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.
Of course, for some teams, injuries took care of their numbers game. The Anaheim Ducks are depleted on the backend, with Sheldon Souray out for two months recovering from a training injury. The Ducks had hoped Sami Vatanen would crack the lineup, and though he will likely be on the roster, he’s been hurt lately too – as are forwards Jakob Silfverberg and Emerson Etem, both of whom will eventually play prominent roles in the post Bobby Ryan era.
And in L.A., it was strictly a numbers game – their top line in Manchester last year, Linden Vey with Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, will be the top line in the minors again, at least at the start of the season. Matt Frattin won the No. 2 wing spot on the line with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and, like a lot of teams, the Kings don’t want their A prospects, either limited to a handful of minutes on the fourth line, or sitting out.
It was the same deal in Minnesota – Jason Zucker was farmed out because a trio of youngsters, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter were deemed more ready to play.
THE REAL IMPACT OF REALIGNMENT: Apart from placing teams in their correct geographic divisions, the primary implication of realignment is that it brought hope to the bottom half of the Western Conference. For years now, the West has been the stronger of the NHL’s two conferences, but that all changed when the Detroit Red Wings shifted east as part of a three-team switch. Essentially, the other two teams - Columbus Blue Jackets and Winnipeg Jets – are a wash, two non-playoff teams, with young cores, hopping to get better. But Detroit has been in the playoffs for 22 consecutive years and Detroit gave the Chicago Blackhawks the biggest push in last year’s playoffs. The Red Wings were just a so-so team in the first half of the lockout-shortened season, but they got better and better as the year went along.
Detroit is going to be a handful again – and as one of 16 teams chasing eight playoff spots, is going to push somebody out. Over in the West, the percentage to qualify for postseason play is significantly higher – 57 per cent compared to 50, on the basis of eight of 14 qualifying.
There are six teams that you would likely concede playoff spots to: the Chicago Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues, the Vancouver Canucks, plus the three California teams – San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. Over an 82-game schedule, all have enough depth and experience to get over the playoff Mendoza line.
What’s left is a mish mash of teams on the way up, on the way down or trying to find a place in the soft squishy middle of the NHL pack, where most teams reside, thanks to the evils of parity.
The Winnipeg Jets? Getting better but still searching for their first playoff spot since returning to the NHL? The Minnesota Wild? They squeezed in as the eighth seed last year after four years out of the playoffs, thanks in part to the free-agent acquisitions of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. But Minnesota didn’t score a lot, changed a fair bit of their supporting cast and ultimately needs to see Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and some of their hotshot prospects evolve into contributing NHL players.
It is that way in Edmonton too – a great young nucleus in place that may still be a year or two away from joining the playoff party. Taylor Hall made great strides last year, but Nail Yakupov isn’t there yet and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner start the year on IR, leaving a massive gap in their top six.
How about Nashville? The Predators sunk to 14th last year, and wrote a lot of it off to injuries, but their modus operandi hasn’t changed. The additions – Matt Cullen, Viktor Stalberg, Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom – all qualify as NHL journeymen. They will go as far as Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne take them – and last year, it wasn’t far enough.
The Colorado Avalanche was even worse – dead last in the conference – a team with a lot of young talent on paper that couldn’t get it together on ice. That’s the advantage of having Patrick Roy as the new coach presumably. In his previous life running the Quebec Remparts, Roy is used to the inconsistencies and mistakes that young players make.
The Coyotes stability saga is over and it will be interesting to see how certainty echoes in the dressing room. For years, the Coyotes successfully played the us-against-the-world card to help motivate a team run on a shoestring. Now that their futures are secure, will there be a temptation to exhale? Who knows?
The season will give us answers there – and answers in Dallas too, where the Stars will give Tyler Seguin a chance to renew his rivalry with Hall – Taylor vs. Tyler, the 2013-14 chapter - in the same conference.
In Calgary, it’s worse than anywhere – on paper anyway – but the hope in Cowtown is that a series of European goaltending flashes will join the NHL and make an immediate impact. As coach Bob Hartley likes to say: “A goalie can bring lots of good lipstick to an organization.”
Eight months from now, the season will have sorted itself out into winners and losers, with the usual number of surprises and disappointments and injuries wreaking havoc with somebody or other. But for now, with teams on the ice playing for keeps Tuesday night, let’s permit them all a little wishful thinking. Anyone can tell you, it never lasts too long.
AND FINALLY: The Coyotes signed centre Mike Ribiero as a free agent for a number of reasons: Newly stable ownership allowed them to increase the player budget and coach Dave Tippett has a history with Ribiero, dating back to their days together in the Dallas Stars’ organization. Ribiero was a targeted addition, added so that Martin Hanzal and Antoine Vermette could play further down the depth chart, as the team’s second and third-line centres, which is where their skill sets suggest they should play. According to Tippett, Ribiero fills an organizational void that they had ever since Ray Whitney left as a free agent, during the height of the team’s financial woes, when they were reluctant to offer a multi-year contract to a player who was 38 at the time.
Ribiero was a key player on the Washington Capitals’ highly rated power play, which scored 44 goals last year, most in the NHL. Phoenix, by contrast, had the No. 25 ranked power play, which, considering their depth on the blue line, with Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, should have been better.
According to Tippett, Ribiero “adds an element of that high skill. We had that element a couple of years ago in Whitney, a guy that could make other players around him better. Now, getting it at centre ice, it puts everybody else in the right position. We’ve had Marty Hanzal in that position for a couple of years. Marty’s a really good player, but he’s a better guy coming from the second hole, and can play against top players, or play as a shutdown guy. So he just adds an unbelievable skill set that we believe can help players like (Mikkel) Boedker, (Shane) Doan and (Radim) Vrbata; help our power play. He’s a player we didn’t have – and when you can add a player like that, it gets everybody else in the roles they should be.”
The Coyotes planned to start the year with a No. 1 line of Ribiero, Boedker and Doan. Hanzal, Vrbata were two-thirds of the second line, with a number of different players, including Lauri Korpikoski and Guillaume Latendresse, getting auditions to play a top-six role. Vermette and David Moss were penciled in as two-thirds of the third line, with the other spot also still in a state of flux.
“I don’t think we consider ourselves a powerhouse by any means,” said goaltender Mike Smith, “but obviously, adding a player like Ribs and the dynamic game he brings to our team, I think we were lacking that player before. We have a lot of underrated players that are in their right roles now. I think you’ll see we have great depth and our D, it’s a strong area of our team. Hopefully, that can transfer into some good play out there.”
But as team captain Shane Doan acknowledged, how the Coyotes adjust to their newly secure state will go a long in determining how successful their year is and ultimately, if the franchise can turn it around financially as well.
“I guess the phrase is, ‘potential’s got a lot of people fired,’” said Doan, with a laugh, “so we’ve got to make sure that the potential we think we have is displayed out on the ice. We think we have a good team and we’re capable of being good. That’s our goal – to take that next step and be consistently one of the teams that everyone has to compete with.”