NHL Free Agency

Every now and then, an idea comes along that revolutionizes a company, an industry, or even the world. I’d like to present you with an idea that will probably never come to fruition, but is worth a minute or two of contemplation based simply on the possibility that it could.
There has been a lot of talk regarding the situation on the Nashville blue line this season. More specifically, everyone is wondering when and where Shea Weber and Ryan Suter will sign on the dotted line.
One of my favorite hockey people, Jeff Marek, recently brought up an interesting possibility on his and co-host Greg Wyshynski’s podcast regarding the fates and futures of the Preds’ two young defensive studs.
All of the upcoming speculation is entirely dependent upon the mindsets and personal preferences of Weber, and to a greater extent, Suter. Since nobody who will talk really knows, all we are left to do is speculate.
The majority view is that Ryan Suter probably does not want to sign a contract with the Predators for a single cent less than Weber’s. Perhaps Suter has been the good sidekick long enough, and wants to be paid in a way that reflects the quality of player that he knows in his mind that he has been and will continue to be. Maybe there’s even a little excitement at getting away from “big brother,” in the same fashion that I believe exists with Bobby Ryan in his relationship with Anaheim Ducks teammate and fraternity president Ryan Getzlaf.
To take it a step further, maybe Suter thinks about legacy. The man is already the son of a man who helped to perform the Miracle on Ice, as well as the nephew of NHL great Gary Suter, who tallied an impressive 845 points in 1,145 big league games as a defenseman. Gary’s 1,349 penalty minutes don’t foster a legacy of Suters playing second fiddle to a big, bad caveman force of a blue liner either.

It could be that Ryan Suter wants to win Stanley Cups, which many people argue probably will not be accomplished in Nashville given the Preds’ paltry payroll policies. It could also be that he wants to go down in history as a number one, which many more people assert can never be achieved as long as Weber is on the same roster, let alone pairing. If this is the predominant emotion going through Suter’s head, then he probably will not be playing with Weber next season.
But regardless of how perpetual man’s need to be perceived as a top dog and remembered through the generations might be, not all people are governed by such insecurities. What if instead of going all Anakin Skywalker and crying about Shea Kenobi holding him back, Suter instead is moved by being half of a whole? What if he realizes how the pairing is in many ways the perfect pairing for today’s NHL? Suter shoots left; Weber shoots right. Both skate flawlessly. Weber drops the hammer to the tune of 89 hits through 42 games this season. Suter is slightly the more technical defensive player. Both have 15 points on special teams this season. Weber has 63 blocked shots; Suter has 60. They each have a responsible 26 penalty minutes this year. They both register in the plus department regularly (each has had just one minus season since being in the show, and both are scheduled to go plus again this time around). They were even drafted within hours of each other in 2003 — Suter went 7th, while Weber went 49th. And as is indicative of his slightly more threatening offensive game, Weber has 9 goals and 23 assists to Suter’s 5 and 20. The gap isn’t nearly what the “Shea Weber is by far the better player” camp would lead you to believe.
So despite being the son of a man on the 1980 Miracle team and the nephew of an all-time great, being drafted ahead of his now-more-coveted playing partner and putting up extremely similar numbers, Suter remains subservient to Weber in the minds of all the people that don’t matter. Hell, he even deferred to Brian Rafalski whilst the U.S. was cruising to the gold medal game in the 2010 Olympic Games largely behind Suter’s lockdown defensive play and smooth transitions to offense.
But what if Suter doesn’t care? What if he’s able to see the forest through the trees and decides that he rather enjoys playing with another great defenseman who is as talented and dedicated to his craft as Suter himself? Perhaps most importantly, what if Suter decides that his best chance at winning a Stanley Cup is making the move that also ensures he’ll never be nominated for a Norris? After all, playoff hockey shrinks the rink, and the teams that win are the ones that are able to play a tougher style than those that perenially flame out to lower seeded teams. What better way to keep the puck out of the net than to roll with a stud like Weber?
If Suter and Weber are open to the possibility of playing together for many more years, the question then becomes where. The first and most obvious answer is Nashville. For one, Weber is only scheduled to become a restricted free agent this summer, meaning it would be more difficult to get out of town if he wanted to do so. But secondly, the Preds have more than enough cap space to sign both players to whatever contracts they reasonably wanted. The real question revolves around whether the Predators actually have the cash to make the deals, and also whether they would want to. They have young defensemen to restock the shelves with, and it would be hard to imagine a franchise that perennially hovers around the salary cap floor to up and give $24 million or so to three players every year (goaltender Pekka Rinne of course being the third).
If the Predators can’t or won’t pay Weber and Suter like kings, and for argument’s sake we are assuming that the two would like to play together, what team could and would sign them?
At this point, many fans write this Miami Heatles-esque scenario off as not within the framework of the honor of the hockey player, but I disagree. First of all, this league is a business. Second, to go to separate teams in the name of garnering that maximum contract amount and top dog on the blue line status would actually be less “honorable” the way I understand it. It would be putting money and perception ahead of winning and professional or even personal friendship. 
Third, we’ve seen this before. Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne became so intertwined that “Kariya & Selanne” became an actual phrase in the late ‘90s while the pair sunburned opposing goalies’ necks by turning the red light on so often for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Pairs like these exist throughout the sporting culture — Kareem & Magic, Shaq & Kobe, Michael & Scottie, Montana (or Young) & Rice, Freeney & Mathis, Brady & Belichick, Xavi & Iniesta, or even Henrik & Daniel if we’re especially lazy. But Kariya & Selanne were a real thing; such a real thing that after Anaheim traded Selanne to San Jose in early 2001, Kariya skipped town in the summer of 2003 to chase a Cup with his bestie for a season in Colorado despite having just been to Game 7 of the Finals with a Selanne-less Ducks team. The Avalanche experiment didn’t work out for the pair, and they were both on separate teams the following season and never played together again, but deciding to take a pay cut to join forces with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy and your former flame is a story that lays the foundation for a possible Weber & Suter tag team signing this summer.
So if both Weber and Suter decided to do this, where would they go? It would have to be a team that could win it all immediately and have sustained short-list relevance. It would have to be a team that not only had the cap space, but also the desire to spend to the cap while also being able to field the rest of its roster. And given their success as the liaison between a limited offense and one of the best goalies in the world, it would probably have to be a team with both its goaltending situation in good standing and substantially more offensive potential than the current Predators.
You could play around on CapGeek to try to find the perfect match, or just go the lazy route and assume that Philadelphia is the one and only team that would fit one or the other (or both, if they could just move that Bryzgalov contract…), but I believe there is one glaring match for all of these characteristics: the Washington Capitals.
If your response is anything like mine, you’re probably saying “shut up guy, you obviously haven’t done your homework as the Caps have a ton of long-term, big money contracts and there’s no way they could add two more and stay within the confines of the salary cap.” Well, actually it’s very doable. Let’s look at how it would get done.
As far as those long-term deals go, Alex Ovechkin is signed forever at a $9.5 million cap hit. Nicklas Backstrom checks in at $6.7 million for a similar time period. Brooks Laich will cost $4.5 million for five more seasons. Joel Ward is on for three more years at $3M per. After those four forwards, only Jason Chimera and Jeff Schultz are locked up beyond next season. That’s for the whole team.
The players who are coming off the books this summer are Alex Semin (who costs $6.7 million this season), Mike Knuble ($2M), Jeff Halpern ($825K), Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perrault ($1M combined), Mike Green ($5.25M), Dennis Wideman ($3.94M), John Carlson ($845K) and Tomas Vokoun ($1.5M). I know that looks like a lot to lose and/or replace, but the Caps are in the fantastic position of having 17 players under NHL contract for next season while still being just more than $19 million under the cap ceiling.
There are some questions that would need to be answered before the Weber / Suter coup could be pulled off: 1) Is Vokoun willing to play another season while being severly underpaid; 2) is Vokoun even in the Caps’ plans beyond this season, or is Braden Holtby ready to be a full-time backup to Michal Neuvirth; 3) how much do the Caps love Mike Green; 4) are the Caps crazy enough to make Semin a priority; 5) will new coach Dale Hunter force GM George McPhee (fellow Falcon, what up) to bring Wideman back; 6) how much of a raise does Carlson want, and how highly do the Caps value him; 7) are the Caps willing to force themselves to fill out the rest of the forwards on a budget akin to the wintery stages of the Oregon Trail; and perhaps most importantly, 8) do Weber and Suter believe in Alex Ovechkin?
These are a lot of questions to answer, and the mere existence of them may cause this article to look more like something that should have been published by Eklund, but I’m basing this analysis on math, reason, opportunity and absolutely no proclaimed inside information.
Let’s try to answer those questions. First, Vokoun signed with Washington last summer at an extreme discount. Most people assumed $5 million per season was a realistic price for Vokoun’s services, and that number even looked low after the Flyers inked Bryzgalov to that outrageous $5.6M-for-the-next-9-years contract. Instead, the Czech netminder took a 74% pay cut in the name of trying to do something he has yet to do: win in the playoffs. One could argue that Vokoun would probably be happy to come back and do it again next year, especially being a 36 year-old whose hourglass is getting bottom-heavy coupled with the prospect of signing the two beasts who have each blossomed since played their rookie and sophomore seasons in front of Vokoun in Nashville.
The question of whether Washington will actually welcome Vokoun back depends almost entirely on how this playoff season goes. If the lefty buckles or is usurped by his teammate and countryman Neuvirth, it could spell Czech-mate for the old guy in D.C. Perhaps the bigger issue will be whether Holtby is seen as a partner for Neuvirth or more of a tradable asset in the final year of his entry-level contract. Only the Caps know the answer to that one, but a capable and willing Vokoun can help to answer the one about Holtby in the latter.
On to Mike Green. The stocky defenseman was once hailed as the surprising new point scoring blue liner, in the likeness of Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey. Then the watchful eye of playoff scrutiny focused on Green, and it became obvious that his lack of defensive responsibility (or maybe even ability) was costing the Capitals when it mattered most. And now, we’ve moved from the “Green can’t play on a responsible, winning team” to “Green actually can’t play.” The guy has worked on his all-around game and actually gotten a little better at keeping opponents off the score sheet, but now he can’t seem to keep himself on the ice. Green has only managed to appear in 59 of a possible 126 regular season games over the last year and a half, and just yesterday underwent sports hernia surgery, which is expected to sideline him for a rather optimistic reported time frame of just 4-to-6 weeks.
I’m not trying to pile on Mike Green or act like I’m the first to say that his defense has contributed to the Caps’ recent playoff disappointments, but at some point Washington may want to decide to move in a different direction. That point would logically be in the next six months, since Green’s contract is up July 1.
Ah, the Semin thing. Just when it was universally decided that the winger is a bum, he goes and plays inspiring hockey that has some Caps fans second guessing whether telling him to take a hike is the right move. Let me answer this one: if he wants anything close to his usual $6.7 million, thank him for his services, shake his hand, and move on. If we’re considering the possibility of the Weber / Suter splash, there’s really no money for a guy like Semin, and that’s okay. In fact, if winning is the goal, I’d argue it’s perfect. And Caps fans, as much as you’re coming around on Semin right before decision time comes up, how would you feel about him knowing that bringing him back killed any chance of pulling what could be a historic defensive coup? I’m giving you this one chance to get a grip and decide if you truly want to shift the identity of the Washington Capitals hockey club. This stuff is time-sensitive too, so decide quickly and choose wisely.
Now onto the Hunter – Wideman issue. First off, Dennis Wideman has been good for the Capitals this year. In fact, he’s been very good. The D man seems to have taken past criticism to heart and actually improved his game markedly, and is no longer putting up disappointing point totals following his 50-point campaign in 2008-09, nor is he playing the crap defense that allowed him to go -33 the past two seasons. On top of his resurgence (31 points in 44 games this year, for those wondering), there is also the connection with new head coach Dale Hunter, who coached Wideman during the defenseman’s last three seasons with the OHL’s London Knights. The two seem to be good for each other, and the argument can be made that signing Weber and Suter while losing Wideman and most of the rest of the free agents might not even be that good of a trade off for the Caps. The Caps’ blue line would be rather thin after the top pairing if they were to pull the Nashville coup while losing Green, Wideman and Carlson.
Carlson himself remains a question mark moving forward. On the one hand, he’s far outplayed his entry-level contract, which expires this summer. On the other hand, he’s sort of not that amazing defensively and it’s not the Capitals’ responsibility to pay players for past performance. While Carlson is always highlighted by NBC during Washington’s numerous nationally televised games, there is the sense that the front office might be more wed to Karl Alzner, whose game falls more in line with what the Caps claim they want to become. Alzner is signed through next season, but after that the decision will have to be made on him.
Assuming Weber and Suter take about $15 million in salary cap hits, Washington would be left with about a million bucks a piece to fill out four roster spots. Additionally, they would already have Roman Hamrlik, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and Alzner under contract, in addition to Weber and Suter if our fantasy land becomes reality. That’s seven right there, albeit possibly not as deep a seven as a team would love, but certainly a serviceable corps. If they were able to move any of the other contracts, especially Hamrlik or Schultz, that would free up some more cap space to sign either Wideman, Carlson or a better forward. But it isn’t totally necessary. Besides, GMGM can surely pawn some bad contracts off on Colorado, right?
Okay, we’re almost there. We’ve parried most of the attacks on the possibility of inking both Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to contracts in the nation’s capital. Now we have that issue of having not a lot of money to fill out a few forward spots. In reality, I don’t think that would be a problem that Washington couldn’t overcome. For starters, they already have the big boys locked down. Ovechkin and Backstrom are taken care of, as is Laich, Ward, Chimera, Marcus Johansson, recent hero Matt Hendricks and Cody Eakin. Of that crew, only Johansson is a real concern, as the second-year center is stepping up large for the Caps and scheduled to become RFA in the summer of 2013. A pay raise for him is all but certain, but the possibility exists that Washington values the opportunity to bring both Nashville big boys in more highly than they do locking down a player with only second-line opportunity given the existence of Backstrom on the roster.
As far as the rest of the forwards go, it’s funny how you can usually find a solid team guy willing to play for a million bucks under the premise that his team should be awesome. They don’t have to be all that offensively talented either, as coach Hunter is renowned for his willingness to “play the shit out of” his star players (a Wyshynski quote). If fewer minutes per game are required, all of a sudden players that are lower on the NHL totem pole become acceptable fill-ins.
The numbers work themselves out. Washington signing Weber and Suter can be done. It cannot be done without making some tough decisions, but pointing that out is not exactly a counter-argument. This is life. Tough decisions have to be made all the time. McPhee has shown an ability to do just that, and it doesn’t hurt that his job security is being warmly debated. Making a move like the one we are talking about guarantees a couple of things. One, it buys you a year or two. Two, it guarantees your spot in the unemployment line if it doesn’t work out quickly. Like the great Jim Rome is always saying on his radio show, “Give me an A, or give me an F.” A coup like the one I’m talking about could turn out to be an A or an F for the franchise, but it certainly wouldn’t be a lazy C.
Speaking of which, the man wearing the C in Washington hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed or without lots and lots of criticism. In my heart of hearts, I believe that Alex Ovechkin is a winner. I’m just not sure he’s a captain. While I’ve talked about the possibility of Ryan Suter putting his pride aside and continuing with his pal Shea Weber, I wouldn’t expect the same out of Ovie in voluntarily relinquishing the C on his sweater. But it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing he could do. It also may convince the Nashville duo that he is committed to winning above all else in this league, and might even be the catalyst to the formation of one of the great squads of his time. But like I said, let’s use math and reason to analyze this game we love. No rational bone in my body feels like this is an action that Ovechkin will actually take. Therefore, we are left to wonder and speculate as to what is going through the minds of all of these individuals acting out the drama that we call pro hockey. Suter may not even want to play with Weber, let alone actually pack up the car and hit the road with him. But as interested observers, wouldn’t it be something?

