Now that the dust from the Kovalchuk kerfuffle is settling at last, let us lightly turn our thoughts to ice and your handcrafted epistles...
I know the Penguins had limited cap space to come up with an upgrade up front, but was Mike Comrie really the best they could do? Another center, for Pete's sake! I like what they did with the defense in free agency, but it's looking like another season of revolving wingers for Sidney Crosby. -- Andrea French, Nova Scotia
You might be right about the revolving wingers, Andrea, but Comrie's signing makes a lot of sense. At just $500,000 for a one-year deal, he's a low-risk bid to find a suitable wingman for Sid. And while Comrie has spent much of his career in the middle, he did switch to left wing last season in Edmonton. He was often slotted alongside Shawn Horcoff on the Oilers' top line, so he can definitely step into the role.
Comrie may not have put up the numbers expected of him last season, and you'll find plenty of doubters who'll paint him as being near the end of his career. Still, he has more pure talent than the team's other options (Pascal Dupuis and Max Talbot, in particular). Comrie has good hands, he's strong on his feet and he's got a bit of jam to his game that should help him make the transition to yet another new club.
And let's face it...he's playing with Sid. Crosby hasn't exactly turned fire hydrants into 40-goal or 100-point scorers like his boss, one Mr. Lemieux, used to do, but there aren't many players who are easier to line up with. It's easy to imagine Comrie scoring 50 points, and if he plays well enough to force his way onto the power play, bump that expectation up to 60. He could end up being one of the best value signings of the offseason.
Is it just me or does the Ducks' defense look like the worst in the West this year? There's so little talent back there that I'm starting to worry that Cam Fowler might be rushed into service. I think that would be disastrous for his development.-- Gino Manzanetti, Michigan
The worst in the West? I think the group in Edmonton might wear that particular albatross, but it's fair to say that this year's blueline in Anaheim won't remind anyone of the tough, skilled defensive corps that made the Pond such a miserable place to visit back in the Ducks' Cup-winning days.
Lubomir Visnovsky will assume a larger role, but there's no way he can replace a guy like Scott Niedermayer, who led the team in ice time and was as respected a captain as could be had. Toni Lydman is a reliable second pairing guy, but he might be pressed into some heavier lifting. Andy Sutton looked good in a brief run in Ottawa, but he's still Andy Sutton. Beyond that, you've got Brett Festerling, Sheldon Brookbank, Danny Syvret...you know, that bunch does look an awful lot like one you'd expect to see on an expansion team.
It won't be surprising to see 2010 first-rounder Fowler get the Alex Pietrangelo treatment if he has a strong camp -- nine games and then a return to the OHL -- but the Ducks won't rush him. For all his talent (he'll dazzle you with his skating and passing skills), Fowler's game is at a point where it needs coaching and development time more than exposure to the world's best players.
If the Ducks are going to promote anyone from juniors, it's likely to be Luca Sbisa. The prize acquisition in the Chris Pronger trade spent most of last season with Portland of the WHL and could use some time in the AHL to add some polish to a game that prompted the Flyers to draft him 19th overall in 2008. Still, he's shown a lot of poise -- he played for Switzerland at the 2010 Olympics -- and is more physically mature than he was when he got his cup of coffee with the Ducks last October.
There's potential back there, but it's safe to say that the Ducks' blueline is in transition. Don't be surprised to see Jonas Hiller doing a Denis Lemieux impression by midseason.
Do you have any idea what the owners will focus on during the next round of CBA talks? Seems like they already have everything they could ask for, but salaries keep going up. Do you think they'll try to lower the cap?-- Stephane Morrell, New Brunswick
I suppose it's possible they'll look to lower the percentage of revenue that leads to the cap figure, but I think you'll see two other battle fronts earn greater prominence.
First, expect some owners to push for a lower cap "floor." The cap has brought parity to the on-ice product, but several clubs are operating in the red. The chance to lower their mandated expenditures even a couple percentage points might be enough to get them back in the black. Or it might not...but it will give them a little more control.
The other, and possibly more contentious, issue: gaining leverage over second contracts. This will be a tough one. The players will argue, and rightly so, that the market already has corrected significantly over the last couple years, so the system works as is. (For a good example, see Erik Johnson's two-year, $5.2 million deal signed with Blues earlier this month.) As a result, you're seeing fewer deals like the one Patrice Bergeron won from the Bruins back in 2008 (five years, $23.75 million). Still, this is one area where the owners feel exposed to the inflationary effects created by the competitive drive of their peers. They'll push to have some kind of brake put on the table.
The rookie I'm most excited about seeing this season is Jacob Markstrom. I remember being impressed by him at the World Juniors and saw that he put up some pretty good numbers in the Swedish league. Do you think he can step right in and win a job in Florida?-- Ben Romodo, Ontario
I think you can count on seeing Markstrom make his NHL debut this season, but with veterans Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen under contract to man the pipes, the Panthers don't need to rush the development of the 31st overall pick from 2008.
You're right to be excited, though. Markstrom looks like a special player. At 6-3, he has the height to cover a lot of net. While he needs to fill out physically, you just have to shake his canned-ham hands to know that he will bulk up before long. He has great mobility, controls his rebounds and boasts a phenomenal glove hand that helped him lead the Swedish league in goals-against (2.01) and save percentage (.927). But the element of his game that impressed at least one scout was his competitiveness.
"He never gives up on a play," the scout said. "Even in practice, he takes every shot seriously. I'm not saying he's [Dominik] Hasek, but he'll be like Hasek the way he gets into a shooter's head."
Markstrom reminds me in some ways of Boston's similarly-built Tuukka Rask, and, like Rask, he's going to need some time to adjust to the smaller rinks and faster pace of the North American game in the AHL. The Panthers cleared the path for plenty of playing time by loaning Alexander Salak to Farjestad BK of Sweden last month. That puts Markstrom in as the starter for the Amerks, and he will be the first call-up should anything happen to Vokoun or Clemmensen.