Independence Day falls a week after the 2014 NHL Draft. Do not expect any good fireworks shows around the country. The NHL’s general managers will have ignited all the boomers by then.
All signs point toward a supernova of trade activity when the league’s hockey personnel gather in Philadelphia in late June:
■ Vancouver (Jim Benning), Philadelphia (Ron Hextall), Carolina (Ron Francis), Buffalo (Tim Murray), Calgary (Brad Treliving), Washington (TBD), and Pittsburgh (TBD) will have different GMs overseeing their war rooms than the ones (Mike Gillis, Paul Holmgren, Jim Rutherford, Darcy Regier, Jay Feaster, George McPhee, Ray Shero) who led the charge last year in Newark. This window will be their opportunities to rebuild according to their respective visions. Aside from superstars (Claude Giroux, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Mark Giordano) and young players (Sean Couturier, Olli Maatta, Sean Monahan, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen), nobody is untouchable. Everybody is available.
■ Other teams are anxious to improve. Dave Nonis, with Brendan Shanahan peering over his shoulder, has to fix a Toronto roster that fizzled under the watch of Randy Carlyle. Doug Wilson, architect of San Jose’s regular-season behemoth, is not happy about his team’s gag job — up, 3-0, against Los Angeles — in the first round of the playoffs. Craig MacTavish, GM of the perennial punchline in Edmonton, must acquire experience, especially on defense, to complement his kids. Doug Armstrong, another boss of a one-and-done postseason failure in St. Louis, is looking for answers.
■ The era of building through free agency is over. Teams re-sign their stars before they hit the final years of their contracts, to say nothing of letting them reach the market. The July 1 gems are a calcifying Thomas Vanek, a nice but far from elite defenseman in Matt Niskanen, and 33-year-old Ryan Miller, a bust in St. Louis. When these players reach the market, multiple teams enter the bidding process, thereby driving up the price. GMs are wising up to paying inflationary prices for non-impact players. The free market is an opportunity to sign complementary players, not stars. We’ll see if Florida GM Dale Tallon, famous for UFA spending, has received the memo.
■ Teams are still recovering from the lockout’s effect on the salary cap. In 2014-15, the cap will be approximately $70 million. That’s about the same as it was in 2012-13 ($70.3 million). It dipped to $64.3 million in 2013-14. Before the lockout, teams had assumed the cap would rise by a similar percentage every year. That ascent is projected to return to normal in 2015-16. “It’s just going to get bigger,” said Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who serves as chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, citing the Rogers and NBC national TV deals. But until then, teams such as the Bruins are bumping against the ceiling. Tools to gain roster flexibility include trades, non-tenders, compliance buyouts, and AHL assignments.
■ Being active at the trade deadline doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Consider the Blues as the leading case study. Armstrong loaded up by landing Miller and Steve Ott from Buffalo. It got them squat. Miller was very good (2.72 goals-against average, .923 save percentage) on a wretched Buffalo team. Once he joined a very good team, Miller was wretched (2.47 GAA, .903 save percentage). In the playoffs, Miller had a 2.70 GAA and .897 save percentage. The result: The Blues lost, they re-signed Brian Elliott to a three-year, $7.5 million extension, named Jake Allen an NHL goalie, and said goodbye to Miller. The Blues’ downfall should convince teams that late-season trades affect human performance. Miller was comfortable in Buffalo, the only organization he’d ever known. He couldn’t adjust to St. Louis. This was a move the Blues should have made far earlier, perhaps in the summer. Miller would have had a full training camp and the entire regular season to acclimate to a new city, system, and teammates. The offseason is the time to be active, not March.
■ Draft picks will be in play. This is not a good draft. There is not a wealth of game-breaking talent. That will come in 2015, when Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Massachusetts players such as Colin White (Hanover) and Noah Hanifin (Norwood) become draft-eligible. Nevertheless, teams love picks. Drafting and developing are critical in a cap system, where free agency equals inflation. Young players are cheap. They’re under control under the entry-level system. If they develop properly through junior, college, and the AHL, they become gold.
