Every year, there's at least one NCAA free agent who has NHL GMs hurdling over each other in pursuit. This year, it's Stephane Da Costa.
Da Costa, a 21-year-old Merrimack College centre, had some serious offers from NHL teams last season, but decided to return for a second year of school after playing in the world championship for his native France. It certainly hasn't hurt him, as he's gotten stronger and continues to score at above a point-per-game pace despite being the defensive focal point of every opponent.
Most impressive? Da Costa's leadership and on-ice performance has Merrimack poised to end a run of 21-straight losing seasons. So who's interested?
"Everyone," says one scout.
"There are probably about 10 teams that don't heavily scout college hockey," said another. "But even those teams would have him on their radars."
Let the bidding begin
The belief is that Da Costa will leave college after this season, and can be counted on to play next year - at the latest. It all comes down to what's available on the team he signs with. For example, Philadelphia is believed to be an aggressive pursuer, but look at that lineup. Scouts believe Da Costa needs to play on your top lines with power play time to be successful, and there's not a lot of room there.
That is an advantage for teams who've shown no fear of plugging newly signed free-agents right into the roster like Ottawa, Toronto or Minnesota. But Da Costa's decision to return to the NCAA for this season convinced other GMs that he's not afraid to wait and do what's best for his development.
The list is long - others who've been seen a lot at Merrimack games include San Jose, Nashville, Vancouver, Washington, Anaheim and Pittsburgh. That's in no particular order and I'm sure I'm missing a few.
Gentlemen, start your engines. This race has a full grid.
1. Around five years ago, I attempted a conversation with Anton Volchenkov. He was shy and not very comfortable speaking English. But when I asked about his dad, who played for Red Army in the 1970s, he put on a huge smile and laughed about how they played the same. Alexei died last week at age 57, and it hit his son hard. Condolences, Anton.
2. The Penguins don't have much cap room, but Ray Shero likes to add at the deadline. It sounds like teams are trying to find out if Alex Goligoski could be available. Don't think the Penguins are looking to move him; he's really talented and signed for a cap-friendly $1.833 million US through next season. But, that's a crowded blue-line, especially with Kris Letang's growth. If they can't afford him long-term, would they consider it in a trade that could really make a difference?
3. Meanwhile, waiting to see who Kings GM Dean Lombardi targets next. He's eyed Brad Richards (not available), Jarome Iginla (extremely unlikely) and Patrik Elias (understandably won't go anywhere as his wife just had a child). Lombardi wants to make a McGwire-esque andro-fuelled swing for the fences.
4. Respectfully disagree with Pierre LeBrun's Hotstove comment that Jay Feaster shouldn't have said he had no plans to trade Iginla. The worst thing a GM can do is announce someone is available (see: Kaberle, Tomas). That goes quadruple with a franchise icon. Look at how Lou Lamoriello handled Jamie Langenbrunner. It didn't get out until the deal was just about done.
5. Interesting theory on San Jose's struggles: That Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle lack the motivation of last season, when they were competing for a spot on the Olympic Team. Don't know if it's entirely fair since they are a huge part of the NHL's fifth-ranked power play, but when a team is struggling that badly at even strength, the stars take the heat.
6. The knock on the Sharks over the years: depth. (Losing Manny Malhotra to Vancouver hurt them as much as it helped the Canucks.) They have top-level talent, but not enough on their lower lines/defence pairs. One guy who'd look great in a San Jose uniform? UFA-to-be Curtis Glencross, if the Flames decide to abandon ship.
7. Terrific news that Ryan O'Reilly's injury is nowhere near as severe as first feared. O'Reilly is one of the most respected young players in the game for his focus and preparation, considered "Crosby-esque."
8. Why did Henrik Zetterberg ask for an all-star "break?" Craig Simpson noticed some of the extra body shots he is receiving in faceoffs. Datsyuk out, Filppula not as fearsome, so Zetterberg is getting more of this treatment.
9. Brent Sutter chose to fly to Montreal right after Saturday's game in Toronto. NHL math: Extra night in Montreal=Zero chance versus Canadiens. "I'll make sure bad weather delays our flight," Sutter said with a laugh.
10. Feaster brought in Tim Taylor for an independent look at the Flames. That move caught the coaching staff by complete surprise, but I can't see how it's harmful to get another opinion - particularly Taylor's.
11. Any doubt that Bobby Orr knows defencemen? In 2002, he asked to represent Mark Giordano, only to be told the family had already committed to someone else. At the time, however, Giordano was deciding between Owen Sound of the OHL or Ferris State of the NCAA. Orr told Mark's father Paul it didn't matter, because if you can play they'll find you and "your boy can play."
