By Stu Hackel
We wrote late last week that the trade and free agent rumor mill was heating up. Today it is starting to boil.
There's always talk about who might be on the move when the calendar hits June, but this gumbo of gossip has some unique ingredients. For starters, the Entry Draft starts on Friday and this year's draft class is not considered to be particularly strong. With a number of teams holding high picks and wanting to change their fortunes sooner rather than later, dealing them for established talent might be the way to go. Throw in a few disgruntled big name players who desire new addresses and teams facing salary cap issues while trying to re-sign some of their unrestricted free agents before they hit the market on July 1, and you've got a buffet of buzz.
In Tuesday's Toronto Sun, for example, Terry Koshan lists the top five players he believes will be on the move in the next few days: Columbus' Rick Nash, Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal, Toronto's Luke Schenn, and Chicago's Patrick Kane. Will any of them still be with their current teams a week from now? It's impossible to know, but let's not allow that to stop the speculation.
Koshan might have placed Winnipeg's Evander Kane on that list after reports over the weekend that he wasn't interested in staying with the Jets. But that turned out to be untrue, as so much of what you'll hear in the next few days will be.
On Monday afternoon over Montreal TSN 990 Radio's Melnick in the Afternoon show, host Mitch Melnick and his crew probed some of the various reports flying around with a succession of guests: NBC's Pierre McGuire, TSN's Ray Ferraro and CBC's Elliotte Friedman.
McGuire led off, acknowledging that Columbus is actively marketing Nash and their top draft pick, which is second overall. That makes sense because this club needs an instant injection of respectability. Their fan base is angry, and it was made even angrier by the captain's demand to be traded. Where might he go? Could it be the Maple Leafs, who always surface when a star player is thought to be available? McGuire examined the potential assets of clubs that are considered to be in the Nash sweepstakes -- Rangers, Kings, Canucks, Sharks, Flyers -- and asked rhetorically, "What do Leafs have to offer Columbus?" He then answered, "Of all the teams that are potentially out there, to me, it seems Toronto might have the weakest package," depending on what the others might have to offer the Jackets to get a deal done.
The next topic concerned the Oilers: would they trade their top pick? Edmonton certainly needs defensemen and, doing a little role playing, McGuire offered that if he were running things there, the first call he'd make would be to Montreal to see if they'd part with P.K. Subban in exchange for that first overall pick, which most believe someone will use to select Nail Yakupov of the OHL's Sarnia Sting.
It's not as if Subban is actually available -- most indications are that he's not -- but that's the kind of deal McGuire thinks the Oilers might make to address their organizational need for a young, strong defenseman who would fit in with their developing club.
The subject turned to Jaromir Jagr, who not long ago looked to be ready to re-sign with the Flyers. Now comes word that he'll explore free agency. McGuire believes the Flyers told Jagr they were going in another direction -- likely taking a run at Nash (who McGuire believes would look great as Claude Giroux's winger). Whether they'd go back to Jagr if Nash didn't end up in Orange wasn't discussed, but as TSN's Darren Dreger tweeted, Jaromir feels the need to get in better shape for next season. "He saw at the end he was running out of gas and it was too fast a game for him," McGuire commented. "He's aware of that. In the Pittsburgh series and definitely the Devils series, he became aware it was a tough grind for him when the pace picked up in the playoffs....Jagr can help a team; it's the pace of the game. He's a point a game player in the regular season, but the pace of the game in the playoffs is too much for him unless he gets in better shape and is injury free."
The signings of Brad Stuart and Barret Jackman by San Jose and St. Louis respectively was touched on next, and McGuire noted that the crop of unrestricted free agents is thinning as the teams that have their rights are snapping them up before they hit the market on July 1. He mentioned that the Bruins retaining depth forwards Chris Kelly and Gregory Campbell disappointed some other clubs' GMs. "I knew a lot of guys who had interest in both of those players," McGuire said.
Melnick's sidekick, Rod Francis, asked about some "veteran defensemen with stinky contracts," namely Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester, Vancouver's Keith Ballard, and Pittsburgh's Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin. Of all of them, McGuire thought Martin might be the one to move, believing Bouwmeester's deal, especially, might be too big for another team to swallow. George Johnson in The Calgary Herald wrote over the weekend that out of all of the Flames' veterans, Bouwmeester was the one most likely to go. Recognizing the many downsides (his contract, his paltry stats, his no trade clause) to the 28-year-old former third overall pick by the Panthers, Johnson believes the Jackets have interest in him and other teams might as well. "You can wager there are bound to be other suitors willing to overlook certain flaws to secure the services of a player with the motor, the effortless skating prowess, of a Bouwmeester," he wrote. Maybe.
