Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Top 5 RFA's; Countdown to Free Agency

With less than 24 hours to go until the official start of NHL free agency, let's wrap up our look at the cream of 2009's crop with the top five restricted free agents, regardless of position. Any team can sign these players to an offer sheet starting tomorrow, but have to be willing to yield draft picks should their current clubs not match those offers. Here we go:

5. G Kari Lehtonen - Atlanta - 2009 stats: 46 G, 19-22-3, .911 SV%, 3.06 GAA - 2009 salary: $3MM
I include Lehtonen on this list solely because he is the best RFA goalie this year, which should say something about the quality of netminders available this year. Playing for a lousy team, Lehtonen got the majority of starts this year for the Thrashers, but didn't really do much to establish himself as the #1 franchise goalie many would have expected from him at this point. He lost playing time to the likes of the immortal Ondrej Pavelec and the washed-up Johan Hedberg as the Thrashers missed the playoffs once again.

I don't have much doubt that Lehtonen will return to Atlanta this summer. There's not much of a market for goalies, and it's possible he's simply going to accept the Thrashers' qualifying offer. It's hard to believe any team would be willing to give up draft picks for Lehtonen's services. Still, he's only 25 and there could come a day when the Finnish goalie finally puts it together. The Thrashers aren't going anywhere, so why not see it through?

4. D James Wisniewski - Anaheim - 2009 stats: 48 GP, 3 G, 21 A, 24 PTS - 2009 salary: $900K
Wisniewski had played his entire career with Chicago before being traded at the deadline to Anaheim in the deal that sent Sami Pahlsson to the Blackhawks. The deal worked out for both teams as Pahlsson provided veteran leadership for a young Chicago team while Wisniewski played the best hockey of his life during the Ducks improbable playoff run. At 25, Wisniewski held his own against the big forwards for San Jose and Detroit and earned plenty of respect around the league as a top-four defensemen to be reckoned with.

Since I last wrote, the Ducks traded away Chris Pronger to the Flyers and Scott Niedermeyer announced his intention to play another season. Niedermeyer still needs to work out a deal with Anaheim, and the Ducks are likely to lose another defender, Francois Beauchemin, to free agency this week. So keeping Wisniewski around will be imperative for the Ducks and GM Bob Murray. Coming back in the Pronger deal was 19-year-old blueliner Luca Sbisa, and the hope is that Sbisa and Wisniewski will provide a young foundation for the Ducks to build on.

3. C Travis Zajac - New Jersey - 2009 stats: 82 GP, 20 G, 42 A, 62 PTS - 2009 salary: $984K
The first two seasons in the NHL for this former North Dakota star were nondescript, but he found some magic during his third. Centering a line with wingers Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner, Zajac was the distributor for one of the most productive lines in the league in '08-'09, helping fellow Fighting Sioux alum Parise to a 45-goal season. GM Lou Lamoriello extended the 24-year-old center a qualifying offer, but I fully expect Zajac to see what's out there starting tomorrow.

The Devils would be crazy to let Zajac sign elsewhere. Keeping that line with Parise and Langenbrunner together is of vital importance for the club's offensive identity, especially if the rumors are true that Lamoriello will bring back former head coach Jacques Lemaire after getting ditched by Brent Sutter. Considering their youth, it's scary to think how good the tandem of Zajac and Parise can become.

2. LW Jiri Hudler - Detroit - 2009 stats: 82 GP, 23 G, 34 A, 57 PTS - 2009 salary: $1.15MM
This spry Czech is yet another testament to the incredible depth of the Red Wings and their organization. Hudler had the best year of his young career in '08-'09, potting 23 goals while playing mostly on the third line and making some significant hay during his time on the power play (22 of his 34 assists came on the man-advantage). He's also displayed quite a bit of toughness despite his size, as he's played almost every game during Detroit's last two seasons, both of which have included deep Cup runs. Unfortunately for Hudler and his team, he pretty much disappeared after the Anaheim series and found himself on the fourth line for much of the Final.

In a summer of tough decisions for GM/Magician Ken Holland, Hudler presents one of the most difficult for the cap-strapped hockey superpower. On one hand, Hudler is a 25-year-old scorer who is likely to only improve with more playing time. As a whole, the Wings are not a young team, and they could use a guy like him to provide that jump they may otherwise lack. It'd also be bad for the Wings to see Hudler develop into a 40-goal scorer somewhere else. On the other hand, it appears Holland wants to keep Marian Hossa, meaning the Wings will have absolutely no room to keep Hudler or UFA Mikael Samuelsson. Plus, based on what he saw in the postseason, Holland knows he can rely on young, cheap forwards like Ville Leino, Justin "Afrogator" Abdelkader and Darren "He Doesn't Sleep, He Waits" Helm and afford to let the more expensive guys go.

