30 Thoughts: NHL defenceman cash in on free-agent frenzy | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in Canada30 Thoughts: NHL defenceman cash in on free-agent frenzy

Posted: Monday, July 21, 2014 | 12:38 PM

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Former Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik signed a five-year, $27.5-million US deal with the Washington Capitals this off-season. (Gen J. Puskar/Associated Press) Former Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik signed a five-year, $27.5-million US deal with the Washington Capitals this off-season. (Gen J. Puskar/Associated Press)

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In Elliotte Friedman's final 30 Thoughts of the season, he discusses how the NHL free agency period has been kind to defencemen and gives some bonus thoughts.
*Since this is the last 30 Thoughts of the season, I tacked on some bonus ones. Enjoy.

With a couple of weeks to look back at this year's half-a-billion-dollar free-agent bonanza, here's one of the trends that stood out: depth forwards didn't do as well. And, the beneficiaries were defencemen.

Twelve months ago, Eric Nystrom and Brandon Prust got four years and $10 million US. Boyd Gordon: three years and $9 million. Matt Cooke: three and $7.5 million. Matt Hendricks' average became $1.85 million over four seasons.

The big winner from this time around was Leo Komarov, recruited hard with $11.85 million over four years by his former bosses in Toronto. Brian Boyle turned down more money to take $2 million per in Tampa, but that was about it.

Daniel Winnik just finished making $1.8 million. He had 30 points in 2013-14, more than any of the players listed above. He's still unemployed. 

Meanwhile, the market was down on defenders in 2013. Andrew Ference (four years, $13-million) and Rob Scuderi (same term, but with an extra $500,000) scored big, but that was about it. This was different. Mark Fayne, Matt Niskanen and Anton Stralman more than doubled their salaries. Tom Gilbert and Clayton Stoner, triple. Deryk Engelland: five times. 

That doesn't include Dan Boyle, Willie Mitchell, Brooks Orpik, Kyle Quincey and Stephane Robidas, who signed for a combined $62 million. 

Look who's available next summer, for now: A 28-year-old Marc Staal. A 29-year-old Andrej Sekera, who just had a 44-point season. Cody Franson and Alec Martinez at 27. Imagine if Mike Green, who will be 29, has any kind of success. Could Jeff Petry be 2015's Niskanen?

What about Johnny Boychuk or Marc Methot?

Lost in the middle of the July 1 craziness was Colorado locking up Nick Holden one year before he could hit the market. He will earn $600,000 in 2014-15 before a three-season deal worth just under $5 million kicks in. How much will the Avalanche save by wrapping up that business now?

Get your blue-line deals done early, because they'll be seeing much green.

30 THOUGHTS

1. Here's another trend for you: Right now, there are eight teams in the NHL without a centre carrying a $5 million average salary. Only one made last season's playoffs -- the New York Rangers. The others are Arizona, Buffalo, Calgary, Nashville, Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg. I'm not sure this is a coincidence. Look at the arms race for centres since the Stanley Cup was awarded. 

2. The cash value for middlemen is trending upward, too. Fourteen teams have a centre above $6 million. Only one (Montreal) has their top earner right at $5 million. Derick Brassard's negotiations/arbitration could change the Rangers' situation, but if he doesn't crack five, you have to assume Derek Stepan will. 

3. With all this in mind, there's no doubt opponents are eying Arizona's Antoine Vermette, with one year left on his contract. At the GM meetings, I asked Don Maloney if he would try to extend him. Maloney wants to, but knows there will be Garden of Eden-level temptation for Vermette.

4. When the Blue Jackets extended Brandon Dubinsky, teammate Ryan Johansen hilariously tweeted, "Congrats to our second-line centre." After all, if the second-liner gets $5.85 million, shouldn't Johansen get even more? The Columbus Dispatch's Aaron Portzline reported Sunday that agent Kurt Overhardt recently submitted a shorter-term bridge offer for Johansen. Last year, the Jackets gave Sergei Bobrovsky $12 million over two years. (They are also working on a new contract for him.) You have to figure that's the endgame for Johansen, too, a bit more money in exchange for fewer years. 

5. Paul Stastny is gone and you've got to think Ryan O'Reilly will follow. When Colorado was winning Stanley Cups, they had one of the NHL's highest payrolls and those players deserved it. We're not talking about Roy, Sakic, Blake and Forsberg here, but you see the potential, and, more importantly for the Avalanche, the local interest generated after years of apathy. The most logical rationale is Colorado wants to make sure its salary structure eventually fits underneath Nathan MacKinnon. But will the earth be scorched in attempts to get there? 

