Nobody can say exactly what unrestricted free agency will look like this summer, because the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the players is about to expire in September and some believe there’s a lockout looming. The market could grind to a complete halt, or it could reward just a select handful of ultra-desirable players, such as the New Jersey Devils’ Zach Parise.
Parise is a unique commodity - young (27), American (born in Minneapolis), engaging, and skilled. Until a knee injury sidelined him for all but 13 games last season, he’d piled up 176 points in the previous two years for the Devils and scored a career high 45 goals in 2009.
In Calgary this week, Parise demonstrated all the different sides of his personality. He noted that his first brush with hockey stardom came in the annual Mac’s Midget tournament, with Shattuck St. Mary’s high school. He talked about how it took him a good 15 to 20 games to get the rust off his game at the start of the year, but he’s been piling up the points since early December. He acknowledged that dollars would be a major factor in the upcoming contract negotiations, but the chance to win a championship would also figure prominently in his decision.
The Devils usually get their guys signed when they really want them, but if they cannot get a deal done with Parise and if he ever hits the open market, expect the Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings to be waving their checkbooks wildly in front of his face.
The Kings bid over $80-million for Ilya Kovalchuk two summers ago, only to lose him to the Devils. It wouldn’t break their hearts if they could snag Parise out from under New Jersey this time around.
SCHENN AND SCHENN?: Now that the Michael Cammalleri-for-Rene Bourque deal is in the books, signifying the unofficial countdown to the NHL trading deadline, you wonder if the Philadelphia Flyers can do what the Toronto Maple Leafs could not a couple of years back and get the two Schenn boys, Luke and Brayden, in the same lineup. Rumour mongering aside, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. The Leafs did what they could to draft Brayden back in 2009, but the Kings wouldn’t swap places with them - fifth for seventh - to make it happen. The Kings steadfastly resolutely refused to trade Brayden Schenn’s rights until the Flyers made them an offer they couldn’t refuse last June at the draft - Mike Richards, who has been a nice upgrade to their still thin collection of top-six forwards.
Now, with Chris Pronger’s career in jeopardy and the Flyers trolling around for a young top-four defenceman, surprise, it is the Maple Leafs that boast a rare surplus at that position. And if the price to land a player of James Van Riemsdyk’s quality happens to be Luke Schenn, well, it is not unreasonable to think there could be a fit there. Philadelphia is learning that without Pronger, their A-list defence corps has a distinct B-minus feel to it, and is exacerbated by Ilya Bryzgalov’s struggles in goal. Playing the way he is at the moment, Luke Schenn is no saviour - and no Pronger either - but the Flyers have seemingly taken a half-step backward in order to some day soon move a couple of steps forward, which would give both the Schenn boys time to grow and mature together on an intriguing, ever-changing Flyers’ roster.
AND SPEAKING OF BRYZGALOV: For some, HBO’s 24/7 series illustrated what a quirky, complex individual Bryzgalov really is. It’s understandable if not every fan knew that ahead of the TV series, which probed deeply into his private life. However, it is inexcusable if the Flyers didn’t understand what they were getting when they invested $50-million plus into Bryzgalov, last year’s key off-season free-agent acquisition and the player who was - once and for all - supposed to solve their goaltending issues. All those years playing in Phoenix, Bryzgalov was one of the Coyotes’ most marketable players, and he was front and centre whenever they were trying to drum up interest in the team. A couple of years ago, just before their first-round playoff series against Detroit, Bryzgalov made the rounds of the local TV stations, doing the talk shows and memorably on one occasion, parodied the Ron Burgundy character from Anchorman. Last spring, he made headlines in Winnipeg by telling reporters that under no circumstances did he want to move there, if the franchise were forced to relocate. Remember the Olympics? Bryzgalov’s comment, after Russia’s loss to Canada: “They came at us like gorillas out of the cage.”