12. There's basically been a parade down Stephen Avenue Walk since Darryl Sutter was fired, but it appears he was right about Henrik Karlsson. Sutter was willing to give Karlsson a one-way deal when others weren't and he's really improving. "Playing in Sweden is like playing in slo-mo compared to the NHL," said Maple Leaf Jonas Gustavsson, whom Karlsson replaced last year in Farjestad.
13. Asked Brent Sutter if he was worried that, at 34, Miikka Kiprusoff might be declining. Sutter said no way, and added that he gave Karlsson the start in Ottawa so the Finn could have an extra day of work with Jamie McLennan.
14. Also asked Kiprusoff if he'd waive his no-move upon request. "If I didn't want to be here, I wouldn't have signed here."
15. Didn't realize this: After his first season, Jarome Iginla was given video of all of his goals. He made it a habit and now asks the Flames scoreboard staff to make a DVD every year. During his October struggles, he sat down and watched them, looking for answers. Most players find that simplifying things end struggles. Iginla is the reverse, feeling he's more involved when trying to make plays.
16. By the way, the Flames' captain is missing one goal from his collection, but says he has no idea which one it is.
17. With Ryan Whitney about to undergo surgery for his damaged ankle, it would be really beneficial for the OIlers to go out and get another positive veteran. Obviously, they shouldn't give up anything valuable, but you have to show your young players you will give them help.
18. The Maple Leafs are trying to get Dion Phaneuf to ease up on his shot. He has three goals in almost a year with the organization, and one of the reasons is he fires wildly. Against the Flames, he was clearly trying not to blast the puck, but looked really uncomfortable in the process. Worth watching to see if things improve.
19. Dallas Eakins on Marcel Mueller: Huge strides over the past six weeks as he became acclimated to North American game. Biggest issue is that he needs to be more selfish. Passes instead of looking to score.
20. I believe that if a person is happy with their contract, it's their business and no one else's. However, you will see agents attack Jack Johnson's deal, because he did it himself. Johnson signed for seven years, $30.5 million. With an agent, maybe he gets $3 million-$5 million more. To some players, that will matter.
21. Alex Burrows escaped punishment for spearing Marc Staal's grandchildren. No more complaints about how he's treated.
22. Saw a few arguments for Ryan Kesler as MVP. As great as Kesler's playing, you can't pick him over either of the Sedins. Quite simply, they are Vancouver's best players. And, they set a calm tone off the ice, very important in that intense hockey hotbed.
23. At least three times this season, no one would've been surprised to wake up and hear the Senators changed coaches. How about Dec. 3, the morning after San Jose beat them 4-0? Or, Jan. 2? (That was 5-1 Toronto.) Then, there was last Wednesday, following a 6-0 loss in Boston. It looks like Eugene Melnyk's decided to keep Cory Clouston for the rest of the season, but Melnyk is so unpredictable, it's impossible to know for sure.
24. Then, there's the GM succession plan. At one point, it was believed Bryan Murray would be moved into a consultant's role, with nephew Tim, his assistant, getting the big promotion. God only knows what's going to happen now.
25. Alexander Ovechkin's quiet season has led to a decrease in merchandising interest, according to one memorabilia expert. Steven Stamkos is catching him, although the dealer did say, "It's always tougher for European players." Sidney Crosby remains No. 1, by miles.
26. Interview of the Week: After his four-point night against St. Louis, Bobby Ryan is asked about the team's next game, in Phoenix. He says the Ducks have to start quickly "to get the crowd out of it early," then starts laughing. (Ryan talked about it on HNIC Radio with Jeff Marek and Kelly Hrudey. It was funny, but after the Coyotes beat them 6-2 Saturday, I wondered if Dave Tippett played the thing to his team before the game.
27. Credit to Ron Wilson for big-picture thinking regarding the Mike Brown suspension. While saying Brown didn't intend to hit Ed Jovanovski in the head, Wilson added, "You have to agree with what [the NHL is] doing. They're trying to protect vulnerable players from head shots." There's not enough of that attitude across the league.
28. Lauri Korpikoski should've been fined - at least - for his kick at Clarke MacArthur in the same game. With all of the damage caused by accidental skate slices, an honest attempt should be dealt with harshly.
29. One more note about Langenbrunner. It appears it was Dallas or nothing for the winger, who will play game No. 1,000 tonight against the Kings.
30. In this job, you meet people who really make an impression on you. The Giordanos certainly qualify. Mia Giordano was 20 in 1998 (six years older than brother Mark) when she was killed in a car accident. To hear how that family rallied around each other and refused to let tragedy beat them ... well, it was really something.
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