Florida Panthers

Five months ago I wrote about why Phoenix and Florida, two franchises pegged for relocation by many over the past few seasons, were sitting atop their respective divisions early, and why expectations for both franchises should be raised from the bottom-dwelling perceptions that most hockey fans had.
Well, here we are on this Easter Sunday celebrating the resurrection of two hockey franchises thought to be dead men skating as recently as… well, right now, if we’re talking about the Coyotes.
Back in November, I wrote about how the increase in scope and prevalence of information and coverage has led us all to become more aware of financials all around us — never mind that we don’t actually get to see any team’s balance sheet. The Pacific and Southeast division titles clinched on Super Saturday only cement my opinion that we all give too much weight to team finances and salary cap figures when trying to project a point total in the standings.
Photo via (Timothy T. Ludwig, US Presswire)
Pound that water, Mike Smith. You’ve earned it.

Aside from the “hockey is played on a sheet of ice, not a balance sheet” argument, we looked at how all too often sports predictions are based heavily on the previous season. Upon looking at the six division champions, I would need proof of anybody seriously calling for any of the division winners we saw this year outside of the two defending conference champions — Vancouver and Boston.

I loved the N.Y. Rangers growing roster, and I still couldn’t pull the trigger on picking them ahead of Pittsburgh (and I was wishy-washy on taking them second over Philadelphia). I liked the St. Louis Blues, and still deferred to last season in picking them to squeak into the playoffs as the Central Division’s fourth-best team. Granted, none of us saw the Ken Hitchcock lockdown D coming, but the roster didn’t change from opening night. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott just decided to tag team the Jennings Trophy. And then there are Florida and Phoenix. Show me the timestamp on someone’s projection of either one of them as division title winners, and I’ll show you someone who forges timestamps.
The unfortunate part for both the Panthers and Coyotes is that they’ll have to face two teams that are very deep in playoff experience at different positions. Florida will host New Jersey, whose word association answer is always going to be “Brodeur.” Aside from the winningest netminder in league history, the Devils still have Patrik Elias and Zach Parise to lead the line, as well as 83-point scorer Ilya Kovalchuk, surprise 30-goal man David Clarkson, and a pair of elderly chaps in Petr Sykora and Dainus Zubrus who each turned in 44 points in 82 games.
I have not come across series prices yet this morning, but I do see Florida getting twice the money to win the eastern conference that New Jersey gets, making the Panthers unsurprising underdogs in that respect.
Phoenix, meanwhile, will have to deal with the tough task of knocking out recent champs Chicago, who I mistakenly pegged for a huge regular season, but seem to be coming together at the right time and may get captain Jonathan Toews back from a concussion as early as Game 1. Then again, he may never play again. You guys know the drill.

Photo credit to (Nuccio DiNuzzo/AP)
The Blackhawks can’t be having this if they want to compete for another Stanley Cup.

The Coyotes are getting more than double the odds to win the west as compared to the Blackhawks, making Phoenix another unsurprisingly underdogged three seed. The one advantage for Phoenix that most people would agree upon has to be in goal, where Mike Smith finished in the top eight leaguewide in GAA (8th), save % (3rd), games played (8th), wins (4th), and shutouts (3rd). Blackhawks’ starter Corey Crawford, by contrast, placed 34th, 37th, 18th, 16th and tied for last in those same categories (Chicago rocked zero shutouts this season). Phoenix’s physical style should trouble Chicago a bit as well, especially considering the importance Toews has on the Hawks winning playoff games.

Smith’s success dispelled the final argument I made in November, which was that it was very early and there was still time for Smith or Florida’s trio to go sideways. That obviously didn’t happen with Smith, but neither did it happen with Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen after much-hyped rookie Jacob Markstrom went down with an injury following a promising start. As far as upside goes, most people would take the Coyotes’ goaltending over that of the Panthers, but that is not to say that Florida’s pair doesn’t inspire an average amount of confidence that the goalie will probably not blow the series. Neither Theodore nor Clemmensen played nearly as bad as Brodeur’s worst this season, which, to be fair, does seem to have been pushed back by Marty’s recent success.
A full playoff preview with predictions that will probably hit at just over 50% is on its way, but until then I’ll just point out that neither Florida nor Phoenix lost the season series to its first-round opponent. Phoenix went 3-1 against Chicago this year, with one of those wins coming by the playoff-insignificant way of shootout. Florida went 2-1-1 against New Jersey this season, with that hanger on the end being a shootout loss, not an overtime one. So, both the Coyotes and Panthers went 2-1-1 against the Blackhawks and Devils in games that are decided by a 60-to-65-minute hockey contest. And they both have home ice. That’s the positive contemporary history part of this thing.

Photo via (Joe Rimkus Jr., Miami Herald)
Super Saturday sure was for the Panthers, who celebrated the first division title in franchise history.

The negative historical trend? Neither Phoenix nor Florida has won a playoff series since 1996 — the year Florida made their stunning run to the Cup Finals and Phoenix scored the relocation of the Winnipeg Jets. The Panthers are 0-2 in playoff series since the ’96 run, and that includes a 1-8 game record and zero playoff appearances since 2000. The Coyotes are 0-7 in the first round, but three times have forced a deciding Game 7.

Debating which NHL team should be the next to relocate has become one of the cool things to do in hockey, and the Thrashers / Jets move from Atlanta to Winnipeg over the summer has only served to ramp up the debate about which franchise will be setting up shop in Quebec City in the near future.
The two teams that are almost exclusively offered as the prime candidates to wear a hockey playing igloo on their chests soon are the Phoenix Coyotes and the Florida Panthers. While I think that it is likely that one of them ends up in Eric Lindros’ favorite province soon, I would rather talk about the fact that Phoenix and Florida are sitting in 7th and 11th overall in points percentage, or points gathered per contest.
The reason I want to cite this stat is that it’s impossible to talk about the standings in just a total points construction because there will never be a point in the season in which every team has played the same amount of games. So to be fair to every team, we’ll use points percentage.
I thought about why Phoenix and Florida are so high in the league’s overall standings, and on the same line of thinking, why seemingly none of us saw any success coming for these two. It’s not like everyone was saying that each team should be contending for the eighth playoff spot in its respective conference. Rather, the general idea was that both teams would contend for a top-five overall draft pick.

