Friday, June 27, 2008

Free Agency Matchmaker

As we approach the last significant date on the hockey calendar before training camps open in mid-September, excitement and anticipation aren't exactly palpable. With July 1st and the start of free agency just around the corner, teams and their fanbases should be preparing for hockey's version of Christmas -- making their lists, checking them twice and hoping Santa leaves a Marian Hossa under the tree instead of a Marcel Hossa (aka lump of coal) in their stockings. Unfortunately, this year's free agent class pales in comparison to the one on display a year ago, a consortium of players that included Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Ryan Smyth and Brian Rafalski. Much of that is due to teams aggressively re-signing their impending unrestricted free agents. The likes of Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle could have hit the market Tuesday, but all five All-Stars were re-signed by their teams as much as a year in advance. Still, the list isn't entirely barren, so I've provided my largely subjective ranking of the top 20 free agents available and the teams to which I believe they're headed. I don't profess to have any sort of insider information (who am I, Eklund?), just a sense of where players have been linked in the past and which teams have the cap space and need to solicit their services. Unless I fail miserably, I'll check back on this in a week or two to see how I did.

1) Marian Hossa - Prediction: Boston. Hossa has been linked to the Bruins since the trade deadline and with good reason. He reportedly has a good friendship with countryman and Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Hossa also enjoyed one of the more productive seasons of his NHL career flanking Boston center Marc Savard back when Hossa and Savard were Atlanta Thrashers. The Bruins are a team with a solid albeit youthful core up front and cap space to spend and will most certainly be willing to bid top dollar for the most enticing forward on the market.

2) Brian Campbell - Prediction: NY Rangers. Campbell has made it clear that he will return to the Eastern Conference, preferrably close to his hometown of Stathroy, ON, to attend to "family matters." That would suggest a signing with Ottawa, but Sens GM Bryan Murray has stated that the team has only $5 million in cap space to work with, ruling them out of the Soupy Sweepstakes. Among Eastern contenders with a potential interest in the ex-Sabre's services, that leaves the Rangers, who have the added benefit of employing Chris Drury, reportedly a close friend of Campbell. Throw in the Rangers' need for a puck-moving blueliner and their bountiful cap space courtesy of the imminent departures of Jagr, Straka, Shanahan and co. and you've got a match made in heaven.

3) Mats Sundin - Prediction: Montreal. Okay, so this one's a bit easier since reports have indicated that the Leafs have given Montreal permission to negotiate with the big center, but regardless, Sundin would be a terrific fit with the Canadiens. The Habs could have used a big, rangy center like Mats when they were being ousted by the punishing Flyers and the longtime Toronto captain's goal-scoring prowess meshes nicely with Montreal's other marquee offseason acquisition, Alex Tanguay. If Sundin does decide to return to the NHL next year, it will be in the bleu, blanc et rouge.

4) Brian Rolston - Prediction: Minnesota. Simply put, Rolston has more value to his current team, the Wild, than to any other NHL club. Make no mistake, Rolston is criminally underrated and undoubtedly the third-best forward potentially available once the floodgates upon at noon Tuesday, but his immaculate two-way play, his unique ability to excel in any situation and his ability to produce offense in Jacques Lemaire's stifling defensive system make it imperative for Minnesota to re-sign the American forward.

5) Wade Redden - Prediction: Columbus. The native of Red Deer, Alberta has been linked to Edmonton on numerous occassions, but with the Oilers already having puck-moving blueliners Joni Pitkanen and Sheldon Souray on their roster, it's doubtful they look to ink Redden. The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, essentially have to make the playoffs to satisfy a dwindling fanbase with whom the honeymoon regarding hockey in Columbus is most certainly over. Redden is intriguing in that he's only two seasons removed from being a consensus top-5 defenseman, but his stock has been severely impacted by two sub-par campaigns in a row. Regardless, the Jackets are desperate for high-end talent and will be willing to shell out for the ex-Senator.

6) Cristobal Huet - Prediction: Washington. The Capitals were an entirely different team post-trade deadline and much of that is courtesy of Huet's exceptional play. The ex-Hab proved invaluable down the stretch for the Caps, hoisting them to a division title and helping push Philadelphia to overtime of Game 7 before the clock struck midnight on Washington's fairytale season. It is imperative that the Caps re-sign Huet, as a season with Brent Johnson as a starting netminder will likely make superstar Alex Ovechkin's 13-year contract seem like a life sentence.

7) Michal Rozsival - Prediction: San Jose. Rozsival has been linked to San Jose by virtue of having played under newly named head coach Todd McLellan in his days with Swift Current of the WHL. The Sharks will likely also be in the market for a high-end defenseman given the likelihood of Campbell's departure. Whether they decide to sign a free agent or fill that hole internally remains to be seen, but should Doug Wilson choose to dabble in free agency, Rozsival's two-way defensive prowess would prove enticing.

