Friday July 8th, 2011

By Stu Hackel

Once upon a time, the hockey world closed down for the summer. Really. Some teams just turned off the lights, locked the door and took vacation. They did no business for a month. The players had to get summer jobs. Some drove trucks, some worked on farms, some did promotional work in the better hockey markets. No more. The players don't have to work, but they do work out. As for the hockey business, it never ends. The NHL really no longer has an offseason. There just aren't any games being played. But lots is going on right now, including many teams holding development camps for their prospects and recent draftees.

At the bottom are links to some of today's big stories, and if anything major happens over the weekend, we'll add the links and some thoughts, so you can check back and scroll down.

But the most interesting happening Friday was that the scheduled grievance hearing on the status of the Predators' top scorer Sergei Kostitsyn became moot when he signed a one-year deal worth $2.5 million -- a big boost from the $550,000 he got last year. Kostitsyn was one of six Predators who the NHLPA believed were sent RFA Qualification Offers past the 4 p.m. deadline on June 27 and should have had those offers voided and the players declared UFAs. Preds GM David Poile solved the problem with three of the five by signing them to new contracts before the hearing, with one being traded to the Rangers and one committed to play in Europe next season, but Kostitsyn's status was a major issue for Nashville. Arbitrator George Nicolau was to hear the evidence, but now that won't happen

A similar case involving the Blackhawks two years ago led to Chicago having to re-sign Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker for more than they would have received through properly filed qualifying offers (or even subsequent negotiations after the offers were presented) and that exacerbated the Hawks' tenuous salary cap situation and contributed to a massive roster turnover after they won the Stanley Cup last year. The Preds are not cap-stretched like the Hawks were -- in fact, they're below the floor right now with only $41.2 million committed for next season -- but they don't have the same resources as Chicago either.

Away from the distractions of Montreal, where he and his brother, Andrei, perhaps enjoyed the city a bit too much, Kostitsyn scored 23 goals last season, finally displaying with some consistency the potential he showed in his last season of junior hockey (40 goals, 131 points playing on a line with Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner for the London Knights in 2006-07). Had he been declared free by Nicklau, there was certainly no guarantee he'd be back in Nashville. A bidding war could have erupted for his services; there are lots of NHL teams who would like a skilled, snarly winger like SK74.

Did the Preds overpay to keep him? Perhaps, although Poile said after the signing the Predators had been working all along with Don Meehan, Kostitsyn's agent, to come up with a number based on what Kostitsyn might win in salary arbitration. Regardless, Sergei he scores goals and not too many Preds do. Nashville isn't going to be in any cap danger because of this deal. It's a one-year deal and it gives both sides a season to see what's what.

Now Poile can turn his attention to his biggest issue -- re-signing star RFA defenseman Shea Weber. The team filed for salary arbitration, and today that hearing was set for Aug. 2 (and here is the list of all the arbitration hearings). But they'll keep negotiating before the hearing in hopes of reaching an agreement.

The Caps and the cap: When we wrote earlier this week about the big changes some NHL teams have made recently, we didn't give enough attention to the Capitals -- who may have made the most shrewd improvements in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NHL. They didn’t tamper with their core, but may have added to it if Tomas Vokoun becomes their top goalie at the amazing bargain basement price of $1.5 million. They let some guys (like Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm) walk so they could bolster their depth: They brought in a pair of veteran UFA Canadiens: Roman Hamrlik to give some spine to their sometimes shaky defense corps, and former-Cap Jeff Halpern, who is an upgrade from Boyd Gordon as a depth center/faceoff specialist because of his better offensive ability. They also imported some toughness picking up Troy Brower and Joel Ward, both of whom can contribute timely scoring. There’s lots of character on this team that wasn’t here before. It's a very impressive remodeling.

But Washington is over the salary cap by nearly $2 million and they still have to sign RFA defenseman Karl Alzner. They may be able to move some of that salary off their books because, as The Washington Post's Katie Carrera blogged this week, both Eric Fehr and Tom Poti could have long-term injury issues that would make them unable to start the season, so that would buy them some time to fix the problem. And owner Ted Leonsis stated a few days ago that they are still exploring the trade market. They have some guys who can be moved that wouldn’t alter their team too badly (Jason Chimera, for example, who is at $1.8m).

Lots of Caps fans have been urging the club to trade Alexander Semin to free up space, but Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post, isn't a fan of that idea and presented some statistical evidence why he should remain in DC, concluding, "Take Semin off the second line and not only do you reduce the Capitals’ scoring ability, you allow teams to stack their best defenders against the trio of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Knuble."

Don't they do that now anyway?

New in St. Loo -- By now, you probably know that the Blues have signed three veteran UFAs -- Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol -- to one-year deals, for the purpose of adding their leadership and experience. Much of the attention went to Arnott and Langenbrunner, who add to St. Louis' list of physically big players, have long impressive resumes and have played on Stanley Cup champions, although the small, but energetic Nichol -- whose combative style inevitably means he gets dinged up and scratched -- also brings a key ingredient any winning club.

