MY INNER GM PASSES JUDGEMENT ON WHICH NHL TEAMS OUTSIDE OF CANADA HAVE DONE WELL SO FAR THIS OFF SEASON, WHICH ONES HAVEN’T AND WHICH ONE IT REALLY, REALLY SUCKS TO BE RIGHT NOW
About a month ago, I published my thoughts on how Canada’s teams made out over the first part of the NHL’s offseason, including the entry draft and the usual frosh party that is the beginning of free agency (it’s estimated that teams gave away contracts worth nearly half a billion dollars on the first day alone). Now here we are in the steamy days of August and there are a few other franchises I wanted to share my thoughts on, broken down into categories based on how well they did or didn’t do, as well as those who may provide some interest as the season unfolds. And as an added bonus, I throw in my two cents on the sad saga of Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils, just to see if I can rile up the conspiracy theory crowd. Keep in mind though, while most of the big fish are gone there’s still lots of summer between now and the opening of training camp in mid September, with plenty of time and opportunity for change. Five teams are currently over the NHL’s salary cap and another dozen are perilously close (within a few million dollars or so). There are a handful of arbitration hearings scheduled over the remainder of August and there are still one or two mildly interesting names still on the free agent market. Essentially, there’s a pretty good chance anything I write here will be outdated twenty minutes after I publish it.
So without further adieu, I invite you to indulge my armchair General Manager ramblings on the following teams and feel free to leave a comment agreeing, disagreeing or questioning my sanity.
Boston Bruins: I’m not a gambler, but if the Stanley Cup playoffs were to start tomorrow, I’d be tempted to lay some serious coin on the Boston
Bruins to win it all. 2013’s Stanley Finalists came out of the gate swinging this year, refusing to stand pat at being second best. After losing out on the Jarome Iginla sweepstakes last April, the Bruins snared the veteran power forward as a free agent and shipped promising but controversial young star Tyler Seguin to Dallas in a deal that saw them nab under-rated but hardworking and versatile sniper Loui Eriksson in return (they also picked up defensive prospect Joe Morrow in the deal, sweetening their return). Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli also got Tuuka Rask and playoff warrior Patrice Bergeron signed to lengthy contract extensions, removing the distractions of negotiations during the season. The Bruins are currently over the cap, but once they move effectively retired Marc Savard to Long Term Injured Reserve status, they’ll become snugly compliant.
Detroit Red Wings: Detroit keeps managing to outrun father time and their efforts last July 5th prove why. The Wings replaced the inconsistent (and overly expensive) Valteri Flippula with warhorse Daniel Alfredsson and centre Stephen Weiss. Neither one were signed to be game breakers, but Alfredsson proved he’s still capable of producing 40-50 points when healthy and brings a king’s ransom in leadership and experience. Weiss, meanwhile, gives the Red Wings a perfect second line centre behind ageless miracle worker Pavel Datysuk. Detroit has a whole host of capable, over ripe young candidates eagerly waiting to fill their handful of third and fourth line vacancies, and the Red Wings boosted their already decent pipeline by drafting Val d’Or power forward Anthony Mantha, the only fifty goal scorer in this year’s draft.
Philadelphia Flyers: Flyers GM Paul Holmgren has never shied away from making bold moves in the off-season to improve his team. This year was no exception. The flyers bought out injury prone veteran Daniel Briere and disappointing goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, using that cap space to bring in Tampa Bay buyout Vincent Lecavalier and goalie Ray Emery. Emery could prove a steal at one and a half million if he performs the way a lot of people think he can, while Lecavalier, free of the expectations his ridiculous contract with the Lightning burdened him with, could prove to be the perfect second or third line centre for the Flyers as well as an ideal mentor for young forwards Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. And while drafting Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg are long-term solutions to a blue line that struggled last season, veteran Mark Streit offers immediate help. Streit may not be Chris Pronger, but his leadership, work ethic and offense will help anchor a blue line that was the Flyers’ Achilles heel last season. Like the Bruins, Philly currently sits over he cap, but also like Boston, the Flyers can become cap-compliant by moving an expensive and all but officially retired veteran (Chris Pronger) onto LTIR as well.