■ The Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston effect. The Blackhawks (Cups in 2010 and 2013), Kings (2012), and Bruins (2011) are the league’s elite organizations. Their homegrown players include Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brandon Saad, Corey Crawford, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Dougie Hamilton. They’ve traded for Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Marian Gaborik, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Justin Williams, Tuukka Rask, Loui Eriksson, Carl Soderberg, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, and Reilly Smith. Drafting, developing, and trading wisely are the methods to build winners.
There were shockwaves in the two previous drafts. Last June, the Devils pulled off a bank job by acquiring Cory Schneider from Vancouver. The year before, the Penguins moved Jordan Staal to Carolina. The teams hosting the drafts in Newark and Pittsburgh made those moves.
The Flyers could extend the trend. If so, they will not be the only team swinging sledgehammers at their rosters next month.
San Jose’s Wilson should take step back
There were two teams that caught the Bruins’ attention during the regular season. Chicago was one. San Jose was the other.
The Blackhawks are rolling toward their third Cup in five years. The Sharks are headed toward change.
It’s hard to blame Doug Wilson for being angry. The San Jose GM remade the team — Ryane Clowe, Douglas Murray, Michal Handzus were out — into a fast, big, and skilled group he believed could contend for the Cup. They were one win away from dumping the Kings and advancing to the second round. Instead, the Sharks were first-round losers for the second time in three years. That kind of history puts heat on GMs.
Wilson already has started to act. The oft-injured Martin Havlat (one year remaining at $5 million, according to www.capgeek.com) will not return. Wilson told Dan Boyle, still an effective puck-rushing defenseman, he is no longer needed. Brent Burns, the defenseman turned into a right wing, will move back to the blue line.
More movement could take place. This isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“We’ve had seven or eight 100-point seasons. We’ve had three final four appearances. We’ve had 20 playoff rounds,” Wilson said during a conference call. “That all sounds nice, and the players and coaches deserve credit for that. But we have not got to where we need to get to. I think to do that, you have to take one step backward to be in a position to go two steps forward.”
The Sharks were deadly because of their goaltending, puck-moving defensemen, and three-line attack. When Joe Pavelski can’t crack your top six, you’ve got a good thing going.
But against LA, goalie Antti Niemi wasn’t good. Todd McLellan pulled Niemi in Games 4 and 5. He benched Niemi in Game 6. The ace started Game 7, which the Sharks lost, 5-1.
San Jose had enough skill to bury LA. But the Sharks panicked once the Kings found their game. That’s on the coaching staff.
The Sharks didn’t need much offseason improvement. They could have considered Ryan Miller as an upgrade over Niemi. They could have promoted Mirco Mueller, their 2013 first-rounder. They could have kept their three-center attack alive with Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Logan Couture.
But now Wilson sounds like he’s panicking. By splitting Burns and Thornton, San Jose’s scariest offensive duo, it makes you think the ex-Bruin could become an ex-Shark. That would be a mistake. Thornton remains one of the league’s elite playmakers and possession centers.
This is a dangerous time for the Sharks. GMs would be delighted to fleece Wilson if he’s looking to make more changes. Getting robbed leads to lost jobs, lost revenue, and lost opportunities.
Officially calling for some changes
Complaints about postseason refereeing blare every year. Coaches who don’t have a problem with regular-season officiating turn into spitting lunatics in the playoffs.
Referees don’t turn bad in the playoffs. The non-calls are amplified because they have to deal with five times more garbage.
Everybody gets tough in the playoffs. Every stupid infraction takes place: slew-footing, spearing, cross-checking, snow jobs.
The players cite playoff intensity. They’re partly right. Emotional engagement leads to rough stuff.
But it’s also because there’s no accountability compared with the regular season. The players know the referees aren’t going to call the cheap stuff. They also know that with the postseason waning of fighting — nobody wants to take a five-minute major, plus tough guys don’t play — there’s no danger of eating a punch.
The result: missed calls, an escalation of cheap play, outrage from both sides.
Some of this is on the referees. Marc Joannette and Kevin Pollock can’t miss clear-cut penalties such as the late hit Brandon Prust landed on Derek Stepan in Game 3 of the Canadiens-Rangers series. They’ve got to catch the easy infractions, and blow the whistles on the cheap stuff.
