By Stu Hackel
The NHL barged into its offseason with an Entry Draft weekend marked as much by what didn't happened as what didn't. What follows, in short order, will be NHLPA meetings early this week, then perhaps the first session of collective bargaining between the players and owners, followed by the opening of free agency on July 1.
While the draft didn't evolve into the wholesale swap-meet that some expected (and we chronicled many of the rumors here, here and here), a few significant deals did go down, whetting appetites for what may ensue when the free agents hit the market and the clubs that don't sign their own look elsewhere to fill holes. Thus the rumors will continue.
Rick Nash is still a Blue Jacket, Roberto Luongo is still a Canuck, Bobby Ryan is still a Duck, Ondrej Pavelec is still a Jet, Patrick Kane is still a Blackhawk -- and, unlike the other three, Pavelec certainly and Kane likely will stay in place. Pavelec has just signed a five-year extension. But judging by most indications, there will still be a fair amount of movement this summer.
“I think everybody was focused on the draft today,” Hawks GM Stan Bowman said Saturday after it concluded (video). “There's a lot happening, rapid-fire picks and not as much lead-up to it. The discussions I did have, everyone agreed that you don’t need to try to jam a trade in the next half an hour here before we get going. But we had some brief discussions with a few teams and I think we all agreed that it will probably pick up as the week goes on. I still think there will be movement with players around the league over the next two weeks....Now we can go back to the other things, whether it's preparing for free agency or looking at the trade market."
There's little doubt that the home team made the biggest splash in Pittsburgh. Jordan Staal's rejection of a lucrative 10-year contract offer from the Penguins triggered his trade to Carolina where he'll get to play with his brother Eric. When we wrote about Staal last week, Pens GM Ray Shero didn't have a deal on which he was willing to pull the trigger and he seemed prepared to go one more season with Staal. The deal Shero did accept started to come together a couple of hours before the draft began. But was this a situation in which he reluctantly realized that he'd better unload Staal now, or did he do some amazingly crafty thinking here?
That thinking would be along these lines: Did Shero figure all along that Staal might reject the 10-year deal Pittsburgh offered in favor of becoming a free agent? (Staal admitted that had he signed it, he'd be a Penguin for so long, he'd never get a chance to play with Eric on the Hurricanes.) So why not maximize Staal's trade value at the first opportunity? Shero conducted a quick little auction -- the Hurricanes, Rangers and Wild are thought to be the participants -- and once Brandon Sutter was part of the Hurricanes' package, Carolina won, giving Pittsburgh a less expensive but suitable replacement for Staal. Plus, Shero got NCAA All-American defenseman Brian Dumoulin and a higher first round pick that he turned into another mobile defenseman: Derrick Pouliot, who insulates the Pens against possibly losing Kris Letang as a UFA when his deal is up after two more seasons. AND as Bob Rossi of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review details, Shero freed up enough cap space to take a run at pending UFAs Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Now, maybe Shero merely stumbled into this circumstance or he game-planned it ahead of time and recognized that his team would still be pretty good with Staal in the lineup for one year, but potentially -- knowing the value of the players offered by Carolina -- Pittsburgh would be better off if Staal said no. So he made Staal a mammoth offer he could refuse instead of a shorter term that he might have considered signing. Hey, Jordan Staal is a fine player, but the Pens didn't need that talented a guy to be their third line center, and if you can land Parise, Suter or both, and have Sutter, Dumoulin and Pouliot, that's a potential one-for-five trade-off. Shero still makes out well if he doesn't land Parise and/or Suter, but imagine how good the Penguins can be if he does.
Before we award the next five Stanley Cup championships to Pittsburgh, however, what some other teams did during the weekend to strengthen themselves deserves discussion as well. The Hurricanes' side of the Staal deal certainly makes them more of a force in the Southeast Division. There is some thought that they gave up a lot, maybe too much. But as GM Jim Rutherford said, "When you have a chance to get a player like this, you don’t wait around." Jordan Staal doesn't exactly answer their need for a potent first line winger to play with Eric, a gap on Carolina's depth chart ever since the departure last summer of Erik Cole to Montreal as a UFA. There's some thought that the 'Canes will shift one of the Staals to wing with the other as his center, or they might line up 1-2 in the middle if Rutherford can get another winger via trade or free agency. That would make Carolina rather formidable.