We could cite the individual players, but that would be missing the point. Sure, Phoenix is led by Shane Doan, a man that has earned the nickname “Captain Canada,” but we already knew that coming in. So why the widespread prediction that a team that has made the playoffs the past two seasons would go into the tank? Some of the disfavor was surely linked with the departure of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to Philadelphia over the summer, but I don’t think that explains all of it.
And for Florida, we all knew of and followed the early-July spending spree that they went on just to try to reach the salary cap floor, but the prevailing comment on the situation was that the Panthers overpaid for players that nobody else would have offered anywhere near that much money to. In other words, they got a lot of players, but they didn’t get much value. And when you have a squad near the bottom in player payroll, and everyone thinks those players have essentially no trade value, then it stands to reason that things should go negatively for that franchise. Maybe we all overlooked how good Brian Campbell really is (and I think we largely have), but again, he’s one player. Stephen Weiss makes two. We all saw the rosters coming in, so why are the Panthers outdoing expectations by so much?
I came up with three reasons that despite very low expectations, the Coyotes and Panthers are sitting pretty through 13% of the season.
1. Predictions are based too much on last season
Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner recently hosted an episode of the podcast of the same name entitled “The Folly of Prediction.” In one of the interviews, he talks to researcher Hayes Davenport, who has looked at NFL predictions made by “experts.” Davenport cites the fact that any untrained animal could look at any of the NFL’s four-team divisions, throw out the worst team, and predict the division champs at a 33% success rate. He then reveals that the league’s pundits have been predicting NFL division winners at just a 36% success rate.
One main reason that he offers for the 64% failure rate is, “They tend to rely much too heavily on the previous year’s standings in making their picks for the following year. They play it very conservatively, but there’s a very high level of parity in the NFL right now, so that’s not exactly how it works.”
I would suggest that today’s NHL sees more parity than at any time in the league’s past. This is probably largely due to the existence of a salary cap (and salary floor), which mandates that all teams spend within $16 million of each other on yearly player salaries.
If we look at most hockey predictions, we see very little in the way of sweeping changes in the makeup of either conference. This is probably because when we go to make predictions, one of the tabs that we have open in our web browser is last year’s standings. I know it played a role in my projecting the Panthers for last in the east. Now, part of it was also the departure of Tomas Vokoun coupled with my expectation that Jacob Markstrom, an undoubted future all-star goaltender, would not be given the chance to play early and often for the big club this year. But, a lot of it also had to do with last year’s standings. And I know I’m not the only one guilty of that blunder.
2. Hockey is played on a sheet of ice, not a balance sheet
It’s easy to see how relying too much on last year’s standings could have led a person to shortchange the Panthers, but what about the Coyotes? They’ve been a playoff team the past two seasons, and play a rough and tough style that would be coveted by any northeastern city. So, the “last year made me do it” excuse couldn’t possibly explain the en masse assumption that Phoenix would suck this year.
Instead, I think many of us have read way too much into the Coyotes’ off-ice financial issues. It was widely assumed that they would be the team to move to Winnipeg (or in the Coyotes’ case, move back to Winnipeg). But, another $25 million set aside by the city of Glendale kept the team in Phoenix for another season, while Winnipeg’s thirst has been quenched.
As the business of sports has become much more covered in all facets of the media, fans have become de facto GMs. Or, at least they think they have. I mean, exists almost solely so that people like me can get on the internet and critique a player’s “value” based on his salary cap hit to his team. It’s fun and intelligent, and I’m not going to stop, but sometimes I think we all overrate how the financial struggles of a franchise’s ownership group will affect the team’s actual on-ice play.
Jokes about the L.A. Dodgers paying their players in ramen noodles have been rampant in the past year, but hockey doesn’t get that kind of coverage on ESPN. If it did, how could everyone not be making fun of the fact that the Phoenix Coyotes have been owned and operated by the NHL for a few years now, and operating at reportedly huge losses?
Well, hockey people are aware of it, and hockey people make predictions. I think there is a huge tendency to assume that bankruptcies and rumors over relocation or contraction will cast a cloud over the franchise, and that the players won’t be able to shine through the fog. But let’s get real: these guys are getting paid a lot of money to play the game they love. They’re going to play it hard and to the best of their abilities. Why would all of this balance sheet stuff enter their minds before laying down to block a shot or going hard into the corner to dig out a puck late in the second period of a game in November? It wouldn’t, and I think that for the most part it doesn’t.
3. It’s still very early
Pointing out the early successes of two franchises that everyone verbally craps on is nice, but it would be ill-advised not to point out that those successes are still just that — early.
We are 11 games into the season, and a lot can still go wrong over the next 71 for either team. The positives are that their styles of play and cohesion seem to be working. Each has a pair of goaltenders that can be relied on to be solid at times, although I’m not sure anyone would vouch for the absolute impossibility that Mike Smith, Jason LaBarbera, Jose Theodore or Jacob Markstrom go sideways at some point this year.
Also, are these teams deep enough if and when the injury bug comes around? Surely the Panthers cannot afford a long-term injury to Campbell or Weiss, but what about the third through seventh-best players? Can Phoenix play the style it wants effectively if Martin Hanzal or Captain Canada go down? Will they create enough goal scoring chances in the absence of Keith Yandle? The answer to all of these questions is probably “no,” and so we must remember that these two teams are only 13% complete in their seasons. Surely their goals should be to make the playoffs and cram all of our predictions down our throats, and they’ve each got 71 more games to try to make that happen.

I’m not going to lie, when it came time to write about the NHL’s Southeast Division, I considered moving right along to the Western Conference and hoping that none of you would notice. None of you probably would have, but in doing the preparation for writing this piece, I realized that I’m actually a little excited about watching these five teams play hockey. There’s a lot of solid youth in this division, as well as a relocated franchise, a team that flung money at the salary cap floor and eventually got there, a recent Cup champ looking to get back to playoffs, a returning conference finalist, and the Washington Capitals. Considering we don’t have to watch any more Atlanta hockey crowds, this division might not be a bad product this year.
We’ll start with the obvious.

