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As you know by now, Judge Bloch has ruled that Ilya Kovalchuk is a free agent. Why? Well, his contract is invalid, so back to the bargaining table he goes. Much has been made of this fact, and pundits are theorizing intently as to whether he signs again in New Jersey, or heads somewhere else. Is LA still interested? Is Russia a serious option? Toronto? (I just had to mention Toronto because, well, they come up in reference to every free agent of any importance). While the hockey world speculates on Ilya-gate and the next move of the Kovalchuk camp, I would like to focus on the tidbit regarding “investigations” that came out of this ruling. Namely, that the NHL is looking into four other contracts and investigations are ongoing. Gary Bettman and Bill Daly are out on the streets in Vancouver, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, intimidating witnesses and interrogating suspects.
That’s right, it’s Law and Order: CIU (Contract Investigations Unit).
What could come of these investigations? Probably nothing, let’s start right there. Any notion that the Stanley Cup will be taken away from Chicago because Hossa’s contract was ineligible is moot. If that did happen though, Flyers fans would be pretty happy. Except, wait, the Pronger contract is being investigated. That would mean the second-last team to be eliminated would get the Cup. But don’t get your hopes up, Habs fans, that’s a pipe dream, and one hell of a long pipe.
Apparently, building a team that amasses 100 points and wins a division title doesn’t get you much slack or credibility in this town.
In the midst of a hot Buffalo summer that many Sabres fans were hoping would see some changes at the top of the forward lines and a touch-up on the power play unit, GM Darcy Regier has once again had his own feet put to the fire by Sabres Nation due to his trademark calculated and methodical management style.
In case you’re not keeping score at home, that’s the same infuriating management style that under his watch has produced four conference finals appearances.
One of those campaigns was ended in the ’99 Stanley Cup Finals with Brett Hull’s toe in the crease. Another was halted in the ’06 Eastern Conference Finals with four of Buffalo’s top defensemen out of the lineup against an otherwise evenly matched opponent in Carolina.
It’s a decision that deserves a lot careful assessment. At worst, it could potentially cost a Championship.
Amongst the fury to be rid of Czech native, Tomas Kaberle for potential booty - with the general perception that it’s the smart/right thing to do - trading him is fraught with a future hole that the Maple Leafs will have to pay for dearly at a later time.
If there’s a chance he could be retained and resigned, it’s an avenue that has to be examined.
The skills generating his value are unique and rare. Patience at the point , quarter back of the power play, silky smooth rushing ability with vision and creativity to lead the attack, while also capable of launching long-range passes up the middle for players streaking behind the defense, these are the same skills that a Championship club needs for success. That’s even with the softness in the Leafs zone.
It’s been a strange off-season, what caught you off-guard? I bet these four things are on your list.
It’s August 8th, sunny and warm. But is hockey ever really that far off? Here are a few things I bet you didn’t expect to be the case this late in the summer of 2010:
1) Annti Niemi is a free agent: The fact he won the Stanley Cup was shocking enough, considering he was on few radars at the beginning of the 2009-2010 season. More shocking? His release from Chicago. Walking away from a $2.75 million arbitration ruling may have surprised the hockey world, but I have a feeling it will continue to reverberate with Niemi for years. Why? Well, look at his options.
Didn’t take long, did it? There’s Philadelphia, if they stray from Leighton and Boucher, and create some room (seems unlikely); there’s Washington, if they opt not to go with Varlamov (no word this is a possibility, so unlikely); there’s Montreal, if they can’t sign Carey Price (not going to happen; and then there’s Atlanta, the Chicago-East of the NHL, there’s the Islanders, and, well, that’s about it.
So from Stanley Cup winner to, likely, a Thrasher or an Islander. That’s gotta hurt. Neither team has a shot at winning anything in the near future, and even these potential starting opportunities are questionable. Atlanta already has two goalies, with the newly signed Chris Mason as the starter, but given Rick Dudley’s penchant for adding former Blackhawks, Niemi has to be a possibility. As for the Islanders, Niemi’s chances rest with the health of one man, Rick DiPietro.
It’s amazing to think about…looking over the extensive list of FA’s still available in the NHL, that the goalie of the Stanley Cup winning team is not only ripe for the picking for 30 teams, but won’t even be back on his team next season.
Niemi, still unproven to a degree, and only 26 years old, would be a valuable commodity for any team in need of goaltending help. Would one of those teams be the New York Islanders? Let me tell you why I think the Islanders & Niemi just go together, sort of like Lamb & Tuna Fish.
Goaltending Uncertainty: Rick DiPietro, one of the crown jewels of CBA circumvention, has a very suspect lower body after surgeries on his hip and knee. He showed, in brief stints last season, that he could still play but can his body hold up anymore? Dwayne Roloson, the Isles saving grace last season, turns 41 in October, and can’t be counted on to be that lights out again. Marty Biron, the other goalie in the Fish Sticks’ goalie carousel from last year, left for the New York Rangers this off-season. A young, Stanley-cup winning goalie could be the answer.
