HERE’S A QUICK LOOK AT HOW CANADA’S TEAMS LOOK AFTER A HECTIC FEW WEEKS IN THE NHL

English: Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karls...

English: Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson prior to a National Hockey League game against the Calgary Flames. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now wasn’t that an interesting couple of weeks, hockey fans?  From a draft that was considered deeper than any other in the past decade, to a free agent pool that was originally considered weak but picked up steam as teams shed salaries via compliance buyouts in the days leading up to the June 5th free agent feeding frenzy with an interesting trade or two thrown in for good measure, there was plenty for hockey junkies to sink they’re teeth into.  Many teams aren’t done yet, there are some who shouldn’t be done yet and still more who should call it quits (but probably won’t), but for the time being I’ve decided to take a look at some of the big changes made by the Canadian teams so far this summer and how they’re looking now.

CALGARY FLAMES:  Flames GM Jay Feaster had three first round picks headed into the entry draft and a cupboard bare of elite prospects.  Feaster kept his picks, using the sixth overall selection to nab Sean Monohan, a player that made Flames’ management drool.  The Flames have made no secret that the former Ottawa 67s captain will probably be in their lineup next opening night, possibly joining Corban Knight, a promising college prospect the Flames pried away from the Florida Panthers just before the draft.

But what should concern Flames fans is the lack of depth Calgary has to surround their young building blocks with.  The Flames sent forward Alex Tanguay and defenceman Cory Sarich to Colorado for forward Ryan Jones and defenceman Shane O’Brien, arguably downgrades at both position.  They added T.J Galiardi and tough guy Brian McGratton to beef up their shallow forward corps, but neither one is going to appear on the score sheet often (or in McGratton’s case, the lineup).  The Fames D is looking pretty weak in the post Jay Boumester era, despite adding Kris Russell.  Unless Karri Ramo miraculously morphs into the next Martin Brodeur between now and October, the Flames are going to be seeing a lot of rubber filling their net next season.  Neither the young Finn nor veteran backup Joey MacDonald appear up to the challenge of adequately replacing the recently retired Mikka Kiprusoff.  Right now, it looks like Year One A.I. (After Iginla) is going to be a long, painful one for the Flames and their fans.

EDMONTON OILERS:  Newly minted Oilers GM Craig MacTavish told long-suffering Oilers fans to expect bold things in the near future.  They didn’t have to wait long.  MacT resisted the urge to trade the seventh overall pick for immediate help or to use it to take yet another skilled forward, opting instead to draft promising young defenceman Darnell Nurse, a future cornerstone of the blue line.  Then things got interesting.

MacTavish managed to move captain Shawn Horcroff and his considerable salary to Dallas in return for young depth defenceman Philip Larson and also signed promising young defender Anton Belov out of the KHL.  He signed Jason Labarbera and Richard Bachman to solidify the Oilers goaltending behind Devan Dubnyk and added veteran Andrew Ferrence to stabilize their shaky blue line (though he raised more than a few eyebrows by signing the 34 year old to a four year deal that included a No Movement Clause).  Free agent addition Boyd Gordon is the defensive minded faceoff specialist the Oilers have needed for years and MacTavish followed his free agent adventures by trading for left-winger David Perron to increase the Oilers firepower.  But perhaps the Oilers biggest move was replacing head coach Ralph Krueger with the highly sought after Dallas Eakins, a former AHL coach who has a record of getting promising young players to perform.  On paper, the Oilers may be a better team than they were two weeks ago.  But two weeks ago, they were really, really bad.

English: Edmonton Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff...

English: Edmonton Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff prior to a National Hockey League game against the Calgary Flames. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

MONTREAL CANADIENS:  The Montreal Canadiens went into the off season with two objectives in mind; get rid of Thomas Kaberle and his ridiculous contract (check) and add size to a forward corps that, while deep and fast and skilled, was too often pushed around, particularly by the Ottawa Senators in the 2013 playoffs.  That last one looks like it will still need some time.

Bergevin went with size and character at the draft, adding prospect Michael McCarron with the 25th overall pick, but his decision to bring in skilled but undersized Danny Briere after the Philadelphia Flyers bought the veteran out left a few Montreal fans scratching their heads.  There’s no doubt Briere brings an abundance of talent and heart to the Habs, but he’s collected quite the list of injuries over the last few seasons (including a handful of concussions) and at five-foot-ten, the fragile forward could find that regular contests against Boston and Toronto and Ottawa’s blue lines might drive him to drink.  The Habs brought in pugilist George Parros, but he’s a thirteenth or fourteenth forward who will be of little use when the Habs need talent on the ice as well as grit.  Vincent Lecavalier would have been the perfect addition to this team, and you have to wonder what went wrong with the Habs plans to sign him.  Or if they had any plans to sign him at all.