1st: Washington Capitals 2010-11: 107 points, 1st in division
The Caps have won the Southeast four years in a row, and I’m picking them to run it to five this year. Washington started last year with a dud — so much so that they were actually the “can this talented group turn it around” team during the lead up to the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. The Caps won that game, and sprinted to the conference’s top seed.
But gone is the goaltender who shined on that day. Semyon Varlamov was shrewdly dealt to Colorado, or the goaltenders’ Bermuda Triangle, in exchange for a first and second round pick, which was amazing considering an offer sheet would have only cost the Avs a second rounder. But yet again the Avalanche did what they do, and I’m still laughing. Losing Varlamov isn’t a positive for the Caps this year, but the loss was offset by the free agent acquisition of veteran Tomas Vokoun from Florida. Vokoun signed a one-year deal for $1.5 million, which is far less than many assumed he would get on the open market. Vokoun cited winning and playing in the playoffs as reasons he wanted to join the Caps, and he should do a bit of both for them this season. Backing him up / competing for the starting job will be last year’s starter, Michal Neuvirth, who was solid all the way around in his first full NHL season. The Capitals have to be considered as having one of the three or four best goalie tandems in the league, and that’s before we even consider likely AHL starter Braden Holtby, who seemed to rock a subzero GAA last year for the big club.
Forward Eric Fehr and defenseman Scott Hannan are both continuing their careers elsewhere this season, as well as a few other bit players. Brought in to “replace” Hannan is Roman Hamrlik, who spent the last four seasons in Montreal and placed fourth in the league last season in blocked shots. Also new to the Caps is fourth line center Jeff Halpern, who played last season in Montreal with Hamrlik. Halpern is solid on faceoffs and should give the Caps a solid 12 minutes a night. Washington also added two wingers who should be able to contribute in different roles. Troy Brouwer played his first three full NHL seasons in Chicago, winning a Stanley Cup in 2010. He now gives the Caps another top ten hitter in the league to add to Alex Ovechkin. Ovie ranked 10th in the NHL last season with 241 registered hits; Brouwer came in 5th with 262. Brouwer chipped in with 36 points for the Blackhawks last season after scoring 40 points in the 2009-10 Cup year.
The final free agent addition for Washington so far was winger Joel Ward, who like Brouwer, is entering his fourth full season in the NHL. Ward came over from Nashville and is now scheduled to cost the Caps $3 million for each of the next four years. Surprisingly, he hasn’t outscored Brouwer in either of the past two seasons. Instead, Ward made his money in the 2011 playoffs, where he registered 13 points in 12 games to help Nashville win its first playoff series in franchise history. Ward appears to be pretty strong and fast when he gets going, although I think he lacks the agility and puck command of a top-level forward. But Ward won’t be expected to be a top-level forward in Washington, and he should be a great fit for a team that needs playoff success in a bad way. Ward and Brouwer both have shown the grit needed to help their teams achieve in the playoffs, and should fit well into their likely third line roles for the Caps.
Offensively, the Caps boast two of the most dynamic players in the entire league in center Nicklas Backstrom and left wing Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin’s “full speed ahead” offensive mentality has won him many fans, but Backstrom possesses a more creative, finessed approach that gives Ovie the freedom to do what he does. Both stars had their point totals drop last year, but neither of them had bad seasons. The team decided to go with a more defensive approach in an effort to set up postseason success, and the change was looking good right up until the Caps were swept by division rival Tampa Bay in the conference semifinals. Backstrom could have done more in the playoffs, and should live up to heightened demands in his fifth NHL season.
On defense, the Capitals appear to be pretty deep. Everyone knows about Mike Green, who likes to pretend he’s a winger and has taken a lot of flack for that over the past year. Green blew up in 2008-09, scoring 31 goals and adding 42 assists in a season that moved him to the head of the class of fantasy defensemen. Green tacked on 76 points the following year before facing scrutiny for his lack of defensive awareness and accountability throughout Washington’s blown 3-1 series lead against 8th-seeded Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. Green struggled with injuries last season, and has essentially been taken off the radar as far as “great defensemen” go (which Green never was to begin with). It is interesting to me that the Washington team as a whole was able to shift its playing style and still achieve the east’s top seed last year, and yet nobody seems to think Green can practice some defense and change his own game. I’ve been very critical of Mike Green in the past, but now it seems everyone has figured it out and overcompensated on the hate. Let’s see if Green can’t put the work in this summer and come back as a more complete defenseman.
Aside from Green, the Caps have a lot of options on the blue line. They resigned Karl Alzner to a relatively cheap deal. Alzner will be 23 throughout the upcoming season, and was tabbed by some of the sharper hockey minds as one of the few restricted free agents that could have actually been worth an offer sheet. Alas, no offer sheet was given, and the Caps now have Alzner back in the fold. Younger and skating even more minutes will be 21 year-old John Carlson, who has shown the offensive potential in his 120 NHL games that has Capitals fans less concerned about Mike Green than they otherwise might be. Carlson has shown flashes while quarterbacking the Caps’ power play, but he still needs to hone his game, which can be said of almost any 21 year-old player.
Washington isn’t all youth on the blue line, as aside from adding Hamrlik, they also bring back Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and Dennis Wideman, who once upon a time was the next big thing on the Bruins’ back line. Wideman had a solid year in 2010-11, scoring 10 goals and adding 30 assists. All four of the latter mentioned players should compete for playing time on the Caps’ defense. It is very possible that the Capitals shed one of these contracts in order to get under the cap and move a player that may not get much playing time. Of course, the easiest way to get under the cap is to move winger Alex Semin, who I did not address earlier because I get bored talking about one-trick ponies who don’t play defense and turn the puck over constantly. Semin’s hands seem to only be soft when he’s shooting the puck, as he reverts back to an ECHL puck-handler most other times. Semin’s goal-scoring can’t be argued with, and he fits in a particular role, but for $6.7 million the Caps could do better. I think they know that, but the problem is, so do most other teams. Semin could be a rental for some other contender, but teams like Washington who are out to win the Stanley Cup rarely are the ones selling the rental players.
2nd: Tampa Bay Lightning 2010-11: 103 points, 2nd in division
The Lightning had a playoff run last season that sets the bar pretty high in GM Steve Yzerman’s and head coach Guy Boucher’s second season in charge. Tampa Bay came back from a 3-1 series deficit at Pittsburgh and followed that with a series sweep of Washington. The Lightning then took a scoreless tie into the third period of Game 7 in Boston before surrendering their season-ender to Nathan Horton. It’s hard to tell a fan base to expect second place and that a trip to the second round of the playoffs would be a good encore, but that’s the way I feel about Tampa Bay right now.
Tampa Bay’s forwards are extremely talented at the very top. Steven Stamkos was second in the league in goals, while Marty St. Louis was second in the league in assists and points. However, after those two, one must wonder where the offensive consistency will come from. Teddy Purcell caught fire toward the end of the season and through the playoffs last year. Vinny Lecavalier continues to be enigmatic as everyone continues to wonder if he’ll ever up his game to his pre-concussion level. He has nine more years left at $7.27 million per, so the Lightning better hope to get some consistency out of him.
After that it’s rather thin. Gone are Simon Gagne and Sean Bergenheim, the former actually being a consistent offensive contributor, while the latter showed grit in the playoffs and was rewarded with a nonsensical contract by the Florida Panthers, who needed to overpay to get to the cap floor. In to replace those two are Tom Pyatt and Ryan Shannon, who are limited offensive players but can help a team win games.
On the blue line is where I’m interested to watch the Lightning this year. They have a budding star in Victor Hedman, the 20 year-old who was the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 entry draft. The 6’6” Swede is entering his third NHL season and will anchor this defense someday soon. I say “someday soon” because the Lightning locked down Eric Brewer to a new four-year contract in July. Brewer was the captain of the St. Louis Blues last season before being traded to Tampa Bay and playing a key defensive role in getting the Lightning to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals. Two new additions to the Lightning defense are Matt Gilroy and Bruno Gervais, who both are physical and probably third liners for this Tampa Bay squad. Ahead of them should be finesse guys Mattias Ohlund and Pavel Kubina, and competing for dressed spots should be Brett Clark and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Of course, things will change from now until October 6, but those are the eight that Tampa Bay has right now. Of them, Hedman and Brewer are clearly the ones to watch.
The Lightning’s once vomit-inducing goaltending situation got more aesthetically pleasing with the trade acquisition of Dwayne Roloson last year, and the team signed the soon-to-be 42 year-old goaltender to a fresh one-year deal before letting Mike Smith walk to Phoenix. Tampa brought in Mathieu Garon from Columbus to serve as Roloson’s backup. Garon started out last season about as hot as Tim Thomas, but faded to a .901 save percentage while being beaten out by the crowned prince of Columbus’ nets, Steve Mason. Roloson and Garon make for one of the least sexy goalie tandems in the league, but assuming Roloson can stave off aging for another year, the Tampa crease should be alright.
3rd: Carolina Hurricanes 2010-11: 91 points, 3rd in division
