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The Cross-Ice Pass: The Off-Season Cometh
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Sports Hockey Editor
Jun 29, 2006 - 6:44:00 PM

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Hurricane Season

  • First off, congratulations to the Carolina Hurricanes and especially to Cam Ward. Personally I thought Ward was no better than fourth on Carolina's list of Conn Smythe candidates going into the final, behind Rod Brind'Amour, Cory Stillman, and Eric Staal, but Ward made some simply mind-boggling saves, many of them at really clutch times in games, to secure his team the Cup. He was a worthy choice. Say what you will about how Carolina played in games five and six, they played their best hockey when they really, really had to in game seven. Congratulations to the Oilers as well for a spirited run. This city was electric as the playoffs wore on and the Oilers kept winning. I went to a rally for the team last Thursday at city hall, but didn't take any pictures, but I was behind a tree and couldn't really see the podium anyway. The yard in front of city hall is so bad for large public gatherings (the crowd was estimated at about 8,000 during a weekday lunch hour) that the only people with clear views were the media, and I didn't think of trying to get a media pass until well after it was over. It wasn't that exciting anyway, but it was enjoyable. Kudos to Jussi Markkanen for stepping up in goal after Dwayne Roloson got hurt. Everybody, myself included, thought they were dead when Roloson injured his knee, but Markkanen played really well. And I take back all the bad things Iíve ever said or thought about Fernando Pisani, particularly the stuff about being a braindead checker and Craig MacTavishís lapdog. Maybe Fern can play in this league after all.


It Was a Great Final, But What Were They Watching?

  • Donít get me wrong, it was an entertaining final. Overall, the playoffs were quite good, with the level of play high and the action furious. But the NHL still has a long way to go to find a consistent refereeing standard. One of the major issues the league needs to seriously look at is diving. Anyone who watched the Oilers-Sharks series will know what I mean. Both teams were guilty of it, but at times the diving got really out of hand and everybody was flopping all over the ice trying to get an edge. In the Final, however, it became really clear that not every referee was on the same page in terms of what is a penalty and what isnít. Basic defense like pinching a puck carrier off along the wall and putting an arm out as youíre backing up to slow an approaching attacker were called at times, and stuff that was so obvious even Bob Cole couldíve called it was let go. And next to nothing was called in the third period. The NHL would like to think itís officiating standard was consistent all through the game, but statistics back me up when I say that the referees had a real tendency to put their whistles away in the third period, a tendency that became even more pronounced as the playoffs went on. Whether or not thatís really a bad thing is debatable. I donít necessarily think itís wrong that you can get away with more when itís late in a close game. But all players and fans really want, and all weíve wanted for years, is a consistent officiating standard.
Speaking of Bob Cole, CBCís coverage of the playoffs was, to put it succinctly, horrendous, pathetic, laughable, and bordering on offensive to hockey fans everywhere. Cole, Harry Neale, and Greg Millen are an embarrassment to hockey commentators everywhere. But if I get going on that rant itíll fill up this whole page, so thatís all Iíll say. If you want to see the letter I sent to CBC expressing my exact feelings on their coverage, email me and Iíll send it to you.