So if Hossa stays, I don't see how Hudler does, too. Another team can probably sign him for a relatively cheap figure and Holland won't be able to match. The Wings will take the draft picks and kiss Hudler goodbye. This all changes, of course, if Hossa signs elsewhere. In that case, they definitely can't allow Hudler to walk. And because they're the Red Wings, they won't.

1. RW Phil Kessel - Boston - 2009 stats: 70 GP, 36 G, 24 A, 60 PTS - 2009 salary: $2.2MM
The '08-'09 breakthrough for Kessel, the 21-year-old burner who dropped to 5th in the 2006 draft because of character issues and was diagnosed with testicular cancer later that year, was one of my favorite aspects of the Bruins' return to hockey relevancy. From the minute he was drafted, Kessel was bandied about as a franchise savior, someone with immense talent who would certainly realize it as long as he did some growing up. He beat cancer, and the growing process began. We saw flashes during his first two seasons, but like the other two forwards on this list, Kessel came alive in his third season.

Getting fed the puck by playmaker Marc Savard, Kessel came out blazing in '08 and for a time was on pace for a 50-goal season when he was striken by mono. He was expected to miss extended time, but came back quickly and with a hat trick in the final regular season game against the Islanders finished with 36 goals. Despite a debilitating shoulder injury that resulted in a torn labrum and rotator cuff, Kessel played brilliantly in the postseason, including two goals in Game 5 against Carolina. Surgery could keep Kessel from playing at the start of the season, but the sky appears to be the limit for him in terms of scoring ability. He was nearly dealt at the draft to Toronto for puck-moving All Star defender Tomas Kaberle, but a disagreement between Boston GM Peter Chiarelli and Leafs GM Brian Burke over draft picks nixed the deal.

I went over most of my feelings about Kessel in my Bruins offseason preview, and for the most part, they haven't changed. I want Kessel to stay, but only for what he deserves. He's a scorer who doesn't contribute anything on the ice in terms of toughness or ability on the defensive end. He does not deserve to be paid $5 million a season for that. Chiarelli needs to be willing to let Kessel go and collect the draft picks if another team deems him worth that much. Otherwise, I believe the Bruins will play the waiting game with Kessel. Eventually, he'll sign for at least one year at around $4 million. In the end, the B's just can't afford to let someone of his talent slip. I don't see the B's winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 without Kessel.

So that concludes our look at free agents heading into tomorrow. In the time since I began writing this blog, a major trade has gone down, with Scott Gomez heading to Montreal for Christopher Higgins in a deal involving four other players. If this trade is a sign for what direction the Canadiens' offseason is headed, I'm going to be pretty happy. One of the players going to New York is blueliner Ryan McDonagh, an excellent young prospect. It's pretty foolish to give up this guy in what is essentially a salary dump for the Rangers, as Gomez appears to be washed up and has a ridiculous cap hit of $8 million for the next two years. Good to see that Habs GM Bob Gainey is just as clueless as ever. It's now being heavily rumored that Dany Heatley should be on his way to Manhattan because of this trade.

There will be plenty of activity between now and the end of this week. Hold onto your wigs and keys. It's going to be a wild ride.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Top 5 2009 UFA Defensemen and Goalies

Last time, we looked at the top five unrestricted free agent forwards that will be able to negotiate with any team starting July 1. Now, we'll take a gander at the top five UFA blueliners, and then the top five UFA goaltenders (which is a pretty lousy list, just to warn you). Without anything resembling ado:

5. Rob Blake - San Jose - 2009 stats: 73 GP, 10 G, 35 A, 45 PTS - 2009 salary: $5MM
The only reason why I have the veteran defender fifth on this list is because he'd almost assuredly going to be re-signing with San Jose. Blake's going to be 40 by the time next season ends, but he's been remarkably consistent even in his advanced years. He signed a one-year, $5 million contract last summer in an attempt to win another Stanley Cup with the veteran Sharks. Paired with another new acquisition, Dan Boyle, things didn't go as planned once the playoffs came around.

Blake is one of the sport's best leaders, and if Patrick Marleau is dealt it wouldn't shock me to see Blake leapfrog Joe Thornton and become captain. I expect Blake to sign for something similar to $5 million he earned last season, and will perhaps even do so in a two-year pact. That will probably do it for Blake's career once that contract runs out.

4. Jordan Leopold - Calgary - 2009 stats: 83 GP, 7 G, 17 A, 24 PTS - 2009 salary: $1.5MM
This former University of Minnesota standout and Hobey Baker winner ended this past season where his career began, helping round out a strong core of defensemen in Calgary. He'd spent most of the previous three seasons with Colorado, but as an impending free agent and the team going nowhere, Leopold was shipped out at the trading deadline for a couple young players and a second round pick. The Flames were defeated in the first round by Chicago, and Leopold didn't help himself this summer by playing relatively sloppy throughout.