Picking Carolina to finish ahead of Winnipeg after losing big, goal-scoring winger Erik Cole seems ill-advised, but it is based largely on two players: Cam Ward and Eric Staal. Ward led all NHL goalies last year in games played, shots against, and saves (by over 200). His .923 save percentage tied Carey Price and was only bested by three goalies who had 50+ games played: Tim Thomas, Pekka Rinne and Roberto Luongo, who were the three Vezina finalists in 2011. I think Ward is a tremendous NHL goaltender who can be counted on to carry similar peripheral numbers this season while potentially getting more than 8 games off, which is what he got last season while starting 74. The Canes signed Brian Boucher from Philadelphia, who no longer had need of the player after signing Ilya Bryzgalov to his big nine-year deal. Boucher is much-maligned, but he gives the Canes a veteran presence at the backup goalie position that they didn’t have last year. Youngster Justin Peters started the eight games that Ward didn’t, and Peters did not progress at all in having an .875 save percentage. Even with Boucher though, I would expect Ward to start 65 games this season.
Staal gives Carolina an elite center that Winnipeg and Florida do not possess. If hockey teams are built through the middle, as the old adage goes, then Carolina is building well. After Triple Gold Club member Staal, Carolina has Brandon Sutter and Tuomo Ruutu, both of which contribute offensively while Sutter continues to develop as an NHL center. Behind them Carolina has new addition Tim Brent to center the fourth line. The Canes hope that center prospect Zac Dalpe can get some action with the big club as well this year, but he’ll only get an extended opportunity if he can help the team win, as the Canes are coming off a 9th place finish in the east last year, and are only three seasons removed from making the conference finals (and six removed from winning the Stanley Cup). So while building for the future is very important, the Canes definitely want a return to the playoffs in 2012.
On the wings will be newly-signed Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jussi Jokinen and returning rookie-of-the-year Jeff Skinner. The Canes also brought in the older brother of St. Louis Blues stud forward Chris Stewart, whose name is Anthony. The elder Stewart appears to be a JV version of Chris, but can contribute offensively at times. Younger but more talented are prospects Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk, who like Dalpe, the Hurricanes would love to be able to develop at the NHL level this season as well. It all depends on how the youngsters play and what the team’s goals are as the season moves on.
The Hurricanes are led on defense by Joni Pitkanen, who skates, scores, hits and blocks. Carolina signed recent Cup winner Tomas Kaberle, who said that his brother Frantisek’s advice played a role in signing with Carolina. Frantisek Kaberle scored the game-winning goal for Carolina in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers. Carolina has three more D men to compete for top-four spots in Tim Gleason, Bryan Allen and Jamie McBain. All three blocked at least 103 blocked shots last year, while Gleason recorded 215 hits. McBain had the most offensive success last year, and is only 23 years old. My best guess is that Gleason and McBain join Kaberle and Pitkanen on Carolina’s top four.
A playoff appearance is possible for the Hurricanes this year, but so is a regression after the loss of Cole and the difficulty that Cam Ward will have to repeat his awesome 2010-11 season.
4th: Winnipeg Jets 2010-11: 80 points, 4th in division
This is just exciting. Winnipeg has an NHL team again. In fact, it had been about as long that Winnipeg had been absent from the NHL as it was that they were around (1979-1996 as the Jets; 1996-2011 absent). But it’s good to have them back, mainly because they provide another venue where the people care a lot about hockey. No matter how well the Thrashers played or who was in town, it was hard to watch their home games on the NHL package for more than five minutes. If nobody in the building cares, why should I from my living room? That problem is now solved for one franchise.
On the ice, the Jets should have the opportunity to compete. For one, they play in the one division in the east that could yield some easier victories. I think the Southeast should get better, but it certainly isn’t the division the Atlantic is. It could compete with the Northeast, but if we had to say one of the two divisions would get three teams into the playoffs, I think more people would go with the Northeast than the Southeast. If Winnipeg can take their divisional opponents and find a home-ice advantage that they lacked in going 17-17-7 in Atlanta last year, then the Jets can post a solid point total this year.
The most important swing player for the Jets this year is goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. Pavs memorably fainted a few minutes into the season last year against Washington, but came back and played pretty well for a good stretch of the season. Pavelec didn’t free fall a la Mathieu Garon, but he did end with a .914, which was only good enough for 23rd in the league. When the Thrashers traded super-talent Kari Lehtonen to Dallas near the end of 2009-10, they did so with the thought that Pavelec had talent close to Lehtonen’s, and could figure out the mental and consistency parts of being a starting NHL goaltender. As Pavelec enters the final year of his contract, this is the year that he has to put it together. He’ll be given every opportunity to start ahead of backup Chris Mason, and I think Pavelec is the key to helping this Jets team establish an identity early and push for third place in the division in year one. Ultimately, I have them coming up just short, but Pavs is the one guy who can up his level of play and get Winnipeg over an important hump.
I like Winnipeg’s defensemen. Tobias Enstrom is shifty and provides the offense a lifeline, while converted winger Dustin Byfuglien set the league on fire early last year before petering out. Byfuglien needs to improve his fitness level to be able to play over 20 minutes a game while not costing the Jets too much defensively. The Jets should have Zach Bogosian back on D, and he helps more defensively than the two offensive-minded blue liners in front of him. Winnipeg will have other options defensively, including Johnny Oduya, Ron Hainsey, Mark Stuart and the newly-acquired Randy Jones, who comes over from divisional opponent Tampa Bay.
Winnipeg’s forwards lack superstar talent, but they are solid and can succeed playing the right kind of hockey. First off, Andrew Ladd is a hell of an NHL player. I was happy to see him get off of that Chicago team that was disgustingly good in 2009-10. Ladd captained the Thrashers last year and should do the same for the Jets this year. He is a banger who creates goals through hard work and a physicality that Southeast defensemen were unwilling to match last season. That softness should largely go away this year, and Ladd will have to do even more to develop his offensive game and help the Jets score goals. Ladd has Evander Kane, Nik Antropov and Blake Wheeler to help fire some goals home. Alexander Burmistrov should be exciting to watch in his second NHL season. The 19 year-old was the 8th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and played 74 games last season as a true rookie. If he can speed up his development into the player that the Jets think he should turn out to be, there’s no reason he can’t be a contributor for Winnipeg this season given the rookie successes of Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner and others from that 2010 draft class.
5th: Florida Panthers 2010-11: 72 points, 5th in division
This is sad to do, but I have to take Florida fifth in the division at this point. They went out and added ten players in the last month, and while many of them are overpaid, it doesn’t really matter when you’re around the cap floor anyway. The Panthers have the roster to finish third in this division; I have no doubt of that. But I don’t love them at goalie this season, and I think it should take time for a team full of new faces to find their identity and jell as a squad.
Defensively, the Panthers have a couple big names and a couple young guys who they hope can earn their way into increased roles this season. GM Dale Tallon brought in Brian Campbell from Chicago and Ed Jovanovski from Phoenix to anchor the blue line, and in doing so actually gave Florida one of the better top-twos in the league, should they play together. Dmitry Kulikov was the 14th pick in 2009 and is entering his third season. Kulikov now has a couple of really solid guys to learn from, and these acquisitions should only bring Kulikov along faster. The Panthers also gave a big entry level contract to Erik Gudbranson, who was the 3rd overall pick in 2010. They expect Gudbranson to compete for a spot on the roster in camp, and there’s little doubt that he’s a big part of Florida’s future. But as far as this year goes, we’re looking at a rookie defenseman who has increased his per game output in both points and penalty minutes in his three seasons with Kingston in the OHL. The Panthers also have Mike Weaver and Keaton Ellerby on defense, but the player I like more than either of them is Jason Garrison, who enters the final year of his contract and looked to me like a guy who can succeed in the NHL last season when he skated 22:17 per game and totaled 136 hits and 127 blocks.
The Panthers weren’t able to score any forwards with the talent that would equate to a Campbell of Jovanovski, but they did bring in some guys who should be able to give them something. But in my opinion, their best offensively player is David Booth, a guy they already had on the roster. Joining Booth are Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc and Matt Bradley. Returning for the Panthers are Booth, Stephen Weiss, Mike Santorelli and a few other players of expected lesser consequence.
In net, the Panthers are expected to roll out another new acquisition: 2002 league MVP Jose Theodore. Also on the roster is Scott Clemmensen, who certainly can be seen as competing with Theodore for starts due to the fact that Clemmensen has a heartbeat. In the long-term, neither of these players should have a huge role in the future of the team thanks to the fact that they are just keeping the throne warm for super-prospect Jacob Markstrom. The young Swede is returning from injury but should be fine for the upcoming season. It is conceivable that Markstrom could make the Panthers this season, but I’m not sure that Florida brass will want to have their future sitting on the bench rather than starting in the AHL. It would be fun to see Markstrom at the NHL level this year, but I think it’s unlikely that they will want to trot him out behind a group of skaters that have no experience together. Expect Markstrom to be the starter in 2012-13, but maybe not until then. Of course, if things go south again for the Panthers, they may let the kid take the reigns late this season.
Conclusion — While the Southeast may not carry the year-to-year intrigue of most other divisions in the NHL, this season might be a good one to start paying more attention to these teams. But when all is said and done, I’m picking an order of finish that mirrors 2010-11.
For the most part, hockey culture has always been a step ahead in terms of toughness, respect, maturity and balance of mind. But as our nation of simps continues to stretch its tentacles, sometimes even the hockey world falls victim to the wrong kind of thinking.
Never is this meaningless bravado more evident than at the trade deadline and the offseason. These are the times when teams are attempting to bolster their rosters and have to make tough decisions regarding the on-ice personnel of the franchise. They are also the times when mistakes are made that can set a franchise back.