OTTAWA SENATORS:  No other Canadian team saw as much drama on July 5th as the Ottawa Senators.  Sens fans were thrown for a Mount Everest sized loop when Daniel Alfredsson, the face and heart of the franchise, a Sen for the past seventeen seasons and the team’s captain for the past fourteen, decided to play what will probably be his final season in the NHL wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey.  While Ottawa fans were digesting that bitter pill, Sens GM Bryan Murray pulled off the biggest trade of the day, acquiring Bobby Ryan from the Anaheim Ducks in return for young forward Jacob Silverberg, prospect Stefan Noesan and a first round pick in 2014 (a bit of an overpayment in my opinion, but when a GM’s just lost his franchise’s most popular and beloved player, I guess he isn’t in his most logical frame of mind).  The Sens also added skilled grinder Clarke MacArthur from the rival Maple Leafs and essentially replaced Sergei Gonchar on their blue line with former Sen Joe Coro (at about the fifth of Gonchar’s price).  The Sens are probably set for now, even though they have plenty of cap space left.  The franchise will probably spend the rest of the summer signing their few restricted free agents and answering questions about both Daniel Alfredsson’s abrupt departure and some uncomfortable rumours about Eugene Melnyk’s finances.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS:  While Ottawa may have had the most dramatic off-season so far, the Leafs have had the busiest.  Toronto GM Dave Nonis

Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

surprised more than a few pundits and fans alike when he acquired goalie Jonathan Bernier from the L.A. Kings just before the draft, but when he stole centre David Bolland from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and selected hulking forward Pierre Gauthier 21st overall, he laid out the schematic he hopes will lead the Toronto Maple Leafs back to Stanley Cup glory.  And while everyone expected the Leafs to buy out expensive AHL defenceman Mike Komisarek, Nonis had another trick up his sleeve by buying out popular centre Mikhail Grabovski as well (Grabovski had more than a few colourful parting shots for Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle on his way out of town).  Nonis then won a bidding war against the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers for free agent power forward David Clarkson and he brought back forward Tyler Bozak for a much more reasonable price than what Bozak had originally been demanding.  Nonis and the Leafs will now probably spend the rest of the summer getting Nazem Kadri and their other restricted free agents signed to new deals.  And that ticking you hear?  That’s the countdown for the beginning of the Dion Phaneuf trade rumours.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS:  To put it simply, this franchise is a mess.  The Vancouver Canucks got the ball rolling by firing head coach Alain Vigneault, eventually replacing him with people person John Tortorella.  The Canucks upgraded the bottom six of their forward corps by replacing Ian Laparierre (who signed with the St. Louis Blues as a free agent) with Brad Richardson and adding depth forward Mike Santorelli.  They added blue liner Yannick Weber while buying out veteran defenseman Keith Ballard to free some cap space, easing pressure to deal someone expensive like Alex Edler.  Now, could there have been anything else on Vancouver GM Mike Gillis’ to do list?

Oh yeah, solve Vancouver’s prolonged goaltending saga.  Gillis had all but guaranteed that embattled starting goalie Roberto Luongo would be starting the 2013-14 NHL season somewhere other than Vancouver.  Whether through trade or a compliance buyout, everyone and their second cousin figured Luongo was going to be forwarding his mail to a new address sometime very soon.  And to solve all his crease problems, Gillis dealt goalie Cory Schneider to the New Jersey devils for the ninth overall pick in the 2013 entry draft (and used said pick to select Bo Horvat).  Yep, after everything that’s happened, Roberto Luongo remains a Vancouver Canuck (you can see my additional thought on the whole shebang here https://ottawaedge.wordpress.com/2013/07/05/net-gains/).  Who else is willing to bet real money that emotional bull-in-the-china-shop, “my guys stink” coach John Tortorella is just the man to rebuild all the burnt bridges and heal the damaged egos in Vancouver?  Anyone?

WINNIPEG JETS:  The Jets could literally smell a playoff spot last April before blowing their last few games and falling just outside the post- season bubble.  But the Jets positioned themselves well for this free agent season and have taken advantage of teams looking to unload heavy contracts to squeeze under the reduced cap (like prying Devon Setoguchi away from a cap stressed Minnesota Wild or Michael Frolik from the Chicago Blackhawks for instance).  While disgruntled forward Alex Burmivstrov is headed back to his native Russia for the next two years (at least), the Jets added gritty forward Matt Halischuk and depth defenceman Adam Pardy.  Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff also managed to add excellent blue line prospect Josh Morrisey with the thirteenth overall pick at this year’s entry draft while defenceman Jacob Trouba, their top pick from the 2012 draft, is expected to make an immediate impact on an already deep Winnipeg blue-line next season.  The Jets have plenty of cap space left after letting the likes of Nik Antropov and Ron Hainsey go via free agency, although they’ll need most of it to sign their own RFAs.  Still, you get the feeling Cheveldayoff isn’t done yet.  The Jets are one team to keep your eye on for the rest of the summer.