"This could be one of the most exciting drafts we've had," McGuire said. "Not so much because of the players that are available, because I don't think it's a real top-heavy overwhelming draft like we've seen in 2003, or 2005 or 2008, but I think there could be a lot of movement."
Shortly after, Ray Ferraro was on the phone. After talking about his new grill and the salmon he didn't burn for dinner the previous night, he boiled the offseason's big questions down to whether Nash and/or Luongo get moved, and where will unrestricted free agents Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Justin Schultz go?
That might be a new name for you, but he's a University of Wisconsin star defenseman who was drafted by the Ducks in 2008 before he started his college career. He broke in as a freshman on a Badgers team that already boasted Ryan McDonagh, Jake Gardiner and Brendan Smith. ("I don't know how anybody scored on them," Ferraro remarked, adding that Schultz is thought to be better than Gardiner, but not as good as McDonagh.) But Schultz has never signed with Anaheim and if he doesn't by July 1 -- it's been clear for a while that he won't -- he, too, becomes a UFA. Projected as a top-two defenseman and an excellent puck mover, he's coming off a great junior year and he found the hole in the CBA that allows him to choose the team that best fits him the way Blake Wheeler did when he signed with the Bruins a few years ago. Whoever gets Schultz will be getting a very good prospect and won't be trading anyone or using a draft pick to secure him.
Getting back to Ferraro's comments, he tackled the Canucks' plight in trying to deal Luongo. "I can't believe the Canucks will end up with a bounty of players" in return for the unhappy netminder," he said. And that's usually what happens when a veteran player forces a trade. The same could be true for Columbus and Nash. Melnick's resident Maple Leafs fan Mitch Gallo asked if Ferraro thought Bobby Loo would end up with his team. "Toronto will be as good a destination as any," Ferraro said, adding that any deal involving Toronto will have Luke Schenn's name in it. "If I'm Vancouver, I'm asking for Gardiner -- and if I'm Toronto, I'm telling them to take a hike because I'm not trading Gardiner."
When it was his turn, Friedman offered, "I'm not exactly convinced Rick Nash is going to be on the move....(Columbus GM) Scott Howson has been a guy who has maintained from the beginning that he will only do it when he gets the right offer." Just what that offer is, only Howson knows, but he's got to go for a big package and some established players. Saying he's heard that the number of teams calling Howson has been "insane," Friedman reminded listeners that Howson "held firm at the deadline, it wouldn't surprise me if he held firm here. But I think it's going to be harder for him to do it. I just think there's going to be too many offers, and any time you can play teams off against each other, he's going to have the opportunity to do it."
Saying he's heard that "four or five teams want to do some radical roster moving," Friedman listed them as San Jose, Carolina, Rangers, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. "Then there's teams like Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota who will wait to see what happens in free agency before they make their decisions," he added.
Seeing Carolina's name attached to the Nash rumors has surprised some people, Melnick included. Friedman responded that GM Jim Rutherford "believes he needs to create some buzz and, two, I think he believes he's got something growing there. He really liked the way the team responded to Kirk Muller, and if you look at them, they have a nice little core with Cam Ward, Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal. And he thinks he needs one more piece. He's got three players -- he's got Brandon Sutter, Jamie McBain and Justin Falk, who had a very good rookie season no one knew about. I'm not sure what he would do, but if someone offered him a scorer who could play with Eric Staal, he'd listen."
Friedman doesn't think the Oilers will trade the top pick, mostly because they are asking a lot for it. "They want an impact player who can play right away." he said. Of course, he allowed that things could change as we get closer to the draft, but his feeling is that Edmonton would keep the pick.
Talk turned to the UFA market and a pair of Kings: Dustin Penner and Jarret Stoll. Penner will be an interesting case to watch because he can score and there's not a lot of that in the NHL these days. "The guy can really play when he wants to play," Friedman said, "but the risk is if you give him a long-term contract, how motivated will he be to play?" There are reports that Penner likes playing with the Kings so much that he'd take a pay cut to stay in L.A. We'll see about that. One GM whom Friedman spoke to said Stoll wants to say in L.A., too. They're a happy group in SoCal, Friedman says, and they like each other, which hasn't always been the case with the Kings. But he added that some GMs believe they have to make one big change, even if you're a champion, to keep the team fresh and Dean Lombardi may be one of them. "It will be interesting to see what that change would be," Friedman said.
He added that what Rangers' potential UFA Brandon Prust gets will be a major indication of what this year's free agent market is like. He's not a big scorer, but he is a valuable depth forward, a very good penalty killer who plays a hard, competitive game, and a dedicated team guy.
As for Luongo, the Canucks goal is to trade him, and the Maple Leafs want him, or at least the Leafs fans do, Friedman has learned since he's gotten home from his playoff travels. "There's a marriage to be made there," he says.
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