The Nashville Predators enter the 2011-12 season riding the high of the franchise’s first ever playoff series victory. They are led by head coach Barry Trotz, who enjoyed his first full day as Preds boss on Sidney Crosby’s eleventh birthday. Trotz has been the only head coach the franchise has ever known, and this continuity along with Trotz’ fierce dedication to physical play and defensive responsibility have been essential factors in the franchise’s slow and steady rise up the ranks of the NHL’s western conference.

And although it came as no surprise, the team also was able to bring back captain Shea Weber, the most popular pick for the Norris Trophy this season, albeit, through arbitration.
This should be a time for celebration and excitement over new goals that may be achievable in the near future. If some of the Preds’ young forwards can come good early and help out Martin Erat, David Legwand, Patric Hornqvist, Mike Fisher and the like, the team may even be able to allow a goal here and there and still win games.
But to me, the situation surrounding the Predators looks like a house of cards, with everyone looking around and holding their breath, lest they be the one that blows the house down.
The reason I believe this is that the team is essentially built around three players within Trotz’ system: Weber, fellow defenseman Ryan Suter, and goaltender Pekka Rinne. I’m not saying the team doesn’t have young talent, or that a franchise death watch is in order, but rather that the health and success of the franchise over the next few years is almost entirely dependent upon these three players.
Problem #1: Weber, Suter and Rinne are all in the final years of their contracts. Potential solution: the Preds have the 26th highest payroll in the league, and can easily extend all three without worrying about the salary cap ceiling. But that’s just to say that it is possible for the Preds to sign the three players that the team is currently dependent upon. It’s not to say that they will.
Problem #2: The Predators will have to extend Weber a qualifying offer of at least $7.5 million for a season before July 1, 2012 if they want to avoid him becoming an UFA. That’s a lot of money, but again, the team should have it to spend. On top of that, they must know that Weber is worth it, since a Norris candidate can be had for less money than Christian Ehrhoff in Buffalo.
Problem #3: Are Weber and Suter looking to each other’s commitment to the team? This is the problem I see. It’s easy to assume that Nashville can just throw money at the problem and sign all three big time players to long-term deals and solidify their western conference relevance for years to come. It’s harder to actually pull that off, especially if one of them believes the other will leave.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that the new year rolls around and Weber is still not extended. Suter may look at this and see it as a sign that the club is not serious enough to win a Stanley Cup in the duration of his playing career. Conveniently enough for him, he’s an UFA on July 1 if he wants to be. And why wouldn’t he want to be, given the goofy contracts that were handed out to remedial NHLers this past summer? Hmm, so to not get serious and lock down Weber could spell the departure of Suter.
Similarly, why wouldn’t Weber take his partner’s status with the team into consideration in his own contract talks? If Weber feels like Suter may leave, then what incentive is there for Weber to re-up with a team that will have lost his two best running mates in consecutive years (see: Dan Hamhuis in Vancouver)? Men turning 27 years old aren’t looking to sign their one huge contract with a team looking to rebuild. By the time the puck drops in October 2012, that’s exactly the ages that Weber and Suter will be. So now, to not get serious and lock down Suter could spell the departure of Weber.
Well now, this is shaping up to be a fine mess for the Predators if they’re unable to keep both D men happy and on board. The same can be said for Rinne, although I think there is a different dynamic to goaltenders. Rinne could certainly test the waters next summer, but there are a finite amount of teams that will have an open spot at starting goaltender and a lot of money to plug it with. Conversely, almost every team would try to make room for Weber.
And can I just point out that problem #4 just may actually be the Preds’ payroll figure? Sure, being 26th in the league means you have a lot of cap space, but it also means you’re probably a team that doesn’t spend a lot of money on payroll. Suter and Rinne will probably require raises at the end of the season, and Weber may also. That $7.5 million figure is certainly high, but these salaries keep getting more and more out of control every year, and Weber is better than almost every player that receives any contract.
But assuming that Nashville is willing to spend the money to re-sign its three stars, they still must be able to assure each of them that the team is serious about continuing its progression and eventually winning a Stanley Cup. Communication will be key. So will the team’s record for the first four months of the season — before those last few weeks prior to the trade deadline. If the team is outside of a playoff spot, the chatter will grow loud and the inquiries frequent, and don’t think that Weber and Suter won’t be listening at least a little.
With the players that they have and the style that they play, the Predators should be alright this year and compete for one of the last three playoff spots in the west. But the big questions are, will they still have the players that they have, and will all three indispensable ones have both feet in the water? If not, the Preds will go from playing a 7-game series to playing 52-card pickup.
It’s time for the second of six editions of Premature NHL Prognostication, and we’ll pick up with the division that sports the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Northeast Division looks to be a three-team race this year with Ottawa and Toronto still rebuilding, but by no means should this division be ignored.
The talking points are there for every team contending for the top spot. Boston comes into the season as the defending champions for the first time in nearly 40 years, and brings with it nearly the same roster. Buffalo enjoyed its first offseason while under the passionate ownership of former natural gas drilling mogul Terry Pegula, who has turned his attention to hockey by funding Penn State’s startup program and buying the Sabres, as well as making some lower profile sports acquisitions. And Montreal is Montreal. They’ll always have their fan base, but they bring a squad into 2011-12 that has earned a reputation as playing tough and being better than the sum of its parts after advancing to the eastern conference finals in 2010 and pushing the Bruins to the brink in 2011. Let’s get to the unnecessarily early projections.
1st: Boston Bruins 2010-11: 103 points, 1st in division
The Bruins looked like an upper-echelon team early last season, but really at no point were they “supposed to win” the Stanley Cup. Even coming into Game 7 at Vancouver, the Bruins were a betting underdog, as almost any road team would be. The usual questions that follow a championship season exist:
  • Can the Bruins repeat in 2011-12?
  • Will the hunger be there during the regular season?
  • Will the makeup of the team be the same?
The last question can be answered in the affirmative. Boston has only lost Michael Ryder (to Dallas) and Tomas Kaberle (to Carolina) from its group that played most of the 25 playoff games this past spring. The money wasn’t right for either of them, and so the Bruins did the logical thing: let them walk. Most assume that 43 year-old Mark Recchi is done playing NHL hockey, and the team still has to get third-line winger Brad Marchand back under contract. Perhaps part of the holdup on Marchand’s new deal is due to the fact that team captain Zdeno Chara essentially deported Marchand back to Canada for “partying too hard” in Boston in the weeks that followed the Stanley Cup win. While I think young people drinking too much can be a serious problem, Marchand certainly sounds and plays like a character guy that most hockey teams would appreciate having, and I don’t think there’s any question that he’ll be back in the fold for the Bruins this fall.
Boston’s only free agent acquisition of note is left wing Benoit Pouliot from Montreal, who can be loosely seen as filling the positional hole left by the retiring Recchi.
The goaltending situation in Boston doesn’t really need to be examined too deeply. Tim Thomas is coming off his second Vezina Trophy in three years and the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. Also on the roster is 24 year-old Tuukka Rask, who started 45 regular season games in 2009-10, along with all 13 playoff games that year. Rask figured to be the Bruins starter coming into last season, but Tim Thomas pretty much led the league in peripheral stats from wire to wire, giving the Bruins no choice but to roll the guy enjoying a season for all-time. Rask still managed to make 29 appearances last year, but regressed with a record of 11-14-2 to go with a 2.67 GAA. His .918 save percentage was solid, but didn’t measure up to his own .931 from the previous season, nor to Thomas’ .938 last year. All in all, there’s no reason to expect the Bruins goaltending to be anything shy of top ten in the league this season, and that’s almost a worst-case scenario.
The thing I love about the Bruins is their ability to do it all. They play a physical style, but also have guys with great skill. David Krejci revealed himself as a sharp shooter in the playoffs, and Nathan Horton came up with huge goal after huge goal before meeting his season’s untimely end early in Game 3 of the finals. Everyone knows about Patrice Bergeron’s two-way game, and Rich Peverley adds some B-Table offense to the team. Nobody is quite sure what to expect from sophomore center Tyler Seguin this year, but he certainly made good of his few opportunities in last year’s playoffs. Seguin has the potential to be the best forward on the team, but it will probably take some time for him to get his grip on the little things that make a guy like Bergeron so effective.
Defensively, the Bruins blue liners sum up the team as a whole. They are big, bruising guys who can jump in offensively and contribute. The back end is obviously led by the big customs agent, 2008-09 Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara. But beyond Chara, the Bruins have minute chewer Dennis Seidenberg, who is defensively sound and a good enough skater and puck handler to factor big offensively as well. The rest of Boston’s defenders are less polished, but they all play a role. Johnny Boychuk can lay a big hit, and Andrew Ference makes sure not to get beat. Ference was plus-22 last season, and tallied two-thirds the number of points in the playoffs as he did in the regular season while playing only one-third the number of games. Then he, er, didn’t flip off the Montreal crowd in the first round of the playoffs. Joe Corvo’s best asset is his belief that he can shoot the puck 120 mph, but if the Bruins are smart Corvo won’t be called upon to do too much this season.
Considering that the Bruins won the division by seven points last season before going on to win the league’s ultimate prize, I see no reason not to peg them as favorites in the Northeast this season.
2nd: Buffalo Sabres 2010-11: 96 points, 3rd in division
Buffalo and Montreal ended up tied behind the Bruins last year, and both teams ended up losing Game 7s on the road in the first round. But unlike Montreal, the Sabres went ape shit trying to land new players under the still new ownership of Pegula. The state of the franchise is a far cry from a few years ago when contraction or relocation seemed like a real possibility.
The reason I like Buffalo to finish ahead of Montreal this season is based on the idea that if two teams start out as equals (both had 96 points and lost in Game 7 of the first round last year), then the team that improves the most should be better in the near future. We’ll get to the breakdown of Montreal next, but the Sabres scored a couple of players in the offseason that signaled their ascent to free agent relevance, in case some people still hadn’t gotten the Pegula memo.
The biggest of the offseason grabs was German-born defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who had spent the previous two seasons with the contending Vancouver Canucks. Ehrhoff’s new 10-year, $40 million contract has been much debated, but the fact is he’s a Sabre now, and that can’t be anything but good for Buffalo on both sides of the puck. Ehrhoff’s fluid skating and puck movement should increase the Sabres’ time of possession and create scoring chances that previously were given to the Sedins and company in Vancouver. Ehrhoff tallied 94 points and played at a plus-55 in his two seasons with the Canucks (159 games played).
The Sabres also scored free agent winger Ville Leino, who came onto the scene in the 2009 playoffs with Detroit. The Red Wings were suffering from their typical injuries, and Leino held down the fort well enough to get the Wings through to the finals, where they eventually lost in seven games to Pittsburgh. Leino was traded the following season to Philadelphia, where he put together his first legitimate NHL season last year. The Finnish forward contributed 53 points in 81 games for the Flyers in 2010-11, and played in all of the team’s 11 playoff games. Leino appears to have solid offensive potential, as he skates well while also using his solid frame to compete for position around the circles. Leino amassed 77 points in 55 games in his final season in Finland with Jokerit Helsinki in 2007-08. He will be 28 years old throughout the upcoming season.
But the best new addition to this squad might be an old edition in the form of returning top-line center Derek Roy. The 32nd overall pick from ten years ago was rolling with 35 points in as many games before he tore a quadriceps just before Christmas. Roy returned to play only in the team’s final game in which they were brutally eliminated by Philadelphia. Roy may not quite be Brad Richards, but he is a huge boost to a Buffalo team that had to figure out how to score without him for the final 47 games of the regular season and the first six games against the then-defending eastern conference champ Flyers. Roy is shifty, quick and an excellent passer. I would expect nothing shy of 55 assists assuming Roy is able to play close to 80 games this season.
