The NHL playing season has ended, and now speculation season is peeling off the warm-up jacket.
Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman’s early-morning phone call to team captain Vincent Lecavalier, who was at that moment having breakfast with his young family, can be considered the unofficial opening of free agency.
Yzerman informed the 33-year-old, who just closed out season four of an 11-year, $85-million (all currency U.S.) contract, that he will be bought out – to the tune of $32.67-million – and is thus free to sign with other teams on July 5.
His availability, in the words of one agent, “could change the market for forwards, he’ll be in high demand.”
Rumours being what they are, Lecavalier was immediately linked with a number of destinations, his hometown Montreal Canadiens chief among them.
“My door is open to all 29 teams,” a still-stunned Lecavalier told a conference call.
Asked if he would welcome an overture from the Habs, who purportedly had a deal on the table to acquire him four years ago, he said, “I’m open to anything. Montreal is a special place, with a lot of history, they have a good team as they proved last year. If I get a call of course I’ll listen.”
Lecavalier also said he’d be pleased to talk to the Detroit Red Wings, his co-favourite team with Montreal as a kid – “Ironically, Steve Yzerman was my favourite player.”
He will have plenty of options to choose from.
How about the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are flush with cash and desperate for a big centre, or Philadelphia, which is suddenly cap-rich and prone to lavishing ill-advised contracts on veterans? The New York Rangers could reunite him with his old mucker Brad Richards – unless they decide to buy Richards out – the Vancouver Canucks are in cap purgatory, but they offer the possibility of playing for John Tortorella, who coached Lecavalier to a Stanley Cup.
The first rule of speculation season: no scenario is too far-fetched.
Lecavalier to the Habs fits that description; though the player says he is interested, and the Habs could use an imposing centreman, GM Marc Bergevin has repeatedly insisted you can’t build a championship club through free agency (Bergevin wasn’t available for comment).
The pressure from fans and pundits to make a pitch to Lecavalier will be intense, and the Habs could doubtless use him at the right price, but it seems more likely another team will offer the long-term contract he wants “to take me to retirement.”
If Lecavalier headlines the no-longer-wanted-on-the-voyage team, there will also be interest other veteran NHLers on rich deals who have been advised their services would no longer be required – like Philadelphia Flyers forward Daniel Brière and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, and perhaps even spare-part players like Montreal’s Tomas Kaberle and impending Chicago castoffs Steve Montador and Rostislav Olesz, now they’re no longer weighed down by anvil contracts.
Like other members of the all-buyout team, Lecavalier is accepting his fate with little rancour (“The new CBA is putting some teams into a tough spot.”), and plans to use the episode as motivation.
“I still feel I can be a No. 1centre. … I have a lot of confidence in my abilities,” said Lecavalier, adding he would contemplate a move to the wing.
The influx of compliance buyouts is also likely to have an effect on the trade front as well.
Not that there isn’t plenty of grist for the rumour mill.
Talk the Leafs are peddling defenceman Dion Phaneuf simply won’t die down – GM Dave Nonis set tongues wagging when he was spotted in intense lunchtime conversation with Minnesota counterpart Chuck Fletcher.
Could have they been talking about a deal involving Phaneuf and, say, Wild centre Mikko Koivu and his hefty contract and perhaps defenceman Tom Gilbert, whom Fletcher is understood to be keen to move?
They could have.
Other rumours are also emerging: ESPN reported Chicago Blackhawks centre David Bolland, who scored the Cup-winning goal three days ago, is on the block, presumably to free cap space to sign playoff hero Bryan Bickell.
There was no Bickell announcement on Thursday, but there were hints the Edmonton Oilers have reached an agreement with free-agent-to-be Sam Gagner, and reports the Pittsburgh Penguins signed winger Chris Kunitz to a three-year, $11.5-million contract.
There is considerable talk the Pens will consider trading Norris Trophy nominee Kris Letang if they can’t reach a quick agreement on a long-term deal, although Letang’s agent, Kent Hughes, pooh-poohed the rumour the young blue-liner is eyeing Toronto as a destination in an interview with TSN690 in Montreal.
The second rule of speculation season is that all star players entering the last year of their contracts shall be the subject of trade rumours.
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told the Philadelphia media he expects a flurry of moves before Sunday’s entry draft, and he may well be right.
But if the fate of a former first overall pick hangs in the balance – Lecavalier got the bad news 15 years to the day after being chosen in the 1998 draft – it seems likely the Colorado Avalanche will hang on to this year’s top selection, and use it on Halifax Mooseheads centre Nathan MacKinnon.
“We’re happy with picking first but if we get calls we’ll listen,” said Joe Sakic, the Avs’ executive vice-president.
Asked whether letting it slip that MacKinnon was their guy heaps too much pressure on his 17-year-old shoulders, Sakic said “He’s been living with [pressure] for a quite a while. He’s been in the moment and he always rises to the occasion.”