Dating all the way back to his Anaheim days, Bryzgalov never had much of a mute button - and in markets such as Anaheim and Phoenix, that was seen as a good thing. That was his charm. It didn’t bother his teammates at all either. Goaltenders, as you may or may not know, are legendarily odd ducks. So for Philly to try and wean that larger-than-life personality out of him smacks of desperation - and maybe even a lack of understanding of what they were buying. It is also a recipe for disaster. My advice: Just let Bryz be Bryz and he’ll eventually stop the puck again. If they try to turn him into something he isn’t, the contract they awarded him could go down in history as one of the worst ever - yes, maybe even Scott Gomez bad.
SI CONFIDENTIAL: Sports Illustrated’s annual player poll touched a nerve this past week, when its confidential survey of just under 170 players, pronounced the Maple Leafs’ Dion Phaneuf as the NHL’s most overrated player, followed by the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin at No. 2 and featured Roberto Luongo at 4, Dany Heatley at 5, Kovalchuk at 6, Vincent Lecavalier at 7 and Ryan Kesler at 9. The Calgary Flames’ Jarome Iginla came in 12th (despite finishing sixth in the league in scoring last season). Iginla wasn’t the least bit perplexed about making the top dozen, noting that he was in pretty good company with other high-salaried, well-established players.
“It’s not like we’re all ... dogs,” said Iginla, the other day - and you almost had to be there in person to appreciate the long, pregnant pause before he said ‘dogs.’ Iginla is rarely that animated.
But then he went on to seek an explanation for the dis: “I had a really tough first quarter. I don’t know…maybe you have a tough night against whoever is picking it, whatever player. Maybe you’ve had a couple of tough games. Maybe they just don’t like you. It could be any of those.”
Iginla also added: “I didn’t find it offensive. I was actually pretty impressed with the group of players that were on there. That wouldn’t be a bad team, eh, if we were the most overrated players. I thought there were some pretty good players, pretty good company.”
CONCUSSION UPDATE: Bad news this week for Minnesota’s Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who missed more than 100 games recovering from a concussion, and had a recurrence this week and is out again. Good news this week for Colorado’s Peter Mueller, who missed all of last year and most of this year’s first half, when he had a recurrence of his concussion issues in training camp. The Avs activated Mueller for Thursday’s game and he was in the starting lineup against Nashville.
Also on the concussion front: Andy McDonald of St. Louis, another multiple concussion sufferer, is getting close to playing again and Alexander Steen of the Blues, who missed about a week with a concussion, is supposed to be good to go on the weekend. As for the reigning rookie of the year, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, he too is expected back this weekend, as the Hurricanes have back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday against Boston and Washington. Skinner has been out with a concussion since a Dec. 7 date with the Oilers in Edmonton.
San Jose’s Ryan Clowe, meanwhile, was not diagnosed with a concussion, but will wear a full cage for about a week after getting hit in the face vs. Minnesota this week.
A WING AND A PRAYER: The NHL’s Heritage Classic - aka the outdoor game in Canada - is likely on hold for another year, as reports (correctly) circulated this week that the University of Michigan is favoured to host the next Winter Classic, and would feature the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Thus far, all the Winter Classics have featured two U.S. teams, mostly at the behest of NBC TV, but the Leafs have enough Original Six cachet that they would make an exception for Brian Burke’s lads. Few NHL teams have so many American players in key roles anyway, which makes them even more attractive.
AND FINALLY: What will the Washington Capitals eventually do with Mike Green, who is the midst of another lost season, it would seem. Green has had such problems with a groin injury that the Caps put him on the long-term injury list to free up enough dollars to recall Cody Eakin from the minors, meaning Green is out until after the all-star break. The Caps are going to be in a unique financial position this summer, in terms of how their expiring contracts could theoretically free up all kinds of dollars for George McPhee to reshape his team. Alex Semin is up at $6.7-million, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent. Green, at $5.25-million, becomes a restricted free agent. If they determine to cut ties with both, that saves almost $12-million. Of course, the Caps would then almost certainly need to extend Dennis Wideman, who is also set to become unrestricted and earns just under $4-million. And likely, if Tomas Vokoun figures in their future, they won’t get him for $1.5-million again. But if the decision, after this year - and depending upon how they fare in the playoffs - is to change the fundamental character of the team, they will have the financial flexibility to do so.