The Sabres recently resigned backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth, but I wouldn’t expect him to see a whole lot of time this year. Ryan Miller just turned 31 years old and could be entering the final stages of his prime. Most of the Sabres’ acquisitions have to do with owner Pegula’s seriousness about winning, but some of them also have to do with the fact that Buffalo knows that the window for having an all-world goaltender might be closing, albeit slowly. Between the success of elderly chaps like Tim Thomas and Marty Brodeur, and Miller’s own lack of having to carry a lot of weight around (6’2” but only 175 lbs.), I wouldn’t expect to see much decline in Miller’s play for at least four years. But that doesn’t change the fact that goalies are hugely important to winning championships, and Buffalo currently has one of the best. It’s not now-or-never, but it’s somewhat-soon-or-maybe-not-for-a-long-while.
The Sabres still have to figure out how to get into compliance with the salary cap, as they are rostering over $3.5 million too much with their current 23-man squad. But that will get figured out somehow, and I don’t expect it to include any huge losses. The resignings of defensemen Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber help fill out the blue line. Sekera played over 21 minutes a game last year, adding 26 assists. Weber brought the thunder with 158 hits in just 58 games. Bringing back winger Drew Stafford was also a priority in the offseason, and the Sabres did what they probably will do for a while now: they got their man. Stafford scored a four-year deal worth $4 million per season, and he will be expected to bring more consistent scoring than in seasons past. Stafford scored 31 goals in 62 games last season, and will only turn 26 years old in late October.
Two Sabres to Watch
Brad Boyes was brought in at the trading deadline from St. Louis, and the catchphrase that everyone wanted to use to describe Boyes was “sharpshooter.” Well, the gun misfired, because Boyes did not bring the Sabres that offense they desperately needed. He went for 5 goals in 21 regular season games with Buffalo before marking only one up on the board in the Sabres’ seven-game loss to the Flyers. Boyes has one more year left on his contract at a $4 million cap hit, and one has to wonder if he will be around at the end of the season, and maybe even at the beginning.
On defense, Tyler Myers enters his third NHL season. The 6’8” Texas-born Canadian was the rookie of the year in 2009-10, but took a long time to get off the ground last season. Myers was playing better by the end of the season, and contributed five assists and a goal in the seven-game loss to the Flyers. If Myers can emerge as a big-time NHL defenseman this year, then the Sabres have a very formidable group of blue liners. If he cannot, then a lot will be asked of guys like Ehrhoff, Sekera, the offensively-minded Jordan Leopold, and rock-solid Robyn Regehr, who had 180 hits and 142 blocked shots while skating 21:29 per game last year. Leopold is a career minus-28 in eight NHL seasons, despite playing for playoff qualifiers in six of those years. I know that plus/minus is sometimes a misleading or unfair stat, but in this case, I think the numbers fairly represent what I’ve seen on the ice. Leopold did manage 13 goals and 22 assists in 71 games last season, however. In short, the progress of Myers should help determine whether the Sabres are stuck between 6th and 8th in the east or if they can put it together and separate from Montreal while challenging Boston for the division title this season.
3rd: Montreal Canadiens 2010-11: 96 points, 2nd in division
The Canadiens have made a living lately by stuffing their detractors’ words right back where they came from. I doubted that Montreal would even make the playoffs last year, and then wrote that they probably couldn’t handle Boston’s size in round one. Well, they acquitted themselves just fine, again, and I’m done doubting them as a playoff team that can contend with anyone. On paper I don’t think the Canadiens should finish any higher than 8th in the east, but they seem to have a toughness that can’t be quantified.
Toughness means nothing without a good goaltender, and last season Carey Price established himself as one of the better ones in the league. We kept waiting for the immature Price to rear his ugly head, but that never did happen. From the first game of the season all the way to allowing Nathan Horton’s overtime eliminator in Game 7, Price was outstanding. He stood out. I’ve questioned his mental makeup in the past, but after last season, I’m convinced. Price looks like an uber-talented guy who finally grew up and figured out how to get out of his own head and just play hockey hard every night. I actually think a .920 save percentage can be expected this season, and it might need to be achieved. Price’s backup situation went from bad to bad when the Habs replaced Alex Auld with former Avalanche left-hander Peter Budaj. Price played 72 of 82 games last year, and he’ll need to play close to 70 again this year if Montreal wants to make the playoffs. The last time Price had to battle a Slovakian backup, he lost his job to Jaroslav Halak. Don’t expect history to repeat itself with Halak’s international backup, Budaj.
In front of Price will be a group of defensemen with different playing styles. Smooth-skating and hard-shooting Andrei Markov is back from injury and ready to go. The Habs resigned his polar opposite, Hal Gill, to a new one-year deal in the offseason. Gill is a towering man who uses his length and strength to keep defenders from Price’s crease. Youngster P.K. Subban is something of a combination of aforementioned two, possessing neither the size of Gill nor the polished offensive game of Markov, at least not yet. But Subban is just 22, and was able to come up with 14 goals and 24 assists in his rookie campagin last year. He also produced when it counted, as he was the one to notch the power play goal with under two minutes remaining in Game 7 to force overtime in Boston. Although Horton eventually knocked Montreal out, that doesn’t erase Subban’s biggest clutch moment of his young career. Subban had over 100 hits and blocks last year, an indicator that he gets involved often. Much like Tyler Myers in Buffalo, the Canadiens’ back end largely depends upon the progression of its bright youngster, P.K. Subban.
Montreal’s forwards appear to be less threatening on the whole than your typical contender, which is why I can’t project them higher than third in the Northeast. Outside of the short-but-dynamic center Tomas Plekanec, the Habs don’t seem to have a lot of firepower. There’s Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and the newly-signed Erik Cole, who score but can’t create the way Plekanec can. Gionta quietly scored 29 goals last year, while Cammalleri added 19 with 28 assists while missing 15 games due to injury. Cole was Montreal’s big offseason signing, and he is coming off a 26 goal, 26 assist season with Carolina. The Habs need Cole to at least match that output if they are to have a chance to go higher than Buffalo or Boston in this division, but realistically his contract should demand 30+ goals for a team that needs them to come from some consistent sources.
Scott Gomez and his $7.3 million cap hit continue to be talking points, but salary aside, he is the one forward besides Plekanec who has the speed and touch to create for others. Frankly, Gomez was not good enough last season. He limped in with 38 points (only 7 goals) and was minus-15 in 2010-11. But if Gomez can channel previous seasons, then the Habs can have their second centerman that they desperately need offensively. Since the lockout, Gomez had assist totals of 51, 47, 54, 42 and 47 before last year’s disappointing output of 31. The Alaskan is only 31 years old, so it’s not as if he’s over the hill and has no chance to physically recapture the magic, although it seems like Gomez should be older by now. He broke into the NHL in 1999 and played all 82 games in his Stanley Cup winning rookie season with the Devils. Since then Gomez won another Cup in 2003 before playing two seasons each for the Rangers and Canadiens, which brings us to the present. A two-time Cup winner with 508 career assists at the age of 31 shouldn’t be written off, but the Habs need a bounce back season by Gomez in a bad way.
Given their goaltending, talent at the very top, and fighting spirit, I think the Habs have the chance to compete with anyone. But considering what I think is a lack of depth up against a big spender and a defending champion, I think third place is what Montreal should expect this season, which should be good enough to get them back into the playoffs for the fifth straight year.
4th: Toronto Maple Leafs 2010-11: 85 points, 4th in division
Based on my love for Craig Anderson, I really wanted to put Ottawa here. But I just couldn’t. The Leafs have done what they could do lately to improve the squad while also focusing on the long-term health of the organization. They dealt away players that they knew were either leaving or demanding big paydays, as well as wingers who couldn’t live up to top-six responsibilities without all-star Cup winners around them.
The Leafs got a passionate effort out of no-name goaltender James Reimer, and rewarded him with a new three-year contract that more than tripled his pay grade. Reimer is expected to be the Leafs’ starter in net, but the previously anointed one, Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson, is still hanging around and certainly doesn’t want his NHL career to go down in flames. A little healthy competition could turn out to be beneficial for the Leafs, if not this season, then later on down the line after one of them had to actually win a competition.
I’m almost done talking about winger Phil Kessel. The guy’s a great shooter, he’s got potential as well as past performance, but he hasn’t totally lived up to the trade that brought him to Toronto yet. In fairness, we all give Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik the asterisk of not having played with a great center, and yet Kessel’s situation hasn’t been any different in Toronto. The Leafs brought in Tim Connolly from Buffalo, so we’ll see if he’s the answer to Kessel’s goal scoring consistency questions.
The team also scored forward Matthew Lombardi and defenseman Cody Franson from Nashville in exchange for Robert Slaney and former Red Wing bust Brett Lebda. At the very least, the Leafs upgraded at each position this season with that trade. At most, they robbed the Preds. We’ll see how it turns out, as Lombardi is coming off a concussion that basically erased his entire season (he played two games). Franson notched a surprising 21 assists from the blue line last season, despite only playing 15:10 a night.
Toronto had a couple of forwards who “came up” last season, including center Clarke MacArthur and his linemate Nikolai Kulemin. Those guys played out of their minds from the second line last year, and we’ll see if either of them was a one-hit wonder or if the Leafs found a couple gems.
There were also some forwards who didn’t quite live up, starting with center Tyler Bozak. I think some of the Leafs’ youngsters suffered a little bit from being under the microscope. Bozak and Nazem Kadri should have better seasons this year, and one never knows if winger Joffrey Lupul is ready to return to being a sniper like he was with Anaheim once upon a time (and I mean “once;” Lupul only really overachieved during the 2006 playoffs). The Leafs hope so, as Lupul is the third-highest paid forward on the team. Anyone willing to bet that he scores in the top three? I didn’t think so.
Toronto has a few winners on defense. Besides the newly-acquired Franson, the Leafs boast one of the better overall defensemen in Dion Phaneuf. The big guy leads the team in salary, and rightfully so. Phaneuf must continue to bring it at a high level while also bringing along Toronto’s young defensemen, Keith Aulie, 22, and Luke Schenn, 21. Schenn is an RFA right now, but is really just waiting on a new contract. I can’t see any way the Leafs don’t come to terms with the promising blue liner who has the gifts to become one of the league’s best.
The Maple Leafs look like a team in rebuilding mode, and they seem to have a fan base that is ready to stay the course. Playoff appearances are always desired, but there’s almost no chance of the ultimate success this year, and I expect the team to keep building toward that ultimate goal somewhere down the line through consistent improvement. Fourth place is the status quo this year for Toronto. Finishing fifth would be underachieving, while beating out Montreal, Buffalo or Boston would be pleasantly unexpected. I don’t expect it, and the Leafs should finish around 10th or 11th in the eastern conference in 2011-12.
5th: Ottawa Senators 2010-11: 74 points, 5th in division
I really want to believe in the Sens. They have a goalie in Craig Anderson who rocked a 2.05 GAA in 18 games with the team last year, following a dreadful 3.28 behind a group of skaters who seemingly couldn’t care less in Colorado. One reason I wanted to pick Ottawa ahead of Toronto this year was based on Anderson’s first game with the Senators on February 19. He had one of his patented “give a damn” games and stopped all 47 shots in a 1-0 road shootout win over the Leafs. I expect Craig to enjoy a fresh season in Ottawa playing behind a group of players who seemed to love playing for the vocal goalie.
But then I looked at the rosters and realized the two problems with taking Ottawa over anyone this year. First, they just aren’t deep enough at NHL positions. They have plenty of solid young talent that contributed big time in bringing the AHL affiliate Binghamton Senators its first Calder Cup championship. But those guys aren’t ready to be day-in, day-out performers at the level needed to succeed in the NHL. And that would be fine, if the Senators had big time top-line players who took care of business.
Enter Jason Spezza, one of the few players I’m more tired of talking about than Phil Kessel. The Sens top center is still rolling at almost a point-a-game clip, and still rolling at a miss 20 games a season clip. And honestly, a team that is as young as the Sens needs its big time offensive talent to deliver at least a point a game. Fifteen players of consequence scored at that pace last season, and a team like the Sens need a guy like Spezza to be in that top 15 if they’re going to be able to overachieve. But despite Spezza’s talent, I doubt he’ll top 70 points this year, for inexplicable reasons. I mean it shouldn’t even be plausible to go back and relive the Alexei Yashin trade in 2001, but Spezza at least makes you wonder. Ok, you’re right, no he doesn’t. But still.

