Wednesday July 6th, 2011

By Stu Hackel

The whirlwind pace of NHL transactions slowed only a little on Tuesday as the Coyotes re-upped Keith Yandle, who was in the Norris Trophy discussion last season, played in the All-Star Game and was third in scoring among defensemen. Tomas Kaberle signed in Carolina, and Boston -- seeking to replace Kaberle-- gave the Hurricanes a fourth-round pick for Joe Corvo (a good pickup for Boston in that he has a much better shot from the point than Kaberle, although he's also defensively mistake-prone, more of a gambler and is considered a turnover machine). The Senators signed fourth liner and frequent fighter Zenon Konopka, who fans of many other teams hoped their favorite club would acquire, although his six-year, 195-game career minus stat (-32) is greater than his career point total (22).

And there's some other news that we'll link to at the bottom of this post. But let's check in on Winnipeg first. That's where Jets captain Andrew Ladd signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract extension yesterday, avoiding taking the team to arbitration and, perhaps more importantly, making a statement that the 'Peg is a place he's happy to call home and lead his teammates through the transition from Atlanta and beyond.

Let's face it: They're a bit squeamish in Winterburg. They've got the bad rep, not really deserved, but there are a few NHL cities that suffer similarly, like New Jersey and Buffalo, which look undesirable from the outside until you see the areas where the players live and meet the people and cruise around to take in sights away from the arena or what you view from the highways.

And Winnipegers themselves are also still a bit uncertain. Yes, they have a new franchise, but they lost the old one and, like any jilted lover, still carry that weight in the early days of their new relationship. Like a fawn, they're a bit wobbly, still getting their legs under them and it's going to be that way for a while, at least until opening night. In the meantime, they fret about what their new NHLers will think about their weather and their relative isolation and how long this dream come true can last and keep telling themselves -- and everyone who will listen -- that they're a terrific hockey town, which is true.

So Andrew Ladd is a guy who can help change people's minds. “It falls on the same lines as Buffalo, in terms of maybe gets kind of a bad rap,” he said yesterday (quoted in The Winnipeg Sun). “But when guys play there... they’re going to grow to love it and make it home. The people that are there are a big part of it, down to earth and really friendly, which helps out, especially with guys with families."

There's a feeling that Ladd could have gotten more money elsewhere if he took a one-year arbitration deal and a year from now, as a seven-year veteran, filed for unrestricted free agency. He's twice won the Stanley Cup, playing for the 'Canes and then the Blackhawks, and he's coming off a 29-goal and 59-point season, best of his career. And Ladd became a real leader both on the ice and off it for the Thrashers as the vultures circled Atlanta's Phillips Arena.

"The last year's been pretty exciting for me in terms of the different role that I was given," Ladd told TSN. "To be one of the leaders with that organization and the opportunity to play more and be in more situations [was nice]. It seems like it's going in the right direction for me and I'm looking forward to keeping that challenge up."

But if he was sold on the organization, the organization was sold on him shortly after the sale from the Atlanta Spirit Group to True North was approved. Last month, Ladd flew at his own expense to Winnipeg from his home in British Columbia to meet with the new bosses -- owner Mark Chipman, new GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and new assistant GM Craig Heisinger -- for a tour of the MTS Centre and a little sit-down on the new regime's plans.

"The thing that was most impressive to me," Cheveldayoff told Ed Tate of The Winnipeg Free Press, "was [after the meeting] he went back to his hotel and sent emails and text messages to all the other players on the team, talking about the facility, talking about the friendliness, talking about the ownership, talking about the vision.

"I didn't get a chance to speak to the players until the next day and they all, to a man, said, 'Oh yeah, Laddy already talked to us.' Those are the key characteristics you want in your leader."

Ladd, who is getting married next week, mostly wanted stability. "It seemed like every time I got comfortable with the city I was in and the people that were there, got to meet the locals, I was getting shipped out to a different place," he told Tate. "To be able to get settled down and meet people in the community, get ingrained in the community with my fiancée, is going to be an exciting thing."

As you might expect, Ladd's signing has made him the hero of Portage and Main. "No grumbling about poor shopping options or the cold or lack of nightlife from Captain Ladd," wrote Gary Lawless in The Free Press. "He left money on the table, of that there can be no doubt, but what he passed up in bucks he gained in goodwill with the people of Winnipeg ... True North landed the franchise, but Ladd sowed the seeds of a reputation for the organization among players. Keeping or landing superstars will be hard for the Jets. As much as we love the 'Peg, others find reasons to knock it. But, and this was true in the '90s, there is the potential for hockey players to love our town as much as we do."

Andrew Ladd is aiming to share the love.

Now here's a few other items. Yandle's signing (five years, $26.25 mil) is not unlike Ladd's in that he's throwing his support to the Coyotes franchise, who remain unsold and on far less certain footing than the Jets. Bob McManaman has more in The Arizona Republic.

There are still free agents out there, many of them older players whose play has declined from their peak seasons, but still hope to make a valuable contribution. Rather than list them, you can read Erik Duhatschek in The Globe and Mail who sums up the market nicely.

They're not too happy in Tampa Bay, and not just because of RFA Steven Stamkos remaining unsigned. They've lost two key forwards, Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne, and not replaced them yet. John Romano of The St. Petersburg Times has that story and this is worth watching as these things represent a major challenge to Steve Yzerman following his fine first season as Lightning GM.

The rumors persist that the Flyers are trying to trade for and sign Stamkos and that's angering Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. Sam Carchidi blogging for The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others, writes that a source told him the Flyers will put in an offer to acquire Stamkos if the Lightning feel they can't sign him. Holmgren told Chuck Gormley of The Camden Courier-Post, "I have no idea where that's coming from -- none. He belongs to the Tampa Bay Lightning and I can't imagine any way he won't continue to belong to them. There is nothing to that." Betcha the rumors don't stop until the Stamkos deal is done.

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