By Stu Hackel
The earth didn't exactly shake and the sun didn't rise in the West, but something pretty unusual has transpired since the opening of free agency on July 1. None of the NHL's high profile, high revenue clubs made off with the best players available.
We'd all become conditioned to the big clubs getting the big names. The list always begins with hockey's premier franchises -- the Original Six, plus the Penguins, Flyers, Canucks, Sharks, Stars and maybe one or two others. As Billie Holiday wrote and sang long ago, "Them that's got shall get, Them that's not shall lose," a colloquial way of saying the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It's pretty much true in life and that's how we expect it to go down in the NHL, too.
But here are Zach Parise and Ryan Suter dressed not in the sweaters of the Penguins or Red Wings or Blackhawks, but the Minnesota Wild! Add the Oilers' signing of college defenseman Justin Schultz, a Western Canadian product hotly pursued by numerous NHL clubs once his draft rights with Anaheim expired. And, on Wednesday night, the Lightning joined the party by inking former Flyer Matt Carle who, right after Suter, was in the next tier of ardently sought d-men with Schultz and Jason Garrison.
Maybe this is only a one-year thing, an extension of the unusual stitching woven into the NHL narrative since the playoffs began in April. Or maybe, along with parity on the ice, we'll now have more competition in the free agent market, too, which is how Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail sees it. Tough to know for sure, but it could be.
Yes, the Canucks came away with Garrison, and the Stars signed Jaromir Jagr. But other than that pair, the biggest free agents didn't go to the biggest markets and hockey's meek inherited the earth -- at least for a couple of days. Wild owner Craig Leipold was ecstatic beyond words when he spoke with Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Mike Russo on Wednesday: “AHHHHHHHHH!!! I am a madman. Oy, oy, oy. It’s hard to come to grips with," was Leipold's initial reaction.
Why did this happen? The lure of being close to home obviously mattered to Suter, Parise and Schultz, and may have been the tie-breaking consideration for the newest members of the Wild. Garrison, too, for that matter, elected to return to his home province of British Columbia. Even Carle -- who played very briefly for the Lightning in 2008 before the shaky owners who ran the store at that time moved him in a salary dump -- mentioned the familiarity of returning to Tampa Bay where "the organization has done a complete 180-degree since I was there the last time and it starts at the top with ownership and management with Steve Yzerman. It seems like they have pretty much the same core with a lot of new pieces and I can't wait to be a part of it for the next six years.'' The same core plus Steven Stamkos. Not bad.
But comforts of home aside, these players also want a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and the Oilers, Lightning and Wild don't look like contenders just yet. The Penguins or Red Wings, to name a couple of teams, would have offered a shot at more immediate gratification. Yet, if the just-completed playoffs proved anything, it's that parity trumped powerhouses. Teams like the Wild, Oilers and Lightning are in various stages of building for the future and they proved attractive enough for free agents to want to be a part of that process. They've all signed for extended periods, so not only will they be part of the effort to move forward, they also will make their clubs more attractive to other stars.
So now the famous franchises that lost out on the big prizes in free agency must upgrade and fill holes by battling in the trade market for Rick Nash, Bobby Ryan, Keith Yandle, Roberto Luongo and, of course, a few likely surprise targets who haven't yet been the subject of rumors. Other less desirable free agents remain at large. James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail has an accounting of the UFAs who are without a deal.
The ramifications of the Wild signing Suter and Parise are felt most keenly by the two teams that lost them -- the Devils and Predators -- and it's rather telling that they are not among the NHL's marquee clubs. This isn't a case of free agency Robin Hood, in which the rich lose out to the poor. Both Nashville and New Jersey have had their financial issues. The Devils are still sorting through theirs and even though they made a competitive financial offer to Parise, that certainly had to play a role in his departure.
Ironically, the Predators have recently put their financial issues behind them and, for the first time, are prepared to spend to the cap in order to assemble a championship caliber roster. How cruel that now, when they no longer have to fear losing their top talent to richer clubs, which happened often in Nashville's history, one of their All-Star blueliners decides that money was less of a factor than geography. To compound the irony, Leipold owned the Predators before he bought the Wild.
Not only do the Devs and Preds have perhaps the biggest holes to fill on the depth charts, they have also lost big parts of their identities. Parise was the Devils' captain, their centerpiece, who never gave anything less than his best. His influence extended from the newest AHL call up to veterans like Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey's most gifted and expensive skater. Parise pushed Kovalchuk to become a better team player after a disappointing start to his Devils career.
Newark Star-Ledger writer Rich Chere wondered who might fill Parise's slot, speculating that Anaheim's Ryan or Montreal's Brian Gionta might be targeted via trade. Internally, the Devils could give a shot to Mattias Tedenby. But as Devils GM Lou Lamoriello recognized, "You don't replace a Zach Parise. You just don't do that. So we will have to make some adjustments and make some transactions if possible. But we will not turn our heads and not go forward with reference to getting this team to where we feel it should be every year." Lamoriello did well to hold on to Marty Brodeur and Bryce Salvador, losing only Parise and Alex Ponikarovski among his regulars to free agency. It could have been worse.
To hear Predators GM David Poile speak on Wednesday, the outcome could not have been worse. The Preds expressed surprise, even betrayal, having been led to believe that Suter would stay, or at least give them a chance to make a final offer. Perhaps that's true or maybe they convinced themselves that's how he would act. That matters little now.
"It would be an understatement to say that the Nashvile Predators are disappointed at this time," Poile said. "Ryan Suter is a hard player to replace. It’s a team sport, and we’ll find a way. … We have to move on to Plan B. We would like to get a defenseman to replace Ryan. It could come as a free agent. It could come through a trade. I want to get the right player, right fit.”
On the Preds' website, Jay Levin talks about the organization's depth on defense and mentions Roman Jossi and Ryan Ellis as potential replacements as well. However, the organization's wounds bleed all over his story.
The most significant aspect of Suter's departure is the future of Nashville's other All-Star defenseman and captain, Shea Weber, who is said to be stunned by this development. He's now a restricted free agent and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency next July. Will he want to stay with the Predators now that his partner has gone? "I know if Ryan had re-signed it would be a lot easier for Shea to make a commitment,” Poile said. “But I have to find that out now. I have already talked to Shea’s representative about a long-term contract. Everyone wanted to see what came down with the Suter situation.”
The Preds want to lock up Weber, but if he won't sign a new long-term deal, it's possible that Poile will be forced to do what he didn't want to do with Suter: trade him before he hits unrestricted free agency to get something in return. Poile felt, with some justification, that the Weber-Suter tandem could have continued their stellar play for years, becoming perhaps the best blueline duo in NHL history. He now has another hard negotiation ahead of him and if this one doesn't go his way, Poile may have to reluctantly pick up the phone, find a trading partner, and remain hopeful of making a good hockey deal, maybe with one of the teams that's "got."
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