Is that styrofoam cup biodegradable, Jason?

Spezza reminds me of one of the many memorable quotes from the movie The Big Lebowski, where Jackie Treehorn sends a couple of collectors to The Dude’s apartment to collect sums of money that didn’t exist in The Dude’s household. After dunking The Dude’s head in the toilet and peeing on his rug, the thugs start to figure out that they got the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski. One intruder looks to the other and asks, “Woo, isn’t this guy supposed to be a millionaire?” Woo takes about a second before concluding that The Dude “looks like a fucking loser.”

Photo via
“No, like I said, Woo peed on my rug.”

Perhaps these words are a bit harsh and untrue, as Spezza is a multi-millionaire and has enjoyed periods of winning, most notably during the three-year stretch immediately following the lockout that saw the Sens make the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. Spezza did manage 90, 87 and 92 points in those seasons, respectively. Yet the Lebowski summary remains. You watch him play, and you realize why he was the #2 pick in the draft in 2001. He shows control with the puck, speed and precision passing that can get any fan base excited. But then you keep watching and you notice that he can’t stay on the ice. You notice that his assist totals went south around the same time that fellow #2 overall pick (from the 2000 draft) Dany Heatley wore out his welcome in Ottawa and was subsequently traded to San Jose for Milan Michalek, who isn’t a top-six NHL forward, and Jonathan Cheechoo, who inexplicably led the NHL with 56 goals in 2005-06 before he forgot how to score and was waived, sent to Binghamton, and bought out of his contract before quietly rejoining the Sharks minor league team.
And so now, outside of aging captain Daniel Alfredsson, Spezza has almost nobody to turn to for support. Spezza’s individual talent leads one to compare him with the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire. But he’s quietly letting a promising career slide into irrelevance, albeit with the help of the organization dealing away talented players in exchange for very little. It’s too early to write Jason Spezza off, but from a team game standpoint, per Woo in Lebowski, he’s starting to look like a bleeping loser.
Aside from Spezza, the rest of the Senator veterans didn’t do enough last season, and from top to bottom don’t really have the ability to score enough goals to contend. Ottawa outscored only New Jersey in the entire NHL last year, so simple improvement may not be enough to get into the playoffs this year, or even to beat out Toronto in the division. I love Anderson, and I like the Sens talent on defense in the forms of Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Erik Karlsson, but I just don’t see enough offensive depth for Ottawa to contend for the playoffs in 2011-12. Former Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean will take over head coaching duties for the Senators this year. It’s a rebuilding process, and one that the B-Sens showed has real promise. The time just hasn’t come yet.
Next up, we’ll round out the eastern conference with our premature picks for the order of finish in the Southeast Division.

The NHL is as good as it has been since I started really following the league when the Pittsburgh Penguins were embarking on their first Stanley Cup run following my sixth birthday. At least five teams were pegged as more legitimate title contenders going into the 2011 playoffs than the team that actually won it (Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, Philadelphia, and yes, Washington. I said going into the playoffs). The league is so saturated with effective players that we tend to think that almost all regulars are above average NHL players.
This of course is by definition not true, but what it does mean is that the average NHL player is better than he was maybe ten years ago. If you want another way of knowing that the NHL is amazing right now, check out the AHL. When the play of a minor league looks as good as it does in the A, the major league has to be great.
What I want to do today is begin a series of extremely-too-early looks at the various divisions in the NHL, and try to predict some orders of finish with some arguments. We’ll call it “Premature NHL Prognostication,” because it’s both self-deprecating and an accurate depiction of the league’s timeline. Let’s start with the division that both has arguably the most blood rivalries (Northeast fans can skip straight to the comments section to rip me a new one) and is also universally listed first when you look at the standings anywhere: the Atlantic Division.

