After weeks of predictable cuts and roster shuffles, NHL teams finally became serious about getting down to roster numbers this past weekend.
Knowing they all need to be cap compliant by 3 p.m. Monday, they started making hard choices, beginning with the New York Rangers, who farmed out seven, including winger Chris Kreider, who’d started the exhibition season on the No. 1 line with Brad Richards and Rick Nash, but was so underwhelming that even with Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan unavailable for their opener, he was shipped out.
That happens all the time incidentally – when the cheery optimism of early September gives way to the grim knowledge that a prospect is not quite ready for prime time.
The Tampa Bay Lightning made a similar decision, opting to send their No. 1 draft choice, Jonathan Drouin, back to the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. Drouin needed to play as top-six forward to stick and while his offensive skills are indisputable, the Lightning deemed he wasn’t physically ready to go into the meat grinder of a an 82-game NHL season and intelligently, decided patience would be ultimately be their reward.
It was the same hard decision the Florida Panthers made two years ago with another Quebec League product, Jonathan Huberdeau, and it paid dividends when Huberdeau made it to the NHL last year and shone.
The Panthers interest me because at a time when virtually everybody else was pruning, they went the other way and were busy adding. Florida has become kind of a Last Chance Texaco for NHLers, seeking a second (or third or final opportunity) to salvage their stalled careers. Two years ago, mostly in a bid to get up to the salary-cap floor, they threw a bunch of free-agent signings up against the wall – adding Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall and Ed Jovanovski – and unexpectedly saw the team coalesce, make playoffs, and end a league-high 10-year drought on the postseason sidelines.
This fall, they’ve tried a version of the same tactic. Hot on the heels of new, more affluent ownership, they signed goaltender Tim Thomas, defenceman Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney and forward Brad Boyes to one-year deals; and then reacquired tough guy Krys Barch, who was with them two years ago, during that unexpected surge to the playoffs. The Panthers are a mystery.
Theoretically, they should be challenging Calgary in the NHL’s basement bowl, but if Thomas can come anywhere near the level of goaltending play he demonstrated for Boston a few years back, they could be unexpectedly competitive. The Panthers were crushed by injuries during the lockout-shortened season – the only real bright light, Huberdeau’s emergence as rising star – but their primary shortcomings came defensively.
Not only were they the worst in the NHL, they were miles away the worst defensive team in the NHL, posting a cumulative 3.50 goals-against average, with playing time divided relatively equally amongst Jacob Markstrom, Scott Clemensen and Jose Theodore.
For comparative purposes, consider Colorado was 27th, with a 3.07 GAA; Florida was almost half a goal worse than one of the leakiest teams in the league. If Thomas can remedy that, the Panthers may be a team worth watching.
Before the start of last year, the St. Louis Blues took a chance on free-agent defenceman Wade Redden, but this time around, they passed on the chance to add Whitney, the former Oiler, former Duck, and former Penguin as a depth rearguard.
Centre Gil Brule, whose primary claim to fame was picking up a hitchhiking Bono prior to a U2 concert a couple of years back, didn’t catch on with the Phoenix Coyotes either.
Brule may be the best object lesson for any team rushing teenage prospects to the NHL. The sixth player chosen overall in the 2005 NHL entry draft, the Columbus Blue Jackets put him on their roster for seven games that first year and a full 78 the next, even though he wasn’t physically mature enough to play.
His development stalled almost immediately and now some eight years later, at 26, is facing a career crossroads. It’s why, with Joe Colborne now in Calgary and likely to get a chance to play a key role on the rebuilding team, the prospects of Sean Monahan staying beyond a short NHL trial are greatly reduced. But Calgary is a team, like Tampa, that should be focused on the longer term with its prospects. As impressive as Monahan was in camp, they must surely know that the game changes when the legitimate NHLers start to play for keeps. Instead of the makeshift defence corps that you see playing half-heartedly in the pre-season, that’ll be a focused Shea Weber or Ryan Suter they’re suddenly facing.