Scott Hartnell was born to be a Flyer.
The left wing plays ornery hockey. He finishes his checks ferociously. He goes to the front of the net to score goals and cross-check defensemen in the teeth. His flaming hair is a perfect complement to Flyers orange. He plays with all the subtlety of a Flyers fan whose idea of a friendly greeting is two middle fingers raised skyward.
Hartnell’s contract and his job description, however, made his birthright irrelevant. On Monday, the Flyers shipped out Hartnell and the five remaining years on his contract to Columbus for R.J. Umberger and a 2015 fourth-round pick.
The move will make the Flyers worse in 2014-15. The 32-year-old Hartnell, once the top-line running mate for Claude Giroux, could fill the same role for franchise center Ryan Johansen. If ex-Bruin Nathan Horton gets healthy, the three strongmen could join forces to create a mammoth No. 1 line for the Blue Jackets.
“I think he plays exactly the way we want the Blue Jackets to play,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said in a news conference following the trade. “He’s hard to play against. When you talk about him as an opponent — you talk to a lot of different sources around the league, people that I know and people he’s been associated with — they all say the same thing: You hate to play against him, but you’d love to have him on your team. That’s the way we feel about him. He was a tough opponent. Somebody you always noticed and somebody you hated from the press box, but you always thought you’d like to have him on your team.”
When power forwards such as Hartnell are in their groove, they are game-changers. They strike fear in defensemen who panic about black eyes and broken noses when they retreat for a puck. Their brawn allows their team to cycle the puck low, tire opponents, and rack up scoring chances. They make their linemates braver.
There is a reason Milan Lucic scored a $6 million annual payday when his previous contract expired. It’s the same reason Horton, Lucic’s former partner in crime, landed a seven-year, $37.1 million blockbuster last summer. And it’s the same reason David Clarkson swiped a seven-year, $36.75 million bonanza from the Maple Leafs.
It’s a case of supply and demand. There are very few players who can skate, score, hit, and fight. There are even fewer who can fulfill those tasks as the odometer reaches higher numbers.
The back end of Hartnell’s contract was worrying new Flyers GM Ron Hextall. By 2019, the final year of Hartnell’s deal, the left wing will be 37. It does not project to be a kind age.
At the same time, the Flyers have younger players who will require raises by then. Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn will be restricted after the 2015-16 season. Jakub Voracek will be unrestricted after 2016-17. These are faster, quicker, more versatile players than Hartnell.
“The speed factor and cap flexibility,” Hextall said in a news conference as two factors in the trade. “If you look at our team, we’ve got a lot of guys in the next 2-3 years who are up. I know it’s kind of a far vision. But it’s reality.”
Hartnell had a good season in 2013-14. He scored 20 goals and 32 assists in 78 games while totaling 103 penalty minutes, including a pair of fights. But Hartnell did not perform so well in the playoffs. In seven games against the Rangers, Hartnell had zero goals and three assists. By the end of the series, coach Craig Berube replaced Hartnell with Michael Raffl on the first line. Hartnell closed out the playoffs alongside Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. These things aren’t out of place for players such as Hartnell.
Power forward is the league’s most demanding and punishing position. It wears on both body and spirit to engage repeatedly in grunt work in the dark alleys of the rink. Once a brute loses his legs, he becomes a game-chaser instead of a game-changer. And all that cash his GM turned over for his services suddenly looks like dead, useless money.
In 2010-11, Brenden Morrow scored 33 goals and 23 assists. He was 32. Morrow’s goal totals in the three following seasons: 11, 12, 13.
In 2011-12, Ryan Malone submitted a 20-28—48 line. He was 33. On Wednesday, the Lightning bought out Malone.
In 2011-12, Johan Franzen scored 29 goals and 27 assists in 77 games. The 34-year-old is coming off a season in which he was only healthy for 54 games.
In 2009-10, 34-year-old Jamie Langenbrunner scored 19 goals and 42 assists in 81 games for New Jersey. Langenbrunner never approached double digits in goals in any of his next four seasons.
There are exceptions such as Shane Doan (37) and Jarome Iginla (36). But as a rule, the NHL is a young man’s game, especially when it comes to power forwards. Like all players, they’re better when they’re younger. But when they hit the wall, they smack into it hard.