1st: Pittsburgh Penguins 2010-11: 106 points, 2nd in division
The fact that the Pens actually tied the Flyers for the division lead without the services of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby for the second half of the season is pretty surprising. When you consider that Jordan Staal and James Neal only played 42 and 20 games for the team, respectively, all of a sudden the upcoming season looks very promising for the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
All reports indicate that Malkin is ready to go for this season, and we also know that Crosby has been skating for a little while now. Of course, if Crosby were unable to play hockey this year, we would have to reevaluate the prospectus, but I think he’ll play and I think the Pens should be the best team in the division.
The Penguins have one of the better situations in the crease that can be found in the entire league. Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off the best stretch of his career, and Brent Johnson was fantastic last year in keeping the Pens alive early, before Fleury found his game. Johnson seems to know his role as a backup, and so there shouldn’t be a situation where the backup thinks he should be a starter, which can lead to some dissension at times. I am big on teams with good backup goalies and/or tandems, and Pittsburgh is a team that falls into the first category.
Defensively, Pittsburgh has certainly one of the best two groups of top four defensemen in the division, along with Philadelphia. The Pens’ top four includes Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Zybnek Michalek and Paul Martin. Orpik skated 20:53 per game last year, while the other three all played more than 21 minutes a game. Letang and Martin were credited with 24:02 and 23:22 of ice time while contributing 42 and 21 assists apiece. Near the deadline last year, Pittsburgh traded Alex Goligoski away. While Goligoski is potentially a star on the blueline, the fact remains that Pittsburgh has a really solid top four without him, and also got winger James Neal out of the deal from Dallas. My feeling is that Dallas got the better end of the bargain if we look at trades in a vacuum, but real life and hockey are not played in a vacuum. Given the makeup of the Pens, the trade made sense. The offensive production of Neal will determine whether the Pens got what they bargained for in the dealing of Goligoski.
The Pens have another forward who plays a similar game to James Neal in the form of Chris Kunitz, the man who single-handedly won the CCHA in 2003 with Ferris State — a feat I’ve yet to see duplicated in college sports since. Kunitz probably won’t have as high of a point total as Neal by the end of the season, but he did a good job last season to prove that his offensive production isn’t entirely tied to Crosby. Kunitz tallied 28 points in 39 games before Crosby’s final game, and 20 points in 27 games afterward.
On the lower end of the forwards, the Pens have a good combination of gritty guys and young up-and-comers. Tyler Kennedy, Mark Letestu and Dustin Jeffrey will all be a year older and it will be interesting to see how much they improve. And while everyone knows about Matt Cooke, the Pens also have Craig Adams and Arron Asham, and it’s not exactly like the team’s scorers are weaklings either.
Why the Penguins will win the Atlantic Division
I think the Penguins have the roster that is best apt to play winning hockey in all three zones. Some of this belief is based on the idea that Crosby will return, but not all of it. The Pens tied the Flyers in points last year, and while Pittsburgh gets Malkin, Staal and Neal for presumably twice the number of games this season, the Flyers will have to deal with the loss of two of their top forwards. I expect Fleury to have a decent season and sport something like a .915 save percentage, and Brent Johnson can be relied upon to win more games than he loses. With the skaters that those goalies have in front of them, they don’t need to be Vezina-worthy to win the division, and probably even the eastern conference’s top seed.
2nd: New York Rangers 2010-11: 93 points, 3rd in division
I know, I know. I’ve listed two teams from the Atlantic already and haven’t gotten to the Flyers. The decision between Philly and New York was tough, but I’m more sure of the Rangers for a few reasons.
First there’s the obvious addition of Brad Richards. It may take more time for him to click with his new Ranger teammates than most fans will want to wait, but by the break I would expect Richards to be doing what he does: creating numerous scoring opportunities a game while not being a huge defensive liability. The player most likely to benefit from the addition of Richards has to be left winger Marian Gaborik. He’s had to deal with not living up to expectations in New York for a while now, but this year he has a legitimate top-end center to play with, instead of a steady rotation of rookie Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, Erik Christensen, and whoever else he had to hope to take feeds from last year. By no means is Gaborik an underrated player, but it is interesting that he is maligned while Rick Nash has always gotten the excuse of never playing with a capable center. That is probably because Nash plays a more likable style of hockey than Gaborik, but both guys have their chance to break out this year.
Another reason I like the Rangers to improve this year is that they have a really solid young core of players. This core has been pared down a little, but the big pieces still remain in the form of defensemen Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi, and forwards like Anisimov, Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky, Mats Zuccarello, Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust (if you want to count 27 as “young”). Ryan McDonagh should be ready to compliment Staal and Girardi as a minute-chewing defensman who can skate, hit, block shots and move the puck. The Rangers also have a couple of guys in Wojtek Wolski and Ruslan Fedotenko who have the capability of contributing on the offensive end, but also could turn out to be worthless, as they have been at different points of their careers. One red herring on this Rangers team is the complete lack of depth on the blue line. After Girardi, Staal and McDonagh (who are all young by the way), the Rangers have only two defensemen on the roster: Tim Erixon and Mike Sauer. Neither should be expected to set the league on fire this season, although Sauer was a cool plus-20 last season with the Rangers. Erixon is 20 years old and spent the last few seasons in the Swedish Elite League with Skelleftea AIK. Erixon tallied a point every other game last year, and was a first round pick of Calgary in 2009. All things considered, the defensive leaders might have to play upwards of 24 minutes a game this year, and you wonder if that might take its toll on Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Probably not though, since they are young and hockey players.
As far as goaltenders go, I wouldn’t take a single one ahead of Henrik Lundqvist. The 2006 Olympic gold medalist is steady and technically as good as anyone there is, and when he’s in the zone, Lundqvist can make it seem like somebody turned the video game level to the toughest setting. Backing up the best active goalie to never win the Vezina is Martin Biron, who posted a .923 save % and 2.13 goals against average in 17 appearances last season before breaking his collarbone. Biron’s record was only 8-6, but that’s more of an indictment of the Rangers’ anemic offense than Biron’s play, as his peripherals would indicate. It should be noted that in 68 games, Lundqvist matched Biron’s save percentage and himself only allowed 2.28 goals per game. With goaltending like that and a maturing skating corps that added a Cup winner like Brad Richards, there’s no reason the Rangers shouldn’t have a better 2011-12 than the season prior.
The key to this team rounding out its roster is getting right winger Ryan Callahan back in the fold. The hybrid forward is a restricted free agent and has an arbitration date set for July 28, but most times we see a deal get done before an arbitration ruling. If the Rangers are unable to lock Callahan down before an arbitration ruling, he would then be on a one-year contract and would be set to become unrestricted next summer. New York probably doesn’t want this to happen, but they are up against the salary cap. They have about $5.77 million to add three roster players, and a player of Callahan’s impact probably demands a good share of that available pie. The Rangers may be alright with an arbitration ruling because they know that they can use Wolski’s expiring $3.8 million deal, as well as a few other smaller contracts that are set to come off the books next July, to help fund Callahan when he would become a UFA next summer. There are two things I’m certain of — 1) The Rangers want Ryan Callahan to be a Ranger for a while, and 2) The Rangers need Ryan Callahan if they are going to have a chance at a top two spot in the division and/or a second round appearance in the playoffs.
3rd: Philadelphia Flyers 2010-11: 106 points, 1st in division
The Flyers might be the most talked-about team in the last month, and for good reason. On June 23, the team traded away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, two centers who can also wing it who are both in their mid-20s. Those boys clearly weren’t aging rapidly, but it’s not like they were mere prospects either. Both Richards and Carter played integral roles in getting the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010. There have been insinuations that the Flyers had some locker room issues, but I’m not interested in sensationalism — just premature prognostication.