Since his glory days in college, Leopold hasn't really ever lived up to expectations, mostly due to injuries. He'll definitely get a raise somewhere this summer, and while he probably wants to get paid like a #2 blueliner, odds are that won't happen. If the Flames lose Adrian Aucoin, they will certainly take a look and bringing Leopold back at a reasonable price. Otherwise, plenty of teams should be in on Leopold. He was fully healthy this year and his number may have been depressed from playing most of the year on such a lousy team.

3. Mike Komisarek - Montreal - 2009 stats: 66 GP, 2 G, 9 A, 11 PTS - 2009 salary: $1.7MM
I'm not going to lie. I really hate this guy. He's a shit-stirrer, he plays for an evil team, and he proved himself to be a little bitch over and over again last year. I hope he stays in Montreal so he can continue to take beatdowns like this and this at the hands of Milan Lucic, the former being a seminal moment in the Bruins' season of re-birth. Of course, he might retaliate like this, and that wouldn't be good, but that's what we've come to expect from Mike Komisarek in his career. I don't care that he played for Michigan. I really hate this guy.

That being said, at 27 he's probably going to be paid handsomely at some point this summer. When he doesn't go overboard, Komisarek can be an asset to any team. The Canadiens have all the cap space in the world this summer, and because they're looking at having absolutely no depth behind Andrei Markov, keeping Komisarek on board would probably be a wise choice. Or not, since he sucks. OK, I can show my bias on here once in a while, right?

2. Scott Niedermayer - Anaheim - 2009 stats: 82 GP, 14 G, 45 A, 59 PTS - 2009 salary: $6.75MM
It's definitely been a long, strange trip for Niedermayer. Drafted third overall 18 years ago, he won the Cup four times in a span of 12 seasons. He's been a hero, and he's been a villain. That legendary playoff beard has gained a salt-and-pepper hue as the years have dragged on. After winning the Cup with the Ducks in '07, he seemed ready to walk away, and missed nearly 30 games in '08 before finally coming back.

The Ducks were just about out of the playoffs at the deadline this year, with Niedermayer's name bandied about in potential trades. But Anaheim persevered, outlasted top-seeded San Jose in the opening round, then took Detroit to the brink before succumbing in Game 7. During the playoffs, it seemed like Niedermayer and Chris Pronger were on the ice 60 minutes a game.

Niedermayer proved throughout the season and playoffs that he can still play as an elite NHL defenseman. For a third straight year, however, he's contemplating retirement. His intentions should be known before the draft, and if he does decide to continue expect him to stay in Anaheim.

1. Jay Bouwmeester - Florida - 2009 stats: 82 GP, 15 G, 27 A, 42 PTS - 2009 salary: $4.875MM
This puck-moving, bruising 25-year-old Edmonton product might be the most sought-after free agent this summer after Marian Hossa. He's an elite #1 defenseman, a true treasure who's been buried deep in Florida for his entire career. Bouwmeester only settled for a one-year tender as a restricted free agent last year with an obvious desire to get the hell out of Miami as soon as possible.

Bone-headed GM Jacques Martin (who I'm happy to say is now the Habs' head coach) should have dealt him for something at the deadline, but refused. The Panthers missed the playoffs, and will now see him go for nothing unless they trade his rights before July 1. It came out on Tuesday that Bouwmeester "has made it known he wants to play somewhere hockey is taken more seriously than in South Florida." Ouch.

The team I've heard most in connection to J-Bouw so far is Philadelphia, who can afford to move some of their forward depth either as a means of acquiring his rights or clearing cap space to sign him (I imagine Bouwmeester will make close to $7 million annually in his new deal). The above report mentioned Joffrey Lupul as a potential chip, and don't count out UNH star James van Riemsdyk as a possibility too. Watching them against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, I felt the last piece they needed was a big defenseman. Kimmo Timonen is excellent, but adding Bouwmeester could catapult them into the top tier in the East.

The Canucks, Flames and his hometown Oilers will also come calling. Whatever team ends up with Bouwmeester will have an terrific young #1 defenseman as their anchor for years to come. I'm excited to see what Bouwmeester will do with a solid team around him.

Onto the top five UFA netminders:

5. Scott Clemmensen - New Jersey - 2009 stats: 40 G, 25-13-1, .917 SV%, 2.39 GAA - 2009 salary: $500K
Like a lot of people, I figured the Devils were pretty screwed when Martin Brodeur went down with a biceps injury that cost him most of the regular season. They looked even more screwed when backup Kevin Weekes struggled as his replacement. Enter Clemmensen, who helped BC win the 2001 national title but had only seen action in 28 NHL games prior to this season. Clemmensen played so well in Brodeur's absence that when the legendary goalie was slated to return there was some consternation in New Jersey about who should really start. The legend won out, and Clemmensen was actually sent back to the AHL before Weekes was injured.

