Saturday, July 18, 2009

The NHL's Big 3: A blessing, or a headache?

The National Hockey League should be in a position of rejoice. It is on the precipice of regaining a place amongst the major North American professional sports due in part to its three elite stars all aged 23 and under: Pittsburgh Penguins centermen Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Washington Capitals left winger Alexander Ovechkin.

Having not one, not two, but three megastars to build around should be a huge boon for the NHL. Neither the NFL, NBA nor MLB can claim to have that many transcendent stars all at such young ages. The NHL has indeed taken advantage, especially with Crosby, the 21-year-old dynamo who's already hoisted the Stanley Cup along with his Conn Smyth-winning teammate Malkin.

There was another era where the league could boast more than one transcendent talent, and that was during the late '80s and early '90s with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Across the spectrum of the sport, amongst other players, fans and the media alike, Gretzky and Lemieux were respected, even loved. Their play and conduct left little to be desired, they made their teammates better and were true ambassadors of the game. Even though Gretzky was never all that gritty and Lemieux was always hurt, they were held in unanimously high regard throughout their careers.

This is where the NHL of 2009 has a problem. Despite the undeniably prolific skills of the three big current stars, there is some aspect of their personalities or their game that causes a significant portion of the hockey-watching populous to dislike them. This goes beyond the intense rivalry between Penguins and Capitals aficionados, extending to puckheads all over the world. When it comes to how casual fans might view these stars during this key period for the NHL, perception is a harrowing reality.

With these issues in mind, let's take a look at the pros and cons of these three men, and what their shortcomings mean for the game.


For Malkin, it's likely he'll never rise above second-banana or second-fiddle or second-whatever to the other two stars. He was second in the '04 draft to his countryman Ovechkin, and he's always going to be considered the Scottie to Crosby's Michael. But the numbers, and the consistency of his play, do not lie.

PROS: With all the adulation his more famous teammate receives, Malkin has been better than Crosby each of the last two regular seasons. Crosby spent much of '07-'08 injured, but Malkin was clearly the superior of the two in '08-'09. He won the Art Ross Trophy this past year by scoring a league-leading 113 points, 10 better than Crosby and three better than Ovechkin.

Malkin followed up with a dominating run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring 36 points and earning Conn Smyth honors. It's possible Malkin would have won the Conn Smyth even if with a Game 7 loss. His scoring touch during the playoffs is exemplified by this ridiculous goal completing a hat trick against Cam Ward and the hapless Hurricanes in ECF Game 2. It's no surprise Malkin won the accuracy contest at last year's Skills Competition.

The Russian is a gifted passer who's made his hay while playing with second-line wingers. His 78 helpers last year were a career-high, and at 22 he'll only improve in that category. Malkin's defense has also improved during his time in the league, and while he won't win a Selke anytime soon, he's no liability on the other end of the ice.

Playing with Malkin is definitely a good thing for Crosby. Being paired with another star alleviates the pressure that come along with being one. To a certain extent, Crosby being there has the same effect for Malkin.

CONS: Going back to my earlier point, Malkin's sidekick status is unfortunate because a very legitimate case can be made that Malkin is the best player in the game and was the best player last season over Crosby and Ovechkin. You can't say Scottie was ever a better player than Michael during their primes.

But there's another significant reason why Malkin won't be bigger than his teammate or his countryman: the dude can barely speak English.

When he first came to Pittsburgh three years ago, he spoke Russian and nothing else. But with the help of Sergei Gonchar and plenty of time in North American locker rooms, Malkin can at least carry a conversation and do a short, cliché-ridden interview from time to time. This kills any marketing or entertainment potential from Malkin's phenomenal production, aside from the occasional brush with unintentional comedy.

What stands out about a player is how they perform under pressure, and those situations have not exactly brought out the best in Malkin. He infamously disappeared during the '08 SCF, appearing jittery and scoring only three points in the series. His '09 Conn Smyth run notwithstanding, Malkin managed eight points in the '09 SCF but his reputation took a hit by taking stupid penalties in seemingly every game and instigating the bizarre fight with Henrik Zetterberg that ended Game 2.

