Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Reshuffle: A Look At Recent NHL Moves

July is the time for player movement in the NHL. Just ask Tampa.

Bad teams make loads of manoeuvres to try and dig themselves out of the whole, Philly and the Rangers can't help themselves and other teams get involved when players that interest them come up. From a Canadiens point of view, things could have gone better, but let's not forget, things could have gone a whole lot worse as well.

Last week, I declared some winners and losers for moves made up to July 1. I had Phoenix , New Jersey, Chicago and Edmonton at the top of the heap. At the bottom, struggling for air, I put Atlanta, Ottawa, Nashville and LA. Well, another week and not too much has changed, the winners have not done so much damage as to fall from grace, nor have the losers done enough to dig themselves out from the bottom of the heap. It would be negligent not to tip the hat to Detroit, who once again took the best player available to bolster their champion roster and to note new loser addition, Philadelphia, whose GM is beginning to show he has absolutely no grasp on what it takes to build a team beyond moving players in and out.

Funny, though isn't it? There are only two teams in the NHL who one can truly look to and think dynasty – the Red Wings and the Devils. Both, despite not making 53 signings like Tampa, come out winners this off season. Both present the perfect example for any aspiring team to follow. New Jersey swooped in and added Holik and Rolston. Second line scoring and big centre checked off their list. Detroit, with few glaring holes, did correspondingly, very little – only moving to pick up the only scoring star with years ahead of him from the entire group. No bad signings, no changes for the sake of it.

Big stories

While looking at players in and out is interesting and fun, most teams make like for like changes and hope for the best. As such, the stories around the moves are few. This year was unique in some ways though, as free agency has offered up some very interesting stories and trends for comment:

1) Jagr signing in Russia
By far the most significant signing of the off-season was Jagr's move to Russia. Funny then that this move has been treated as a footnote in most accounts.

The reason I think it is so notable is because of the precedent it sets. Jagr is the first bona fide NHL star to sign in a different league. Forsberg and Naslund often threatened, but could never ignore the call of the greenback. Aleksey Morozov blazed a trail, but one would hardly class him among the stars of the league. Jaromir, on the other hand, was reasonably close to becoming the second leading scorer of all time, a perennial all-star and Art Ross threat and the core of his NHL team.

While Siberian winters don't meet with everyone's tastes, multi-million dollar contracts do. I think from here on, the threat of players moving to the rival Russian league is real. It is a worry for young prospects to full-fledged stars. What's more, the longer the NHL allows the festering wound of the partial IIHF agreement (without Russia) to linger, the greater this problem will likely become. It may not be within the decade, but at some point, it is reasonable to assume that the NHL and the Russian league will duke it out for players like the Premiership, la Liga and Serie A do in football.

2) Retirement decisions
Admittedly, the retirement precedent was set prior to this season. However, this free agent season is the first in memory where 3 of the top 10 catches would be considering retirement from the league.

By prolonging their indecision, Sundin, Selanne and Sakic have created a force in the market. The force is patient money. There are teams sitting on money at the moment that they are saving to spring on Sundin in particular, while making bit parters wait for their turn.

I am not 100% behind the opinion that Sundin has disrupted the whole league (like this guy), but you have to admit, the poor guys waiting to buy/rent their houses for the season (4th liners, minor leaguers and down) are being put through a stressful period. That being said, I don't think it is Sundin's fault team's are shaping their whole strategy around him. Besides, how sorry can I feel for a guy who is slightly disrupted in finding a house (while I live in a small apartment) ahead of playing hockey for a living for another year.

No, for me, the more interesting thing to come out of this has been the reaction of the GMs. Sather, rumoured to be in the running for Sundin, has gone ahead with what could be called makeshift moves, even in the wake of losing Jagr. Gillis in Vancouver has sat pat, dangerous considering who he's lost. Fletcher is trying desperately to fill cap space with anyone and anything to be sure there's no room for Sundin. And, Gainey has signed his RFAs and made minor deals. Fans may be frustrated with the patience their GM is showing (or not), but ultimately only patience will leave a team with enough space to sign Sundin. Nothing less.