My two arguments can basically be summed up by the following two statements: 1) Talk is cheap, so don’t worry about making statements with your roster moves; and 2) Don’t be a simp — trade the player while you still can.

Before we go further, I want to say that I believe that most NHL owners and general managers do a pretty good job. Most front offices are doing a respectable job, and the congestion of last season’s final standings offer evidence of as much. Up to 27 teams have either playoff hopes or at least something to sell to their fans in terms of buying low and getting in on the new look of the team early, before it potentially grows into a really good squad. I think the latter depicts teams like Ottawa, Edmonton, Columbus and Florida, while the former describes almost every other team in the league. For the record, I believe Colorado and the New York Islanders offer neither in the short term, and although New Jersey certainly has playoff hopes this year, they still have some explaining to do.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk about the two dumbest lines of thinking when it comes to the magical dates of hockey buzz that are the trade deadline and the commencement of free agency.

Sign Players Based on Reality, Not Perception

First, we’ll deal with the offseason. There is a lot of rhetoric in the entire world of sports that says that a team must either resign its star players or go out and add other star players so that the team “makes a statement” of its intent to compete or shows that it has top-level ambition. I know that once a phrase gets repeated enough it becomes the de facto truth, but that does not make it true. This idea that a team must sign high ticket players in order to show that it is serious about winning is absurd. The reason to sign players to larger-than-warranted contracts is to win, not to give the impression that the team is trying to win.
This whole line of thinking misses the point, and furthers one of the most astounding false philosophies in the history of competitive sports: that perception is reality. This phrase originated as a way to basically say that there are multiple sides to every story, that what you perceive is your reality and what I perceive is my reality. Who is to say who is right? This is a legitimate issue for philosophy, science, literature and the like, but it has absolutely no place in professional sports.
Perception is not reality in professional sports. The scoreboard is reality. The standings are reality. The championship is reality. Sports are not a philosophical debate, nor a study into anti-realism. Professional sports are decided based on a set of league rules for determining a champion based on quantitative results of games that are also played according to league rules. That’s it. That’s what sports are.
I am not suggesting that sports are nothing else. Sure, teams are important to communities and people’s sense of identity. They give people the ability to blow off steam or forget about their troubles for a time. Teams offer kids the dreams of one day playing on those teams. Teams offer a boost to local economies.
But I’m arguing against this growing social media culture that seems to be forgetting that ultimately the goal is to achieve your goal. That sounds stupid and obvious, but really look at the way we analyze sports. Hockey isn’t quite as bad as the rest of the big North American sports, but we still see some of the same overused quotes. Right now, the big story in Major League Baseball is whether the N.Y. Mets, who have no money, are forced to hold onto star shortstop Jose Reyes for the rest of the season and attempt to sign him to a new contract in the winter. Mets ownership has stated that it wants to sign Reyes as proof to their fans that they are in it to win it. That’s the stupidest reason to make a move I’ve ever heard. Reyes is in the final year of his contract and has been toying with the Mets since signing an extension five years ago. He has told the team he will not participate in contract negotiations for the rest of the season, “because he wants to focus on baseball.” That’s a veiled excuse. It should read, “because he is pretty sure he doesn’t want to play for this team past the expiration of his contract.”
I digress into the Reyes MLB case study because it touches on both points I want to make regarding the hockey offseason and trade deadline. Since we are talking about the offseason, let’s look at it from the perspective of a team trying to sign a player. July 1 looked a lot like what Republicans have been forecasting for decades now — hyper-inflation. On that day, the terms of each contract were more jaw-dropping than the ones prior, and it got to a point where Brad Richards almost looks underpaid after signing with the N.Y. Rangers on July 2. In fact, after the initial day of free agency, many players have been signed to deals that are financially favorable to the franchises. So what happened on July 1?
People lost their minds. People felt desperate to keep up with the Joneses. People felt that perception was reality. The perception was that if my team is one that is going out and landing players, then my team is a player in the game, and this will translate to wins on the ice. And I agree that teams like Buffalo and Florida got better on July 1, but did every franchise out there get good value and set itself up for a solid future? Some did, some didn’t. Only time will tell for certain who the losers were on 1 July 2011, but there will certainly be some.
Last year gave us a perfect example of what can happen when a hockey team becomes obsessed with creating an image of strength, and figuring that this perceived strength will translate to actual on-ice success, and that example was the New Jersey Devils. The Devils thrived for many years playing their hard-working, trapping defensive style along with an emphasis on puck and positional responsibility in all three zones. They used this uncoined “sixty minutes of hell” philosophy to wear down opponents en route to Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. Then, near the trade deadline in 2010, the Devils acquired the offensively flamboyant Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta, a team that refused to be simped and dealt their star winger when they felt like he wasn’t going to resign with the Thrashers after his contract expired in less than five months.
The acquisition of Kovalchuk was admirable; it signaled that New Jersey understood that it could use an infusion of scoring, and that its championship window with Martin Brodeur was starting to close. Ultimately, the move didn’t work out, as the division champion Devils were bounced by Atlantic rivals Philadelphia in the first round. Kovalchuk can hardly be blamed for the loss, but the fact remained that the experiment didn’t work out, and that could have been the end of it.
Photo courtesy
Ah, the old saying: It’s all fun and games until a defensive-minded team ties up a ton of its salary cap for the next fifteen years on a winger that doesn’t get back on defense and turns the puck over. If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it one time.