I lost a lot of respect for Malkin during the Final. I can't be the only one.


I would pay more to see Ovechkin than any other non-Bruins player in the NHL. That should stand for something. Entertainment value is awfully important in a league that will take anything for positive headlines. But Ovechkin's the most flawed player of these three, and his style makes the purists cringe.

PROS: Hockey puts a special premium on goals and those who can pot them, and Ovechkin is the NHL's best goal-scorer by far. The winner of the last two Hart Trophies scored 65 goals in '07-'08 and 56 this past season for a rapidly-improving Capitals squad. He's never scored fewer than 46 goals in any of his four NHL seasons. Of course, it's not just that he scores goals. He scores them like this. And like this.

Oh yeah, and like this. Almost forgot about that one.

The words "exciting" and "electrifying" don't really do Ovechkin's game justice. He has the ability to change a game all by himself in a way no other player in the league possesses, including Malkin or Crosby. As evidenced in the goal against the Habs, his ice vision is terrific and his skating and cutting prowess are second to none in the NHL. Simply put, nobody in hockey is more fun to watch than Ovechkin.

"Fun" is also the best way to describe Ovechkin's playful personality. He doesn't take himself too seriously, as this commercial attests. Unlike Malkin, this Russian speaks English with confidence and Bond-villain clarity, lending himself a chance to grow as a mainstream sports star. His flair on the ice makes him unique in hockey, and attracts people from the outside to see what the fuss is about.

And when they see what Ovechkin can do with his stick and his skates, it tends to make a lasting impression.

CONS: However entertaining Ovechkin's on-ice antics might be, it can rub hockey observers the wrong way. Hockey prides itself on tradition and class, and charades like his "hot stick" celebration following his 50th goal last season are not always well-received.

You may have heard of this guy Don Cherry. He's the patriarch of the hockey curmudgeons, and sure, this particular rant was xenophobic and borderline racist. But people often take stock in what he says. When he blasted Ovechkin last spring for his actions, fans and media took notice. It started a stretch of anti-Ovechkin sentiments across the hockey world, where many of his shortcomings as a player were exposed.

At different points last year I heard Ovechkin's effort on the backcheck and defense called "lazy," "listless," even "non-existent." As the season wore on, some clamored for Malkin to be awarded the Hart over Ovechkin because of Malkin's more complete play. After watching Ovechkin a few times myself, it was hard to disagree.

He appears bored sometimes on the ice, and takes shifts off on both ends. When he does try, it usually comes in the form of taking runs at opposing players and leaving his feet to smash them against the boards. There's no doubt he's the most physical and bruising of these three stars. But he doesn't always do it in a clean way. There's a perception around the league that Ovechkin will pay for the dangerous way he plays, and it could come sooner than later after his hit on Gonchar in the playoffs.

When you couple these tendencies with the fact that Ovechkin has not established himself as a leader and shoots the puck like Kobe Bryant shoots the ball (hint: too much), it's clear he's got plenty of work to do, and minds to change, before he can be considered the league's seminal star. With stigmas like "he's not a leader," "he doesn't care on defense," and "he plays dirty," it's hard to accept Ovechkin as anything more than an elite scorer that goofs around. With his talent, that's not a good thing for the NHL.


The Kid. The Next One. The Golden Child. Overrated. The Best Player in the NHL. The Biggest Whiner in the NHL. A Little Bitch. The man pictured above has undoubtedly been called all of these things at one time or another (or just by me personally). Crosby has once-in-a-generation talents, a Stanley Cup ring, the league's commissioner in his hip pocket, and a level of recognition few players in his sport have ever achieved–all before reaching the age of 22. Yet some cannot stand the sight of his face. The league can survive the mixed perceptions of Malkin and Ovechkin, but not Crosby.

