L.A. will start the season without Willie Mitchell on the blueline, following off-season knee surgery, but Hickey – small and skilled – is the antithesis of Mitchell and what he brings, which is why they didn’t try harder to keep him on their 23-man NHL roster. In Mitchell’s absence, Alec Martinez moves temporarily into a top-four role. Meanwhile, Kings centre Anze Kopitar, who hurt his knee in his final game playing in Sweden before the lockout ended, is back skating and right now, he is questionable for their opener against Chicago Saturday, which will also feature the banner-raising from their Stanley Cup championship.
THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT: Trying to figure out the new normal in NHL contract discussions will take some time, but wow, what a stunner earlier this week when the New Jersey Devils signed Travis Zajac to an eight-year, $46-million extension. Eight years is the maximum contract length allowed in the new collective bargaining agreement and it is only an option for teams signing their own free agents. The Devils clearly still feel the sting of losing Zach Parise as an unrestricted free agent to the Minnesota Wild in the off-season, but this looks like massive overcompensation.
Zajac has been a good – not great - player for them for six years (although he missed a big chunk of last year recovering from Achilles tendon surgery), but a $5.75-million average for a player that has never topped 25 goals or 67 points in a single season seems high. It will be interesting to see how the Devils survive Parise’s departure, given that they also lost Alexei Ponikarovsky to the Winnipeg Jets in the off-season and will start the year without Adam Henrique, last year’s Calder Trophy candidate, who has a thumb issue. Somehow, the acquisitions of Krys Barch and Bobby Butler don’t figure to balance the scales against the players who left via free agency.
AND FINALLY: To manage a team on a comparative shoestring, the Coyotes generally need to be one step ahead of everyone else just to stay competitive. That’s why, for example, they were prepared to absorb the Matthew Lombardi contract from Toronto earlier this week, a deal in which they need to pay him only $2-million of the $3.5-million that he’ll earn this year, with the Leafs picking up the rest of the tab. Lombardi had his last good full year playing for the Coyotes in back in 2009-10 (53 points in 78 games) before joining the Nashville Predators as a free agent and then having his career derailed by a concussion. Phoenix has won at the repatriation game before – with right winger Radim Vrbata, who came back from Tampa three years ago and scored 35 goals for them last year; and also with defenceman Zbynek Michalek, who returns this year, after two seasons in Pittsburgh. Michalek led the Coyotes in ice time the last time he played in Phoenix and is a player coach Dave Tippett trusts implicitly.
Tippett also does a good job of surrounding himself with key advisors. Sean Burke’s work with goalies as diverse as Ilya Bryzgalov and Mike Smith is a key to their success. King, Tippett’s mentor, spent part of the lockout watching games in Germany, where his son Scott plays. Beyond his theory on the shootout, King also wondered aloud how much of an advantage playing overseas is really going to be for returning NHLers.
“They were playing hard, but the game was so different,” said King. “There was so much more time and space because of the size of the ice,. Conditioning-wise, I think for sure they’ll have an early advantage. But you’ve got to recognize that when you get back to a North American rink, where defences are so disciplined on those smaller ice surfaces, the game gets a little tougher to play.”