Draft Day Dealings

  • Luongo for Bertuzzi? It doesnít get much more blockbuster than that. You have to wonder if these superstar-for-superstar kind of trades might become more and more common in the new salary-cap era of the NHL. Clearly the Canucks have answered a major question mark on their team, one that has plagued them for some time. Florida, however, has managed to add a whole new set of question marks. Todd Bertuzzi is a gamble not a lot of teams would take nowadays; many people have said all he needs is a change of scenery to get his head straight after his checkered past in Vancouver, but part of his success as a Canuck came from both his great chemistry with linemate Markus Naslund and a fairly wide-open offensive system. Can he find success with Olli Jokinen his only potential linemate with that kind of ability and defensive strategist Jacques Martin as his coach? While Martin wonít miss the talented yet flaky Lukas Krajicek and Bryan Allen should fit in well in Floridaís top six, Florida is now one of several teams with questions in goal. Alex Auld proved he can play a lot of games last season in Vancouver, sure, but he didnít prove he can play that many at a high level, as consistency was a problem. Florida might be best served to go after a veteran partner in goal like Manny Legace, Martin Gerber, or even Ed Belfour, an old Mike Keenan favourite, to split time with Auld.
  • I think the trade I like most from the weekendís draft is the Pavol Demitra to Minnesota deal. The Wild are clearly trying to kill two birds with one stone here, addressing both their terribly anaemic offense and pandering to Marian Gaborik to try and get him to sign a new long-term contract. Gaborik and Demitra had great chemistry playing in Slovakia during the lockout before Gaborik left to play in Sweden, and have played together for the Slovakian national team as well. Itís not quite the same level as the Rangers having an all-Czech power play last season to appease Jaromir Jagr, but itíll be interesting if the Wild take a run at signing Slovak Zdeno Chara as well. You could argue the Wild gave up a lot when they dealt the 17th overall pick and former first-rounder Patrick OíSullivan for Demitra, butÖwell, itís tough to argue that. But itís an interesting debut for new Kingsí GM Dean Lombardi as well, who for years found success in San Jose by developing a young core of talented players while surrounding them with quality veterans, sort of halfway between a full-fledged rebuilding and a veteran contender. Looks like heíll try the same formula in L.A.
  • The trade I puzzled at most was the Avalanche dealing Alex Tanguay to Calgary. Now, Jordan Leopold is a fine young defender. Getting two second round picks in the deal is nothing to sneeze at either. But itís a move that is confusing for a couple of reasons. The Avs are at a point where they have to decide where theyíre going. They either need to give Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk et al another shot at being a Cup contender, or they need to do some serious rebuilding. From either standpoint this deal doesnít make a lot of sense. Ok, the Avs did need to add a mobile defender, whether they re-sign Rob Blake or not. But this is the year of the free agent defenseman. If Coloradoís gearing up for another Cup run, why not keep Tanguay, sign a defender off the market, and go from there, because with Tanguay gone questions about the Avs offensive depth become all the more pressing, and there isnít a whole lot out there among the free agent crowd thatís going to address that. Great move for the Flames, though. Leopoldís coming off a very tough season and the Flames have great depth on defense. They badly needed another playmaker, and Tanguay should fit the bill nicely.

Coaching Scuttlebutt

  • The talk today is that the Bruins will be announcing former Red Wings coach Dave Lewis as their new head man as early as tomorrow. It was no secret that the Bruins wanted to try and lure Hurricanes head coach Peter Laviolette, a former Boston assistant, back to town if Carolina was unable to get him to re-sign. But with Laviolette signing a new extension a few days ago, Boston had to look elsewhere. Now, I like Dave Lewis. I think he was a great assistant to Scotty Bowman back in the day with the Red Wings, and that he was the natural choice as Scottyís successor, just as he clearly had to go when he did if Detroit was to regain their contender status (though arguably weíre still waiting for that to happen). However, I think itís very debatable that heís an upgrade over Mike Sullivan right now. It is customary for a new GM to get his own guy behind the bench as soon as possible, I know. But Peter Chiarelli, who in a bizarre twist canít officially take over as Bostonís GM until July 15 as part of his transfer from Ottawa, which is well after the draft and the start of the free agent season, arguably the most critical time for a GM to be in place, needs to decide what kind of team heís putting together for next season here. Boston tried to leave their roster open for free agents coming out of the lockout for a quick reload, but fell flat on their face. Chiarelli inherits a solid goaltending situation and a great first line in Patrice Bergeron, Marco Sturm and Brad Boyes, but the rest of the forwards are a big question mark and the defense is paper thin. Boston needs to undergo a major rebuilding, and a younger guy with some fresh ideas would arguably have been a better choice than Lewis.