Shayne Kempton

WINDS OF CHANGE

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DESPITE ANY THE OPINIONS TO THE CONTRARY, THE NHL ENTRY DRAFT IS STILL THE ONLY WAY TO TRULY BUILD A STANLEY CUP WINNING TEAM

English: Stage for NHL Entry Draft

English: Stage for NHL Entry Draft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

     A few years ago I got into a fierce debate with a good friend of mine over the importance of the NHL entry draft.  A passionate Leafs fan, he was defending Brain Burke’s decision to trade the Leafs first and second round picks in the 2010 entry draft and their first round pick in 2011 to the Boston Bruins in return for Phil Kessel.  I wasn’t the only one who criticized the deal, the majority of hockey pundits cast doubt on it as well.  In fact, the only ones who seemed to defend it were members of the Toronto media and Leafs Nation.  The deal looked even worse when the bottom fell out of the Leafs 2009-10 season and they watched as the second overall pick, which should have been their consolation prize for such a dreadful season, went to the Bruins, who drafted the highly touted Tyler Seguin.  It must have stung just a bit more when Seguin made the jump directly to the NHL on a deep Bruins roster, and then was a huge factor in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, helping the Bruins defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning and moving on to eventually defeat the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup.  To add a little extra salt to the Leafs wounded pride, they saw the newly defending Stanley Cup champs use the other first round pick they surrendered for Kessel to draft hulking young blue liner Doug Hamilton ninth overall that June (Hamilton was widely considered the best North American defenceman available in that draft).

     My friend’s opinion, indeed much of Leaf’s Nation collective belief, seemed to mimic that of former Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher (who when asked about trading away so many of Toronto’s draft picks, once replied “draft schmaft”), that the entry draft didn’t deserve to be taken seriously as a source for talent and that the future was now (it should be noted that while Cliff Fletcher never won a Stanley Cup with the Leafs, he was GM of the Calgary Flames when they won the Cup in 1988-with a lineup full of Flames draft picks).  But watching beaming teenagers getting drafted last Sunday afternoon and hearing all the rumours swirling around, it was easy to remember that successful drafting and patient development is the only true key to winning Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice.

     Take the Pittsburgh Penguins for example.  During the half decade where they missed the playoffs, flirted with bankruptcy and relocation and played to a half filled relic of a stadium, the Pens were able to amass a wealth of talent, drafting Evengi Malkin second overall in 2004 and Jordan Staal at that same spot in 2006, Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003 and nabbed the prize of prizes by drafting Sydney Crosby first overall in 2005.  It didn’t hurt that they also tabbed defenceman Brooks Orpik in 2001 and drafted all-star defenceman Kris Letang in the third round of 2005.  All of those names were present and accounted for when the Penguins went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and again when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in a Stanley Cup championship rematch the following season.  While the Pens haven’t made it back to the final since winning it all in 2009, they’ve hardly been in danger of missing the playoffs and have been a regular season superpower every season since.  And you should also remember, this was Pittsburgh’s second kick at the Stanley Cup can; the Pens won back to back Cups in 1991 and 92, with teams that included names like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, names Pittsburgh called out at the draft podium.

   But what if the Pens hadn’t won the coveted number one pick in the 2005 entry draft, you may ask?  They simply benefited from an enormous amount of luck that year (or scheming, if the numerous yet unfounded conspiracy theories are to be believed), because without Crosby Pittsburgh’s Cup dreams evaporate.  Perhaps, and if Pittsburgh were the only arrow in that quiver you might be right.  But look no further than the Chicago Blackhawks for an even better example.  Chi-town’s team had been exiled to the NHL’s basement for years but collected a fortune of wealth in the likes of Johnathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Dave Bolland and Corey Crawford, all of whom held the Cup aloft in 2010 and again this year (making the draft-built Blackhawks the only team to win the Stanley Cup twice in the salary cap era).  Or you could take the Boston Bruins; not only 2011 Stanley Cup champions but also 2013 Stanley Cup finalists.  The 2006 entry draft was a good one for Beantown; that’s the year they picked up the aforementioned Phil Kessel in the first round, Milan Lucic in the second and Brad Marchand in the third.  While we know how Mr. Kessel’s time in a Bruins jersey ended, Lucic and Marchand have been vital cogs in the successful Bruins machine, joined by second round picks Patrice Bergeron and David Krecji (drafted in 2003 and 2004 respectively).   Or we could take the L.A. Kings, the defending 2012 Stanley Cup champions who were also a member of this year’s final four, their core consisting of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and stand-on-his-head-goalie Johnathan Quick.  Take a quick guess how many the Kings drafted?  If you said all of them, congratulations, you guessed it in one.  We could also use the St. Louis Blues as an example.  Or the Tampa Bay Lightning, if they ever get back to the post season while Steve Stamkos is in his twenties.

