As summer slows the pace of hockey news to a crawl, this week gives us the opportunity to look ahead to an upcoming series of events that, while on their own, may not be riveting in the prime-time sense, will go a long ways towards determining just who we will be focusing on next February, as the NHL takes its regularly scheduled two week Olympic break. While we unfortunately will not be looking at every participating nation at this time, our focus will be with the continental units and their upcoming orientation camps. The provisional US squad meets first, congregating between August 17-19 at the Seven Bridges Ice Arena in suburban Woodbridge, Illinois. The following Monday (Aug. 24) marks the opening of the Canadian Olympic Orientation camp, held over four days in the Pengrowth Saddledome in downtown Calgary, Alberta.
1. US Olympic Orientation Camp – Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something St. Louis Blue
With 34 players invited to next month’s camp, we may be able to get a good idea of who will be part of the official 23-man roster of players chosen to represent the Stars and Stripes in Vancouver. For example, it is customary for an Olympic squad to carry 3 goaltenders, and US General Manager Brian Burke has only invited three to camp; Tim Thomas, Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick. Barring injury considerations, these will be the goaltenders for Team USA. Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller were, without a doubt, the top two American goalies in the NHL last season, as measured by GVT. Craig Anderson and Scott Clemmensen both performed better than Quick last year, but Anderson has a poor performance track record (sample size be damned!) playing for his nation on the international stage, while Clemmensen was only used as the 3rd-stringer on this summer’s IIHF tournament behind luminaries Robert Esche and Al Montoya, effectively demonstrating the faith placed in him by Team USA brass.
One of the aforementioned injury considerations revolves around the absence of the name of Rick DiPietro from the invite list. Although he missed practically all of last season, so too did Erik Johnson, of golf cart infamy, yet Johnson will be skating in Woodbridge. Addressing this question at a news conference, Burke let on about the difference between the two, saying, “Erik Johnson is based in large part on what we know of the player and what we believe he’s going to be. And I don’t think a player should be penalized and excluded just because he’s injured. Now in Rick’s case...it is my understanding that he will not be available for this camp at any rate, based on his injury.”
Joining Johnson in Woodbridge will be fellow Blues T.J. Oshie and David Backes, who together, make for a trio of players entering or in their prime, potentially part of a younger core for the US Hockey program that also includes Jack Johnson and Ryan Suter on the blueline, and forwards Patrick Kane, Bobby Ryan, Phil Kessel and Zach Parise, among others. While not entirely devoid of veteran leaders in the camp, certain long-time US representatives will be absent this year, as past heroes including Keith Tkachuk, Bill Guerin, Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick were not invited. On the other hand, Mike Modano will be in camp, and if he makes the final 23-man roster, Vancouver will mark his 4th Olympic appearance and will extend his international career to 22 years, extending back to the World Junior Championships before he was selected as the first overall choice of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft. In explaining his place on the provisional roster, Burke noted that "Mike's production has fallen off, but his usefulness as a player has not. His role has changed and he's accepted that cheerfully."
Modano is joined in the old guard part of the camp by fellow past-Olympians Chris Drury, Brian Rafalski, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Gomez. They will be helping head coach Ron Wilson and assistants John Tortorella and Scott Gordon in keeping the majority of younger players motivated and in-line. As for borrowed, may I present to you Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche. One of the few remaining big-ticket attractions of that downtrodden franchise, Stastny was born in Quebec City in 1985, while his father, hall-of-famer (and former member of the Slovakian parliament) Peter was leading the team in scoring with 122 points. Uncle Anton came 3rd with 74. Already a dual (US-Canadian) citizen, to the best of our knowledge, Paul has not yet applied for a Slovakian passport.
Finally, while only 34 players will be attending camp, an additional 50 or more American players will be placed under the Olympic drug testing program throughout the season, as Burke recognizes the potential need for a player not expected to be at camp – due to injury or surprise performance.
2. Canadian Olympic Orientation Camp – Taking a Taxi to Calgary
Unlike their neighbours to the South, there seems to be a battle for every roster spot on Team Canada. Executive Director, and recent inductee to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Steve Yzerman, along with the rest of the Team Canada brain-trust, invited a total of 46 players to Calgary for August’s orientation camp. Among the invitees are five goaltenders, three Staal brothers (those would be the Staal’s already in the NHL), three of the top eight scorers in the NHL last season (Crosby, Getzlaf and Iginla), three of the top dozen checkers (Lucic, Seabrook and Robidas) and at least two men with rich experience captaining the country’s icy army in Ryan (“Captain Canada”) Smyth and the recently retired Joe Sakic. Also expected to attend is the most controversial player in hockey since Sean Avery stopped talking in Dany Heatley.