Because of his performance this year, Clemmensen could potentially find a starting job, but at the very least he'll be a backup paid better than $500,000. If I'm GM Lou Lamoriello, I'll fork over a couple million to keep the guy around. Brodeur isn't getting younger (or thinner), and having some security backing up is important. But he may bolt for greener pastures. We shall see.

4. Ty Conklin - Detroit - 2009 stats: 40 G, 25-11-2, .909 SV%, 2.51 GAA - 2009 salary: $750K
Following Dominik Hasek's retirement and Chris Osgood's ascension as Detroit's #1 goalie during their '08 Cup run, GM Kenny Holland worked his magic and signed Pittsburgh's Ty Conklin with the intention of using him as a backup. Conklin, my fellow UNH alum, played very well while Marc-Andre Fleury was injured that season, and getting him for $750,000 seemed like a steal. Osgood was shaky through much of the regular season, to put it nicely. Conklin bailed out the Red Wings time and again, and only after spending 10 days away from the ice did Osgood finally find himself. Had the Wings come through in SCF Game 7, I believe Osgood would have been Conn Smythe, with good reason. Conklin only saw the ice during one period in the whole postseason, and that's just because Osgood got tired during a Detroit blowout.

Conklin wants to stay, but it doesn't appear the 33-year-old return to Hockeytown in '09. Longtime prospect Jimmy Howard is going to finally be given a look as Osgood's backup. A starting gig might not materialize for Conklin, but I believe he deserves it based on his play the last two seasons. Of course, we're both Wildcats, so maybe I'm biased. Here it comes again...

3. Dwayne Roloson - Edmonton - 2009 stats: 63 G, 28-24-9, .915 SV%, 2.77 GAA - 2009 salary: $3.666MM
So, let me get this straight: Roloson is 40, played a lot of games last year, wasn't really any good in '08-'09, and wants the Oilers to give him a multi-year deal? I'm not buying it. Sure, Roloson was pretty solid, especially down the stretch, for Edmonton. And I'm not really sure they can do much better with
Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers as the only other option under contract for next year. I think Roloson stays, but only for one year. The Oilers want to make a splash in the free agent or trade market, so keeping their commitment to an aging goalie low is probably in their best interest.

2. Martin Biron - Philadelphia - 2009 stats: 55 G, 29-19-5, .915 SV%, 2.76 GAA - 2009 salary: $3.5MM
You know it's a lousy year for free agent goalies when the second-best netminder on the market gets passed over in favor of Ray Emery. How does that make you feel, Marty? Biron was always a favorite scapegoat for the fans in Philadelphia, and I never really felt that was fair. Sure, the guy was never spectacular, as his numbers this year attest. He kept losing playing time to Antero Nittymaki throughout the season, and it was a tough decision . But I just think it's obvious that Biron should not be expected to be a top goalie on a contending team at this point in his career.

At 31, Biron wants a multi-year contract, which is something the Flyers simply weren't interested in. I applaud them for going with the cost-cutting move in signing Emery, and it also sounds like they're trying to bring back Robert Esche from the KHL to team with up with Emery. It's a risk, but at least it will afford them the chance to go after a big name. Where Biron lands is anyone's guess, and there's no guarantee he'll be a starter.

1. Nikolai Khabibulin - Chicago - 2009 stats: 42 G, 25-8-7, .919 SV%, 2.33 GAA - 2009 salary: $6.75MM
This was definitely not a normal year in the crease for the Blackhawks. Last summer they signed free agent Cristobal Huet to a four-year deal with an average cap hit of $5.625MM, and I always figured that meant Huet would get the starting nod for '08-'09 over Khabibulin. That's why I drafted him in my fantasy league. Dennis Savard was fired early in the season, Joel Quennville came in as a replacement, and decided he liked Khabibulin more as the primary goalie. It was pretty maddening not knowing who was going to start everyday. Khabibulin was hurt for long stretches, but Huet never played well enough to take over the starting role. The "Bulin Wall" took over late in the season, and his steady veteran play led the young Hawks to the Western Conference Final.

Because Khabibulin led the Hawks late in the season, and Huet left a lot to be desired in his absence especially when pressed into playoff action, it would make sense for the Chicago to retain the Russian's services. However, he's 39, and had trouble staying healthy throughout the year. And they certainly can't afford to pay their goaltenders north of $12 million for another year. My guess is they let Khabibulin walk and go with Huet and youngster Corey Crawford. Khabibulin should be able to carve out a starting job somewhere.