6. The good news is the $1.225 million difference in arbitration filings is actually less than the rumoured gap in O'Reilly's contract talks. The tone from both the Avalanche and agent Pat Morris will be critical. It will not be hard to ignite a powderkeg. Suggestion: Colorado shouldn't use the "elephant and the mouse" story Brian Burke tried with Brendan Morrison years ago. That didn't work.

7. So, is Alex Ovechkin a right-winger or a left-winger? "He's a right-winger in the defensive zone who can cross-over to the left side offensively," said Capitals GM Brian MacLellan. "I'll start him on the right, but we know he can play left," said coach Barry Trotz. "For sake of simplicity, let's start that way."

8. In researching the Capitals, it's very clear what the organization believes: their roster is not as good as it should be, and Trotz is the man to unlock potential. According to a couple of players, sometime after the now-famous Dallas game where Ovechkin's back-checking became a focal point, there was a harsh team meeting where the captain took heat. 

9. I did not know about it when I spoke to MacLellan. Trotz refused to comment about the specific incident, but did say this: "I think a lot of things get deflected on Ovie. He hasn't done a whole lot to disarm it, but he really wants to win...In other areas he needs to be a better role model; needs direction on being that. My job is to do that. The first thing to do was dig around to find what problem was: accountability. To win, you have to give up something....ego, physically or mentally for betterment of the team. Players may whine about structure and accountability, but at the end of day they want that...There's a big difference between a good team and a team with talent." I don't think he was talking only about Ovechkin.

10. Trotz said he wants to move up Tom Wilson, and the third linemate with Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom probably depends on who becomes the second-line centre. MacLellan said newly signed Justin Peters was told Braden Holtby begins the season as number one in goal. But the interesting thing was the defence pairs.

11. Both coach and GM say Orpik may be used as a sort of reverse-Sedin, doing the heavy-lifting defensively. His partner could rotate -- sometimes a Mike Green, sometimes a John Carlson -- but generally freeing up others to worry about offence or transition. MacLellan said Washington lost out on Willie Mitchell a few years ago because they were scared of term, so they took the chance with Orpik. 

12. MacLellan seemed lukewarm to the idea of trading Green. They want to see if Trotz's system helps him. He also said something interesting about Green's presence helping Niskanen handle the newfound pressure of the big contract. Niskanen will be expected to score, but, in a perfect world for Washington, Green handles a big chunk of that, too. 

13. The Trotz quote about accountability is why I find it hard to believe players are avoiding Detroit because of Mike Babcock. If you took a secret ballot, more than half the league would probably say they don't like their coach. Babcock may grind his players, but both the Red Wings and those on Team Canada say this about him: you are never unprepared, nothing is overlooked, and he will do whatever it takes. Players want to win, and he puts you in position to do it. For years, Detroit was the place everyone wanted to be. It goes in cycles. 

14. Christian Ehrhoff surprised by taking one year in Pittsburgh, but no one would be stunned if he's extended not long after Jan. 1. That's when he's eligible to do it.

15. The Islanders were prepared to give Jarome Iginla four years. 

16. Isles coach Jack Capuano is spending his summer working on structural adjustments to the team's penalty kill, which was 29th. "We're going to change the way we forecheck on it, and, when the puck is in our zone, we're going to pressure differently."

17. With a glut of centres, Capuano said that Brock Nelson is going to get a shot at the wing with John Tavares (who is skating again) and Kyle Okposo. Nelson played with them on the power play and spent time on the wing at the world championships. Frans Nielsen is not switching positions. "Frans is one of the smartest players in hockey. And he thinks the game as a centre."

18. As for Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, Capuano did not promise that they would be united, "But, we do know what the advanced stats say about them together." (Hint: they are good.) He added that Calvin de Haan is a going to get a long look as Travis Hamonic's full-time partner. 

19. Here's the question Capuano can't answer, but is very hopeful about. New York's three goalies combined for an .898 save percentage last season, which just won't do. If Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson play to their career averages (.918 and .926, respectively), how many more points is that worth?

20. It's difficult to know for sure, but word last week was the sale from Charles Wang to Andrew Barroway hit a snag. What's uncertain is if it means there will be no sale, or if there will be no sale to this particular buyer. Whatever the case, things are a little cloudier than expected. 