What we do know is that the 2011-12 Flyers should look a lot different than the team of the previous couple years. While those two borderline star players were shipped out, the Flyers brought in five forwards who should all see time in the top nine. Philadelphia scored a couple coups by bringing over Pittsburgh Cup-winners in Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot. Talbot adds toughness to an already tough team, while Jagr’s impact is less certain. Some people think that returning to the rigors of the NHL and its 82-game schedule after a three-year absence will be too tall an order for a player who will be 40 years old in February. But really, even if Jagr needs some precautionary scratch games, isn’t having him for 60 games potentially a boon for Philadelphia? I think that Jagr is primed for a solid 65-point season in which he probably won’t play all 82 games. And while most people criticize Jagr for his lack of defensive intensity and general disinterest in getting physical despite his huge stature, I would ask what the Flyers lost when Jeff Carter was shipped out. A big forward with elite hands who plays more like Sergei Fedorov than Chris Stewart? Okay, well, are Jagr’s hands not as elite as Carter’s? I guess we’ll find out.
Philadelphia got Jakob Voracek back from Columbus for Carter, and Brayden Schenn, hockey’s top prospect, from Los Angeles in return for Richards. Both players can contribute this season, but Schenn’s ceiling is higher as far as careers go. But while I enjoy looking pretty far into the future, this is supposed to be a writing of the 2011-12 season only. The Flyers also got winger Wayne Simmonds from the Kings in the Richards deal. Simmonds looks like he could be a hybrid-type of winger, but I’m not entirely sold on the scoring part of the deal. We do know what Simmonds goes full blast into the corners and plays a physical style that looks like it belonged in Philadelphia all along.
Defensively, it’s hard not to love the Flyers. The orange-and-black sported something of a “top five,” as Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros and Braydon Coburn all skated between 21:04 and 22:30 per game, in descending order. All five are back in the fold this season and make the Flyers one of the most formidable defensive teams on paper. The unit clearly missed Pronger during the latter parts of last season, but assuming he can stay healthy this year, nobody will be able to take a shift off against Philadelphia.
The biggest acquisition this offseason for the Flyers is the guy who will play behind those tremendous blue liners. Some of the purpose of dealing away Richards and Carter was to make cap space for Ilya Bryzgalov, who comes over from Phoenix and gives the Flyers the big, athletically gifted goalie that the Flyers haven’t had since Ron Hextall. Bryzgalov is about as unproven in playoff hockey as a Cup winner can be, but he did get the Coyotes to a seventh game with Detroit in 2010, and also was 3-1 with the Ducks in 2007 while largely backing up J.S. Giguere en route to that Stanley Cup. I’m not sure that Bryzgalov will justify a nine-year contract that forced the moving of Richards and Carter, but the Flyers were desperately seeking the guy to fill their starting goalie hole, and we now get to see if Bryz is that guy.
The Flyers are not lacking big time physical players, but it’s two smaller guys who have come up huge offensively in recent seasons. Claude Giroux has emerged as a world-class playmaker, and Danny Briere has resurrected his once-drowning career by scoring timely goals and bringing it every shift. I believe that Briere and fellow forward James van Riemsdyk are the two swing players for the Flyers this year. If JVR is able to improve his game like a young player should, and Briere is able to maintain his high level of output, the Flyers can be the best team in the east. But if either JVR or Briere falters, the Flyers could finish third and barely get in the playoffs. I think they should be about even on points with the Rangers, but less than 50% of me likes the Flyers over the Rangers at this extremely premature point.
4th: New Jersey Devils 2010-11: 81 points, 4th in division
Everybody seems afraid to speak ill of the Devils as if they were the dons of hockey, but I can’t see where the return to a high level is going to come from for this team. Sure, they made a run of sorts last year, but they still finished 12 points out of the playoffs and don’t have any key additions save for probably Zach Parise’s return from injury.
New Jersey should be solid in net again with Martin Brodeur back in the fold. They don’t have a great backup, but Johan Hedberg did his job last season and certainly can’t be blamed for the team’s early season flub.
It’s true that Ilya Kovalchuk played a pretty great second half of last season, but he’s one man. Also, people seem to forget that New Jersey finished 4-5-1 in their last ten games last season, so it’s not really like they charged hard and just couldn’t dig out of their hole. Had they gone 10-0 they would have qualified for the playoffs with 92 points to NYR and Carolina’s 91 (assuming an April 9th win over NYR). I know that 10-0 shouldn’t be expected, but the narrative on New Jersey’s gladiator-like charge is kind of funny to me.
As far as Parise goes, I wrote earlier that endangering the ability to keep Parise by signing Kovalchuk to a ridiculous fifteen-year deal was about as smart as cheating on your Swedish model wife and mother of your children with waitresses and women who live in trailer parks. I’m looking at you, Eldrick Woods. The best American non-goalie is scheduled for arbitration on August 3, a week after his 27th birthday. I expect Parise to remain a Devil through that process, but it shouldn’t have come to this and if he is a UFA next summer I would liken that to Elin finding out about Woods’ indiscretions. If Parise has a reason and the ability to go, only dumb loyalty would keep him there.
To prove my point, let’s look at the rest of the Devils’ top six forwards and their salaries.
  • Patrik Elias $6 million — He’s a Devil through and through. I could nitpick the figure, but he belongs on this team the way Parise does.
  • Brian Rolston         $5.06 million — Are you serious?
  • Travis Zajac           $3.89 million — Yeah, I’ve watched him play. It’s not there, at least not for that money.
  • Dainus Zubrus       $3.4 million — This made me spit out my coffee. Then I remembered the ’97 Cup Finals and I smiled again. Oh, Dainus Zubrus, you’re all growns up now.
To add to the Devils’ lack of scoring at high prices, the back end didn’t play well last year either. Andy Greene was a solid -23, albeit mostly early in the season. And besides Greene and Henrik Tallinder, no defenseman played over 20 minutes a game consistently. Matt Taormina achieved just over 20:00 in ATOI, but that was in only 17 games played. Colin White was still Colin White. Anton Volchenkov appears to have done his best Greg Louganis impression with his career, although I like the big guy’s defensive game. What a relief that he signed that big six-year contract last summer!
All in all, people claim to like the Devils to have a bounce back year, but I think they’ll play to their ability in this division, which should leave them fourth again.
5th: New York Islanders 2010-11: 73 points, 5th in division
I hate to have to do this, but there’s no way I can pick a team owned by Chazz Wang to outplay any of the above four teams. The Islanders have a lot of really good young players, but I like to think that organizations need to be strong and efficient at the top in order to succeed. If my thesis is true, then NYI is due for an entertaining chase for fourth place that should ultimately come up short this season. I mean Chazz Wang was actually quoted as wondering aloud why 35 year-old goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had spent a decade playing in important games, wouldn’t want to come play for the Isles. If Wang doesn’t know the answer to that question, then he’s as clueless as a sports owner can be.
On the positive side, the Islanders might get the most wins per dollar spent on salary this season, since they are currently $9 million under the cap floor with only three players left to sign. Blake Comeau has an arbitration hearing scheduled for August 4, and I’m actually not sure what the deal is with fellow forward Josh Bailey’s contract, but both players appear to be RFAs right now.
Aside from center John Tavares, who has drawn comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos since being drafted #1 overall in 2009, the Islanders’ most exciting question mark appears to be between the pipes. I’m about over Rick DiPietro, but some still think he has the stuff to justify his top overall draft pick from 2000. If Rick D falters or picks up yet another injury, the Islanders can feature a number of goalies with some upside. Al Montoya was really good at the end of last season, despite once letting a dump in bounce off the side boards and into his net against Bowling Green while a member of the University of Michigan (I was there, and the fact that Montoya was a “chosen one” only added to the hilarity of that moment). Montoya didn’t make it with the Rangers, who drafted him 6th overall in 2004, but he’s still only 26 years old and may have finally figured out the mental game of NHL goaltending.
Deeper on the depth chart sits Kevin Poulin, a 21 year-old Canadian who rocked a .924 save percentage in 10 appearances for the Islanders last season. Mikko Koskinen is a 6’6” former 31st overall pick of the Islanders in 2009 who is just 22 years old. Koskinen struggled last season in four games with NYI and throughout his season in the AHL with Bridgeport, but perhaps he can follow the Montoya timeline and figure it all out later. The Islanders drafted another big goalie in 2009 in the form of Anders Nilsson. He stands at 6’5” and has played 58 games over the last two seasons with Lulea HF of the Swedish Elite League. All of these guys appear to be assets that the Islanders could hypothetically flip for established players, but who knows how these guys will turn out and whether Chazz Wang will put GM Garth Snow in a position to hunt for help before the trade deadline. Seeing as NYI flirts with the salary cap floor, I wouldn’t expect much.
I do like a lot of the Islanders’ young players, and I think it’s conceivable for them to finish fourth in the division, but when it’s all over I expect the team to bring it up the rear in the division, and the fans to take it there from old Chazz while he waits for the new arena that, to his credit, he has fought long and hard for.
I hope you enjoyed the Atlantic Division edition of Premature NHL Prognostication. Next up: the Northeast. Cheers.