Washington acquired a much-needed second line center by dealing for Mike Ribeiro, who has the type of high-level skill that has usually characterized the Capitals, at least until the aborted Dale Hunter era. This signals that GM George McPhee indeed wants to inject a bit more adrenaline into his club's attack, as he indicated before the draft. The deal allows Washington to shift versatile Brooks Laich back to wing or play him as the third line center, If he's on the wing, he'd help create space for Ribiero's flashy moves. Whether Ribeiro, a set-up guy who has a touch of hot dog about his game, buys in to whatever Washington's new coach will be selling (whoever that person might be) could be critical to how well the Caps fare as they seek to re-define themselves again.
The Maple Leafs and Flyers pulled off an interesting deal: forward James van Riemsdyk headed north with defenseman Luke Schenn going the other way. The Flyers need to rebuild their blueline corps, especially with Chris Pronger likely done. Schenn is not quite Pronger -- who is? -- but he's younger than most of Philly's defensemen, can play tough and be a very good shutdown d-man, plus he's got a big right-handed shot from the point, so the Flyers have to be happy with all of that. And Luke has to be happy to play with his younger brother Brayden, a Flyers center. As for JVR, if he's healthy and becomes more consistent, he will take some of the pressure off top line scoring wingers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. He's not going to run opponents over in pursuit of the puck and he's not the answer to the Leafs' major need, a solid goaltender, but he'll give them scoring depth on the left side, and with Lupul injury-prone and, like Kessel, a streaky scorer, JVR could be a valuable addition.
With van Riemsdyk gone, the Flyers are probably out of the Rick Nash sweepstakes. (But how long will it be before someone speculates that the Leafs flip van Riemsdyk into a package for another trade target, perhaps Luongo?)
As for the other deals, we touched on the Blue Jackets acquisition of Sergei Bobrovski on Friday, and at the moment, that was the best they could do with the goalie market having shrunk after Anders Lindback was dealt to Tampa Bay and Josh Harding re-signed with Minnesota. It cost Columbus three draft picks, which seems quite a bit for a backup goalie. The seemingly logical deal of Nash for Luongo is unlikely as both players have the ability to veto trades and it's thought that Luongo's desire to go to Columbus is even lower than his desire to face another season of howling critics in Vancouver (and TSN's Bob McKenzie had more on Luongo's status late Monday, which you can read here). But is "Bob" -- a backup in Philly last season -- really the answer for the Blue Jackets? GM Scott Howson indicated, at least for the moment, that he's happy with Bobrovski and Steve Mason battling it out in training camp for the chance to be his Number 1 goalie. "If that's all we do, then those two will fight it out to see who gets the most playing time." (Video). The key here could be in the "If that's all we do," because Howson is certain to ask for a more accomplished netminder in any negotiation for Nash.
Now, what of the Nash sweepstakes? "The teams that are interested are getting frustrated because they think the asking price is too high," said TSN's Bob McKenzie on Monday morning over Montreal TSN 990 radio. "Howson seems convinced that at some point these teams will raise their price when other options, whether it's Zack Parise or, now that James van Riemsdyk is off the board, we'll see what happens with Bobby Ryan; all those things, and at some point some team will come up and say 'Yes, we're prepared to give up the four or five primary assets that Columbus is looking for." But, McKenzie believes, the Nash camp fears that if the price is too high, it will drive the teams that are talking about him to look at Parise and Ryan, and when they are gone, the Blue Jackets will be left dealing with fewer teams that may not want to pay Howson's asking price. It bears close watching.
Among the other deals, the Islanders added to their defense corps by trading for the Ducks' Lubomir Visnovsky, whose ability to shine as a puck mover and shooter from the point is akin to Isles captain Mark Streit's. Both are also smallish and do the Isles really need two of those kind of guys? Both are entering the last year of their NHL deals, and what that t means going forward, who knows? But for this season at least, they could give the Isles a very dangerous power play.
For those interested in who did well at selecting draftees, check out Allan Muir's SI.com story. You never know what an 18 year-old will turn out to be as an NHLer, if he becomes an NHLer. That's why Allan started his story by writing, "As one colleague is fond of saying, picking winners and losers the day after the draft is a fool's errand. No wonder they keep asking me to do it."
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