PROS: After scoring a mind-boggling 217 points in Midgets at 14, Crosby's stage was set. Soon Gretzky was saying Crosby was the one player who could break his records, and the Penguins struck gold after winning the post-lockout draft lottery. The Steel City had a new icon to follow in Lemieux's footsteps, and thus far he's not disappointed, winning a Hart Trophy in '07 and a Stanley Cup in '09.

Crosby possesses every on-ice skill needed in a great hockey player. He has an uncanny nose for the goal, and can make the highlight reel with the best of them. He has peerless ice vision, and makes his teammates better with a fantastic passing touch (he has a 2:1 assist to goal ratio for his career). His effort on the ice can never be questioned. He plays strong defense, and shows grit when necessary. Pound for pound, he's the best player in hockey with few contemporaries in today's game.

It's an understatement to say Crosby was a godsend for the NHL following the lockout from a PR perspective. Here's a young, handsome, sure-thing Canadian center with comparisons to Gretzky playing in a city with a penchant for creating recent hockey demi-gods. Should we be surprised that Gary Bettman fell in love with the guy? From Day 1, Crosby has been the focus of the NHL's public reclamation project. In many ways it's been great thing, as Crosby is a household name and even non-fans know who him. In many ways it's been a bad thing, and I'll get to that soon.

Now that he's got a ring at such a young age, Crosby has not just the hockey world but the sports world at his feet. He holds a tremendous amount of power both on and off the ice, and he still has lots of time to further his legacy. The league has drawn its lot with Crosby, and he should be the face of the NHL for years to come.

CONS: To so many fans, it doesn't matter that Crosby is an uber-talent. They loath him. They derisively call him "Cindy Crosby," wear t-shirts that express their ultimate feelings and create hilarious photo illustrations in his honor. Crosby's haters don't root for only Philadelphia or Washington. They extend to the furthest reaches the league's fanbase. I don't believe the biggest star in any other professional sport is as disliked as Crosby. For the NHL, this is a nightmare in the making.

Part of the backlash against Crosby is the backlash against him being shoved in the faces of average fans. Some feel he was given too much an unworthy age. To be fair, this isn't really Crosby's fault. He didn't ask for this level of attention, it was pretty much thrust upon him because of his talent. In the end, however, that doesn't matter. It's Crosby himself that's everywhere, and he's the target.

I personally don't think Crosby is soft. But on the ice, he's mastered the art of complaining, and his peers agree. In a survey last season, Crosby was voted by his fellow players as the whiniest player in the league. Is it because he feels entitled to every call? Is it because he believes that's you show leadership? Or is it a case of immaturity that will dissipate with age, as his defenders claim? I'm not sure. But it's no good for both Crosby, and the league, if the biggest star is perceived to be the biggest whiner. Perception is reality, and that reality has trickled down to the fans.

There are so many more issues surrounding Crosby and his image (like how Malkin supporters belittle Crosby by asking, "How can the best player in the league not even be the best player on his own team?") that talking about them all would take up too much space. But his leadership skills, or lack thereof, are an omnipotent piece of discussion.

One questions the wisdom of a hockey team that names a then-19-year-old captain. He wasn't ready then, and based on his conduct and performance in big spots over the last few years, he's still not ready. The trials and tribulations of the '08-'09 season provided the truest test of Crosby's leadership. This might sound shocking, given that Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup and all, but Crosby failed that test more than once.

Everyone forgets this now, but the Penguins were mediocre through much of the regular season despite elite performances by Crosby and Malkin. It wasn't like the Penguins didn't have talent outside those two guys. They were lousy and were in significant danger of not even making the playoffs near mid-season. I remember watching the Bruins beat them up during this time and wondering what the hell was wrong. Then three things happened: Dan Bylsma was named head coach, Ryan Whitney was dealt for Chris Kunitz, and Billy Guerin came over at the deadline.