Less than two weeks ago Brad Richards was still an unrestricted free agent. There were cameras that tracked his entrance to his agency’s Toronto office, and then sat around to film representatives of various teams shamelessly beg hockey’s best free agent to sign with them. It was all supposed to be the NHL’s version of “The Decision,” except that it was Brad Richards who was the prize, and not a name like Alex Ovechkin. Coverage was beaten to death, and by the time Richards signed where everyone figured he would, it was time for the story to go away.
Except now, the story won’t go away, and it might have repercussions that border on the unspeakable. Actually, screw it. We need to talk about it.
There, I said it. What has up until now been a laissez-faire attitude toward long-term contracts and the CBA in general is starting to become more ominous. People within hockey are talking about the fact that there has become one big problem issue with regard to getting a new CBA done by July 1, 2012: salary cap circumvention.

Take your hands away from your areas, it’s not that. It’s of course the term that relates to these long-term deals that are so front-loaded that they could be objectively described as nothing short of farcical. James Mirtle and Greg Wyshynski both recently wrote articles that detail what cap circumvention is, and why some within the league believe it’s a problem. We all are smart enough to know that paying a guy nine or ten times as much money up front as on the back end is designed for one purpose only: to pay the player enough money up front to lure him to sign, while also lowering his cap hit to a more manageable number. If Christian Ehrhoff’s cap hit to the Buffalo Sabres was $10 million this year and $8 million the next, they may not be able to field a team. But alas, his cap hit is $4 million in each of the next ten seasons, thanks largely to those last three years in which Ehrhoff is scheduled to earn $1 million a piece.
Before I get hate mail, my Detroit Red Wings are guilty of the practice as well. Everyone cites Johan Franzen’s contract as an example of cap circumvention, and while I couldn’t vigorously deny that, I would say that Franzen’s contract is nothing like the ones we’re seeing now. Henrik Zetterberg’s contract has also been cited because of the two garbage $1 million years on the back end. I would offer that at least he gets paid in the same $7.5M range for the first 9 of 12 years. Today, his contract would be considered angelic due to the fact that he isn’t raking 50 percent of the contract’s total within the first two seasons. But, as less wrong as the Wings’ two examples are, they are still clearly some lesser form of cap circumvention given the two back end years.
Regardless of your take on these contracts, the fact remains that the league approved them all. Hossa, Zetterberg, Franzen, Lecavalier, Pronger, Ehrhoff, Richards, Keith, Luongo and all the rest have been allowed to go on the books. Whether they remain there after the signing of a new CBA, only time will tell.
One reason cap circumvention seems to be such a problem in today’s NHL is that there seem to be stark ideological differences within the front offices of the various teams regarding the legality and morality of these foolishly front-loaded contracts. In the link above, Mirtle references Leafs GM Brian Burke, who is morally opposed to offering such contracts despite being in charge of the richest team in the NHL (a.k.a. the team best situated to pay huge money up front). Burke actually states that his refusal to sign what he sees as a dirty contract was a big reason the Leafs were unable to sign Richards.

Photo courtesy
Brad Richards from his Dallas days
Wyshynski also names Capitals owner Ted Leonsis as another who is against circumventing the salary cap. In fact, Leonsis’ two star forwards on long-term contracts, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, are scheduled to make more money as the contract goes on. Those who oppose front-loading often cite it as in bad faith and not “within the spirit of the current CBA.”
I must agree that these negotiations do make an ass of the salary cap and are all a big farce, but I have to wonder if eliminating them is worth the fight. Unlike the NBA, which needed a lockout much like the NHL needed one in the summer of 2004, the NHL neither needs nor can afford a lockout at this time. The game is growing and succeeding thanks to the changes that were made six years ago. As I wrote yesterday, eighteen of thirty NHL teams sold at least 98% of their tickets in 2010-11. The NHL just signed a huge (by comparison) ten-year television deal that provides a revenue stream that is much deserved after the league had to eat Ramen noodles for a while. Things are going well. Fans are starting to get involved again, and I still have yet to meet a person who gave hockey an honest try and decided it wasn’t something that at least sparked some interest.
Aside from the number one reason that the league shouldn’t fight this too hard — the lockout — I want to ask a few more questions that might devalue this issue.

The rest of this section asks a lot of questions, and I use the word “you” often. It’s not pointed at “you” specifically; it’s supposed to be the royal “you.”

1.  Who cares? Why is front-loading a contract for a star player and adding a few joke years on the back immoral? Is it because that allows only the richest teams to land these players by offering them $9+ million early? We all know that nobody can carry a player with a cap hit of $10 million, so obviously the number has to be lower. So does that mean that we cannot allow an NHL star to make that kind of money in a season? Here’s the thing: the St. Louis Blues weren’t going to sign a player that had to be front-loaded whether it was legal or not. Even if rules required the cheapest year of a contract to payout half the amount of the most expensive year, the teams that aren’t capable of signing overpriced stars aren’t going to anyway. These teams aren’t paying $10 million this year, and they aren’t paying $7 million for seven years. Yes, these contracts cheat the salary cap and also shouldn’t be able to come off the books later, but in the end if everybody is allowed to do it, what’s the difference?

2.  If the NHL becomes contract police, will star players leave for the KHL? My gut tells me that not many would, at least not yet. By all accounts, the NHL is still where most players want to play. The facilities are better, the level of play is higher, and the championship trophy is constantly cited by foreign players as the holy grail of hockey. But still, the key for any league’s continued success is being understood as the best in its sport. Americans don’t watch MLS, but they do watch the English Premier League. Why? Because the EPL is a far better product. Some big name hockey players, including Jaromir Jagr, have left the NHL for greener pastures in Russia. While the KHL is still regarded as the second best professional league, the question is really whether the elimination of all circumventing contracts would push the early player payments down enough to have them choose to leave for Russia. I don’t know enough about the salaries of entire KHL teams to wisely predict how this would go, but I think all parties should be aware of this question before they crusade to limit how much dough a star player can bank, especially when teams are willing and able to pay it.

