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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?
Greetings from Portland, Oregon, temporary home of eight picks from the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. That includes the 4th and 5th overall picks, Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter. It wasn’t always this way. Last year at this time, the Portland Winterhawks were very nearly the worst team in the WHL, we hadn’t made it into the second round of the playoffs and we certainly weren’t home to a small minivan full of NHL prospects.
What a difference a year, a new owner and a few well-chosen prospects makes. Today, I paid out the second of several installments on Winterhawks season tickets. It’s the first time I’ve ever owned season tickets to anything, even hockey. This is in addition to my cable package with the NHL Network and the NHL Center Ice Package.
Since I’m investing in hockey the equivalent of a down payment on a small car, it got me to thinking about why we even watch the game in the first place. It’s violent, loud, bloody, smelly, vulgar and ruthless. No place for a respectable girl, my grandmother would say. Why, then, do I love the NHL Network, bobbleheads, fatheads, beer and shameless use of profanity? No clue about the fatheads and the bobbleheads, but I do know this:
If somebody walked up to me and asked, “So, how do you fancy having Nik Antropov on your team?”, I would probably exclaim “Very nice!” with my hands giving the double thumbs-up sign like Kazakhstan’s most famous commercial “product”, Borat. But for those of us who reside here in Thrasherville, we know full well that Sacha Baron Cohen’s kooky Kazakh character plays a close second to the most accomplished export from the former Soviet state, Nikolai Antropov. The imposing and skillful hockey player from Ust-Kamenogorsk has already made an indelible impression on the fans of the Atlanta Thrashers for his hard work, quiet leadership and adroit use of a hockey stick. Our only complaint? We just wish he would shoot the puck more!
Reports have emerged in the past few weeks, first from Pierre LeBrun and then Craig Custance, indicating that the San Jose Sharks are at work on a contract extension for Joe Thornton. It’s a bit of a no-brainer: Thornton has led the Sharks in scoring in each of his five seasons with the club, he’s established himself as a fan-favorite (for good reason), and it seems he enjoys being a part of the community and organization after his experience with Boston. For better or worse—taking into account his playoff shortcomings and laid-back attitude—it’s clear that the Sharks have hitched their wagon to Thornton.
The big question, then, is not if the Sharks should sign Thornton to an extension, but for how long. Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson has already re-signed two key forwards to new deals this summer—Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski—both for four years. In talking to Custance, Wilson said, “We don’t have any contracts longer than four years. We are a player payroll team. We operate the way we operate.” We could assume, then, that Thornton might be extended for three or four more years as well. Would it be more prudent for the Sharks to extend Thornton for longer, though?
Tampa Bay announced the addition of Dominic Moore today, a player who brings much more to the table than most pundits give him credit for. Crafty, fast, gritty and great on faceoffs, Moore was a key cog in the Canadiens playoff race in 2010. He’s a smart supplement for the talented roster Steve Yzerman has put together as a rookie general manager in mere months.
What Yzerman and a new ownership team have accomplished in a short amount of time is quite impressive. He’s installed smart hockey people across the organization, from the scouting department to behind the bench. Guy Boucher, as a new member of the NHL coaching fraternity, was viewed as something of a genius by his former employers, the Montreal Canadiens. Literally. He has two university degrees, studies his players carefully and communicates extremely well. He is said to keep books of notes – on each player he coaches. This sort of cerebral approach to the game, combined with the respect Boucher shows his players, is exactly what Tampa Bay needs post-Tocchet - and certainly post-Melrose. The Canadiens were very, very sad to see him go. Boucher was a great hire, and a fantastic first personnel move for GM Yzerman.
It’s no secret around the league that the San Jose Sharks, if they have any hope of contending for the Stanley Cup again, need to improve their defense. General Manager Doug Wilson was characteristically quiet on July 1, despite reportedly making an offer to Dan Hamhuis, and was shot down by the Chicago Blackhawks after signing Niklas Hjalmarsson to an offer sheet. With Rob Blake’s retirement this summer, there is a gaping hole somewhere in the Sharks’ top two defensive pairings, and the only conceivable way for Wilson to fill this gap is now through a trade.
Wilson has made his name around the league as a manager thanks to his blockbuster deals, hauling in Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle, and Dany Heatley in a trio of trades that look to be long-term successes for the Sharks. These players, along with Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, make up the core of a team that should be competitive for several more seasons. In that regard, Wilson has done a fine job in shaping this Sharks squad.
But the story doesn’t end there. Wilson has struck out quite notably with several other trades—all of them, not coincidentally, near the trade deadline. Try to pick a single winner for the Sharks out of any of these deals:
Two subjects have been the topics of heated debate this summer among Kings fans:
1) Ilya Kovalchuk
2) Now that Rob Blake has retired should the Kings retire his #4?
I’m not going to get near the Kovalchuk mess. I think enough has been said ad nausem on the topic and it’s time for Kings fans to move on - unless he somehow ends up in LA after all. I’d like instead to address the question of whether the Kings should retire Rob Blake’s jersey?
For those who aren’t familiar with the nuts and bolts of the story, many Kings fans hold a grudge against Rob Blake because they feel he put money ahead of all else and deserted the Kings for greener pastures in Colorado, and then later in San Jose, when he had the chance. My personal opinion is that Blake was first and foremost a professional athlete and you gotta make your money when you can. It’s a limited window of opportunity for a player to get paid and I don’t begrudge anyone who makes that a priority. Could Blake have handled the situation better? Probably. Only he can really answer that.
August is almost here and one mystery Canadiens fans would like solved is a contract for starter Carey Price. Now the anointed number one goaltender, little to no information has leaked from either side as Price’s representatives negotiate (we presume) with Canadiens General Manager Pierre Gauthier. Is it possible Gauthier has made a fatal error only months into his new tenure as the decision maker in Montreal?
Let’s consider his course of action in dealing with the goaltending “crisis” that afflicted the Habs coming into the offseason. Firstly, the media largely fabricated this “crisis” - it’s not a crisis when a team possesses a plethora of young talent, it’s simply a decision for the future. After all, both goaltenders were on the record that they would be happy to share the load another year. Secondly, crowd favourite and playoff saviour Jaroslav Halak, like Carey Price, was a restricted free agent, s so while the possibility of an offer from another team loomed, his rights were protected. Yet Gauthier chose to cut bait rather than fish out the month of June.
With August only a few days away, a surprising number of quality free agent forwards are still available. And with the way the market is moving, there’s no reason to believe all of these players will be scooped up in the next month.
What we’re seeing is another byproduct of the salary cap era in the NHL. Many of the expected Stanley Cup contenders for next season are looking at big holes in their lineups and little cap room to fill those voids. The non-contenders, builders, and small-market franchises are more willing than ever to hit the cap floor and then fill in with youth. The result? Dozens of solid veterans, 3rd and 4th liners—some of whom are strong penalty killers or have the talent to move up to the 2nd line in a pinch—are waiting out the general managers who know they can strike late and get a bargain.
It’s not an entirely bad situation for these free agent forwards. The best example from last season is that of Manny Malhotra going to San Jose in September on a pseudo-tryout basis, then signing an under-market, one-year, $700,000 contract with the Sharks. Malhotra is a solid all-around centerman, excellent in the faceoff circle, a decent penalty killer who was coming off his best offensive season, a 35-point campaign with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
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