8) John-Michael Liles - Prediction: Ottawa. The Senators will be a team to watch next year. They have the high-end talent in place to seemingly make a run at a playoff spot, but their goaltending situation may preclude any postseason dreams from materializing. Regardless, Murray has $5 million to spend and with the departure of Redden, the team needs a power-play quarterback. While the aforementioned Campbell is too rich for the Sens' blood, Liles, coming off a sub-par season, will likely command no more than $3.5 million a year and would be a welcome addition to Ottawa's surprisingly thin defense corps.

9) Brooks Orpik - Prediction: Pittsburgh. Orpik has expressed his desire to remain in steeltown and with a general lack of defensive defensemen to complement puck-moving blueliners Sergei Gonchar, Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang, Penguins GM Ray Shero would be advised to bite the bullet on Orpik's contract. The Penguins will be the most fascinating team to observe this off-season as Shero attempts to keep together a talent-laden roster. Of course, as the adage goes, you can't win on talent alone, and it's gritty, lunchpail types like Orpik that prove to be the glue of a team, particularly in April and May.

10) Ryan Malone - Prediction: Columbus. The Blue Jackets were rumored to be close to striking a deal just a few weeks ago to acquire Malone's exclusive negotiating rights before the Penguins forward stated he would test the market no matter what. Even still, Columbus' purported offer of $5 million/year over a long-term deal would likely outbid the competition by a long shot anyway. As mentioned above, the Jackets are serious about making the playoffs next season and for some reason, believe Malone can get them there.

11) Markus Naslund - Prediction: Pittsburgh. With Marian Hossa waving goodbye, the Penguins can't expect Sidney Crosby to take them back to the Finals with the likes of Maxime Talbot and Tyler Kennedy on his wings. While Naslund may not be perceived as much of an improvement over those two, the disgraced Canucks captain has explicitly stated that he would welcome the opportunity to play with Sid the Kid, making it likely that he returns to the team that drafted him.

12) Pavol Demitra - Prediction: Vancouver. Yes, Demitra has not been a potent offensive threat since 05-06 with the Kings, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. That much became clear when the Canucks picked Kyle Wellwood off the waiver wire. Demitra and the Canucks have a strong connection in that recently named Vancouver GM Mike Gillis served as Demitra's player agent before taking his current post. The Canucks are desperate for top-end talent to play with the Sedin twins and as a player who excels at right wing, Demitra could be a good fit.

13) Rob Blake - Prediction: Los Angeles. Rob Blake isn't ready to retire and with the amount of young talent the Kings are looking to break in at defense, it's doubtful Los Angeles wants to see him go. Blake served as a terrific mentor for Jack Johnson this past campaign and will probably be looked upon to do the same for No. 2 overall pick Drew Doughty this season if re-signed by LA.

14) Kristian Huselius - Prediction: Edmonton. Huselius is an enigma. Always has been, always will be. One game he'll look like Pavel Bure, the next he'll resemble Valeri Bure. To say his defensive abilities are suspect would be a gross understatement, but the guy can score and Kevin Lowe has talked at length about acquiring a "first-shot scorer" this off-season to round out the Oilers' top six. He could always tender Corey Perry an RFA offer sheet, but I'm assuming he doesn't want Brian Burke's hitmen after him, so he'll likely have to settle for the talented, but oft-invisible Swede.

15) Michael Ryder - Prediction: Tampa Bay. Despite their public intentions to go so far as to camp out in the backyards of top free agents in hopes of signing them, the recently instituted Tampa Bay ownership group of Oren Koules and Len Barrie will likely be shut out from signing the top dogs on the market. Ryder is coming off a dismal season in Montreal and as a result was reportedly the target of vandalism -- he'll likely be pleased to step out of the hockey spotlight. It's also easy to forget Ryder posted back-to-back thirty goal seasons just two years ago and he would likely look good playing on Steven Stamkos's wing.

16) Sean Avery - Prediction: Dallas. Avery would prefer to have his inevitable hi jinks documented in a major media market, but he's worn out his welcome in most of those locales anyway. Thus, the ex-Ranger will have to settle for the Lone Star State, where a strong leadership core that includes Brenden Morrow and Mike Modano will likely be able to keep him ins check to some extent. The Stars have shown interest in Avery and will need to fill the holes that will be created by impending UFAs Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen.