So there you have it. Enjoy the draft and the flurry of activity that usually accompanies it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Top 5 2009 Free Agent Forwards

Before we take a look at the top unrestricted free agents available this summer, I first want to congratulate the Bruins who were recognized last week for their great 2008-2009 season. Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy in a walk and Claude Julien took the Jack Adams Award, but my favorite honor went to captain Zdeno Chara for winning the Norris Trophy.

He ended Nick Lidstrom's three-year stranglehold on the title of best defenseman in the league, and even though Lidstrom and Mike Green had strong claims, I believe the best man won. Chara was the anchor of the NHL's finest defense all year. It's a pleasure to watch him work and do things that only he can do because of his behemoth physicality. I look forward to Chara raising some more prestigious hardware next year, hopefully in the form of the Stanley Cup.

Puckin' Right now presents the notable 2009 summer free agents, starting with UFA forwards:

5. RW Martin Havlat - Chicago - 2009 stats: 81 GP, 29 G, 48 A, 77 PTS - 2009 salary: $6MM
This Czech dynamo picked no better year than this one to finally put together his first injury-free regular season. Havlat had never played more than 73 games in a year before this one, and he should be able to reap the benefits on the open market. He was excellent in the postseason before this completely legitimate hit by Nicklas Kronwall effectively ended his season despite a feeble attempt to play in the Blackhawks' series-losing Game 5 of the Western Conference Final.

There's no denying Havlat's incredible skill, especially when it comes to offense and speed. I believe that whenever he's on the ice he's usually the most talented and dangerous guy out there. The question with him has always been about health and a desire to be the best. Any team looking to sign him must ask whether this productive and healthy season came solely as a result of the contract that will await him in a few weeks. Havlat signed for three years when he came to Chicago, and is in line for something similar this summer at 28.

The Blackhawks have made re-signing Havlat their top summer priority, but they need to keep an eye towards 2010 when young meal tickets Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will be restricted free agents. I think Havlat will stay but only if it doesn't jeopardize their chances to keep their two young stars. Otherwise, there are plenty of teams that could take the chance on what Havlat has to offer.

4. C Mike Cammalleri - Calgary - 2009 stats: 81 GP, 39 G, 43 A, 82 PTS - 2009 salary: $3.35MM
Cammalleri, a University of Michigan product who played for the Manchester Monarchs after getting drafted, had spent his whole NHL career with the Los Angeles Kings before being traded to Calgary at last year's draft. Getting to play with the likes of Jarome Iginla paid massive dividends as Cammalleri established himself as an elite scorer in '08-'09. In the process, he made himself a ton of money, but the question remains where that money will come from.

Because he's only 27, Cammalleri should garner interest for many teams. It's not likely that he stays in Calgary since he's probably due to make around $6MM annually in his next deal, and they're facing some tough choices with defensemen Adrian Aucoin and Jordan Leopold also UFAs. Unless the Flames unload mid-season acqusition Olli Jokinen or someone else at next weekend's draft, Cammalleri will probably be changing addresses next season.

The Kings are going to be mentioned as a potential landing place for just about every major free agent or trade candidate this summer due to their preponderance of cap space, and a return engagement for Cammalleri in L.A. is not out of the question. Other teams I've heard in connection to Cammalleri include the Avs, Blue Jackets and Canadiens.

3. LW and C - Daniel and Henrik Sedin - Vancouver - 2009 stats: 164 GP, 53 G, 111 A, 164 PTS - 2009 salary: $7.15MM
No need to separate the Swedish Sedin twins for the purposes of this list. They are a package deal, as they have been since then-GM Brian Burke drafted them second and third for the Canucks in the 1999 draft. This isn't just because no team in their right mind would ever risk taking one without the other; it's clearly the best way for both to maximize their value. Good for a point per game each last year, anyone who signs the Sedins knows what they're getting: Daniel the sniper, Henrik the playmaker, excellence on the power play and incredibly awkward commericals. But these guys aren't going to come cheaply.

Reports surfaced last week that the Sedins are seeking identical 12-year, $63MM contracts from the Canucks during their exclusive negotiating period before July 1. No doubt the Sedins were influenced by the long contracts the Detroit Red Wings shelled out to their fellow countrymen Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg. While the Sedins have never led a team to a Stanley Cup like Franzen and Zetterberg, such contracts would count $5.25MM against the cap each year for each player. That's reasonable enough, but the question is whether Vancouver wants to commit that many years to two players.

How much the Sedins are really worth will be one of the major questions of this summer. I think they'll stay with the Canucks, but should no agreements be reached this week, their negotiating rights could be dealt at the draft. Lots of teams with the cap space and willingness to take a chance could be in on the twins come July 1.