But that was not the end of it, and the Devils might end up paying dearly for their commitment to perception. New Jersey didn’t let the Kovalchuk thing go, and there was constant deflection from the moment the trade was made that the Devils were not simply renting Kovalchuk, despite what everybody was thinking. It seems as if the Devils were so committed to debunking the idea that they rented Kovalchuk for the 2010 playoffs knowing that they couldn’t afford him in the offseason that they went against every grain of their identity and ended up signing the Russian winger to a 15-year contract, despite the fact that he makes little effort to get back on defense or play “Devils hockey.” Kovalchuk’s cap hit is currently $6.67 million per season for the next 14 years (as always, per The Devils finished 11th in the Eastern Conference last year. What’s worse is that they now might not have enough money to keep Zach Parise on board. Parise is a RFA who has epitomized “Devils hockey” in the last few years, but now the Devils only have about $7.8 million to add four players to finalize their roster. It would still cost another team a lot of draft picks to sign Parise to an offer sheet, but unlike the situation in Tampa with Steven Stamkos, there is a decent chance that the Devils simply could not match a high offer from another team for Parise.
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Wait, you signed a lesser LW to a fifteen-year contract without checking with Zach Parise (above) first? I heard the New York Knicks were looking for a GM…

If the Devils were to lose Parise, it would solidify their summer 2010 descent to the dark side in which they forgot who they were and ended up much worse off because of it. Quite simply, Zach Parise wins more NHL games than Ilya Kovalchuk. They play the same position, which is its own study of insanity. So what happened? Why would a franchise make a move that is so contrary to its historical mantra? Quite simply, the Devils were too concerned with making a statement of intent, with trying to prove some twisted form of ambition, with how they would be perceived, with things that are irrelevant.
There are many front offices that have largely resisted the urge to overspend or forget what their team is built around, but one that sticks out in this offseason is that of the Detroit Red Wings. General manager Ken Holland had money to blow for the first time in many offseasons when Brian Rafalski abruptly retired, and in doing so, gave Holland and the Red Wings $6 million to play with.
Rafalski hung up the skates, giving Detroit an unexpected $6 million hole to fill.

Many people were assuming that the Wings would be very active on July 1. The Wings were supposed to find a way to replace Rafalski and bolster the lineup in an effort to get over San Jose and Vancouver in the west; to hold off Chicago and Nashville in the division; to keep up with Los Angeles, who acquired a true NHL star in Mike Richards from Philadelphia in late June. After all, what would the Wings be saying if they failed to make some big signings?
But Holland played it cool. He brought back a few of his own free agents in Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves and Jonathan Ericsson. Then he went out and signed two right-handed defensemen (Mike Commodore and Ian White) for a total of less than $4 million in an effort to replace Rafalski by committee, which was the only way it could have possibly been done anyway. What would have been the point of going out and getting a guy like Tomas Kaberle (who shoots left, by the way) for close to as much money as Rafalski vacated? To put it in better perspective, why pay Kaberle 70% of what you’re paying Nicklas Lidstrom? He doesn’t give you anywhere near 70% of Lidstrom’s returns.
Regarding the situation with Lidstrom, having the reigning Norris winner coming back for what many assume is a final year could have only added pressure on Holland to go out and mortgage the future for the best possible chance to win the 2012 Cup. Once Lidstrom heads home to Sweden for good, there is a real chance that the Red Wings take a step back in the central division. Therefore, there exists a strong urgency for the Red Wings to grab that one last Stanley Cup as an icing on the cake for one of the great fifteen-year runs in recent league history. But Holland and the Wings’ front office have resisted the urge to sacrifice the future by dealing prospects, unloading draft picks, and spending cash irrationally. The result is a franchise that looks like it has an infrastructure that is set up to add many more years to its already best active playoff streak of 20 straight seasons. And it’s all because they didn’t sign players to bad contracts in a frantic chase for immediate gratification. They didn’t trade away youngsters who continue to come into their own with either the big club or in Grand Rapids. They didn’t deal away draft picks for aging, overpaid players whose best years are in the rearview.
Of course, sticking with this philosophy may not lead to any more Stanley Cups for the Red Wings, but it certainly leaves them with a better chance to be at least a contender for years to come than had they abandoned their mantras and tried to leverage a champion by adding unmovable parts that don’t fit with the squad. The Wings worried about reality instead of perception, and as a result, they have a 22-man roster that looks pretty formidable for even the best teams in the league. They have only a backup goalie left to sign, and after doing so the team should have almost all of Rafalski’s surrendered cap space to hold on to. Having this extra cash allows the Wings to either chase some replacements in the 2012 offseason, or make some deadline deals this year to bring in some considerable upgrades that may have expiring contracts. In case you’re wondering, there is a better class of 2012 free agents than the one we have spent the last week tracking, and those are the players that get moved the most in late February.
Which brings me to my next point…
Trade Your Impending UFAs (If You Can’t Win the Cup Now)
If your team is able to dodge the panic bullet in the offseason, fear not, as there is still another period where the ticking of a clock can make people with authority act crazy. In the offseason, the ticking clock is the one that displays the time left on a player’s free agency. Once that player agrees to terms with one team, time has run out. There is no knowing when this will be, and that adds some urgency to every team bidding on an individual player.
But in the case of the trade deadline, the time of the clock’s expiration is known. Many teams still feel the crunch when it comes time to decide whether to keep players or rebuild, and likewise for those teams trying to decide which piece(s) to add to make a run for the Stanley Cup.
In most instances where a good team tries to bolster up, I tend not to criticize these good teams for overpaying or bringing in a rental. After all, my team has won four Cups in my lifetime, and I know how awesome it is to win one. There’s no knowing for sure whether the Boston Bruins would have won this past Cup without the trade deadline acquisition of Kaberle, although many of his detractors are probably scoffing at this right now. But the fact is they brought in a guy that was pretty polarizing amongst fans and analysts, and it resulted in a championship. I’m not sure that you can’t put a price on winning the Cup, but whatever that price may be, it is much higher than the one the Bruins paid to rent Kaberle for a few months. So fair play, and congratulations.

