Still no idea which sweater Antti Niemi will wear this season, but my gut (and gut only) tells me that it won't be one you can pick up online at NHL.com.
NIemi's most likely destination at this point seems to be the Finnish SM-Liiga or even the KHL on a short, one-year term. The overseas option isn't ideal, but with few viable options in North America, it makes sense for him to retrench in Europe for a season, then set himself up as one of the premier options next summer. Just from a dollars and cents angle, he'll make more money and have more say in his destination than he does now in a market that appears to have few, if any, buyers.
Big Buff to beef up blueline
It looks like there won't be so much pressure on Niemi's former teammate Dustin Byfuglien to beef up Atlanta's scoring attack next season after all. Word out of Blueland is that the Thrashers are likely to move the versatile player back to his original spot on the blueline.
"It's a position that he likes to play," former Hawks assistant and current Atlanta GM Rick Dudley told The Journal-Constitution. "I thought he was well on his way to being a top defenseman in Chicago. We moved him to forward because we had no size up front. Obviously, he proved to be a very effective forward but that doesn't mean he's not an effective defenseman."
Dudley went on to say that the final call on how best to utilize Byfuglien will go to coach Craig Ramsey, but that defense is his, and Byfuglien's, personal preference. That might seem confusing to some who watched Big Buff dominate at times last spring and now notice a lack of scoring forwards as Atlanta's top priority, but this idea does make sense. Ramsey is regarded as an outstanding teacher of the position and even with a crowded blueline picture (did you see that the Thrashers last week invited NHL veteran Kyle McLaren to camp?), the team could use a big body like Byfuglien on the back end, especially in five-on-five situations.
It's certainly possible the thinking could change, especially if none of Atlanta's forward hopefuls make an impression in camp, but the Byfuglien decision makes a lot of sense for a team that finished in the bottom five in terms of both shots and goals-allowed per game.
Devils not damned to losing Zajac
It's pretty clear that the Devils will have to movesome salary if and when Ilya Kovalchuk's generation-spanning contract is approved by the league. Still, the published reports suggesting that promising young center Travis Zajac will headline the banished list are as goofy as the Shake Weight.
"If [Chicago GM Stan] Bowman managed to fix his [salary cap] problems without getting rid of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, why would Lou [Lamoriello] fumble away one of his best young players?" asked an NHL executive. "Zajac's a big part of their core. He's not going anywhere."
Zajac would be easy enough to move -- at just 25, he's playing first-line minutes and making under $4 million for the next two seasons, but he's far more valuable to the team than the cap space he's assuming. Look for the Devils to make a move involving Dainius Zubrus or Bryce Salvador to clear room. Another option? Finding someone to take Brian Rolston (NTC and all) and his $5 million off the books...although that would mean packaging him with a top prospect like Mattias Tedenby to make taking on his contract more appealing.
Coyotes get what they paid for
There's been a lot of chatter over the past 24 hours about how expertly GM Don Maloney played his cards before signing free agent Lee Stempniak to a two-year, $3.8 million contract. A gentle reminder: it's Lee Stempniak we're talking about here. No arguing that he made the biggest impact of all trade deadline acquisitions, with 14 goals and four assists in 18 regular-season games after being dealt to the Coyotes. But Stempniak disappeared in the playoffs, netting just two assists in seven postseason contests. He's only 27, so there's a chance we've yet to see his best hockey, but it's more likely that Maloney, and 29 other GMs, recognize that Stempniak is what he is -- a third-liner who'll be maddeningly inconsistent but still manage 40-45 points. Useful, but about the production you'd expect to come with that price tag.
RPI still bleeding talent
Another tough loss for Seth Appert's program at RPI -- and NCAA hockey in general -- as the Blackhawks this morning confirmed the signing of 19-year-old forward Brandon Pirri to a three-year deal. Pirri, who led all rookie scorers in the ECAC with 43 points in 39 games last season, was the second high profile defection from the team in a matter of weeks, following in the footsteps of former linemate Jerry D'Amigo (Toronto Maple Leafs).
Pirri, who was Chicago's second selection (59th overall) in the 2010 draft, impressed at rookie camp bu still has some way to go to reach his potential as a second-line center with the Hawks. He'll likely report to Saginaw of the OHL after training camp, but he could be assigned to Rockford of the AHL as well. Either way, he needs time to improve his conditioning, physical play and two-way game. Not sure it's easier to work on those elements in those leagues than the NCAA, but he certainly isn't the first talented prospect of late to see things that way. Shows just how much work former NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly has ahead of him in his new position as head of College Hockey, Inc.
Regarding Dany Heatley
I'd like to offer up a clarification/correction to a point made in last Saturday's column. In referencing the relatively fortunate outcome of the incident that led to Nikolai Khabibulin's drunk driving conviction, I suggested that Dany Heatley served as an example of how much worse the situation could have played out.
As several readers pointed out, alcohol was not a factor in the collision that took the life of Dan Snyder with Heatley driving. And while my intention was simply to highlight how poor judgement behind the wheel can lead to even greater tragedy, I certainly understand how what I wrote could be interpreted to suggest that alcohol played a role. My apologies for not being as concise as I should have been.