From there, the Penguins took off. This was not because of anything Crosby did. He played the same before and after these moves. The Penguins were better because of the new guys, not because of Crosby.

In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while Malkin was setting the world on fire, Crosby was inconsistent. He was phenomenal against both Washington and Carolina, scoring 20 points in those 11 games. But in the Final against Detroit, he was a complete non-factor. Outside of a goal and an assist in Game 4, Crosby scored one other time in seven games. Henrik Zetterberg shut him down to the point that I began worrying for his personal safety.

Allow me to repeat myself, in caps this time: Crosby was a COMPLETE NON-FACTOR in the Final. Was Gretzky ever a non-factor when he was winning all those Cups? Or Lemieux, or Orr, or Howe, or Richard in all their Cup runs?

Fair or not, the image so many will take away from the Final is Crosby accepting the Cup and lifting it over his head, as if he actually had something to do with winning the series. The real leader of the Penguins through their Cup run was Guerin, a veteran with league-wide respect and one Cup already under his belt. The "C" on Crosby's chest was a formality. Then came the highly-publicized handshake line incident where Crosby failed to greet opposing captain Nick Lidstrom. I don't think Crosby went out of his way to not shake Lidstrom's hand, but this wasn't a good thing for Crosby's already-tenuous reputation as a leader.

There's still plenty of time for Crosby to outgrow the perception (or reality) that he's a crybaby non-leader. But he's been in the league four years now. If he doesn't start getting it soon, he'll lose an even greater portion of the hockey-caring populous. At that point, this little image problem will become one of the biggest issues facing the NHL.

* * * *

Who could the NHL turn to as its saving grace, with these three megastars carrying more baggage than European tourists? The most complete player in the NHL, including leadership, intangibles and the like, is Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk. But like Malkin, his grasp of English is incomplete despite moments of incredible hilarity, and with Detroit it's never about one guy. He'll never put up numbers like Crosby or Ovechkin because there's too many other guys that share the wealth.

Two young stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, play for a great market in Chicago. Kane, the All-American boy, is the prime target for superstardom. But neither are prolific scorers, and won't be with Marian Hossa signed up for the next 12 years.

In my mind, the perfect candidate to breakout as a transcendent star is Columbus' Rick Nash. He's 25, a solid all-around player, a good leader and by all accounts a terrific guy. The Blue Jackets are improving, and he's signed for a long time, but the team will need to get much better for him to enter the discussion with these other three stars.

So, is it true that the embarrasment of riches for the NHL is nothing more than an embarrasment? Not right now. But unless Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin round out their games and public personas, they'll never acquire a stature commensurate with their talents. Thankfully for the NHL, time is a friend for everyone involved.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Recchi returns, Huds flees, and Sakic says goodbye

I haven't checked in during the past week, but I have some thoughts on a few matters that have surfaced recently. Here we go...

* On July 2, the Bruins re-signed 41-year-old scoring winger Mark Recchi to a one year, $1MM contract. Upon signing, he indicated that '09-'10 will be his final year in the league. According to the Globe: "I'm playing for one more ring. That's the most important thing to me," said Recchi. "The reason I like Boston is that 99 percent of the guys on that team, I felt, really want to win the Cup. It's the most important thing to everybody in that dressing room." That's got to be music to the ears of all Bruins fans.

I always respected Recchi, despite his status as a member of the late-'90s, early-'00s Flyers that completely owned the Bruins. Needing some toughness and leadership at the deadline, Peter Chiarelli shipped out a couple young guys to bring in Recchi. The results were terrific, with Recchi scoring 10 goals with 16 points in 18 games with the Black and Gold. He really clicked with Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew, and their persistent play lead to goals like this OT game-winner against the dirty Habs near season's end. Recchi then proceeded to play the entire Carolina series despite constant pain as a result of (gulp) kidney stones that required (shudder) surgery after Game Six (nearly faint).

