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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?
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?
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