The Flyers, under former GM Paul Holmgren, ran into bad timing with Hartnell. His previous contract expired when he was 31. They should have demanded shorter term from Hartnell, or let him walk. Simmonds (25), Lucic (26), Ryan Kesler (29), Dustin Brown (29), and David Backes (30) remain very good players. But their GMs have to monitor them with caution. Brown will be 38 in the last season of his eight-year, $47 million contract. Odds are good that the Los Angeles captain’s decline will begin well before then. GM Dean Lombardi might have to pull off a similar deal as Hextall did with Hartnell.
Lucic will be 28 when he’s due for his next deal. Teams can give their upcoming UFAs eight-year maximum contracts. There’s little chance he’ll get it in Boston. History dictates that the risk would be too great.
Look-Up Line gaining considerable traction
If Tom Smith had his way, the color known as Pantone 151 C would become just as standard on every ice surface as the red and blue lines.
That time may be coming.
Smith is the man behind the Look-Up Line, a 40-inch-wide stripe of safety orange that rings the perimeter of the rink. Smith’s vision came out of two headfirst collisions into the boards that resulted in spinal cord injuries.
The line was introduced at the Pingree School on May 9, 2013. It made a splashy entrance at Frozen Fenway in January. Phillips Academy laid down the stripe earlier this month. By Smith’s estimation, more than 200 rinks nationwide have applied paint to ice to promote safety around the boards.
“It’s absolutely a thought-provoking warning track,” said Smith, referring to feedback he heard from players after a tournament at the Andover prep school. “They saw orange. They had their heads down. They picked them up.”
On June 7, USA Hockey endorsed the Look-Up Line by approving its implementation in any rink. The NCAA also approved the line to be painted in any Division 1, 2, or 3 facility. Saint Anselm will be the first college to use the line when it’s laid down in September.
In Boston, the Department of Conservation and Recreation will pay for installation in the rinks it manages.
Earlier this month, Massachusetts Hockey pledged $50,000 toward the initiative. Mass. Hockey will reimburse the first 100 rinks that install the line. Cost is $500 per rink for paint (two five-gallon buckets) and shipping. Jet Ice, a Canadian company, supplies the paint.
By Sept. 1, 2015, Smith’s goal is to see the line in half of the 1,800 rinks affiliated with USA Hockey. He thinks it’s just common sense.
Wilson appears ready to give Sharks new look
Earlier this month, San Jose’s Doug Wilson, GM of one of the more talented rosters in the league, declared his group to be a “tomorrow team.” Wilson’s most emphatic statement is in line with his policy of a rebuild, compared to the previous reset/refresh process. This continues to be a puzzling situation.
Had the Sharks gotten anything resembling reliability from goalie Antti Niemi in the first round of the playoffs, they could have booted the Kings and possibly set up a conference final against Chicago. Starting Tuesday, they could have pursued Ryan Miller, the best goalie on the free market, as an upgrade over Niemi.
Instead, Wilson public statements, his trade of Dan Boyle’s negotiating rights to the Islanders, and his repositioning of Brent Burns to defense add up to a sales job: selling Joe Thornton on the notion that the Sharks cannot contend for a Cup.
Thornton will start a three-year extension in 2014-15. He has a no-movement clause. He loves San Jose. But by trading Thornton, Wilson can free up more shifts for Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski while getting back some assets for the former Boston captain. This will also free the Sharks, who are looking to renegotiate their TV contract, according to the San Jose Mercury News, to rid themselves of the $20.25 million due to Thornton over the next three years.
Trading Thornton will help to ease San Jose’s cash burden. But it won’t make the Sharks better. Thornton, who turns 35 on Wednesday, remains an excellent playmaker and possession center. He’s smart enough to cede control of the dressing room to Couture and Pavelski.
The Sharks have excellent speed. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is one of the NHL’s sharper all-around defensemen. They have good young players in Tomas Hertl and Mirco Mueller. The Sharks won’t be out of the playoff hunt just yet.
“To recognize when it’s time to turn things over, bring in some youth, add some speed and energy — those are things that really stood us well,” said Bruins executive director of player personnel John Ferguson, formerly San Jose’s director of pro scouting. “There was a couple years there where it looked like it was dropping off a little bit. Last year, with the additions of Hertl and [Matt] Nieto and the evolution of Vlasic and [Jason] Braun and Pavelski and Couture, it was growth on the fly. To have sustained success over time, it requires that.”