From a chemistry and desire standpoint, bringing back Recchi was a terrific move. Unfortunately, the move didn't address the B's needs on defense or ease their cap crunch in any way. As it stands right now, the B's have slightly less than $3MM to spend on their two remaining restricted free agents, PhilKessel and Matt Hunwick. That's not even close to enough to sign both. Hunwick was one of 20 RFAs to file for arbitration, and I'm pretty confident he'll wind up signing for around $1MM per season on a two or three year deal. It's easy to forget that Hunwick, who was a healthy scratch most of the time after Steve Montador arrived, had six goals and 21 assists and was +15 in 53 games last year. I expect a big year, and plenty of time on the power play, for Hunwick in '09-'10.

As we've discussed here, it's going to take some interesting maneuvering for the Bruins to keep Kessel. If I had to guess, the B's would really like to trade Marco Sturm, but his $3.5MM cap hit for next year, no-trade clause and injury history make that pretty unlikely. More realistic would be Kobasew at $2.33MM moving. I wouldn't like to see that given how important Kobasew is to the identity of this Bruins team, and if the Penguins taught us anything it's that unheralded grinders often make a bigger difference come spring than the scorers (Kobasew came within one win of skating with the Cup in '04 with Calgary).

It's not going to be an easy summer for teams looking to dump salary because the cap is likely to drop significantly following this season. But something has to give here. There's still plenty of time to figure all this out.

* In my RFA preview, I said that if the Detroit Red Wings lost Marian Hossa to free agency, GM Ken Holland would do whatever it took to keep 25-year-old winger Jiri Hudler from leaving Hockeytown. I didn't count on a KHL team swooping in and signing him for two years and $5MM per, tax free. My first reaction: can I get in on this KHL thing, somehow? My next reaction: I can't really blame the guy.

The Wings never seemed to make bringing Hudler back a huge priority. When he was an RFA last year, Valteri "Val Filly" Filppula was given a five-year deal with an annual cap hit of $3MM. Hudler and Val Filly are the same age, but the Wings are running up against the cap, and the best they could do was between $2.5-$3MM for Hudler this year. So when the Czech was offered a boatload of rubles, how could he say no? He'll be a star on his team and be closer to his homeland. There would have been no guarantee with the Wings that he'd even be a top-six forward.

So any team that loses the likes of Hudler, Hossa, Ty Conklin, Tomas Kopecky and Mikael Samuelsson (gone to Vancouver where he'll join his fellow Swedes, the Sedins, on the Canucks' top line) all in the course of the week should panic, right? Amazingly, no, if you're the Red Wings. Any team with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Chris Osgood between the pipes is going to be no worse that top-three in the Western Conference next year.

I'm seriously worried about the KHL poaching European guys from the NHL over the course of the next few years. Why even bother coming over here if you can make that much close to home? But at least Don Cherry will be happy.

* Joe Sakic, a 20-year NHL susperstar who helped define the hockey of my youth, officially retired on Thursday. I was somewhat surprised by the announcement considering that his final season was the worst in Colorado Avalanche history and he was limited to only 15 games last year because of surgeries on his back and later his fingers because of a freak snow blower accident. But it's easy to understand why Sakic felt this was the time to step away. The Avs are in full-on rebuilding mode, as evidenced by the dumping of Ryan Smyth to the Kings. Sakic probably didn't want to be part of that.

There are few athletes left with Sakic's sense of loyalty, having played for the Quebec/Colorado franchise his entire career (although he did sign an offer sheet with the Rangers in 1997). He was a classy leader with a wrist shot from God. I was always indifferent about those amazing late-'90s Avs teams because they had so many disliked players (namely Claude Lemieux and Patrick Roy) but it was impossible to deny the talent of their two best and most dangerous players, Sakic and Peter Forsberg. You just always knew that Sakic was a great guy, a tremendous leader that never allowed egos to get in the way of winning.