2. RW Marian Gaborik - Minnesota - 2009 stats - 17 GP, 13 G, 10 A, 23 PTS - 2009 salary: $6.33 MM
Wild fans and fantasy owners alike were beyond frustrated with the season turned in by Gaborik, the Slovak winger who, when healthy, can score seemingly at will. There are plenty of similarities to this situation and the one facing Havlat. Like Havlat, he's never been able to escape his reputation as an injury-prone nuisance who causes more headaches than actually helping on the ice. Gaborik underwent hip surgery in January and returned for the final playoff push, but the Wild went home before the postseason began.

Now, the Wild have a new GM and a new coach, and they will look to open up a bit compared to longtime coach Jacques Lemaire's defensive style. That could be enough for Gaborik to return to the only NHL franchise he's ever played for, but the 27-year-old scorer will likely be looking elsewhere for employment this summer and beyond. Gaborik might benefit from going to a team where he doesn't have to be "the guy," even though he'll probably look to be paid like one.

Gaborik's upside is higher than Havlat's at this point, but I suspect teams will be unwilling to give Gaborik more than three years in a deal. It's possible he could earn less annually in his next deal than his last one. Teams know what type of risk they'd be taking by signing Gaborik, but the rewards could be monumental. If I were a GM, I'd take the chance. Gaborik is that special.

1. RW Marian Hossa - Detroit - 2009 stats - 74 GP, 40 G, 31 A, 71 PTS - 2009 salary: $7.45MM
There is no more compelling story in sports than the last 12 months of Marian Hossa's career. After nearly tipping in a game-tying goal in Game 6 of the 2008 SCF for Pittsburgh, Hossa spurned several huge offers as a free agent (including over $80 million from Edmonton and a solid contract from the Penguins) to take a one-year deal with Detroit. His reasoning? Hossa wanted to win the Cup, and felt his best chance was with the defending champions. Hossa went out and scored 40 goals, proving to be a force in just about every aspect of the game for the Red Wings. His team made it back to the SCF, with the city he left behind coincidentally occupying the opposing bench.

Hossa then proceeded to not show up for the Final. He registered three assists, never made much of an effort to cut or drive to the net, didn't provide anything on the forecheck or power play, and just looked plain terrible every time he was on this ice. All along I suspected Hossa was dealing with an undisclosed injury. It had to be. There was no way he was dogging it; this series is what he gave up tens of millions of dollars to be a part of. There was no way it was the pressure; he's an NHL superstar who'd been an excellent playoff performer through his career. But once the Final was over, and after watching his former team hoist the Cup, there was no admission of an injury. Hossa just sucked absent any logical explanation. It's one of the most bewildering things I've seen in my years following sports.

So will any of that affect what type of contract Hossa gets this summer? Not likely. He's still one of the most valuable players in the NHL, with the ability to change a game all by myself at both ends of the ice. There had been rumblings just before the Final that Hossa had agreed to a seven-year contract with the Red Wings, but that does not appear to be true. Despite his playoff putridity, I believe the Wings would take him back. I didn't think it was possible the Wings could keep all three of Zetterberg, Franzen and Hossa, but if they're willing to jettison the likes of Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler, they could complete that ridiculous troika by retaining Hossa.

While a Hossa return to Pittsburgh is about as likely as a Manny Ramirez return to Boston this winter, plenty of other teams could break the bank for the Slovak. I highly doubt he'll take a one-year pact like last offseason. I'm not saying Hossa made the wrong decision last summer, quite the contrary. But I can't blame the guy for wanting to make back that money he could have gotten in 2008. And he should get it.

Next up, Puckin' Right will look at the UFA defensemen and goalies, with the top RFA's coming later in the week.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bruins Summer Plans; With or Without Kessel?

A small budget, gut-wrenching decisions and some creative math are all likely to mark the summer for Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. Chiarelli, who just earned a four-year extension for engineering a fantastic turnaround and putting the B's back on the Boston sports map, has all the key pieces returning for the club that went 53-19-10 and came within one goal of the Eastern Conference Finals this past season.

It's rounding out that roster that will present Chiarelli with problems, and one or two of those key pieces might have to be moved in order to accommodate that.

After the David Krejci deal, and the $850,000 they will be paying Tuukka Rask to be Tim Thomas' backup next season, that puts the Bruins at just around $52 million in commitments for '09-'10. If the salary cap stays the same, that will give the Bruins less than $5 million to work with going forward.

Someone is definitely getting traded, especially if Chiarelli makes resigning restricted free agent Phil Kessel his top priority going forward.

