1. Royal Expectations
Long before the 2008-09 NHL regular season came to a close, ensuring they would miss out on the playoffs for the sixth season in a row, speculation ran high that the Los Angeles Kings would be major players in the offseason, with a growing nucleus of young and talented players in their peak years (or before) including forwards Captain Dustin Brown and his Assistant Anze Kopitar and a very deep blueline featuring Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Matt Greene and Peter Harrold. Together with the breakthrough of goaltender Jonathan Quick starting last December, a few other young-enough forwards like Alexander Frolov and Justin Williams, and a highly touted group of prospects, this seemed to be a team poised to rise up the charts in the coming years.
Also playing into the Kings’ hands, due directly to the youth of the roster, was a very low cap hit. With under $43 million in salary locked in for the 2009-10 season, the Kings seemed assured of using some of that to make the mythical “One Big Move” that would turn them into a serious contender. Maybe one of the Marians, Hossa or Gaborik. Kings GM, Dean Lombardi, was quoted as being particularly interested in Hossa, saying, “He was the one guy we were willing to extend ourselves for.” Gaborik was also offered a shorter term contract, paling to what he ultimately received from the Rangers, while veteran Mike Knuble was made a “more than competitive” offer as well.
July 1st came and went, and the three aforementioned forwards were signed, sealed and delivered to other teams. 60 players were signed in total on July 1st, and not a single one of them was signed by the flush Kings. On the 2nd, the Kings locked up Rob Scuderi, who ranked 12th in the league last year with 120 blocked shots, for four years, through his age-33 season, at a cool $3.4 million per season. Prior to the signing, the Kings had only four defensemen who posted GVT scores above 2 last season.
The Scuderi signing likely played a key role in helping Lombardi pull the trigger on a deal three days later for a much-coveted veteran forward, dealing away their most consistent defenseman from last season in young Kyle Quincey (originally acquired for a song, but that’s a story for another day), along with the serviceable Tom Preissing and a 5th-round pick in next summer’s draft for Ryan Smyth, aka Captain Canada. In addition to serving his country (nay, leading his country!) from 2001 to 2005, Smyth has already played out a venerable 14-year career, mostly as an Edmonton Oiler, where he played a key role in the Stanley Cup Finals team of 2005-06 before beginning the nomadic phase of his career the following season with the mid-season trade to the New York Islanders.
So have the Kings disappointed this offseason? It’s fairly clear that Ryan Smyth (age 33, coming off a season of 7.9 GVT) and Marian Hossa (age 30, 19.7 GVT last year) are two very different calibers of players. While Scuderi for Quincey may be a wash today, that trade-off may be regretted before the end of Scuderi’s new contract. Nonetheless, the Kings of next year should be a marked improvement upon last years’ version, if only due to the continuing maturation of the young stars mentioned above and the potential graduation to the NHL of young studs like Thomas Hickey and Colten Teubert. One remaining area of concern lies in the net. Jonathan Quick was good last year, but surprisingly so. He is already entering his age-25 season, and he was not their first option at the beginning of last year, only moving up from the AHL after Erik Ersberg hurt his groin in December. NHL history is littered with the carcasses of goalies who rose like the Phoenix one year, only to return to ashes shortly thereafter. (For painful historical reminders, click here and here and here. With plenty of cap room still available, the Kings are in a great position to solidify the most important position on the ice by signing the best (and it’s not even close) remaining free agent, in former Sabre and Flyer, Martin Biron. Even if Lombardi is convinced that Quick or Ersberg or Jonathan Bernier represents the future in the Kings’ net, why not give Biron a lucrative one-year deal and let the three younger goalies fight it out for the backup job?
2. Shark Attacked – Sharks Not Breaking Up
Like their Pacific Division foes, the San Jose Sharks were expected by many to be big players this offseason and shakeup the core of the team that, since the strike, has been consistently excellent during the regular season, only to flop in the playoffs, bowing out in the 2nd round for three straight years before falling in the 1st round to the Ducks just over two months ago. Hockey boards from shore to shore have suggested that long-time Shark Patrick Marleau (originally the 2nd overall selection of the 1997 Entry Draft), be dealt in response to the latest playoff flop, including Ottawa, Montreal and Columbus among the suggested potential destinations. Some have suggested the Sharks jump on the supposed availability of disgruntled Senator Dany Heatley in a deal for the maligned Captain. A separate movement to deal Big Joe Thornton has spawned its own website.