Blues GM Doug Armstrong acknowledged neither Arnott nor Langenbrunner is the player they once were and is slotting them in for third and fourth line duty, as he is with Nichol, leaving the major responsibilities to the talented young core he and his predecessor, Larry Pleau, have assembled. Arnott and Langenbrunner will no doubt chip in important points here and there but, more importantly, they'll be entrusted with providing leadership for this group. It's a role that the Blues hoped the recently-retired Paul Kariya could have assumed had he been able to bounce back from his concussion.

Neither Arnott nor Langenbrunner knew Armstrong was negotiating with the other until after the deals were sealed, but these two -- who were traded for one another in 2002 -- became friends during their brief time together in New Jersey last season. In addition to being Cup winners, they both have have been captains of teams during their careers and it's very easy to see them forming a solid partnership in the Blues' dressing room and on the bench, helping to keep the team focused. Armstrong said when announcing their signings that last season's Blues got too high when things were going well (they started last season 9-1-2, and management thinks their kids got overconfident) and too low when they weren't. That's where the leaders can provide perspective and help the club stay level-headed.

The advantage Armstrong had in recognizing Arnott and Langenbrunner could provide what his team needed comes from his history with both. He was the assistant GM in Dallas and helped scout and draft Langenbrunner in 1993, and later as GM made the deal to bring Arnott to Dallas for Langenbrunner. So he knows both well and the qualities they have.

This will be an important season for the Blues. They were whacked with injuries to key players last season and fell out of the playoff hunt. More had been expected following 2009-10 when they made the post-season, lost four very close first-round games to the Canucks and their young core seemed poised to push the club higher. Now some of that young core -- T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Alex Steen, B.J. Crombeen -- aren't so young anymore and St. Louis is seeking bigger things from them. They're also hoping that David Perron can recover from his concussion (he's still unable to begin his summer workouts) and the rest of the younger group -- like Chris Stewart, Patrick Bergland, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk -- continue to progress.

Armstrong has shown he's not afraid to change his team if it's not going where he thinks it should (shown last year in the major deal that brought Stewart and Shattenkirk from Colorado for Erik Johnson, who was considered the cornerstone of the Blues' youth movement). These veteran signings could be just as important for St. Louis.

Rookie Coaches -- The Red Wings named two new assistant coaches for Mike Babcock today, not guys with NHL experience like the two they are replacing -- Paul MacLean (now head coach in Ottawa) and Brad McCrimmon (who has gone to the KHL) -- but a pair of younger coaches who have been winners at other levels. Bill Peters coached AHL Rockford, the Blackhawks farm team, for the past three years, and prior to that, led the Spokane Chiefs to the Memorial Cup in 2008. He also was an assistant to Babcock in Spokane in the late '90s. Jeff Blashill coached at Western Michigan University last season and has spent most of his coaching career at CCHA schools. He also coached Indiana of the USHL, the top junior league in the U.S. and won that league's championship in 2008.

If memory serves, this will be the first time Babcock won't have a former NHLer behind the bench with him. Usually, head coaches who didn't play in the NHL like to have an assistant who did, if only because of the shared experience they have with the players. By now, Babcock certainly has earned the respect of his players so it's probably not necessary. But, admittedly, having three non-NHLers behind an NHL bench is unusual.

One of the coaches speculated to perhaps be on Babcock's list was Craig Ramsay, recently let go by the Jets. The former Sabres player (he was an excellent defensive forward) has landed as an assistant coach position in Florida, where he was an assistant long ago to Roger Nielson in the Panthers' first few seasons. He's had tenures as the head coach before in Buffalo and Philadelphia. He's a very good choice to help first-time NHL coach Kevin Dineen. Here's the story from The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and The Miami Herald.

New Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov visited his new home in Denver Thursday and our pal Adrian Dater wrote about it in The Denver Post.

The Lightning signed Senators UFA winger Ryan Shannon and Damian Cristodero in The St. Petersburg Times writes, "It is believed Shannon, 28, with 11 goals and 27 points in 79 games last season for the Senators, will get the chance to earn the top-six forward spot vacated by Simon Gagne, who signed with the Kings." Shannon's a nice player, but he's no Simon Gagne. He may end up taking Sean Bergenheim's spot on the third line. But GM Steve Yzerman said (assuming he'll hang on to RFA's Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell), "We are in a position now where we are a set roster."

Stevie Y may be done, but the Flames are one team still shopping, and Steve McFarlane writes in The Calgary Sun, with the Caps over the cap and the Sabres near the ceiling, perhaps there's a deal for GM Jay Feaster there. "Feaster plans on going on vacation early in August," writes McFarlane, "but before then, anticipate plenty of behind-the-scenes action even if none of it ever comes to light. And if he hasn’t been satisfied, it’ll be an equally busy few weeks after his return leading into the fall."

Well, someone is taking a vacation. Still, there are probably trades to be made and some pretty good free agents remaining out there hoping someone will come see about them.

Love that song. Wonder if Derek and Susan got that riff from Dylan's Hard Rain version of "Maggie's Farm"...

...combined maybe with a touch of Graham Central Station's version of the Detroit Emerald's "Feel The Need"...

Have a good weekend.

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