contacted him yet, maybe Manny Legace is the guy?  Reinhard Divis could be back, but is also unrestricted and is far from being the go to guy.  Legace, Mike Dunham, Brian Boucher, Martin Prusek and Hasek – these are the only unrestricted goalies left, provided Belfour signs with Detroit.  I smell a blockbuster trade brewing here.

If there’s any team in salary cap trouble, the Tampa Bay Lightning is it.  After signing three players to almost half of what the cap allows, the Bolts are scrambling to form somewhat of a roster around Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards.  This means they had to say goodbye to John Grahame (Carolina, oddly enough) and Pavel Kubina (Toronto) and say hello to cheaper talent like Filip Kuba, Marc Denis and Doug Janik.  Ruslan Fedotenko will be back.  A mere fraction of the Stanley Cup winning team of a few years ago, Tampa Bay may play second fiddle to their cross state rivals in Sunrise before long.

There are a few familiar names heading back to the NHL this year after a brief exile overseas during the lockout.  Defenseman Karel Rachunek will return to the New York Rangers after spending some time in the Czech Elite League.  Forward Glen Metropolit returns from Switzerland and signs on with Atlanta, as does Goaltender Fred Brathwaite (Russia), and Left Winger Jason Krog (Europe).  Nikita Alexeev is returning to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and draft pick Evgeni Malkin should finally make his way over to play for Pittsburgh.

I know I’ve just talked at length about a mere fraction of the 30 NHL teams, but the main theme is obvious – teams can no longer afford to load up with superstars and are forced to form a competitive roster under the parameters of the new salary cap.  Sure, market value goes up for some players, but at the end of the day, general managers and agents alike have to fit them within the system.  My understanding is this off season will see a record number of players go to arbitration; many will be in vain as they will have to just accept the fact the team they represent just can’t meet their demands and expect to fit within their salary structure.  What we’ve seen so far is just the beginning.  With all the movement we’ll see this year and years to come, die hard fans may find themselves becoming casual hockey fans, unable to watch one team exclusively because they can’t identify with their favorite stars anymore, unless they change their allegiances.  The dynasty team as we had come to know it, may never exist ever again.  For me it’s both an exciting and frustrating time, but if the evolution of the game is better for it, then bring it on!

AWARDS, FUTURES & MORE…

Well, no real surprise this year to the annual award winners, but I do have an issue with one – the Lester B. Pearson award – given to the player judged most valuable to the league as voted on by his peers.  Jaromir Jagr was the winner this year.  OK, so he may have garnered the most votes, but I have a question – why?  If you take away the magical season he had in New York, how do you vote for a player who just two years prior up and quit on the game he supposedly loves and on the team who was signing his paycheck?  I kept hearing all season long how the lockout year allowed him an opportunity to go play in Siberia and gain a new perspective of the game and appreciation for the sport, and for all intents and purposes changed his outlook on the game and allowed him to be a better person both on and off the ice.  Baloney.  I won’t deny him the experience as a positive one, and I won’t deny him the fantastic year he had, but for years we all knew he had it in him – so why now and not before?  I obviously am not a player and don’t have a vote, so maybe I’m reading too much into it.  I guess for better or for worse Jaromir Jagr is a force to be reckoned with in the NHL – or I guess at the very least we shall see.  I for one still have a lasting memory of him quitting on Pittsburgh and demanding a trade and then doing the same in Washington.  How does one year away from the NHL change one’s perspective so drastically?  Mr. Jagr – you have some explaining to do.

As for the rest of the awards, congratulations to Joe Thornton for the Hart (and Art Ross), Miikka Kiprusoff for winning the Vezina and Jennings, Alexander Ovechkin for the Calder, Rod Brind’Amour for the Selke, and to Nicklas Lidstrom for yet another Norris.

I mentioned before the NHL entry draft was a little weaker this year, but as always there were a few diamonds in the rough chosen in the first round.  As always here is my take on the top five potential NHL stars as well as a few notables to watch out for.

St. Louis, forever in the rebuilding phase, decided against trading the first pick and drafted Erik Johnson from the U.S. under-18 program.  He will attend a college program this year, but scouts say he is better at 18 than Chris Pronger.  If this turns out to be true the Blues are on their way.