Reaching the Salary Cap Floor: The Islanders currently sit just this side of a million short of the $44 million salary floor required by all NHL teams. If GM Garth Snow isn’t going to improve his offense or defense, shoring up your goaltending is the next way to go. If Niemi is willing to do a short-term deal (2-3 years), or even a Marian Hossa-eaque 1 year deal, Islanders fans would sign up in a heartbeat.
Small Market: Since we’ve seen most teams sign their goalies, and some prominent names bolt to the KHL, there aren’t many spots left. Teams that have the cap space, such as the Thrashers and Oilers, have taken care of their goalie situations while teams that needed new net minders, like the Flyers and Sharks, made their decisions already. The Islanders might be the only place for Niemi to go, kinda like going to an island….by himself….to go play for the ISLANDERS…bad joke.
The only other team that could make sense is the Montreal Canadians. After shipping out playoff savior Jaroslav Halak, much to the dismay of Le Habitants, Carey Price could be given the keys to the kingdom. But, if Montreal brass feel Price needs some healthy competition, Niemi’s agent might be getting a phone call or two.
Forbes has recently put out a list of the best fans for the four major sports leagues in North America (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL). The list includes the top four teams from each of the leagues. The NHL is represented by the following teams:
3. Detroit Red Wings
6. Pittsburgh Penguins
11. Montreal Canadiens
16. Chicago Blackhawks
This excerpt from the Forbes article explains how the list was comprised:
While I like to write about hockey generally, I am clearly a Habs fan. So, if you’ll allow me to dabble for a moment, my thoughts on the Canadiens roster - as of August 4.
Sidenote: While I’d like to add Kovalchuk, Selanne, etc. etc. – the cavalry ain’t coming. I have tried to be as realistic as possible with potential additions/subtractions. Now, onto the fun.
Up front, Pierre Gauthier has made some significant changes, but perhaps more significant is what he has not done. Gauthier has brought in Dustin Boyd, a valuable fourth liner at a much lower salary than, say, Glen Metropolit. A good cap move that makes the team younger and faster. The big acquisition of the summer - so far - is Lars Eller. Acquired in the Jaroslav Halak deal, Eller gives the Canadiens a rising young power forward for the 3rd line centre role. He replaces Dominic Moore, bringing much more offensive upside and potentially more physicality.
Perhaps the most surprising move to many Habs fans was the re-signing of Tomas Plekanec to a five year contract. While I am a big Plekanec fan, even I must admit his playoff performance was lacklustre at best. After scoring the overtime winner in game one of the playoffs, he was virtually invisible as the Canadiens defeated Washington, Pittsburgh and then fell to Philadelphia. This suggests two things: one, the Canadiens felt Plekanec was good value at five million a year, and two, the Habs braintrust believes Plekanec will continue to grow into the role. What must be acknowledged is that while Plekanec scored 70 points last year, and 69 three years ago, he is also a great defensive cog for the Habs penalty kill. He is arguably the PK’s hidden secret, a catalyst for the Candiens success short-handed in the past two or three seasons.
What wasn’t done? Well, while Sergei Kostitsyn was shipped to Nashville in the Boyd deal, brother Andrei still finds himself in Montreal. Owners of perhaps the largest biceps in Quebec, Andrei Kostitsyn possesses incredible physical talent, but often seems out of synch with the rest of the team. Will having his meandering little brother out of the way lead to Andrei’s coming out party? Only time will tell.
So just like that, the Antti Niemi Era has ended . . . almost as unspectacularly as it began.
This week, the Blackhawks let their rookie Stanley Cup-winning goaltender walk away from a $2.75 million arbitration ruling and ushered in Dallas castoff Marty Turco as his replacement.
Make no mistake: The Niemi Era was short lived, but spectacular.
It began in fits and starts with no small amount of organizational waffling as Joel Quenneville and the Hawks brain trust bent over backwards giving Cristobal Huet every possible chance to cling to the starter’s job. But throughout the regular season, Huet ran from lukewarm to cold, leaving many to wonder about the kid from Finland who was exceptional in most of his backup stints. This went on and on and sometime in March – long after it became apparent to everybody with a functioning pair of eyes that Niemi was the man – Huet gagged hard in an 8-3 loss to lowly Columbus and the Hawks had no choice but to make it official: Huet was toast and Niemi was the Hawks new #1.
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
Training camps are a mere five weeks away, and yet numerous NHL veterans remain unsigned, actively searching for work in a league that has priced them out. While the current CBA has seen salaries skyrocket at the top of the league, the middle and bottom-end players have been pinched. Though it’s difficult to have any actual sympathy for folks making millions to play a game, the facts are undeniable: record setting long-term contracts for the Kovalchuks, Luongos, and Keiths of the world, while solid NHLers such as Bill Guerin, Paul Kariya, Andy Sutton, Eric Belanger, Marty Turco and Jose Theodore remain on the sidelines. Sure, these guys may be past their prime in many cases – but they still make a difference. Unfortunately, if Mathieu Darche is available and willing to play for $500k, or a rookie at $750k, why sign a 3rd or 4th line plugger like Belanger for $1.5 or $2 million?
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