17) Cory Stillman - Prediction: Carolina. And the 2008 Doug Weight/Mark Recchi/Keith Tkachuk award goes to...Cory Stillman, for returning via free agency to the team he was dealt from at the trading deadline. The 'Canes love their forwards, and despite re-signing Sergei Samsonov and Tuomo Ruutu, they'll be looking to add a bit more firepower to their lineup if only as an insurance policy should any of Rod Brind'Amour, Justin Williams or Matt Cullen endure lengthy injuries yet again.

18) Sergei Fedorov - Prediction: Washington. Once the best player in the NHL, Fedorov's fall from grace has been swift and painful, but he does have a chance to salvage the tail-end of his Hall of Fame career. After being acquired from Columbus for a song, Fedorov looked downright invigorated in his stint with the Capitals, and would likely welcome the chance to play an entire season alongside the exciting young talent in the nation's capital.

19) Ladislav Nagy - Prediction: Minnesota. With Pavol Demitra gone, the Wild will be in desperate need to find someone to play with franchise winger (and potential UFA July 1st, 2009) Marian Gaborik. Who better than a Slovakian international teammate of Gaborik, Ladislav Nagy? Okay, so Nagy is coming off back-to-back disastrous seasons, but make no mistake -- he's still a tremendous talent and hasn't exactly been in optimal situations the past two years in Phoenix and Los Angeles. Perhaps playing alongside countryman Gaborik will reignite a spark. Regardless, at what should be a reasonably cheap cost, it's a risk the Wild can afford to take.

20) Brendan Morrison - Prediction: Atlanta. Plain and simple, the Thrashers are a mass. A brief perusal of their depth chart almost confirms that they will likely be better off spending the next season coming to a conclusion on whether John Tavares or Victor Hedman warrants the first overall draft pick in 2009 than any sort of playoff push. But they need to at least pretend that they're trying to win games, and will likely dip into the free agent market once again to find a center for poor, poor Ilya Kovalchuk. Morrison fits the bill given he does not re-sign with Vancouver.

Other notables: Gary Roberts to Calgary (Have you seen their second line?); Darcy Tucker to San Jose (Yes, he's older than dirt, but he's still an upgrade over Tomas Plihal); Mike Commodore to Los Angeles (I'll defer to Rudy Kelly on this one), Jose Theodore to Colorado (I realize Theo's playing hardball, but seriously, who the hell else is going to stop pucks in Denver? A 42-year-old Patrick Roy?); Doug Weight to St. Louis (Don't you love reunions? Actually, he'll probably retire); Jaromir Jagr to Avangard Omsk (Good riddance, Jaromir. Don't let the door hit your disproportionately large ass on the way out).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sharks re-sign Pavelski, Boucher, Roenick

The Sharks announced earlier today the re-signing of restricted free agent Joe Pavelski and unrestricted free agents Brian Boucher and Jeremy Roenick. Sharkspage is all over this with transcripts of the conference calls that occurred to announce the signings. Roenick's return has been common knowledge since the team alluded to it at the State of the Sharks meeting last month, but the retaining of another relative greybeard, Boucher, is a breath of fresh air in that it allows Thomas Greiss more time to develop in Worcester which, judging by a somewhat disastrous two-game look-see last season, he could really use.

According to TSN, Pavelski's contract totals $3.275 million over two years, about market value for a player who has been a delightful surprise since being selected 205th overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Little Joe has evolved from something of a shootout god into a bonafide second-line center for the Sharks and will likely be slotted in that role come training camp, probably between Patrick Marleau and Devin Setoguchi. Reports have indicated both Boucher and Roenick have been inked to one-year deals, the former to a $650k contract and the latter to a deal worth $1.1 million. In addition to being an allegedly positive contributor in the locker room, Boucher showed flashes of brilliance in the few games he started for the Sharks after being acquired at the trade deadline. In any case, he is a far more trustworthy candidate to spell Nabokov than the aforementioned Greiss and Doug Wilson has indicated that the former Flyer, Blackhawk and Blue Jacket will start upwards of 10-15 games next season.

Not enough can be written about Roenick's positive impact on the team since being saved from the clutches of retirement by Doug Wilson a year ago. JR remains steadfast in his pursuit of the Cup and will be returning for his second go-around in teal. Good news for Sharks fans, bad news for those waiting for the oft-outspoken center to ascend the broadcast booth.