Heatley has seemingly earned himself a reputation as a difficult player to play with, with news recently emerging about Heatley never mentioning anything about his dissatisfaction to teammate and Senator captain Daniel Alfredsson, or that Heatley never bothered to show up for linemate Jason Spezza’s wedding. Life in the magnifying glass of the Olympic Village next February may not be entirely suitable for him.
Another interesting storyline that has played itself out already was the inclusion of Joe Sakic on the list. Yzerman had indicated when the names were announced that Sakic’s presence was contingent upon his continuing his career, saying, “If he’s playing at the time, I want him at the camp.” In fact, as part of his retirement press conference, the question of keeping on for one more year just to play in the Olympics (much like Scott Niedermayer was speculated to have done in postponing his own retirement) was brought up rather quickly, to which he replied, “Two years ago, I thought for sure I'd be able to make it through the Olympics, but when I hurt my back, I had an idea that this was probably going to be my last year. I tried real hard to come back and see if I can do it. But, you have to face reality, and I didn't think I could be the player that I want to be, so it was time for me go." One has to wonder if Heatley would consider whether his antics prevent him from being the player he could be in a similar light.
With so many players on hand and the Olympics still over six months away, we should not expect to have a clearer picture on who will be dressing for the Red and White Maple Leaf in February. Yzerman admitted as much in statingthat “The National Men’s Team orientation camp will be a key part of our preparations for the 2009-10 season. While this is not an evaluation camp, it does give team management and coaches a great opportunity to prepare together for giving Canada its best chance at succeeding on the international stage.” Barring shocking discoveries in Calgary, the Canadian roster will be largely decided through the NHL schedule. Furthermore, while guys like Nashville’s Dan Hamhuis and Jordan and Marc Staal may be considered longshots to make it now, they will be potential impact players for Team Canada once the Niedermayers and Prongers of the game finally lose their edge. This camp can only help them integrate onto the national stage when their time does come.
3. The Slow Pace of Summer – Curiosities in Long Island and Boston
While the speed at which we are inundated with juicy summer rumors and transactions has slowed down precipitately in the last couple of weeks, the past few days have seen a few events worth noting here.
- On Wednesday, the New York Islanders raised more than a few eyebrows by signing former Flyers goaltender Martin Biron to a one year deal worth a scant $1.4 million. It is curious that Biron, who has the best track record, both recent and historical, among the “Three bona fide #1 goalies” now under contract on Long Island, will be paid the least among them. Roloson signed earlier this month to a two year deal worth $5 million, while Rick DiPietro is signed for a very long time at an annual rate of more than triple Biron’s 2009-10 salary.
This could only mean one of two things: First, the Islanders plan to implement a revolutionary goaltending-by-periods strategy, wherein each of the three bonafides gets one period every game. Just like coffee at Tim Horton’s, Islanders’ goalies would then be “Always Fresh. Always.” Second, and more plausibly, there remains significant doubt that Rick DiPietro is healthy enough to perform at the NHL level at least at the start of the season. This was hinted at (scroll up for a reminder) by Team USA GM, Brian Burke, in his explanation for not inviting DiPietro to the US Orientation camp this August. If (not when) DiPietro is ready to return, Biron will make a great trade chip with his low cap hit and short-term contract.
- On Friday, the Boston Bruins shipped veteran blueliner Aaron Ward to Carolina for forward Patrick Eaves, a 4th-round pick in next summer’s draft, and most importantly, over $1 million in cap room for the upcoming season. Early speculation had the extra cap space being used towards a new contract for restricted free agent Phil Kessel. Earlier last week, when questioned about Kessel, Bruins’ GM Peter Chiarelli hinted that he would trade his way into the necessary cap leeway, saying “Certainly Phil is a type of player that if it comes to a point where I have to make a move to get him in the mix, I will certainly do that.”
Yet no sooner did the dust settle on that deal, when Chiarelli removed his new-found cap space, and in fact exceeded next year’s number of $56.8 million by signing former Ranger and Coyote Derek Morris to a one-year deal worth $3.3 million. Before the sigtning of Morris, a trade of Marco Sturm may have allowed the Bruins to re-sign Kessel. Now Sturm and his $3.5 million cap hit will have to be moved just to keep Boston under the cap. To keep Kessel at this stage, Chiarelli will have to find takers for both Sturm (age 30, 3.8 GVT, $3.5M) and Chuck Kobasew (age 27, 6.2 GVT, $2.5M), players whose production have not been commensurate with their cap hits, or their status as post-prime skaters. The last word will go here to Chiarelli, on the challenges he will be facing over the next month as he must try to reduce salary. “Eventually, activity will grind to a complete halt,’’ Chiarelli said. “We see tendencies and trends that show that already. A lot of deals people are talking about are conditional on other deals taking place. That’s the way it happens now. As teams continue to spend and fill their lineups, there’s only a fixed amount of money. I’m not so sure how much activity you’ll see, especially now.”
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.