Nashville Predators: Predators GM David Poile looked like a kid on Christmas morning when Seth Jones, considered the top prospect in this year’s entry draft and a future franchise defenceman, was still available when Nashville’s selection came up fourth overall at last June’s entry draft. The Preds had Jones name on an entry contract about twenty minutes after he donned a Nashville jersey for the first time, and the hulking blue liner will spend his developmental years being tutored by current franchise defenceman Shea Weber. Aside from signing 37-year old forward Matt Cullen, Nashville concentrated most of their energy on snagging high energy, defensive forwards like Viktor Stahlberg, Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystom. The Preds won’t be the most exciting team to watch next season (or the highest scoring), but they’ll probably be one of the most difficult to score on. Nashville may not be ready to return to the post-season dance in 2014, but they’ll have the potential to grind out a victory every night, regardless of the opponent.
Dallas Stars: When Jim Nill left the Detroit Red Wings (arguably the most efficiently run organization in the NHL) to replace Joe Nieuwendyk as the Stars new GM, he promised change. Say anything you want about the man, but so far he’s lived up to his word. Nill kicked off the summer for Stars fans by sending all-star forward Loui Eriksson, young centre Riley Smith, promising blue line prospect David Morrow and forward prospect Matt Fraser to the Boston Bruins for Tyler Seguin, veteran forward Rich Peverley and AHLer Ryan Button. Drafted second overall in 2010, Seguin is dripping with potential, and if the Stars can get the notoriously rowdy and outspoken young star focused and settled down off the ice, he promises to a superstar on it (the Stars already got a taste of Seguin’s penchant for controversy when a homophobic remark appeared on his Twitter feed immediately following his trade to Dallas; Seguin maintains he was hacked). Not satisfied with that much depth up the middle, the Stars leveraged their abundance of cap space in a deal that saw them sacrifice young depth defenceman Phillip Larsen and a seventh round pick in 2016 to the Edmonton Oilers for veteran centre Shawn Horcroff. And in a stroke of drafting luck, the Stars were able to snag promising Russian forward Valery Nichushkin with the tenth overall pick and there are hopes the young power forward may be able to step in right away on the team’s second or third line. Dallas has spent the last five seasons on the playoff bubble, missing out on the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup by a handful of points every spring. Now it looks like they may just be poised to chase another banner next April.
What The Hell?
Pittsburgh Penguins: Pens GM Ray Shero invested a lot of future assets at last season’s trade deadline to load up for a run at the Cup. He gave up blue chip D prospect Joe Morrow and a couple of B level college prospects along with the Penguins selections in the first, second, fifth and seventh rounds in the 2013 entry draft and their second round selection in 2014 to add rentals Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Douglas Murray and forward Jussi Jokinen. Pittsburgh became most people’s favorite to win the Cup and they did indeed dominate the playoffs, right up until the third round when they were mercilessly manhandled by the Boston Bruins. Fast forward a few months and almost all those marquee names are gone (only Jokinen remains, a single season left on his current contract). Shero spent most of his time making sure winger Pascal Dupuis and veteran forward Craig Adams never hit the free agent market while signing Evengi Malkin, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz to rich contract extensions that kick in next summer. He did manage to repatriate veteran blue liner Chris Scuderi as a free agent, but with all due respect to Scuderi, his addition pales compared to the mass exodus headed out of Pittsburgh (that also includes long time Pens Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke). Complicating matters further is that their current 22-man roster is more than a million over the salary cap, meaning they’ll have to shed some significant salary over the next six weeks or so. A team that boasts the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin (among others) in its lineup will always be a regular season powerhouse, but the fact remains that the current Penguins roster isn’t as good as the one who was so easily dismissed by Boston last June.
