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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.

08/08/2010 at 8:18pm EDT

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.

Other dark horses? Maybe San Jose, but they’ve committed to Niittymaki and they don’t exactly have loads of cap room to play with.

It looks like Niemi may have championshed himself (that’s right, I used championshed as a verb) right out of a job.

Who saw that one coming?

2) Carey Price is unsigned: I’ve written about this before, but it really is shocking. In early June, Jaro Halak was Mr. Montreal. They dealt him in late June, and everyone expected an announcement regarding Carey Price signing an extension almost immediately. It never came. So here we are, it’s mid-August and you know the French press are just salivating at the thought of printing the word “holdout” in a headline.

It’s not far off, but be careful what you wish for: my gut instinct tells me the Habs would be much less interesting to Quebecers and fans the world around if Alex Auld is in net.

3) Eric Belanger has no team: This guy played his guts out in the first round for Washington, is great on face-offs, chips in 40 points a year, had his teeth taken out by a high stick and kept playing with a mouth full of blood – and yet he can’t find a job. My question is, is there really no market for this type of gritty, dependable forward, or is it possible Mr. Belanger’s representatives are being a tad greedy on the contract demands front? Rumours in July had him looking for $2-3 million a year. Dominic Moore signed in Tampa for an average of $1.1 million a year on a two-year deal. Perhaps Belanger gets a bit more, but anything over $2 million a season, in this market, is a pipedream.

4) There is no Stanley Cup favourite: Trainings camps start in less than a month, and who is the favourite? The Blackhawks aren’t the Blackhawks, they’ve lost ten regulars, including their starter. At best, they’re now the Blackhaw. Detroit is one year older, added Modano, but doesn’t look nearly as threatening as in years past. Pittsburgh was stopped by Montreal in the playoffs, has added no offence, and lost Gonchar. Montreal, who looked like they needed an extra piece to challenge again next year, lost Dom Moore and has not added that piece. Calgary brought Jokinen back. Vancouver’s offence got thinner. San Jose got weaker in net.

In Gary Bettman’s mediocre, everyone-gets-a-chance NHL, this offseason proves that in 2010-2011, no one is the favourite.

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