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The Cross-Ice Pass: Free Agency Season Opens with a Whimper
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
Jul 5, 2004 - 12:07:00 AM

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The Cross-Ice Pass returns as the NHL's 2003-04 season comes to a close. With all the uncertainty surrounding the league's labour situation, this off-season should be quietly interesting, as the clock slowly ticks towards September 15th and the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Today, the Cross-Ice Pass looks at the newly-opened free agent season, last weekend's Entry Draft, and provides various other musings on the world of hockey.

You Call This a Free Agent Frenzy?

Four full days have passed since more than 150 prominent players became unrestricted free agents, including such big names as Eric Lindros, Pavol Demitra, Dominik Hasek, Alexei Kovalev, Ziggy Palffy, Paul Kariya, and Brendan Shanahan. The biggest signing of July 1st, a day which in the past has seen names like Bill Guerin, Bobby Holik, Jeremy Roenick, Pierre Turgeon, Derian Hatcher, and Teemu Selanne sign monstrous contracts, the day's biggest move was Atlanta signing Kings defenseman Jaroslav Modry to an undisclosed deal. My, how things change.

That's not to say that Modry's signing isn't a significant one for Atlanta, of course. Modry will provide a much-needed presence on the Thrasher blueline; he's a solid, experienced two-way defender that immediately improves a Thrasher defense lacking in quality players, particularly after the Thrashers cut defenseman Frank Kaberle loose. Still, Modry's signing is a far cry from the days when New York, Dallas, or Detroit would try to top each other with extravagance, with teams like Philadelphia and Colorado occasionally stealing the spotlight. Then again, it's not like this year's relatively calm free agent frenzy comes as a surprise.

While Modry isn't the only one to switch teams, having been joined by Darren Langdon, who signed with New Jersey, Curtis Brown and Matthew Barnaby, who both signed in Chicago, Antti Laaksonen and Ian Lapperriere, each of whom signed with Colorado, and Turner Stevenson and Mike Knuble, who were both successfully wooed by Philadelphia, the bulk of the free agent signings thus far have been players re-upping with their former teams. Players such as Keith Primeau, Kris Draper, Chris Simon, Luc Robitaille, John Madden, Glen Wesley, and Bob Boughner decided to stay with their former clubs, the devil they know, as it were, rather than test an uncertain market.

'Cost Certainty' Makes Teams Wary

Obviously, the threat of a lockout and the uncertainty of what the league will look like at it's conclusion has put a damper on the free agent proceedings. The NHL is determined to have what commissioner Gary Bettman calls 'cost certainty' and what to anyone else is called a salary cap in place before it resumes play, but no one is entirely certain how high that cap might be (estimates range from $31 million to as high as $50 million) or what rules might be put in place to ease the transition to such a system. Of course, some believe that the NHL's attempts to get a hard cap in place will fail and the league will have to settle for some form of luxury tax system, such as what's currently in place in baseball.

But the hesitancy of general managers to sign free agents reflects more than uncertainty about what kind of 'cost certainty' the NHL is likely to have in place when play resumes. Not only is the league likely to appear very different at the end of the lockout, individual teams are more than likely going to be significantly altered as well. The majority of teams have very few players and very little payroll committed to next season, whenever that season might be. Dallas, with sixteen players and nearly $50 million, has the most, while Boston has just five players and less than $10 million on the books. Now, the usual cry of the big name unrestricted free agent is this: 'I want to play for a contender.' Many free agents, when given the opportunity to choose their destination, will try and sign with Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia, Colorado, and a select few others not simply because of the money, but also because those teams are a threat to win the Stanley Cup nearly every season.

With so many teams having so few players under contract, however, and considering the trend of the last few seasons of underdogs making the final so often, it begs the question: who will the contenders be next season? Who's to say that Tampa Bay, with just nine players under contract from their Cup winning squad, will have the personnel to compete next season? With so little payroll and just a few players under contract, isn't it possible Nashville could go on a free agent spree and bring in the players to lead them to glory next season, just one season after being knocked out in the first round? With many of the big spenders being near the tops in terms of players and salary committed for next season, who's to say that they even have the ability to add players who want to finish their careers with a contender like they have so often in the past? As such, many of the guys who want to play with a contending team don't have any idea who the contenders are. Thus, their priorities shift: instead of players wanting to play for a contender, many guys would rather sign in places in which they're comfortable, which for quite a few players means signing with the same team as they played with last season.

The Wrong Message?

Of course, just as last summer, many will suggest that the lack of big-name signings to big-money contracts is a message from the owners to the players that things have to change. However, just as last summer, the lack of huge free agent signings proves the point the NHL Player's Association is trying to make more clearly than it sends any sort of message from the owners. That point is this: the current collective bargaining system does work, but only if the owners and general managers exercise restraint. It's become the war cry of the PA that the owners have gotten themselves into this mess, to the point that not so long ago Bettman blew his stack at a reporter who repeated that cry during a press conference. Unfortunately for Bettman after all the spin-doctoring he's been doing over the past year to paint the owners as victims of greedy players and an unworkable system (which he helped put in place almost ten years ago, naturally), what the PA has been saying rings true.