In terms of the team's remaining free agents, Wilson is on record stating qualifying offers have been tendered to RFAs Ryane Clowe, Christian Ehrhoff and Marcel Goc. Talks between Wilson and impending UFA Jody Shelley are reportedly going well, while all indications are that Tomas Plihal will not be retained and only one of Curtis Brown and Patrick Rissmiller (both UFAs July 1st) is engaged in serious contract discussions with San Jose. Meanwhile, on the Brian Campbell front, Wilson withheld comment regarding the nature of contract discussions between the Sharks and Campbell's agents, only stating that they were ongoing. David Pollak suggests New York Rangers UFA blueliner Michal Rozsival as a viable replacement should Campbell choose to bolt via free agency, noting that Rozsival has a connection to newly hired Sharks coach Todd McLellan, with Rozsival having played for McLellan while with the WHL's Swift Current Broncos. Speaking of McLellan, the Globe and Mail's Tim Wharnsby reports that former Chicago Blackhawks head coach Trent Yawney is likely to flank the Sharks' bench boss as an assistant coach, Rob Zettler and Tim Hunter having joined Ron Wilson in Toronto.

Finally, in other NHL news, the Tampa Bay Lightning are a joke.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Larionov gives McLellan seal of approval

In a rather blatant attempt at expunging myself from culpability for failing to opine on the Sharks' hiring of one Todd McLellan, I'll settle for referencing San Jose's latest head coach with a somewhat fresher story. In case you missed it, Igor Larionov, once tabbed the Russian Wayne Gretzky (actually I kind of just made that up), was announced yesterday as one of four 2008 inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Joining him at the November induction ceremony will be former Edmonton Oilers star Glenn Anderson, the late Ed Chynoweth in the builder category and ex-ref Ray Scapinello.

But perhaps more intriguing than Larionov's status as the first ever former Shark to have his likeness etched in the vaunted Hall were "The Professor"'s comments regarding McLellan. From today's Merc: "I like Todd," said Larionov. "He's like a calm and steady guy, and likes hockey that's very close to me -- more offense, an entertaining style of hockey." In addition to being an offensive wizard of sorts, Larionov has always been a renowned hockey mind, so when he endorses a newly-hired coach, you not only know the franchise has done something right but also that you can expect a decidedly more offensive approach from McLellan than Ron Wilson's containment-oriented defensive stylings.


The NHL Draft begins Friday in Ottawa, but don't get too excited -- barring trades, the Sharks won't be venturing to the podium until the fourth round. Of course, the rumormongers are running rampant once again, deeming Patrick Marleau's banishment to hockey hell (aka Columbus, Ohio) imminent. Reports have Marleau being shipped to the Blue Jackets for everything from the 6th overall pick and Nikolai Zherdev to an advance copy of NHL 2K9 for the Nintendo Wii with Rick Nash gracing the cover.

Speaking of the Blue Jackets, Doug MacLean may have skipped town, but it appears that incompetence continues to reign supreme in the team's front office. With a justifiably restless fanbase still waiting on the franchise's first ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, someone in the organization apparently thought it was a good idea to not only offer Pittsburgh forward and impending UFA Ryan "I spent a contract year playing on Sidney Crosby's wing and have just 27 goals to show for it" Malone a long-term deal averaging as much as $5.5 million (!) a year, but trade either draft picks or a roster player for the right to do so a few days early. Luckily, Malone put an end to that by explicitly and publicly stating his intent to test the free agent waters regardless of whether or not his rights are traded.


Like any self-respecting Sharks fan, I possess a deeply ingrained hatred for all things Anaheim. However, with Ducks defenseman Scott Niedermayer likely to throw in the proverbial towel on his distinguished career with an announcement pending prior to Friday's draft, I feel it's appropriate to recognize one of the greatest defensemen it has ever been my privilege to watch. His unparalleled skating ability, his off-the-charts hockey IQ, his unmatched offensive instincts and his friendship with Good Riddance frontman Russ Rankin (had to throw that in there) have easily made him my favorite non-Shark. A shoe-in for the Hall of Fame, Niedermayer is, plain and simple, a winner. Hats off to one of the greatest.

Oh, but if he decides to pull that "I'm retiring haha no I'm not actually I'm not sure I think I'll take half the season off and thereby jeopardize my team's chances at developing the requisite chemistry for repeating as Cup champs" bullshit for a second year in a row, I might seriously have to reconsider my stance on him. As in, I'll respect him even more for screwing over the Ducks two years in a row.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Thank goodness for cheap ownership

It isn't often you'll hear me praising Greg Jamison, but it looks as though the Sharks' majority owner being a cheap-ass has finally worked in favor of the fanbase. According to Bruce Garrioch (four words that usually don't lead to credible information, but bear with me), the Sharks and Joel Quenneville have cut off talks due to Coach Q's contract demands. Quenneville would be a terrible fit in SJ, not only because I've probably misspelled his name already in this post, but because of his stifling defensive coaching style and lack of post-second round success bear resemblance to one Ron Wilson. Thankfully, Jamison's miserliness will keep the ex-Avs coach out of SJ.