21. Edmonton landed two of its top targets in free agency -- Mark Fayne and Benoit Pouliot. (Someone was willing to go a sixth year on Pouliot, so the Oilers went to five to get him.) They also took a run at Olli Jokinen, who took slightly less in salary elsewhere (but in a tax-free state). They're going to look for a centre, because they don't want to rush Leon Draisaitl for no reason. Same goes for Darnell Nurse. Sault Ste. Marie has a good rep, so I don't think it would bother Edmonton if he needs to go back there and try for the World Juniors. 

22. Could see two University of Wisconsin alumni -- Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz -- agreeing to short bridge deals. 

23. Down Highway 2, the Flames continue to let teams know they are willing to alleviate tough cap situations in exchange for something helpful. They spoke to both Carolina (Cam Ward) and Arizona (Mike Ribeiro) at the draft, but neither potential partner would give up a first-rounder. (Ward may also have considered Vancouver, but that didn't go anywhere.) 

24. Word is Calgary would also like to make another move on the blue-line. Dennis Wideman's name is out there, but the defender does have protection. I think the Flames looked at Cody Franson, but that's a complex transaction because the Leafs don't want to give him away and he's only got a year before free agency. 

25. One of the more interesting rumours out there was Montreal, looking for size up front, asking Toronto about Joffrey Lupul. The Canadiens are not among the teams Lupul has blocked, so it could have been done. Ultimately, it sounds like the Maple Leafs will keep him. Can you replace a 25-goal scorer for $5.25 million, his current cap hit? That's a good number. 

26. Another guy with the same cap hit? Evander Kane. A couple of weeks ago, other teams were pretty sure he was getting traded. Now they are changing opinions, thinking he starts the year in Winnipeg. The Vancouver radio interview makes it tougher for the Jets, because teams squeeze them even harder. Kane's best option might be to start the year on a tear and drive up his value.

27. I had a debate with another exec about Kane. He asked if I would trade him. I said it would take a lot, because the Jets need help now and the guy is really talented. He pointed to Vancouver and Ryan Kesler. His argument was: how much better are the Canucks, simply because the distraction is over? Difficult to quantify, but a fair point. 

28. One of Toronto's players said it was very clear after the season the organization wants to even-out everyone's ice time, both up front and on defence. The feeling was a number of critical players -- Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, James van Riemsdyk -- hit the wall. 

29. The Canadiens negotiated with Andrei Markov for five months before signing him, meaning one thing: they looked at every possible option not to do it, because they were so nervous about the third year. But, Marc Bergevin decided to go ahead, because they know Markov. If you're going to risk it, he's said before, go with the risk you know, not the one you don't. It hurt them with Brian Gionta, but Bergevin wasn't going to do it twice. 

30. Summer late-round fantasy sleeper: Tom Gilbert. Montreal feels it needs help for Markov and PK Subban on the power play. 

31. Canucks GM Jim Benning on how Daniel and Henrik Sedin will be used: "I want them to get back to worrying about offence...creating off the cycle. They are good offensive players." 

32. It was interesting to hear how many other Western Conference teams feel Vancouver will be improved. "Everything went wrong for them last year," said one GM. "I can't imagine those guys just fell off a cliff," said another. (As always, no one quoted in this blog is used as an anonymous source.) Benning proved one thing so far: if you really want to make trades in this league, you can. He's concerned with depth, because the Canucks' travel schedule means you need it.

33. Benning on rumours he's not a Chris Tanev fan: "I don't know where this comes from. I'm a big fan of his, he made big strides last year."

34. Finally, he had a good line about his father, Elmer, a long-time scout. "He told me, 'I'll give you a report card on how you're doing,'" Jim laughed. Other advice: "Make sure that when you're trying to build teams, do it with high-character players. That's where you're going to win. When you have adversity, they figure out a way to fight through it."

35. Benning wasn't going there, but it is believed both Vancouver and Edmonton tried to pry Patrik Berglund from St. Louis. With Vladimir Sobotka gone, it's harder to see the Blues parting with Berglund. "We see our centre ice being big and the toughest to play against with Berglund in it," Blues GM Doug Armstrong said. "He gives us a lot of options." (Armstrong would not comment on specific teams that asked).

36. How will Paul Stastny change the attack? "Paul can play east-west, use the trailers," Armstrong said. "Our team was north-south."