     I may be accused of saying that only teams that spend years sucking, to the growing despair of their fans, can build themselves into Stanley Cup champions.  Au contraire grasshopper.  The Detroit Red Wings haven’t drafted in the top ten since 1991 when they picked Martin Lapointe tenth overall.  For those keeping score, the Red Wings have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs an unprecedented 22 times in a row (that’s nearly a quarter of a century where Wings fans have been able to enjoy playoff hockey), they’ve played in six Stanley Cup finals since 1995 and won four of them.  The Red Wings have always been masters of the draft, finding gems in the rough, patiently and efficiently developing them, fending off attrition and Father Time himself with a seemingly endless pipeline of deserving prospects.  The same could once be said for the New Jersey Devils, and they have the Stanley Cup banners to show for it (three Cups since 1995, though the Devils are in a bit of a bumpy transition now).  The Ottawa Senators were able to overcome catastrophic injuries this season by depending on excellent organizational depth to not only get them into the playoffs, but to eliminate the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round while hardly breaking a sweat.  Most of that depth came via the draft.

     All the teams mentioned made missteps and made some pretty high-profile picks they’d rather forget (Cam Barker anyone?  Angelo Esposito?  Tom Hickey?  No?  Can’t say I blame you) and each made significant additional moves to compliment the cores they had assembled through the draft, usually moving surplus assets late in the season or at the trading deadline.  And there are plenty of teams that prove you can mess up successive years of high draft picks.  The New York Islanders and the late Atlanta Thrashers for starters (though New York redeemed themselves a little by sneaking into the playoffs this year), and my painfully beloved Oilers are on the verge of becoming another (the Oilers are actually a pretty fair example of what results from years of bad and reckless drafting). You have to cautiously shepherd your young talent with the necessary veteran presence and resist the temptation to rush your prospects, no matter the hype surrounding them.  The fact is that successful drafting is like great goaltending in the Stanley Cup playoffs; having it won’t guarantee you win, but missing it guarantees you won’t.

Tyler Seguin during a game against the Buffalo...

Tyler Seguin during a game against the Buffalo Sabres during the 2010-11 season (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Right now, the Kessel trade doesn’t look quite as bad.  Kessel was excellent for the Leafs this past season and bordered on fantastic during their riveting first round series against their former trading partners this past spring; the Bruins benched Doug Hamilton for the entire Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks and the entire hockey world was taken by surprise when Tyler Seguin’s name popped up in trade rumours just days before the 2013 entry draft.  For the record though, I still wouldn’t have made that trade, and I don’t think Brian Burke would have either.  I think he gambled that the Leafs would probably miss the playoffs in 2010, but with Kessel added to their lineup they’d be a bubble team (they drafted seventh in 2009; a pick they used on Nazem Kadri), their choice falling somewhere between tenth and fourteenth.  And I’m pretty sure he was confident that with a few tweaks and improvements, that his Leafs would be in a playoff spot come 2011.  Phil Kessel is an excellent player, an elite one, whose has demonstrated character and fortitude to compliment his speed and skill (he won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 2007 for overcoming testicular cancer), but I suspect, no matter how much he’s defended the trade since, that if he knew what he’d be parting with, Burke wouldn’t have made the deal. Seguin’s name is bouncing around in trade rumours only because the Bruins find themselves in salary cap trouble while twenty year old Dougie Hamilton is dripping with raw potential and will spend the better part of the next decade being mentored by blue line titan Zdeno Chara.  And let’s not forget the Bruins also snared Jared Knight with the Leafs 2010 second round pick, a pure goal scorer in the OHL whose progress has been slowed by injuries but is still expected to eventually develop into a promising NHL player.  But if you still need evidence that drafting isn’t merely the best way to build a Stanley Cup caliber team, but the only way, just scan the rafters at the Air Canada Centre, home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and count how many Stanley Cup banners they’ve won in the past four decades and the answer should put any doubts you may still have to rest.

Shayne Kempton

DRAFT PLEASE