Let's take a look at guys currently under contract that I don't expect to see traded before the '09-'10 season begins:

Zdeno Chara ($7.5 million), Marc Savard ($5 million), Thomas ($5 million), Michael Ryder ($4 million), Dennis Wideman ($3.9375 million), Krejci ($3.75 million), Aaron Ward ($2.5 million), Andrew Ference ($1.4 million), Brad Stuart ($1.3 million), Milan Lucic ($850K), Rask ($850K) Vladimir Sobotka ($750K) and Shawn Thornton ($516K).

I suppose Savard or Ryder could both be the ones that get traded. Savard will be an unrestricted free agent in 2010, and perhaps clearing that $5 million and getting something in return would be beneficial. I don't see it, and my money is on one of the following guys under contract:

Patrice Bergeron ($4.75 million), Marco Sturm ($3.5 million), Blake Wheeler ($2.825 million) and Chuck Kobasew ($2.333 million).

In addition to Kessel, the B's also would like to come to agreements with RFAs Matt Hunwick and Byron Bitz, and of their UFAs, I only see P.J. Axelsson, Mark Recchi and Stephane Yelle as possibilities to return.

(FYI: The B's are also paying a $1.3833 million buyout to Glen Murray this year. Good to see the guy is still screwing the Bruins even when he's sitting at home).

On the topic of Kessel: the latest information shows the Bruins want the speedy winger that scored 36 goals last season back, but only at their price. Kessel's representatives want the Bruins to pay up, something to the tune of $5 million per season, which is something they simply won't do. I think the max they would pay Kessel would be $4 million, while I'm sure they'd rather pay him the $3.75 million they're giving to Krejci.

Make no mistake: I really want the Bruins to keep Kessel. As their leading goal-scorer and the only guy on the team with significant speed, he played a key role in the Bruins' success this past year and as a scorer I feel he's only going to improve. It's going to be near impossible to replace that kind of offensive production.

I worry, though, if he's ever going to develop into a complete player. Kessel seems allergic to playing defense and will likely never contribute to the penalty kill. I can't question his toughness (after all, the guy came back from testicular cancer and played through what must have been an excruciating shoulder injury through the playoffs), but just once I'd like to see that toughness come through on the ice.

If Kessel doesn't develop into a complete player, that's fine. He'll still have tremendous value as an offensive force with a deadly nose for the goal. But as KPD explained, Chiarelli and VP Cam Neely look for guys with grit and toughness on the ice in addition to that scoring touch (not unlike Neely himself; that's why the B's will break the bank next summer for Lucic). I expect a decision to come shortly on this, and we could see Kessel getting dealt at the upcoming draft or just before July 1. There have been rumblings about Kessel going to Colorado for the 3rd pick. The Avs need that pick, which could be franchise defenseman Victor Hedman, more than they need Kessel.

But let's assume the B's sign Kessel for $4 million. That would put them at just below the cap, and signing either Hunwick or Bitz would put them at just above it. So a trade is in order if they sign Kessel.

Of the candidates I mentioned above, the best-case scenario would be for Sturm to get traded for prospects to clear up that $3.5 million. Sturm was excellent in 19 games last year, registering 13 points and making stuff happen every time he was out there. But a severe knee injury and ACL surgery landed him on injured reserve. He should be healthy for next season, but it will be a tough sell for another team to take on that kind of salary from someone coming off that serious of an injury.

Should they unload Sturm, I expect Recchi to re-sign for around $1 million. I loved everything Recchi brought to the Bruins last year, and even though he's pretty slow in his old age, he's a born leader and still loves to camp in front of the opposing goal and tip the puck in the net. He wants to come back, and I want him back.

Bergeron, and his hefty price tag of $4.75 million, are also on the trading block. We saw flashes of the old Bergeron this year, even though he suffered his second serious concussion and was often playing on a line with offensively-challenged guys like Kobasew and Axelsson. Of course, Bergeron provided one of my favorite moments of the season when he laid an uncharacteristic beatdown on some Canadiens loser in the playoffs. With two superior centers in Savard and Krejci already on the roster, it might be time to sever the chord on Bergeron if it will help the team in other areas.

The cheaper guys like Wheeler and Kobasew could get dealt, especially with how useless Wheeler was down the stretch and getting benched in favor of Bitz during the playoffs. Wheeler has tons of skill but needs to use his size to his advantage, but until then he might be one of the many high draft picks that never live up to their potential. I don't want to see the B's deal Kobasew, a gritty winger who's a huge part of their team identity. There were several stretches of listless hockey for the Bruins during the second half, but Kobasew was one guy who never let up. My respect for him will never wane after learning he played the entire Carolina series with not one but two broken ribs.

So as you can see, there's a lot to consider here. At this time, the top priorities have to be getting Kessel, Bitz and Hunwick under contract before July 1, then filling out the roster in whatever way they see fit. It's unfortunate the B's probably won't be able to delve into the free agent market this summer and get after a big defenseman like Jay Bouwmeester or a scoring forward like Marian Hossa or Martin Havlat. I'm glad I'm not Chiarelli, but I'm confident he'll make the right moves to keep this current version of the Bruins chugging along in '09-'10.

