Hockey's dog days of summer
Signings, trades, defections make interesting off-season for Canadian NHL teams
With the dog days of August upon us, and outdoor temperatures rising, the NHL's off-season is winding down. Training camps are set to open a mere six weeks from now.
With that in mind, here's a refresher course for sun-soaked fans to remind us of the wheelings and dealings of our favourite Canadian teams since Lord Stanley's mug was handed out June 13.
All's well in La Belle Province?
The Montreal Canadiens' 100th season in the NHL was disastrous. Consider that the team finished first in the Eastern Conference the previous year, only to fall to eighth spot this past season. Worse, they got swept by rival Boston in the first round of the playoffs.
With 11 players filing for unrestricted free agency, Habs general manager Bob Gainey had a chance to rebuild the storied franchise. On July 1, Gainey maxed out his credit card, spending $71-million US on four players for a combined total of 15 years' service. Forwards Mike Cammallari and Brian Gionta, and defenders Jaroslav Spacek and Stanley Cup champion Hal Gill signed on the dotted line. As well, the Habs acquired former Rangers centre Scott Gomez the day before in a trade involving Chris Higgins. Montreal wasn't finished though, adding a little size and grit in the form of Travis Moen and defensive depth with the addition of Paul Mara.
New bench boss Jacques Martin will also have Tomas Plekanec, Kyle Chipchura and Guillaume Latendresse back in the fold. The team finally said goodbye to longtime captain Saku Koivu and the magnificent, but at times utterly frustrating, Alex Kovalev. With a cap hit of $55.2 million on the books for Montreal, and less than $2 million left to spend, the Habs are essentially done spending this off-season. However, the team could benefit from some more offence from the blue-line and more size up front.
Heatley drama on hold
The Ottawa Senators have seen their fair share of drama this off-season. Dany Heatley shocked the Sens, demanding a trade out of Ottawa in June. General manager Bryan Murray reacted quickly, working the phones and crafting the best deal for his franchise. The Oilers offered Ottawa the best trade package for Heatley, but the former 50-goal man exercised his no-trade clause and refused to be moved to Edmonton. Since then, the San Jose Sharks have stepped up, and may become a suitable trading partner.
Ottawa did retain the services of fan-favourite Chris Neil. The tough winger decided to stay in the nation's capital for four seasons and less money than he was offered elsewhere. Kovalev, one of the most talented players in the NHL, fled the drama of Montreal and joined the Senators for two years and $10-million. Goaltender Alex Auld was dealt to Dallas to shave money off the Sens' cap. Ottawa is currently $800,000 over the cap limit of $56.8 million. With Heatley's cap hit coming in at $7.5 million, moving him to another team will not only rid the team of a bad seed in the dressing room, but it will give the team more financial flexibility.
Hogtown locks down
In Toronto, Brian Burke has been adding proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. He kicked things off on July 1, signing enforcer Colton Orr to a four-year, $4-million deal. Later in the day, he traded away Pavel Kubina for tough defenceman Garnet Exelby. By dinner time, he signed former Habs defender Mike Komisarek. A couple of days later, big, tough Francois Beauchemin was welcomed to the Leafs blue-line. The Leafs currently have nine defencemen. Burke will try to make a deal with one of them for a top-six forward.
While there's no doubt that the Leafs will be a tougher team to play against next year, they will be hard-pressed to fill the back of the nets with pucks. Toronto was able to sign the best goalie not playing in the NHL this season when it inked Swedish sensation Jonas Gustavsson to back up starter Vesa Toskala. They also traded for fourth-line centre Wayne Primeau. Toronto has $3-million in cap space to spend and has no restricted free agents to sign, so if additional changes are to be made, then it will come via a trade.
Hot off-season in Calgary
In Calgary, the Flames made the big splash before July 1. They dealt Jordan Leopold and a draft pick to Florida for the rights to negotiate with impending unrestricted free agent Jay Bouwmeester. A deal was done with Bouwmeester a couple of days later, securing the highly sought-after defenceman for the next five years for a total of $33 million. At the press conference announcing the deal, GM Darryl Sutter stated that the team was done with off-season acquisitions. Perhaps Sutter learned his lesson from last season's embarrassment? Calgary was forced to dress as few as 15 players in their final five games because of injury problems and the team being up against the cap. It cost the Flames the Northwest Division.
Calgary was able to afford and add Fredrik Sjostrom, Brian McGrattan, Nigel Dawes and former Maple Leaf defencemen Anton Stralman and Staffan Kronwall as much-needed depth. They're still close to the cap, with less than $1 million to spend, and the quest continues to find a centre that can mesh with Jarome Iginla. The back-up goalie issue remains to be addressed, too. Curtis McElhinney is not the answer as a back-up to Miikka Kiprusoff. If the Flames are to go far in the playoffs, they need a well-rested Kiprusoff and an experienced back-up at the end of the bench.
Oilers keep pace
Up Highway 2 in Edmonton, the Oilers reacted quickly to the defection of goalie Dwayne Roloson to the New York Islanders. New Oilers head coach Pat Quinn will be sketching 2004 Stanley Cup champ Nikolai Khabibulin's name into the starting lineup 60-70 times this season. The former Hawks goalie signed a four-year, $15-million deal with Edmonton. The Oilers also retained the services of Denis Grebeshkov and Jason Strudwick, but said goodbye to forward Ales Kotalik.
Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini desperately tried to acquire Ottawa Senator outcast Dany Heatley, but Heatley refused not once, but twice to waive his no-trade clause. After a month of trying to convince him to reconsider, Tambellini announced that the Oilers have moved on from the Heatley affair. Small market Edmonton has spent $54-million with restricted free agent Ladislav Smid yet to sign.
Canucks double up
In Vancouver, general manager Mike Gillis signed the twins, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, to identical five-year, $30.5 million deals on July 1, an hour before they were to become available on the open market. Since then, the Canucks have added former Red Wings forward Mikael Samuelsson, who will provide offence and experience; inked former Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft, who will get comfortable at the end of the bench and watch Roberto Luongo do his thing for 70-odd games, and re-signed Kyle Wellwood and Shane O'Brien, too.
The Canucks did take a hit on the blue-line though, saying farewell to long time defenceman Mattias Ohlund. The Canucks are counting on former first-round pick Cody Hodgson on making a big impact next season. Vancouver also has to make a decision on RFA Jannik Hansen and UFAs Taylor Pyatt and Mats Sundin. Vancouver still has $4 million left under the cap to spend should they choose to.
Who's still out there?
There still are good players available. Mats Sundin can be useful in a support role, if he chooses to play … and that means showing up for training camp. Forty-year-old Mathieu Schneider can still help a power-play unit. If you're looking for goals, Alex Tanguay, Todd Bertuzzi, Robert Lang and Brendan Shanahan are ready to light your lamp. Rob Niedermayer, Mike Grier and Mike Sillinger are here to add defence and grit. Daryl Sydor, Philippe Boucher and Denis Seidenberg are available to patrol your blue-line, while Manny Fernandez, Manny Legace and Kevin Weekes will do their best to stop pucks for you.
Which players would you like to see your general managers go after? Do they even have room under the cap to sign any remaining free agents? Let the dreaming, and the discussion, begin.