His class was exemplified by the moment when, after winning the Cup in 2001, he immediately handed the holy challis to my one of my boyhood heroes, Raymond Bourque. Sakic didn't want any of the spotlight for himself, even though he certainly deserved it following his Hart Trophy campaign. More than any singular on ice moment, that's how I'll remember Joe Sakic.

It makes me feel older, watching guys who were in their prime when I was a kid retire. But that's part of life. I'm not sure we'll see the likes of Sakic ever again.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Recapping the Madness: Free Agency Day 1

As always, Day 1 of the NHL free agent season was a dandy. Lots of signings, a few trades, plenty of surprises, great moves and head-scratchers alike. Just about every big-name UFA came to new contracts on Wednesday with only a couple still to be confirmed. Let's take a look at some of them:

* The biggest, most shocking move for the day came when Marian Hossa agreed to a whopping 12-year, $62.5MM deal with Chicago. There were plenty of teams in on Hossa, but the opportunity to sign with the young Blackhawks was something the dynamic Slovak did not feel he could pass up. His time with Detroit came to an end Tuesday when he rejected a 10-year pact with the Red Wings with an annual cap hit of around $4MM.

It's a little puzzling that Hossa wound up taking a little over $1 million more per year, however this deal with Chicago is heavily front-loaded in terms of actual money and we don't know how the Red Wings' offer was structured. But like I wrote before, it's hard to blame Hossa for taking more money since he left a fortune on the table last summer. And it's not like the Red Wings are crippled because of this. They still have some guys named Datsyuk and Zetterberg and Franzen, plus they can keep Jiri Hudler and allow their young talent to shine as a result.

As for the Hawks, this deal makes sense for '09-'10 but beyond that it's pretty iffy. Wunderkinds Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and D-man Duncan Keith will be due for big raises, and they still have needs to address for this coming season. They are headed straight for salary cap hell this time next year. The Hossa deal also leaves Chicago with a goaltending tandem of Cristobal Huet and Corey Crawford because Nikolai Khabibulin fled for Edmonton on a four-year, $15 million deal on Wednesday. Not exactly stellar. They are putting their eggs in next year's basket, and time will tell if it pays off.

I was temporarily juiced by a Boston Globe report that Hossa's agent had been in contact with the Bruins this afternoon. Boston was in the mix for Hossa last summer before going to Detroit. It would have been a tight fit under the cap, and Phil Kessel's days in Boston would have been done, but man, would I have loved to see it. Of course, I also don't want my team to be cursed, so maybe it's not so bad that he's going to be in Chicago for the rest of his career.

Hossa wasn't the only ex-Wing the Blackhawks felt the need to pluck off the market. In one of the day's more comical moves, Chicago also signed Hossa's countryman Tomas Kopecky, a fourth-line winger Detroit had no interest in keeping. It reminded me of the Yankees' paranoia of scooping up as many ex-Red Sox as seemingly possible each winter, like when they signed Mike Myers, Mark Bellhorn and Alan Embree after already getting Johnny Damon. I wonder when the offer for Mikael Samuelsson is coming.

* The Sedin twins came to their senses and accepted identical five-year, $30.5MM contracts to stay in Vancouver. GM Mike Gillis made the ultimate gesture, flying out to Sweden to persuade the Sedins to accept the long-standing offer. The Canucks' desire to keep their commitment to the Sedins much shorter than the 12 years they were seeking speaks volumes about how some in the NHL view these long-term contracts. In this case it may have been due to the Sedins' limited bargaining power because of their nature as a packaged deal. But while a longer deal would have meant a smaller annual cap hit than $12.2MM, such a long contract is a huge risk for two guys whose successes are so closely tied to each other.

Let's say theoretically that Daniel Sedin blows out his knee during the '11-'12 campaign, has to miss significant time and is never the same player. Now, if he were signed to a 12-year deal, that'd be bad enough. But you have a player in Henrik Sedin who relies on his brother for production and will be just as emasculated offensively. Instead of one lousy deal long-term deal, you have two. It was too much of a risk, and I'm glad the Canucks didn't cave.