In the future, players teetering on the edge of retirement could shape the free agent game significantly. Imagine for example that Sundin does sign, his team does well and even wins. In future years, the lesson to good GMs will be that waiting for the best player available is the best move there is. It could make free agency less of a one-day (laughably televised) extravaganza and more of a prolonged and patient game. From the money thrown in desperation at players like Malone and Finger, I wouldn't see it as a bad thing.

3) Questions about the salary floor
When I look at the Columbus Blue Jackets, I see a team with little or no plan. How could anyone rational explain the Commodore signing to me. How could signing a 14-goalscorer at first line money be spun positively. But you see, Columbus has their backs up against it. They have never drafted a great player (arguments could be made for Nash...) and rarely ever draft anyone good.

How can this team possibly be expected to pay $40+M to a team of players. It is an unreasonable request. Stack that next to the fact that the team has no history, no plan, no immediate hope for greatness and you can see why the Hossas of the world elude them. As such, the Blue Jackets are forced to throw money at subpar performers just to reach that lower limit.

In and of itself, this is not a problem, but consider that that Rick Nash contract has influenced money for 21 year-olds years on, and you can see the ripples a signing in an NHL backwater can make. Any reasonably intelligent agent will be toting Mike Commodore's contract status and statistics in his negotiations next spring. 20-goal men across the continent will want to see Umberger dough (hey Ryder got it!).

Besides forcing real talents to play in outposts, what can the NHL do to avoid this market force from creating imbalance of pay/talent ratios?

Remove the floor? Impossible, watch Nashville owners pile up the cash if they do...

I don't have the answer, I can only see the problem at the moment. I feel there must be a solution at some point though, otherwise this may create another catalyst for players to Europe.

And the Canadiens?

All that is very interesting. From an academic point of view. But, let's be honest, how does it affect the Habs?

I've mentioned the Sundin affair, and I think the Habs are doing the right thing in keeping some money for him should he become available, although he wouldn't be my first choice (Selanne, ahem). Basically, what's the rush to spend: there are no great players left, and the team is mostly in place. Gainey can finish the roster off in August or September if he really needs to.

The Jagr debacle has not affected the Canadiens yet, but it will be interesting to see where the deeply patriotic Kovalev ends after his contract expires. In 5 years, this could be an issue for Markov, too. I have voiced my opinion on creating a special team of scouts/negotiators to deal with Russia before, and it still stands. Even without the threat of player flight, the pickings from Russian draft years alone warrant this approach.

Like Jagr, small market disproportionate spending has not thrown a wrench into the works yet. But when Plekanec, Kostitsyn and Higgins are all up for their third contract, will they take less than Columbus' plumbers?

The Canadiens moves themselves have been middle of the road. The Tanguay trade was excellent, but ultimately they relieved Calgary of a headache, who has yet to prove he won't be one here (I actually think he'll be great, but am keeping my feet on the ground just now). The Grabovski trade was poor indeed – losing a potential scorer for a non-entity. The signings of RFAs have been outstanding, but the UFA activity has been lacklustre to depressing (where the balance shows Streit, Danis and Ryder in the red for Laraque and Denis in the black). The player math shows Tanguay has to replace Ryder at even strength and Streit on the PP, while we hope that the youngsters will step up to take even more responsibility.

Frankly, at this point, barring a Sundin/Selanne/Sakic signing, I'd almost hope Gainey would call it a day. I am with him and his staff about the quality of our young players. Andrei Kostitsyn in particular will be a real force to be reckoned with if he plays a full season at his post-December clip. At the back, the deletion of Brisebois almost makes up for the loss of Streit, simply by inducing the addition by subtraction trick (fingers crossed, that particular element of today's status quo is with us come October).

Looking down the list, is there anyone any of you would make a legitimate case for? Even after Samsonov?

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