37. St. Louis wanted to change the defensive mix after seeing how Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya controlled play in Chicago's first-round victory. "Obviously, Duncan Keith was excellent, but those two were so good in transition, getting pucks to players at the appropriate time and getting down the ice to join the pack," the GM said. They got Carl Gunnarsson from Toronto. Armstrong would not comment on info from a source (not Benning) that the Blues went hard after Jason Garrison before he was traded to Tampa Bay. 

38. Garrison and Stamkos on the same power play is a nightmare for goalies and anyone with soft bone structure, but, as one coach pointed out, it will all come down to the quarterback. If that player has good vision, not only will there be two lethal one-timers, but covering them will create excellent two-on-one options for whoever gets stationed near the net. 

39. If Jason Spezza had waived to Nashville, the package to Ottawa was going to be similar (if not exact) to what the Predators gave up for James Neal.

40. The Stars' plan for Ales Hemsky is to start him with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. "They are shooters," GM Jim Nill said. "We need a passer with them." Asked who Spezza gets, Nill first mentioned Valeri Nichushkin. After living with a local family much of last year, he is now on his own. Nill expects a similarly big step on the ice in the player's second season, and lining up with Spezza could do that. 

41. Now that Ron Hextall is in charge, what ideas come from Los Angeles to Philadelphia with him? "I liked how the defence pairs were put together," he said, remembering the Doughty/Scuderi, Mitchell/Voynov, Greene/Martinez duos that won a Stanley Cup. One sleeker model, one conservative. "Off the glass and out is the last resort," Hextall said.

42. As a follow-up to that, when asked what he wants to see different about his team's play next season, Hextall replied, "How we enter the offensive zone." There are some Flyers bloggers who are really horny about that stuff, and I'm pretty sure he's aware of it.

43. Hextall also likes "pairs" up front, where two guys get used to playing with each other and a third can be rotated through. He believes Claude Giroux/Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier/Matt Read have that chemistry, while Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds are getting there.

44. Hextall on Vincent Lecavalier: "People forget he scored 20 goals last year."

45. If there's a Philly player you tend to hear about in rumours, it's Braydon Coburn. Asked about that, Hextall said: "He's a big man who can skate. Not surprised people ask about him." Other teams say that's not a move Philly wants to make and will exhaust other options before considering it. 

46. For a while now it's been assumed that if 2010 first-round pick Kevin Hayes decides not to sign in Chicago, his first choice would be Florida. That's where his brother Jimmy plays. There are rumblings, though, that the Panthers may choose not to go this route. That makes the favourites Boston (where he went to school) or Pittsburgh (Tom Fitzgerald is a cousin). If he does not sign with the Blackhawks by Aug. 15, he will be a free agent.

47. Not sure Dmitri Kulikov's signing ends the rumours. A three-year contract actually makes him more attractive to teams that like him. 

48. Obviously, there was zero surprise Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews signed new deals with Chicago. The biggest question was if they'd take an eight-year deal, or something shorter in an attempt to hit another home run at age 31 or so. 

49. GM Stan Bowman said last weekend they will take time to get below the cap if necessary. But, don't expect them to lose a key core player. Since the new deals for Kane/Toews don't take effect until 2015-16, they've got one more year at the current cap hits and will try to take advantage of that. While conducting business around July 1, they shied away from anyone whose contract lasted longer than one season -- including Ryan Kesler. They believe Adam Clendening is close, so if a defensive spot can be opened (Nick Leddy, maybe), that is an idea. 

50. One scout on the second-line centre of the future, Teuvo Teravainen: "He reminds me of Daniel Briere. Once he figures out how to use his body in the NHL, he'll be fine."

51. There's been less about Joe Thornton lately. There were reports the Sharks might strip him of his captaincy, but one teammate said he doesn't think that would force out the centre. First of all, Thornton got the "C" when it was taken from Patrick Marleau, so it's something he's seen before. Second, the player said Thornton wants to stay and be part of the solution, so he'd deal with it.

52. This is really about the dressing room. For years, Thornton's been the alpha male, the guy in charge. The Sharks want to turn it over to Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but it has not been an easy transition. The other problem is, what happens if Thornton's out of the picture, but no one else is ready? The Sharks would like to begin the transition. But no one's sure how it will go.

53. Both Lou Lamoriello and agent Jay Grossman say there was never any discussion about Ilya Kovalchuk returning to the Devils.

54. Have a great summer.

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