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Tomas Kaberle in the only place he ever wants to be: just inside the opponent’s blue line.

But enough about the good teams who have a legitimate shot to win the Stanley Cup; let’s talk about the teams that don’t. If a team has a coveted player that is in the final year of his contract, and the team has no chance to win the Stanley Cup in the current season, then the player must be traded. This year saw two prime examples of teams that have no chance to win the ultimate prize failing to trade off sought-after pieces that were leaving the franchise in the offseason anyway.
Now more than ever, players are interested in winning. Blasphemy, you say? Here’s what I’m not saying: that players in previous eras did not try to win as much as those in the current era. That is not my point at all. My point is: as the world has moved on, athletes have become more likely to leave a franchise that treats them well in exchange for a better chance at winning a championship. Sure, money plays a factor in these deals for a lot of players, but for prime time players the offers are largely the same. It’s a lot of money to go to Team A, or a lot of money to go to Team B.
This season, the Dallas Stars sat on center Brad Richards the entire season, only to eventually finish 9th in the west because they couldn’t win a game on the last night of the season against the city that they used to play in. Had they won that game, they would have had to defeat Vancouver, San Jose, and then the winner of a Detroit – Nashville series to win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and advance to play the Bruins. There was no chance this was going to happen. None. To make matters worse, Richards had given every indication that he was not going to sign a new contract with the Stars. When one party in a relationship says it likes the idea of “testing the waters,” it’s usually a good time for the other party to trade the other one in.

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Everyone knew 2010-11 was the last season for this. Everyone but Dallas Stars brass.

In the east, the Florida Panthers were holding onto goalie Tomas Vokoun, who had given no indication that he wanted to continue with the losing club. Vokoun played last season at the age of 34, and had already been making solid money. There was every indication that Vokoun wanted to play out the rest of his days with a playoff team, and yet the Panthers failed to deal the keeper. And this situation was even worse than the one in Dallas, because Florida did not have the excuses of ownership limbo or competing for the last playoff spot to offer as reasons to hold onto Vokoun. Quite simply, there was no reason to hold onto Vokoun until the end of his contract. None at all. There was no upside. The Panthers finished last in the eastern conference with Vokoun. How much worse could it have been without him?
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“But I don’t wanna trade Vokoun; we’ll only get pennies on the dollar.” Okay then, take nothing instead.

It is true that when every other team believes that a team has to trade a player, the result is lowered value for the team that is “forced” to trade a Richards or Vokoun. But if the player is drawing attention from multiple teams, then the holders are not forced to trade them to any one team. Even if the value for those players is lower than it “should have been,” stubbornness is a terrible reason to refuse to get something in return for an asset that you know is departing anyway. And make no mistake about it, Dallas and Florida knew these two players were leaving, because remember, players want to play on winning teams now. Especially players in their thirties. So, what does it matter if you can only get one prospect or one or two draft picks? That’s more than what you will get if you just sit around and wait to miss the playoffs or get smashed in the first round by holding onto these guys who are dying to get out. For all of these reasons, I think the failure to trade Vokoun was one of the most inexplicable failures to boost a franchise that I’ve seen. He was not coming back. He didn’t fit in with your upcoming offseason plans. You finished last in the conference anyway, and got nothing for him except freed up salary, which you don’t use and would have had anyway by trading him. Find me a worse theoretical non-trade in hockey.
Perhaps the biggest problem that leads to these teams consistently failing to trade players who are upcoming UFAs and want to play on winning teams is that the front office members are too close to the situation. Of course, this is naturally how it has to be. If a person works for a team, they are closely aligned with that team. But this creates subjectivity, which is another way to say that the natural tendency is to plan for your team’s future with emotions involved. It’s impossible to be an emotionless robot, but perhaps teams should start bringing in some more objective consultants who know a bit about the game, but have no dog in the fight (besides this single-job paycheck).
Every general manager and owner has a tendency to see his team’s situation or brand as better than it is, which takes us back to that perception versus reality thing. The front office’s perception is that their organization is on the way up and is a great place to play, so that is their reality. Players who are free agents get to take a look at every team, and they get to perceive teams’ situations the way they will, and that becomes their realities. This failure to see their own overrating of themselves probably plays a role in why certain non-contending teams are unable to come to grips with where their teams really stand in the pecking order. This leads to holding onto a pipe dream of resigning a player who up to this point has not signed a contract extension.
The Marisa Miller Conundrum

Let’s put this in gentlemens’ terms. It’s going to be hard to draw a perfect parallel, since there is the dynamic of a franchise owning a player’s rights, but we’ll give it a try. Ladies, if you can’t put yourself in a man’s shoes, then substitute the female names with male ones, and it should all make sense.
So you’re a man somewhere between the ages of 26 and 35. At the current time, you have convinced all-world supermodel Marisa Miller to date you. In fact, it’s going alright, and you’ve got half a mind to propose.

Photo courtesy FHM
Marisa Miller: Sure, I’m the worldwide #1, but I have every intention to stay with your team, regular schmoe. What’s that, sign an extension? Well, not today, but…

But here’s the thing: for some reason, whether it be for work, school, something, there is a point in time coming where the two of you will have to be in separate halves of the world for the foreseeable future. This point in time is coming in, say, three months. You know from previous experience that the odds of maintaining a successful long-distance relationship are about 7 to 1. Those odds are made worse by the fact that she is Marisa Miller, and you’re you.

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Oh, hi incredibly mediocre boyfriend that struggles to compete for the playoffs. Don’t be silly, I’m not going anywhere. I look terrible without makeup!