* Marian Gaborik, the oft-injured, soft-groined, brittle-hipped, scores-at-will-when-he's-actually-on-the-ice winger who'd played his entire career with Minnesota, took big bucks from the New York Rangers on a massive five-year, $37.5MM contract that will pay him $7.5MM a season. Initial reaction: Really?

GM Glen Sather did a wonderful job getting Scott Gomez and his awful contract out of town on Tuesday, and then he signs one of the most maddening players in the league to a contract with a nearly identical cap hit. I just don't understand how a guy who played in all of 17 games last year gets this kind of contract. That might sound like I'm contradicting myself from what I said about him in my UFA previews, but I didn't expect Gaborik to actually get a raise. But then I remember: How could we put this past the Rangers? Over the last decade they've made signing aging or injury-prone players an art form. Because of my feelings about the franchise, I hope this one blows up in their face just like Eric Lindros.

* So who do the Wild replace Gaborik with? Why, Martin Havlat, of course! There must be something about Minnesota that attracts fragile dynamic scorers. Even the new GM and head coach are getting into the act.

It seemed all along like Havlat would stay in Chicago, and I constantly heard about him being limited to a one or two-year deal with the Blackhawks. Wonder if we'll find out soon why the Hawks changed gears and elected to give Hossa a massive contract while leaving Havlat in the dust. Either way, late Wednesday Havlat came to a six-year, $30MM agreement with the Wild. At the same time, reports are surfacing that Minnesota is attempting to bring Saku Koivu into the fold to play with his brother, Mikko.

I've got plenty on Saku's former team, the Canadiens, coming up soon. It's going to be fucking beautiful.

* My favorite signing of the day came when the Washington Capitals signed one of my all-time favorite players, Mike Knuble, to a two-year contract paying him $2.8MM per season. Knuble, who played on many excellent Bruins' teams while I was growing up, is one of the few "sure-things" in the NHL. You're going to get 25+ goals, a gritty winger who isn't afraid to mix it up in the corners, and a guy everyone in the dressing room will love and know they can rely on. Getting to play with the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin will do wonders and probably up his assist total as well. Not only that, but they poached him away from the Flyers, and their answer was signing bruiser Ian Laperriere for three years. Not so good.

* Some quick hits before I get to the Bruins' quiet day and my Habs finale...After selecting future All-Star Viktor Hedman second overall in last weekend's draft, the Lightning shored up their defense significantly by signing fellow Swede Mattais Ohlund and veteran Blackhawk Matt Walker. Maybe they won't suck back there so much as a result...I was sad to see Mike Komisarik and his overall douche-ness leave the Canadiens, but at least he stayed in the division by joining Brian Burke's Leafs. Yeah, he'll still get the shit kicked out of him by Milan Lucic just as much, but it just won't be the same...Some of the goalie moves, besides 'Bulin to Edmonton as I mentioned, includes: Craig Anderson took a deal to split time with Peter Budaj in Colorado, with Scott Clemmensen replacing him in Florida; my UNH man Ty Conklin got a nice $2.6MM payday to provide insurance behind Chris Mason in St. Louis; Dwayne Roloson wanted two years, but the Oilers said no, and he went to the Islanders on a two-year deal. Man, that Rick DiPietro contract just looks better and better everyday...Donald Brashear signed with the Rangers, giving an already hateable team so much more hateability.

As for the B's, their limited cap space led to a day of limited action. Two checking line moves were made, as RFA Byron Bitz was signed to a multi-year extension and UFA center Peter Begin was signed for $850K to supplant Stephane Yelle. Begin, a former Hab who broke a bone in Marc Savard's back after a vicious '08 crosscheck, is an agitator and I feel the B's need more of that.