Free Agent Scuttlebutt

  • Defensemen are everywhere this off-season, and almost everyone seems to need one. The big names are there, like Chara, Redden, Jovanovski, Lidstrom, and Blake, along with some lesser guys like Bryan McCabe, Jaroslav Spacek, Kim Johnsson, Karlis Skrastins, Ruslan Salei, Pavel Kubina, Brendan Witt and many more. Lidstrom will almost certainly re-sign with Detroit unless something completely unexpected happens, and Redden and Blake are said to be good bets to stay put as well. But donít expect the big names to be where the furious bidding takes place anyway. While only a handful of teams will likely be looking seriously at Chara, who is rumoured to want upwards of $7 million per season in a new deal, at least half the teams in the league will probably make an offer to a guy like Jay McKee, who would fit in nicely on nearly any blueline in the NHL.
  • The worst kept secret in the league will come true if Ed Jovanovski signs in Florida this weekend. Not to accuse the Panthers of tampering or anything. But Jovanovski summers in the area, his wife is from Florida, and Jovoís good friend Todd Bertuzzi has suddenly become a Panther. And the Panthers have said repeatedly theyíre looking for a top-end defenseman this off-season. It seems a perfect fit. Now if only Keenan doesnít screw it up by making Jovanovski some kind of lowball offerÖ
  • While it looked like the Oilers would be fairly inactive on the free agent market this summer, with only four unrestricted free agents of their own likely to get serious offers (Dwayne Roloson, Georges Laraque, Jaroslav Spacek and local hero Fernando Pisani, the only one whoíll almost certainly re-sign), Chris Prongerís trade request has put them in a bit of a spot. Lucky for them, with so many defensemen on the market and a wad of cash after a long playoff run, Edmonton can afford to sign two or three guys to address the blueline, then deal Pronger at their leisure. Prongerís camp was clearly hoping to force a quick resolution to their situation by leaking news of his trade request by the draft, hoping that a deal or two might come across Kevin Loweís desk during the draft or the days immediately after that he would like. However, Loweís strategy now will be to wait, see where the free agent defensemen land and which teams donít get all they wanted, try and address whatever holes in his team he can on the market, then deal Pronger for whatever he deems the team is lacking in once thatís done. Which means that no one should expect the Pronger situation to be over anytime soon. As for what holes the Oilers have, well, the Oilers are badly in need of a couple of talented wingers to help drive their offense, a third-line centre for Mike Pecaís spot (Peca has said heíll explore re-signing, but thatís just lip service; heís as good as gone), and a number one goaltender if Roloson goes elsewhere. Something to watch for: if Wade Redden canít come to terms with Ottawa in the next few days, he might consider Edmonton as his next destination. Reddenís family lives in Northern Alberta, and with his mom passing on during the playoffs he may want to be closer to them.

  • Look for some deft manoeuvring to take place in Tampa Bay this summer. With Brad Richards joining teammates Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis in signing a big long-term contract, Lightning GM Jay Feaster has his work cut out for him trying to assemble a competitive team around them with a limited amount of cash. Heíll be forced to let Pavel Kubina walk, meaning his defense is paper thin behind Dan Boyle, Cory Sarich and Darryl Sydor. Signing a pair like, say, Danny Markov and Kim Johnsson would make for a very, very nice looking defense, but then Feaster would have no money to address his third and fourth forward lines, nor his most gaping hole: goaltender. Rumours of Feaster dealing St. Louis for goaltending help, possible to San Jose for Evgeni Nabokov, persist, but if thereís a younger, cheaper option (sort of like Andrew Raycroft, but not, since heís a Leaf now) he may go for that instead.

  • Even more interesting might be the situation in Detroit this summer. Clearly the Wings are caught between two worlds; wanting to retain venerable veterans like Chris Chelios, Brendan Shanahan and (possibly) Steve Yzerman, but badly needing an overhaul after their embarrassing first round loss to Edmonton. The fact that the Wings will be in the market for a new number one goaltender is a given, and theyíll probably try to poach Roloson from the Oilers, then possibly give young Jimmy Howard the chance to mature behind him as his backup. But with Nicklas Lidstrom about to hit the market and possibly asking for a maximum contract of $8.8 million, whether the Wings will have the salary cap space to develop a contender remains to be seen. Detroit badly needs a big, crease-clearing defenseman in the mould of Jiri Fischer, assuming Fischerís career is over due to the heart condition that laid him low so dramatically during a game last season. More than that, they need some big, quick wingers who can forecheck effectively and play on a scoring line; when the Oilers were forcing the Red Wings to dump the puck into the offensive zone with a modified neutral zone trap, the only Detroit forwards able to retrieve the puck were the fourth line grinders like Kirk Maltby, Johan Franzen, and Dan Cleary. Someone who can skate and hit like Maltby but play an offensive role beside Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg is essential. 

The Fine Print

  • If youíre looking for hockey this summer, weíve got you covered at MOP Squad, as weíll be posting the latest free agent signings as they hit the newswires. For something a bit more analytical, thanks to MOPís new partnership with NationalSportsClub.com, you can surf over to my hockey blog at www.nationalsportsclub.com/view_profile.php?member_id=129 and read what Iíve got to say about the latest hockey news there. Keep an eye here too for my frequently annual, occasionally entertaining, often late, and sporadically insightful team previews. And as usual, Iím available at brian.pike@mopsquad.com for any comments, questions, or tips (email me just to say hi! I like it when people do that). Have a good summer, people. Training camps are only two and a half months awayÖ


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