Patience appears to be lacking
Two UFAs-to-be had their negotiating rights traded: Boyle and Nikita Nikitin. The Islanders gave San Jose a 2015 fifth-round pick for Boyle. The Oilers traded a 2014 fourth-rounder to Columbus for Nikitin. The moves show why the Islanders and Oilers aren’t playoff fixtures. Had both teams waited until last Wednesday, the start of the NHL’s interview period, they could have recruited both players without ceding assets. The Islanders didn’t succeed in wooing Boyle. The Oilers signed Nikitin, a stay-at-home defenseman who didn’t play against top players, to a two-year, $9 million contract. Yikes. In that regard, the Islanders look better off.
Kreider in range of cashing in
Chris Kreider was 20 years old when he signed his entry-level contract with the Rangers. So was Derek Stepan. The difference is that Kreider, born April 30, 1991, was considered a 21-year-old when he turned pro on April 10, 2012. (The NHL uses Sept. 15 of the calendar year to determine a player’s age.) Kreider will thus have arbitration rights when he becomes a restricted free agent on Tuesday. Stepan did not have arbitration rights when his ELC expired last summer. Players who are 18-20 when they sign ELCs need four years of pro experience to gain arbitration rights. As a result, Stepan was a holdout at the beginning of this past season until he signed a two-year, $6.15 million bridge contract on Sept. 26. Kreider is unlikely to miss any of training camp because arbitration, even in the case of a pre-hearing settlement, will help to frame the Boxford native’s next contract. Kreider scored 17 goals and 20 assists in 66 games this past season. This could put him in line with James van Riemsdyk, who scored 11 goals and 13 assists in 2011-12 before earning a six-year, $25.5 million second contract. Another comparable would be Max Pacioretty. The Montreal left wing signed a two-year, $3.25 million bridge deal. Either way, Kreider is due for a good raise.
Gaborik contract numbers add up
The Kings did a good job in signing Marian Gaborik to a seven-year, $34.125 million extension. The term is concerning because of Gaborik’s age and injury history. He will be 39 in the final season of his contract. But by giving him a front-loaded, seven-year extension, LA lowered the average annual value to a reasonable $4.875 million. That’s well under whoppers such as Alexander Semin’s $7 million AAV. The Kings had to fulfill two criteria to avoid cap circumvention. First, the salary variance between years could not be more than 35 percent of the $6.075 million Gaborik will earn in 2014-15, the first season of his contract. The biggest dip is $1.4 million between 2018-19 ($4.575 million) and 2019-20 ($3.175 million), well within the 35 percent variance of $2,126,250. Second, the lowest yearly salary had to be at least 50 percent of Gaborik’s $6.075 million payday in 2014-15. Gaborik is due $3.075 million in the final season of the deal, just $37,500 more than the allowable cutoff of $3,037,500. Clearly, GM Dean Lombardi has a dependable calculator on his desk.
Lightning must have a backup plan
The Lightning will not make a qualifying offer to Anders Lindback prior to Monday’s deadline. Lindback, Ben Bishop’s No. 2 goalie, will become an unrestricted free agent. However, this does not mean the Lightning have ruled out re-signing Lindback. Had they tendered Lindback, the Lightning would have had to qualify the goalie at 100 percent of his previous salary ($1.8 million average annual value, according to www.capgeek.com). Considering the glut of backups on the free market, including Chad Johnson, Tampa did not deem Lindback worthy of that kind of investment. Lindback went 8-12-2 with a 2.90 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage this past season. In the playoffs, because of Bishop’s season-ending elbow injury, Lindback was pulled in two of Tampa’s four games. That kind of performance certainly doesn’t demand that kind of salary.
Old friend Hal Gill is planning to play in the NHL in 2014-15. The 39-year-old Bolton native appeared in six regular-season games for Philadelphia in 2013-14 after progressing from a tryout to a one-year contract. Gill played in one game in the playoffs against the Rangers because Nicklas Grossman was injured. The Flyers have not ruled out bringing Gill back as a bottom-pairing or spare defenseman . . . The NHLPA’s executive board is considering a rule change on faceoffs following icing calls. Coaches regularly instruct a wing to take the first faceoff, cheat, and get thrown out of the dot. This gives the team that iced the puck a few additional seconds of rest before the center lines up for the draw. Under the proposed change, only one player will be allowed to take the draw. If he cheats, he’ll be given a two-minute penalty.