3.  Isn’t front-loading a contract the fiscally responsible thing to do? Stop me if I’m making stuff up, but aren’t the L.A. Dodgers bankrupt and close to being unable to pay their players because they back-loaded every contract of financial consequence? They still owe Manny Ramirez approximately $25 million, despite the fact that he played for two MLB teams more recently than the Dodgers and is now retired. The Dodgers were allowed to defer payments and end up owing lots of money way later than it should have been due. This is a recipe for disaster, as anyone who has ever gone to school on loans can attest. I understand the time value of money should indicate that it is always better to pay someone as late as possible, because a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. But this ignores a couple key mantras that any debtor can attest to: 1) don’t go into debt over your head, and 2) pay your damn debts. If the Sabres want to be owing Christian Ehrhoff $40 million over a 10-year period, why is it a bad thing that they want to get 45% of that total paid off within the first two years? Yeah, yeah, they can invest the money and make interest on it that covers inflation blah blah blah. Have you ever heard of Bernie Madoff? Or market volatility in general, especially recently? Ask the N.Y. Mets about Madoff, and then preach to me something out of an ECON 201 textbook. If the teams have the means to pay the front-loaded salaries today, and it appears that all of these teams do, then why on earth would we want to mandate a culture that makes it illegal to make damn sure that teams aren’t going bankrupt in the future based on years 7 through 9 of some horrible contracts that force them to write checks that will bounce?
To continue off Question 3, don’t you think the teams and players factor the structure of the contract into their negotiations? So we see that Ehrhoff (and I don’t mean to pick on him, Richards’ deal was just as “circumventing”) agrees to get paid $40 million over a 10-year period, with $18 million of that coming in the first two years of the deal. Don’t you think he factored the front-loading in when he agreed to the deal? Don’t you think he (or his agent) understands the time value of money? Of course he does, and he agreed to this deal based on getting that much money early in the deal. If we took a hard line on cap circumvention, the Sabres would have had to do one of two things to get Ehrhoff signed while still staying under the cap. Either they would have had to chop off the last three years of the deal while also lowering the dollar figures per year, unless they were cool with a $5.3 million cap hit for seven years for not the best defenseman in the league, or they would have to raise the back end of the deal a lot while also lowering the front, in order to keep the cap hit in check. There’s no way on earth Ehrhoff would prefer this setup, since again, money ten years from now isn’t worth nearly what it is today. And then there’s the risk of a Dodgers situation, which no player wants to be a part of.
To finalize, I get that these deals are a farce. I understand the idea that shouldn’t be allowed to be dropped so substantially based on the tacking on of bogus years that players don’t intend to play anyway. I even get how it is technically unfair to the teams that operate within the cap, but don’t bring in the kind of local television / sponsorship money that the bigger clubs do. But to me, the risk of downgrading the level of play of the NHL to the benefit of domestic leagues in Russia, Sweden, or anywhere else doesn’t make sense for the NHL. Additionally, I’m not convinced that these offers are patently immoral, since the player ends up signing where he wants to play, and by all accounts most teams try to lure the same free agents with the same front-loaded deals. Lastly, it makes fiscal sense to pay your debts earlier so that you can be assured of a brighter financial future. Who can fault these clubs for not wanting to be $21 million in debt for the last three uninspired years of some aging former star? I won’t fault them on those accounts, but I agree the whole thing is a joke. It might need fixed, but not at the expense of a new CBA getting done. Not even close. Because remember, that means a… luh… lah… lockout.
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.
Photo via
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.
Following the Boston Bruins’ hoisting of the Stanley Cup last week, many in the media were using the old clichés about teams beating talent and will beating skill.  I understand what those phrases are supposed to mean, but I think it’s a little misleading to insinuate that the Vancouver Canucks were not united, or that the Bruins lacked skill or talent.  The better team won the series.  Boston won four of the seven games.  They won their four games by 7, 4, 3 and 4 goals, respectively.  They lost their three games by one goal apiece.
I read a lot of opinions that the Canucks blew a golden opportunity.  I know on the surface it sounds nuts, but I disagree.  In fact, had the Canucks won Game 7 at home like the -150 money line said they were supposed to, it would have been the Bruins who blew the opportunity.  You see, when teams take each other seven games, it’s the team that lost games that it could have won that really has the burden of a blown opportunity.  Vancouver lost exactly zero games that it could have won, if we agree that the 4.5 goal margin equates to no opportunities, which of course it must.  Boston is the team that twice blew stellar one goal allowed efforts from MVP Tim Thomas, and tacked on an overtime loss to boot.  People can misremember this series all they want, and talk about how Vancouver really let it slip away, but the facts show that the Canucks truly almost stole the series from the Bruins, who would have had a hard time dealing with their blown opportunity.
With this said, I want to look ahead to next season to see which, if either, team can be expected to get back to the Stanley Cup finals.

Vancouver Canucks

For some time now, people have been applauding the job that Vancouver has done to build such a great roster despite the limitations of the salary cap.  While I agree that the Canucks looked rather stacked, they were a team that was really built to win in 2011.  The pieces are in place for a smooth transition into next season, but the Canucks have ten roster spots to fill in the offseason and only about $13.7 million with which to do that.  This average of $1.37 million per roster opening ranks 24th in the league.
The biggest of the big names are all back for the Canucks.  The Sedins are signed for 3 more years; Ryan Kesler is locked up for 5 more campaigns.  Manny Malhotra and Alex Burrows are entering their penultimate seasons under contract, and Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond both have one more year left.  Whether or not the Canucks buy out Samuelsson’s $2.5 million contract remains to be seen, but they can probably expect some delays in production from Raymond, who is out at least four months from now after suffering that terrible injury to his back in Game 6.  The rest of Vancouver’s forwards — Maxim Lapierre, Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins, Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini and Tanner Glass — are all free agents on July 1.  It should be noted that Lapierre and Hansen are RFAs, which will make it much easier for the Canucks to retain them, should they want to do so.  Remember though, only $13.7 million to go around…
The situation on the blue line really makes it clear how important the 2011 championship was to this team.  Going into the free agency period, the Canucks have Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard and Alex Edler locked up past the upcoming season.  They have Aaron Rome on retainer for this upcoming season at a discount price of $750,000, after which he will become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) if not signed to an extension beforehand.  The Canucks’ once-heralded stable of defensemen is now down to four, and one of those players is Ballard, who brings a $4.2 million cap hit for the next four seasons, and the Canucks refuse to use him in games that mean anything.
This leaves Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Christian Ehrhoff and Andrew Alberts all as UFAs in eleven days, and again remember, there’s only $13.7 million to go around.  While the Canucks can bring some players up from the AHL at six-figure prices, there’s almost no way they can pay all of these defensemen the money that other teams will be able to offer.  I would assume that of the four listed above, the Canucks would soonest part ways with 36 year-old Salo, but just refusing to resign him doesn’t add money to that $13.7 M pool with which to pay the other three D men.  All three played well this season, but one would think that Alberts can be had at the lowest price.  The soon-to-be 30 year-old Alberts came with just over a million dollar price tag last year, and Vancouver seemed to get at least what they paid for out of him.
Bieksa and Ehrhoff, on the other hand, are coming off $3.5 and $3.4 million seasons, and at 30 and 28 years old, probably aren’t looking to make financial concessions.  Even if those two will sign for the same money, that’s 7 of the 13.7 in available funds.  Doesn’t seem likely, does it?
All the rumors are that Bieksa will be the one to leave, and while I understand that Ehrhoff is the better defenseman per se, I don’t particularly like the idea of a team known for being “soft” washing their hands of one of the few hard-nosed producers it has.  I mean all they would have to do at that point is trade Kesler for Ilya Kovalchuk, and the caricature would be complete.  But alas, the salary cap restrictions…
Even if Bieksa is allowed to walk and Vancouver brings back Ehrhoff and Alberts to add to the four blue liners under contract, there’s no denying that on its face the 2011-12 squad would be worse off just without Bieksa, let alone Salo.  The elder statesman from Finland wasn’t worth the money he got last year, but he was still an effective hockey player, usually.  Ehrhoff and Alberts would probably cost the team somewhere in the vicinity of $6 million next season, given that Ehrhoff is an outstanding player and Ballard makes $4.2 million.  This would leave $7.7 million for more defensemen and all forwards beyond the seven currently under contract.  What would solve Vancouver’s problem is finding a taker for Ballard’s contract.  While it would seem obvious that nobody could be that dumb, I assure you there always is that one moron who tilts the game in someone’s favor.  If Islanders’ owner Wang is serious about taking on more payroll, perhaps Vancouver should give Garth Snow a call.
The Canucks are set at goalie for next season, as Cory Schneider will turn in his 28 games with a 2.30 GAA, and all for less than a million bucks.  Roberto Luongo is entering his tenth-to-last year on his contract.  Gulp.
Boston Bruins

As far as the Bruins go, I was really impressed after looking at their roster entering next season.  I mean the bottom line here in Beantown is, damn near everyone is coming back!  The Bruins have five roster spots to fill, and just over $7 million to do it with.  Their average number, only one spot ahead of Vancouver’s, is $1.43 million per opening.  But the key difference is that the B’s don’t have a lot of big earners who need to be resigned.  Assuming Mark Recchi is serious about retiring, the only Boston forwards not under contract already for next season are Brad Marchand and Michael Ryder.  Marchand is due for something of a raise after his integral role in bringing home the Cup, but a raise is acceptable when the starting point was an $821k cap hit last year.  I expect the Bruins will do everything necessary to keep Marchand, and I also expect the price not to exceed $2.5 million.  Ryder is somewhat of a different story, as he banked $4 million in each of the last three seasons.  But I have a feeling he’s a guy that the Bruins will be alright parting ways with, since they must see Marchand as a more valuable piece in their efforts going forward.  Ryder is a very good talent, but he even still has lacked the consistency to justify such a large salary.  Ryder tallied 41 points in 79 regular season games.
On defense, Boston brings back five of its six Cup-winning regulars.  Only trade deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle is a free agent, but the Bruins are likely to bring up Steven Kampfer before giving Kaberle close to half of their available offseason funds.  Whoever the sixth D man is, he will join the ring bearers Chara, Seidenberg, Ference, Boychuk and McQuaid.  To make matters better for the Bruins, only Boychuk and McQuaid are even entering their final seasons.
Like the Canucks, Boston is also bringing back its two goaltenders, Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask.  Also like the Canucks, the Bruins have around $1.4 million per player this offseason.  But unlike the western champs, Boston only has five spots to fill, and only one must-sign — Marchand.
In order to properly evaluate which team has a better chance to return to the SCF, one would have to do a similar accounting of each’s opponents, but for now, I must say that contrary to popular belief — Vancouver is an early 5 to 1 favorite to win next year’s Cup — it is the Bruins who are better set up to make it back next year.
Thanks for being patient with me over the past week.  Like my brother’s favorite, Craig Anderson, I had to avoid burnout.  I’m strongly looking forward to doing some more of these team offseason evaluations.  Feel free to join me via comments, Twitter or email.
What do you guys think?  Will either of these teams defend their conference crowns?  Will we have a rematch in 2012?  Or are we looking at new blood next year?

I want to add, I get all of these salary numbers from, and I highly recommend it for anyone desiring to know anything about player salaries, team cap restrictions, or anything related.