It sounds like the Kessel-for-Kaberle stuff is dead after the Leafs traded Pavel Kubina and signed Komi-suckass. But if the right deal comes along and a team is willing to trade a puck-moving defensemen, I'm sure the B's will listen. Otherwise, they need to look into signing Matt Hunwick and figuring out how to get rid of Marco Sturm without actually dumping his corpse into the Charles River.

I've saved the best for last. Here is my take on the day in the life of the Montreal Canadiens and their star-crossed general manager Bob Gainey:

What a big, gigantic mountain of FAIL. Note to everyone: if you have $35MM in cap space, never, ever, EVER let someone named "Bob Gainey" control it.

As I mentioned Tuesday night, the Canadiens took on the Rangers' salary dump of Gomez and gave up promising defensemen Ryan McDonagh in the process. Definitely a bone-headed move, since this isn't 2002 and Gomez pretty much sucks now. OK, they still had more than $25MM to spend going into actual free agency. They were in on the Sedins, Gaborik, Hossa, Havalt, not to mention their own guys like Komi-ballsack, Koivu, Alex Tanguay and Alex Kovalev amongst others. They got a mulligan on Gomez. As long as they started putting the right guys around him, they'd be fine...right?

Wrong. No. Bad. FAIL.

The Sedins stayed in Vancouver. I think the Bruins were talking to Hossa just to get in Gainey's head, and maybe it worked. It didn't matter anyway, because Hossa signed with Chicago. Ohlund went to Tampa, and talks with Komi-shithead broke down. Then Gainey unleashed his first salvo of the day by signing washed-up D-man Jaroslav Spacek (who is 35 and was never that great to begin with) to a three-year deal worth $11.5MM. Awesome.

But that wasn't it. A couple hours later, I was given an early Christmas present. Gainey pleased me to no end by signing Hal Gill away from the Penguins for two years and $4.5MM.

Hal Gill. On the Canadiens. The same Hal Gill who never did anything for the Bruins and whose immobility earned him the nickname "The Tree" during my SCF live-Twitter outings.

Hal. Gill. On. The. Habs.

How can I ever say the words "Canadiens defensemen Hal Gill" without breaking into uncontrollable laughter? Can it be possible that I get to make jokes at the Tree's expense even more this year? Is it true that I'm going to get the chance to see Gill fall over and crack the Bell Centre ice when Zdeno Chara takes a figurative chainsaw to his trunk?

Thank you, Bob Gainey. Your incompetence is finding new ways to make me giddy.

In fairness, Gainey did make one solid move today, but even that's up for some question. He inked Michael Cammalleri to a five-year, $30MM deal and he's now the only obvious scorer on the Canadiens' roster. It remains to be seen if Cammalleri can produce at his '08-'09 level without Jarome Iginla at his side. If he has to play with Gomez, I'm not liking his chances, and $6MM a year might not look so good. Still, he's a young scorer with some upside.

But Gainey had to even that out by doing something dumb. It's not that Brian Gionta, a career Devil, is a bad player. He's just not great, and not worth a five-year, $25MM contract. In '05-'06, Gionta scored 48 goals with 89 points in a year that has since proved to be a total fluke. He's 5', 7" and isn't likely to get better or taller anytime soon. Is reuniting him Gomez going to make him better?

No. Wrong. Bad. FAIL.

Now Gainey has around $10MM to spend, with his captain (Koivu) probably headed to Minnesota and his best player from last year (Kovalev) likely off to Los Angeles. He has four RFA forwards to deal with and probably needs another D-man for depth. I can't see how anyone can look at what he did on Wednesday and say he did well, considering the cavalcade of dough he was sitting on.

I can only draw one conclusion: Bob Gainey wants to get fired. How he didn't get fired after the debacle of the centennial season is anyone's guess. Whomever takes over as his successor is probably going to hate their life because of the moves Gainey has made this week.

The Canadiens are going to suck again, and for a long time. Thank you, Bob Gainey, for making my experience as a Bruins fan so much sweeter because of your incredible degree of suckitude.

See you tomorrow.