Muck Livens Up Dull Draft

Kudos to the Ottawa Senators and GM John Muckler for livening up what was otherwise a pretty dull entry draft weekend. Despite rumours that Washington and Pittsburgh were considering dealing their first and second overall picks neither team did and, as expected, they made Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin the first Russian duo ever to be taken with the top two selections. In a draft where Ovechkin and Malkin were head and shoulders above everyone else, there were few surprises the rest of the way, though some players were drafted far sooner (such as Blake Wheeler, a high school player selected 5th overall by Phoenix when most had him ranked as a third rounder) or far later (such as Marek Schwarz, chose 17th overall by St. Louis despite many ranking him a top five pick and the best goalie in the draft) than many thought they would be. Next to no NHL players were dealt so that their teams could move up in the order, as many teams were of the opinion that a player selected 11th had the same potential as a player selected 51st in this particular draft year.

Ottawa made some headlines, however, when they were able to deal two players whom they were expected to cut loose on July 1st. Ottawa dealt centre Radek Bonk, whom the team would have had to offer $3.5 million to retain his rights, to Los Angeles for a third round draft pick, then traded goaltender Patrick Lalime to St. Louis for a fourth round pick in next year's draft. Lalime, who, along with former Sens head coach Jacques Martin, shouldered much of the blame for the team's first round playoff loss to Toronto, is expected to be replaced in Ottawa by unrestricted free agent goaltender Dominik Hasek sometime this month. Bonk, meanwhile, was immediately dealt to Montreal along with goaltender Cristobal Huet for goaltender Mathieu Garon and a third round draft choice.

Now, the Kings had been rumoured to be hunting for Garon for several weeks. While Huet played very well for the Kings at times last season, splitting time with Roman Cechmanek, he was less than consistent during his forty-two appearances and is more suited to a backup role, which is what he'll get in Montreal behind star goaltender Jose Theodore. Garon, meanwhile, is a young goaltender with a great deal of potential and was badly in need of more playing time, which he wasn't likely to get in Montreal. The Kings will allow Garon and Cechmanek to compete for the starter's role next season, and hope that eventually Garon can take over as the undisputed number one. Slightly more confusing, however, is Bonk's role in all this. The Kings are badly in need of a centre; they allowed Jason Allison, who may never play again due to post-concussion syndrome, and Josef Stumpel, the team's top centre last season, to become unrestricted free agents. The Canadiens, on the other hand, were already fairly solid in terms of centres. With captain Saku Koivu under contract for next season and young Mike Ribeiro establishing himself as a key offensive player last season, Bonk almost certainly now ranks third on the team's depth chart at the position. While Bonk has the defensive acumen to be effective in such a position, he's far better suited to play on a scoring line as someone's first or second line centre. By the same token, surely the Canadiens, with so many players on the market, could've found someone to play the role of third-line centre at a lesser cost than the $3.5 million they had to offer Bonk to retain his rights.

Does this not add up to anyone else? The team that could've used Bonk, as they are almost totally bereft of centres, save for young Mike Cammalleri, dealt Bonk to a team that doesn't really need him and will almost certainly put him in a position next season where he's overpaid and under-utilized. While I'm sure the Kings will address their lack of centres by adding a player or two from the free agent market, what exactly the Canadiens are thinking is a mystery to me.

The Rumour Mill

Rumour has it that Mark Recchi and Alexei Kovalev have some interest in signing with Pittsburgh, while the Pens are among a number of teams that have contacted the agents for Brian Rolston and Alexei Zhamnov. As difficult as it is to believe that Pittsburgh is a major player in the free agent market, considering the Penguins spent last summer removing any player making any significant salary from their payroll, it makes a certain amount of sense. While the Penguins aren't about to blow huge amounts of cash on anyone, they have just under $6.5 million committed to players for next season and thus have a lot of room to manoeuvre if a salary cap is implemented; in addition, if some sort of revenue sharing is put in place, the Penguins will be among the greatest beneficiaries. Recchi and Kovalev both had some of the best seasons of their careers in Pittsburgh, and the possibility of playing with Mario Lemieux, who has said he wants to return for at least one more NHL season, is a significant lure for many players. If the Penguins do enter the free agent market in a significant way, they won?t just be looking at forwards, however, as the team badly needs at least one defenseman.