The Sutters are being reincarnated in a big way, and with a new name – Staal.  Of course Eric Staal won the Stanley Cup this season, Marc Staal was drafted last year, and this year Jordan Staal was drafted 2nd overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The youngest of four brothers, Jared Staal, was an OHL priority pick of the Sudbury Wolves, so look for him in years to come.  With Jordan, this is potentially four first round draft picks the Pens could have in their lineup when the season starts – Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Staal.  Jordan is almost a mirror image of brother Eric, and both now hold the distinction of being the highest drafted brothers since Pierre and Sylvain Turgeon.

The draft as a whole saw a lot more players picked from the NCAA and WCHA than ever before.  This speaks volumes about the college program in the U.S. and is good news in general to the sport as a whole.  The Chicago Blackhawks picked the highest University prospect as they went with Centre Jonathan Toews from the University of North Dakota.  I for one figure more hockey exposure in America can’t be a bad thing.  Toews is touted as a complete player and a born leader – something Chicago could really use.

The Washington Capitals had Alexander Ovechkin announce their first round selection, Centre Nicklas Backstrom, fourth overall.  Scouts compare him to a young Peter Forsberg.  If he ends up being half as good I’m not sure much more needs to be said.

He was rated the top prospect going into this past season, but obviously his stock fell a little bit after a sub par season for the University of Minnesota.  But the Boston Bruins at this point don’t care.  They now hold the rights to Phil Kessel, arguably one of the best pure scorers in the entire draft, and they make him their highest pick since big Joe back in 1997.  They already let one fish get away (or to be exact a Shark), you can be sure they won’t make the same mistake twice.

A few more notable picks – Columbus drafted Derick Brassard 6th overall from Drummondville of the QMJHL.  The thinking is he could potentially centre a line with Gilbert Brule and Rick Nash, a very explosive line to say the least if it materializes.

Los Angeles picked the first goaltender in the draft 11th overall – Jonathan Bernier of QMJHL’s Lewiston.  It’s the first time since Jamie Storr was picked 7th overall in 1994 the Kings get the top ranked goalie.  They’ve given a few of those away lately (Huet anyone?)

I love this story – the New York Rangers draft Bobby Sanguinetti 21st overall.  Bobby played junior hockey for the OHL’s Owen Sound, but is originally a local New York kid who used to accompany his father at Rangers games – including a few during the 1994 Stanley Cup run.  When Owen Sound came calling he had a big decision to make, either go play there or go to University locally.  Well the move to Owen Sound paid off, and now the player who went to more Rangers games than he can count as a kid will be playing for them.  Talk about living the dream.

Chalk one up for Bobby Clarke – he drafted “whatshisname” – aka Claude Giroux.  By the way, Bob, just thought you might like to know Giroux won the QMJHL’s rookie scoring title last season with 103 points for the Gatineau Olympiques – good enough for 11th overall in the league.  He is compared to Doug Gilmour in the sense he demonstrates a similar heart, vision and dedication to the game.

While the Sudbury Wolves will be busy turning Jared Staal into a future NHL star, they may have produced another in Nick Foligno, brother of former NHLer Mike Foligno.  Ottawa drafted him 28th overall, and could give the Senators a whole new dimension of tough, but then again, the Senators aren’t exactly lacking in toughness, they’re lacking in heart in my humble opinion.  Time will tell if this draft pick will pay dividends for the Sens or for another team by way of a trade.

As always you can check out the whole list of NHL prospects at the nhl.com website.

The AHL is paving the road to mandatory visors next season as every player will be required to wear protective face shields.  Depending on how well this goes over, expect something similar to go down in the NHL before long.

It’s taken a whole year, but if you’re interested in viewing the Collective Bargaining Agreement in all its glory, check it out at nhl.com.  I will say this – it’s an interesting read if you have some time on your hands.  I just wonder how close to the real thing this actually is and what omissions, if any, have been made.  Furthermore, why did it take so long to make the document public?  I don’t think we’ll ever know.

We’re all but two weeks into the summer but it’s already heating up both on and off the ice.  Keep checking back for more periodically – you know the name – Adam Hill – and I’m always Puckin’ Around – ready, willing and able to talk hockey – even when there’s a heat wave outside.

 

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