Coming up next, Puckin' Right will take a look at the upcoming free agent class. This might have to wait until next week and I'm going to be pretty busy until then.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Welcome to Puckin' Right

I know what you're thinking.

"Hey, you're that guy who writes about baseball and politics. Why are you starting a blog about hockey? And why are you doing it right after the end of the Stanley Cup Finals?"

I'm glad you asked. OK, maybe you didn't actually ask this, or even think about this when you clicked this link or found this page. But I'm glad you're here. I've started this blog because I've got a lot of things to say about the NHL and hockey itself, which I believe is headed for a major American renaissance.

Let me begin by reviewing my personal hockey history. As some of you may know, baseball will always be my number one sport, as it has been since I was six. The Boston Bruins were always there, and I grew up with the solid-if-unspectacular group led by scoring machine Cam Neely, playmaker extraordinaire Adam Oates and indispensable blueliner Raymond Bourque. Injuries caught up with Neely, and the core of the Bruins changed to a young one.

These were the B's that I loved to watch, and followed with dogged intensity. While Joe Thornton never lived up to his potential (and still hasn't), these teams were marked by the likes of Billy Guerin, Jason Allison, Sergei Samsonov, Mike Knuble and Brian Rolston, and steady goaltending from Byron Dafoe.

During this time, I considered myself a real hockey fan. I remember Gretzky's retirement and Lemieux's comeback. I hated Eric Lindros and everyone associated with the Canadiens. I had miles of respect for Yzerman's Red Wings, Sakic's Avalance, Hasek's Sabres and Brodeur's Devils, always wishing the B's could get to that level.

But my interest in hockey always hinged on the fortunes of the Black and Gold. Allison was traded away, and the revolving door of coaches, GMs and goaltenders became too maddening to bear. The Jacobs family has never cared about anything but their own profit, and they proved that time and again. I tried to give them a chance after the lockout but the last straw was the Thornton trade, and his eventual Hart Trophy season with the Sharks. Why should I care about a team that didn't care about me?

Yet the salary cap made it so even cheap owners like Jeremy Jacobs had to play by the rules. Peter Chiarelli came in as GM, and after misfiring with Dave Lewis, he brought in Claude Julien and began to draft, trade and sign the type of players that would find success in the Eastern Conference.

The '07-'08 season was the starting point for myself, along with many other long-dormant New England hockey fans, to get back into it. The Bruins suffered through a rash of injuries, but so many young players stepped up and Tim Thomas emerged as a goaltender we could believe in. They took the Canadiens to a seventh game in a classic series, but couldn't close the door.

But for me, the writing was on the half-wall. The Bruins were back, and I'd be along for the ride.

As the Bruins established themselves as the class of the Eastern Conference throughout the '08-'09 season, I suddenly found myself turning into a full-fledged puckhead. I drafted my first fantasy hockey team. I was checking Yahoo's amazing Puck Daddy blog and RotoWorld's NHL page multiple times a day.

I became fascinated with the NHL and its brilliant, burgeoning Internet culture, spearheaded by fans unsatisfied with mainstream media coverage. The sport is ready to break out, headlined by superstars Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin, but remains held back by incompetent leadership and the worst national TV deal in sports history. Unveiled to me was this insulated world of hockey that I'd either forgotten about or never knew existed. It was all so new and fun, and I totally invested myself with the unforgettable Bruins' season providing the backdrop.

Their season came crashing down in the most heartbreaking of fashions, causing me to nearly get into an accident on the way back from a Third Eye Blind concert. But I didn't stop watching, and after a series of incredibly fun live-Tweeting sessions during the Stanley Cup Finals, I realized it was time to expand to a blog. I'd been threatening to start a hockey blog during the season, but it never felt right. I wasn't confident in my abilities to write coherently about the NHL. But after a season of intense following, I'm ready.

Puckin' Right will follow a similar format to my eponymous baseball blog. I'll be focusing much of my attention toward the B's, but there will be plenty of other stuff to talk about as we look to the '09-'10 season. There will also be some posts centering on the men's and women's hockey programs at my beloved alma mater, the University of New Hampshire.

I plan on a post at some point this week about my hopes for the Bruins' offseason. Expect to see the name "Phil Kessel" quite a bit in that one. I'll also begin a series on potential free agents leading up to the annual start of free agency on July 1.

This site looks pretty sparse right now, and I hope to be able to spruce it up. If anyone has any ideas, let me know. My future in journalism sure won't be in design, as many of you are aware.

Bookmark this page and check back often. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm going to have fun, and I hope you do too. Puckin' right, son.