- Speaking of teams that need defensemen, the Blackhawks declared themselves a buyer in the free agent market the other day, signing centre Curtis Brown (4 years, $6.8 million) and winger Matthew Barnaby (3 years, $5.25 million) to long-term deals. As nice as that is and as much as Chicago's management, notoriously among the most tight-fisted in the league, will trumpet those signings in front of the fans as proof that they do care, the Blackhawks desperately need to follow these signings up by first re-signing Bryan Berard, Eric Daze, and Jocelyn Thibault, and second by signing a quality free agent defenseman or two. While Berard was a revelation as a free agent last year, the rest of the 'Hawk defense stunk up the joint on a regular basis. Though the 'Hawks have some great young defenders in the system (including their first round selection in 2004, Cam Barker), they badly need a veteran or two to stabilize things now and to guide these young blueliners in the future. Of course, the problem is that the list of quality free agent defenders is short, and the competition for them is fierce; the 'Hawks will be just one of many teams talking to Sean Hill, Brad Bombardir, Sean O'Donnell, Alexei Zhitnik, and Mathieu Schneider.

- Speaking of Schneider, now that the Wings have gotten Kris Draper's name on a new contract, Schneider is among several Detroit free agents that GM Ken Holland is attempting to re-sign. However, Schneider, after a season in which he was far and away Detroit's best defender, is the furthest from signing. Chris Chelios, who, at 42, still has every intention of playing next season, badly wants to stay in Detroit, but will have to take a significant pay cut to do so. Detroit has at least a modicum of interest in bringing back Brendan Shanahan, but it appears likely that Shanahan will get a better offer somewhere else, with Toronto reportedly among those interested in the 35-year-old. Either way, Shanahan won't get anywhere near the $6 million he made last season. The Wings won't bring back Brett Hull, Steve Thomas, Dominik Hasek, or Boyd Devereaux, however, and likely won't start negotiating seriously with Steve Yzerman about a new deal for a while, though Yzerman isn't going anywhere.

Speaking of Detroit, in a relatively new rumour the Wings are supposed to be one of a number of teams interested in signing Ziggy Palffy, formerly of the Los Angeles Kings, but it's difficult to see how they could with nearly $45 million tied up in thirteen players for next season already. Palffy isn't interested in taking a pay cut, either, and wants at least the $7 million he made last season for four or five years. In addition, Palffy wants to play for a contending team, has no intention of returning to the Kings, and would prefer to play out East, where there's less travel. Where exactly Palffy thinks he's going to get $7 million a season in a long-term deal, particularly from a contender, after a season in which he played just 35 games due to an injury is a little unclear. Right now his agent must be cringing, because Palffy's saying all the wrong things and may well be pricing himself right out of the market.

- Speaking of players wanting a scenery change, a report in a recent New York Post, citing a well-placed source, says that Bruins star forward Joe Thornton went to general manager Mike O'Connell several weeks ago and stated that he no longer wished to play in Boston. Take this with a grain of salt, of course, if only because it's in the New York Post, but the last player in Thornton's situation, a restricted free agent who held out for a trade from Boston, was Kyle McLaren. McLaren ended up waiting half the season for a deal to be made before his trade to San Jose, and he and Bruins management had some choice words for each other during the whole fiasco. On the other hand, McLaren wasn't the franchise player that Thornton is; if there is a problem, the Bruins will try desperately to smooth things over behind closed doors before going the McLaren route with Thornton. No one else seems particularly interested in staying with the Bruins either, by the way, with winger Mike Knuble having already signed in Philadelphia and Boston's other unrestricted free agents reportedly in contact with almost every team except Boston. If the Thornton rumours are true, even fewer players will be too keen on Boston as a destination.

- Finally, with coaching questions cleared up this off-season in Columbus (hired Gerard Gallant, former interim coach, as full-time head), Florida (hired Jacques Martin as coach), and Ottawa (hired Bryan Murray as coach), that leaves just Phoenix and New York. No news appears to be good news thus far for interim head coach Rick Bowness, but considering that the Coyotes went just 2-12-3-3 after Bowness was promoted from assistant coach to replace Bob Francis in late February, it?s hard to see how the Coyotes could justify bringing him back. It?s more likely that the Coyotes' first choice was Martin before he signed in Florida, and the team is trying to decide where to go from here. With a lockout on the horizon, however, Phoenix is in no hurry to name a coach, even though Bowness has stated publicly that he would really like to know one way or the other whether he?s going to be retained. Of more concern in Phoenix is likely their list of prominent restricted free agents, which includes Mike Johnson, Daymond Langkow, Brian Boucher, Ladislav Nagy, Derek Morris, and Mike Comrie. Morris and Comrie have both staged lengthy holdouts in the past, by the way. In New York, meanwhile, the only thing that seems to still be standing in the way of the Rangers hiring former Blues coach Joel Quenneville is interim coach Tom Renney, who at last report has yet to decide whether or not he'd rather retain the coach's position or return to his place in management. Ranger GM Glen Sather has supposedly been interested in Quenneville since the conclusion of the regular season, and with Columbus and Ottawa, his main rivals for Quenneville's attention, out of the way, Quenneville is likely theirs for the asking. By all reports, however, Sather is in no hurry to hire a new head man anytime soon either, and is said to be considering the merits of promoting farm team coach Ryan McGill, hiring former Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, and of retaining Renney, as well as deciding just how interested he is in Quenneville.

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