While we have not seen the end of off-season trades, the Sharks so far have mostly held firm. Their two key free agents, Rob Blake (unrestricted) and Ryan Clowe (restricted) were both re-signed, although Clowe was subject to plenty of draft day trade speculation before signing a four-year, $14.5 million dollar pact on July 3rd. The Sharks also re-signed Kent Huskins, acquired in a late season trade with the Ducks for his playoff experience, but who was held out of the flop against his former teammates due to injury. Last year’s backup goaltender, Brian Boucher, signed with the Flyers, while Mike Grier and the much-maligned Alexei Semenov remain unsigned (by San Jose or anyone else). There are no other Shark free agents who totalled even 1 GVT last year. The team’s only signing of note was 4th-line centre Scott Nichol (a little big man if there ever was one) for one year, at $750K. Of his big catch in the free agent market, GM Doug Wilson said “"You can ask our players what they think of him — but I'm not sure you can use the terms in the paper. And believe me, we take that as a compliment... He is ultra-competitive. He is a hockey rat. He will do whatever it takes to win. He brings a clear ingredient to our team." Whether that was the missing ingredient for the Sharks last year remains to be seen.
Any further potential wheelings and dealings are hindered by the Sharks’ cap hit of $56.326 M – leaving them less than $500,000 of room and still in need a new backup to incumbent ironhorse goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov. The only other goalie on the Sharks roster is young Thomas Griess, 23 years old and seasoned veteran of just over 128 minutes guarding an NHL net, most recently in the 2007-08 season. A potential trade for Dany Heatley would require more than just the return of Marleau as the difference in cap hit would put the Sharks well over this year’s limit. Any further addition of substance for San Jose will necessitate a substantial subtraction in turn.
3. Blackhawk Down – Conspiracy in Chicago?
The Chicago Blackhawks of 2008-09 gave the NHL a great, heartwarming hockey story. In a single season, their average home attendance jumped from 16,814 (19th in the league) up to an NHL-leading 22,247. Much of that has been attributed to the interest generated from a return to televising home games, and extensive credit also naturally went to the exciting team wearing the home reds. Years of poor records allowed the Blackhawks to draft young studs Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Cam Barker, none selected with a pick later than 3rd overall in their respective draft. Last year’s team saw the Blackhawks compile 104 points (a 16-point increase from the 2007-08 season) and their first appearance in the NHL playoffs since 2001-02.
Standing behind the scenes in Chicago, pulling the strings, was General Manager Dale Tallon. The operative word in that last sentence is “was,” as Tallon was fired this Tuesday, or rather demoted, to the position of Senior Advisor. Tallon’s replacement is none other than Stan Bowman, formerly his assistant, and according to his official team biography, responsible for “the day-to-day administration of the Blackhawks’ hockey operations department with his primary responsibilities including all CBA-related matters such as contract negotiations, free agency, salary arbitration, player movement and player assignment.” Bowman’s father, the legend Scotty, is currently the Senior Advisor of Hockey Operations for the ‘Hawks.
According to a local source the firing occurred after a heated meeting on Monday which was abruptly ended with a furious Tallon storming out of the room. This incident comes hot on the heels of the contract snafu wherein the Blackhawks sent qualifying offers to their eight unrestricted free agents the old-fashioned way and too close to the CBA-imposed deadline of June 15th. As a result the offers arrived late and the NHLPA filed a grievance. While the eight players have all since signed, the general feeling is that the snafu gave them enough leverage to wrangle more money than they may have otherwise merited, particularly regarding Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker, who both signed three year deals in excess of $3 million per year.
While it was the younger Bowman who was nominally in charge of contract matters, Tallon graciously accepted full responsibility for the incident, stating, “The buck stops here; I can take the heat... We just learn from our lessons and get better every day. That's the goal.”
While Blackhawks President John McDonough admitted that the “reassignment” probably would not have taken place without the help of the U.S. Postal Service, in actuality, it may have been just the excuse he was looking for. In an interview, McDonough practically admitted as much in saying that, "Any time a new president comes into a new organization, he has an idea of the type of people he would like...There were certainly times that I would have liked better and smoother communication. Ultimately the president of the organization is accountable, and I need information. There have been some style differences... I might be characterized as aggressive, assertive but at the same time calculating. Dale's [style] was every bit as effective; it was just a different approach."
Just like that (but with class) Dale Tallon moves to the top of any potential hire list for future General Manager openings. Stan Bowman inherits a team that, to a man, was built by Tallon, as every current member of the Blackhawks roster was acquired by the franchise after Tallon took over the role on June 21, 2005. Before Stan Bowman can be compared to his father, he has a lot of ground to cover in proving that he was as good as his predecessor. The eyes of Chicago will be watching.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Puck Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.