It’s also on the players. At least Prust had the decency to accept Derek Dorsett’s challenge to fight. Prust is a tough guy. He understands there are consequences for misdeeds. Had Prust not been a fighter, he wouldn’t have had to answer the bell, which is nonsense. Every player should be held accountable, fighter or not.
As noted in this space, there’s far more nobility in accepting a fight than doing the dirty work that often goes uncalled. Players should have more pride. This is hockey, not soccer.
But the bottom line is the benign outcome of taking a penalty. It’s too easy to play shorthanded when you can ice the puck. This rule stinks.
Look at six-on-five play late in the game. Defending teams regularly allow goals because they can’t ice the puck. It’s hard to clear the zone, let alone score an empty-net goal.
Tampa Bay led the playoffs with a 28.6 percent success rate on the PP. That rate would have soared had Montreal not been allowed to ice the puck. Canadiens coach Michel Therrien would have made it very clear that stupid penalties would not be tolerated. We’d see more five-on-five play, which is what everyone wants.
The NHL has to make power plays count.
Gorton deserves a shot
Rangers assistant GM Jeff Gorton has helped build a very good team in Manhattan. The Rangers nabbed the better player when they acquired Martin St. Louis for Ryan Callahan, although the Lightning will improve in the future because of the draft picks. They locked in Ryan McDonagh, a future Norris Trophy winner, to a bargain of a second contract (six years, $28.2 million, according to www.capgeek.com). Gorton helped to assemble the best third line in hockey in Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard, and Mats Zuccarello. In his previous role in Boston, Gorton was officially at the helm — Peter Chiarelli had landed the GM job but was still under Ottawa’s employment — when the Bruins made three franchise-altering transactions: acquiring Tuukka Rask from Toronto for Andrew Raycroft, and signing Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. For all those reasons, Gorton should be in line to take over for Rangers GM Glen Sather. That is, if he doesn’t fill the vacancy in Pittsburgh or Washington.
Megabucks await Subban
The Canadiens squeezed two value years out of P.K. Subban. Soon, it will be Subban’s turn to cash in. The electric defenseman, coming off a two-year, $5.75 million bridge contract, deserves every cent of the blockbuster he’ll sign soon. Subban is a game-changer in all three zones. Defensively, he’s perfected his trademark move of finishing an opponent with a one-arm slug to the chest. In the neutral zone, Subban’s puck-rushing touch backs teams up. Offensively, he strikes his one-timer with purpose and accuracy. Subban’s most unappreciated move, his curl-and-sprint with the puck, may be his most dangerous. When he goes back, he sucks forwards into a false forecheck. Once that happens, Subban explodes the other way and exploits the slack gap. Not many defensemen can pull this off.
Bruins are fine up front
Pending Jarome Iginla’s decision to sign a one-year extension or test the market for a multiyear deal, the Bruins are in good shape up front. Their strength lies in numbers, not on a singular goal-scoring closer. They chewed up Detroit because they rolled three big, balanced, and skilled lines. To that end, if Iginla returns, the Bruins won’t be in the market for a finisher. “We saw that stretch in March, where if one line wasn’t going, the other two were,” said team president Cam Neely. “We rarely just had one line going. You see teams now where if they have one line, they don’t really have the success you have when you have multiple lines that can produce.”
Calgary has seemingly settled on Karri Ramo as its No. 1 goalie. The 27-year-old had a 2.65 GAA and a .911 save percentage in 40 appearances. Ramo is under contract for one more season before he reaches UFA. But the Flames might kick the tires on Ryan Miller, given his USA Hockey ties to Brian Burke, Calgary’s president of hockey operations. The Flames have cap space. A legit ace would address some of the mistakes their young players are sure to make during their rebuild . . . The Wild would be foolish to chase Thomas Vanek, an ex-Golden Gopher. Minnesota has a good top-six unit in Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, and Erik Haula. It needs help on defense to take shifts away from Ryan Suter, who’d be more effective with less ice time . . . Good move by the Islanders to give Buffalo next year’s first-rounder, acquired in the Vanek trade, instead of their 2014 pick. The Islanders won’t be in the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel chase because of the four-year contract they gave Jaroslav Halak. Finally, some legit goaltending on the Island.