Washington Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin pulled double duty on the NHL’s All-Star teams this year, as 2013’s winner of the Hart Memorial and Maurice Richard Trophies was named the First All Star Team’s right winger and the Second All Star Team’s left winger. Given Capitals GM George McPhee’s complete lack of action so far this off-season, Caps fans better hope Ovie can duplicate being in two places at once on the ice. Washington watched as centre Mike Ribeiro left for the Arizona desert and depth centre Matt Hendricks migrated south to play in Tennessee. To balance these losses, the Capitals went out and added . . . drum roll please . . . no one. When other GMs were in a mad dash to improve or complete their rosters for opening night, the only sound coming from the Capitals front office was a chorus of bored crickets. Considering that the Capitals looked like they were going to miss the playoffs altogether until they put together a late season push (and then promptly returned to their losing ways once they did get to the playoffs), you would have thought McPhee might have been burning up the phones looking for help. Washington can’t even rely on taking advantage of teams desperate to become cap compliant later this summer because they have very little wriggle room under the cap themselves. As it currently stands, the Capitals are looking like a one line team with a lot of expensive passengers.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Last June, Lightning fans were rewarded for enduring a miserable season when Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman drafted Halifax Mooseheads sniper Johnathan Drouin third overall. And while Drouin will likely join the Bolts this October, possibly even on a line with young super-star Steve Stamkos, that’s about all Tampa Bay fans can look forward to. While Yzerman made many a Lightning fan’s dream come true when he bought out the remainder of Vincent Lecavalier’s enormous contract, Tampa Bay is likely going to be reminded of the ancient Chinese proverb about being careful what you wish for. Lecavalier’s replacement behind Stamkos is former Red Wing Valteri Flippula, hardly a case for celebration and very possibly a big step backwards. And while Tampa Bay’s brain trust may be confident that Ben Bishop, acquired from the Ottawa Senators at last season’s trade deadline, shores up their goaltending, they failed to address the Lightning’s biggest shortcoming; their blue line. Tampa Bay may not finish second last in the East again, but their moves so far shouldn’t encourage any of their fans to hallucinate about a playoff spot just yet.
SUCKS TO BE YOU
New Jersey Devils: The Devils were already having a lousy summer before superstar sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who still had twelve seasons remaining on his monster deal, announced his retirement/defection July 11. The Devils had already watched as David Clarkson, one of the biggest names available in this year’s crop of free agents, signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on the same day Zach Parise signed with the Minnesota Wild last year (July 5th is not a day that has been kind to the Devils organization as of late). New Jersey already had to part with the ninth overall pick in last June’s entry draft to acquire Cory Schneider, Martin Brodeur’s heir apparent when he almost assuredly retires next summer, and the Devils have no choice but to forfeit their pick in next June’s entry draft as penalty for trying to circumvent the salary cap with Kovalchuk’s deal in 2010. While Devils GM Lou Lamoriello was able to convince veteran Patrick Elias to return and brought on forwards Michael Ryder and Ryan Clowe, the Devils weren’t looking any better on paper than the team that missed the playoffs last spring. And that was before Ilya Kovalchuk pulled a Houdini on them. The Devils have since added 41-year old Jaromir Jagr, but most fans are skeptical that the former Hart trophy winner can replace Kovalchuk’s contributions.
On the matter of Kovalchuk’s “retirement,” I think casting the Devils as the victim might be a bit premature. The popular thinking seems to run along the lines that if Kovalchuk had informed the team of his decision a few days earlier, they could have been more pro-active during free agency to replace him, possibly re-signing Clarkson. Kovalchuk was slow returning from his native Russia following the end of the lockout last January, his tardiness inspiring rumours that he may spend the rest of the year overseas (Kovalchuk delayed his return to North America to play in the KHL All Star game). And according to Lamoriello, the Devils GM and the Russian superstar had a number of conversations over the course of the season on the issue, so unless all of those conversations occurred during the handful of days between the opening of free agency and Kovalchuk’s announcement, you have to think the Devils’ GM had at least some inkling of what was coming. I’m not excusing Kovalchuk’s behavior, but you have to wonder if New Jersey was doing more than a little acting with their “we’re just as surprised as everyone else” schtick. After all, Kovalchuk’s absence conveniently frees up nearly six and a half million dollars in cap space a year, for the next twelve years. And for those interested, Kovalchuk will be eligible to come out of “retirement” in another four years or so, coincidentally right around the same time his current deal with the KHL’s SKA-St. Petersburg expires. As Dana Carvey’s famous Saturday Night Live Church Lady used to say “Well, isn’t that special?”