Okay, so now you’re getting a little antsy, and you bring up the topic of marriage. Never mind the fact that Miller is married in real life — for the purposes of this experiment, she is not and has never been married. Upon your prodding, she admits that she is unsure of the whole idea, and would need more time to decide were “someone” to pop the question to her today. Again, you know that if three months pass, you are not getting a “yes.”
Here’s a wrinkle: because you are known to currently be dating Miller exclusively, female interest in you has picked up. You get word through backchannels that Alison Brie and Adrianne Palicki have let it slip that they would very much like to get to know you. Again, insert whatever names you want. The point is that you now have two lesser-known, younger-but-currently-less-hot professionals that want to play for your team (a.k.a. date you), and remember that this hypo has an American author, thus the particular names.

                        Photo courtesy
Adrianne Palicki was wondering if you were free next Saturday night.

Alison Brie: If he’s cool enough to land Marisa Miller, of course I’d be interested. Photo via.
Now, the flipside to this wrinkle is that their interest in you, rightly or wrongly, is based on you being able to lock down this supermodel that they admire. If Miller dumps you, this interest will disappear. If you try to cheat, Miller will dump you. If you let the three-month period expire and your relationship with Miller ceases to continue, the interest from the other women will disappear.
Quick: what do you do?
Here’s what you do if you’re a simp: you ride out the three-month period with Miller despite being given every indication that she is not interested in signing a long-term extension (engagement) with you. Then when that period ends, you throw up a hail mary of love, Roy Williams-style, and propose to a woman who has no reason to want to accept. One of you is leaving; she is embarking on a big upturn in her career / life. In other words, she’s going to test the waters.

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Yeah, it’s a $3 million bra, but I might stay with you, middle of the pack team — I mean boyfriend. Let’s just ride this out, and we’ll decide on a new contract in the summer, okay?

You get rejected, and now have no leverage to turn your previously good position into any assets at all.
Here’s what you do if you’re objective and looking to build a future that will always be relevant: you trade Miller, a highly coveted partner, for the chance to see what happens with two younger potential partners who are interested. I know this isn’t exactly how it works in the real world of relationships, but in some ways it kind of is. And it’s the best I could do to parallel the situations of hockey front offices with impending UFA players.
By waiting the Marisa Miller situation out, the guy ends up with nothing and has to start from scratch. By not trading guys like Brad Richards or Tomas Vokoun, the Stars and Panthers get absolutely nothing in exchange for the players leaving, which the teams should have known was going to happen anyway.

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Alison reminds you that the trade deadline is coming, and you ain’t winning the Cup with Marisa this year. Whatcha gonna do?

By making the tough decision and cutting ties with Miller, the guy ends up keeping his dignity and parlaying that into an opportunity to see if he can’t build a winner with Brie or Palicki.

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Adrianne: “No, but really though. Hi. I’m from Toledo.”

Comparatively, by trading players that either aren’t coming back or will have diminishing returns for prospects and/or draft picks, a team gives itself a chance to build something with players that it would not have otherwise had if it did the weak thing and let the UFA hang around and bolt upon the expiration of his contract. The Toronto Maple Leafs did a solid job of unloading Kaberle and Kris Versteeg to competing rivals Boston and Philadelphia. Sure, Versteeg wasn’t an impending UFA, but he is going to be a RFA after this upcoming season, and there wasn’t much of a chance he’d be a Leaf after that. They traded Marisa Miller in for a shot at future success. Kudos.
There were other teams that did a good job of realizing who they were, including the Panthers. Dale Tallon, Michael Yormark and the boys in Florida were able to unload Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen, Michael Frolik, Dennis Wideman and others in order to set themselves up for this summer and beyond. But that one question remains: why not Vokoun? It doesn’t matter if the offers weren’t “good enough,” because the fact was that Vokoun was leaving for free this summer. Get something while you can.
Not All Overspending Is Warrantless
There were a few teams that have overspent this month for good reason. In general, I believe that you should always be looking for value as a consumer of anything, including hockey players. But in the case of our beloved Florida Panthers, they were kind of forced into signing players to inflated deals just to reach the salary cap floor of $48.3 million. The team is currently at $49.8 million with only one player left to roster. When we look at it that way, paying Scottie Upshall $3.5 million this season doesn’t look nearly as bad. It looks almost necessary. Who else were they going to pay that money to? The answer is likely to a player who is even less deserving of it.

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Easy there, Tallon. I said you did a good job overall. Just don’t get the Vokoun thing.

Another team that turned heads in the past two weeks is the Buffalo Sabres. Some people have been using that patented line to say that the Sabres are signing all of these big-time players to bigger-time deals in order to show everyone that they are serious about chasing the Cup. I think it’s probably more that they are actually chasing the Cup. And when we look at the makeup of the squad now, there really isn’t much room to criticize the moves of this offseason. Most of the bad deals that they have on the books date back to before Terry Pegula bought the team this winter (see Ales Kotalik, Tomas Vanek). On top of that reprieve, Ryan Miller is a week from his 31st birthday. Miller is in the prime of his career, but that won’t last forever. There are another few years where the Sabres may boast the best goaltender in the game, and they wanted to go out and acquire the requisite offense to support their 2010 Vezina winner. Again, these were solid deals because they were based on reality, and not perception.
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Buffalo Savior: Terry Pegula is the Buffalo Sabres new owner, and he gives a damn.

The last team I’ll touch upon before bringing this entry to a long-awaited close is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets lost some players this offseason, including Upshall, Commodore, Mathieu Garon and Jan Hejda, but they added a couple big-time players as well. Right before the month of June ended, Columbus acquired the rights to defenseman James Wisniewski, who was on the radar of many good teams in the NHL. The Jackets were able to sign Wiz by throwing a slightly front-loaded six-year contract his way that averages $5.5 million per season. Adding Wisniewski helps the team win hockey games, but it also aligns with the one instance in which making a perception signing is allowable — when a team needs to add fans. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still stupid to run a team based on trying to conjure up perceptions of ambition rather than building an actual on-ice winner, but teams like Columbus and some of the southern teams do actually need to create some interest. Of course, the best way to do this is to win, but signing a guy like Wiz does both.
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James Wisniewski and his awesome white stick got PAID.

Prior to acquiring Wisniewski, the Jackets were one-half of Philadelphia’s blockbuster June 23rd when they traded for Flyers center Jeff Carter. I’ve been critical of Carter in the past based on the length and terms of his contract, but on a team that is mired in fifth in its division in terms of franchise prestige, Carter is a relatively solid offensive pickup. Carter has eleven years left on a contract that carries a $5.27 million cap hit, and a known full no-trade clause from 2012-13 to 2014-15, but I’m not sure the Blue Jackets had the option to continue to sit back and fail. There have been whispers about the team being forced to shut down operations in Columbus for a little while now, and the last thing the front office wants is to engineer a team that had to move or contract. Never mind the fact that they’d all be out of jobs; it’s an embarrassing failure to be at the helm for that sort of thing. So in the case of Columbus, well done for giving off the perception of trying to win. Now, it’s time to merge perception with reality.