Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Looking at free agency....the Southeast Division

So, we’ve been gone a few days, and things are settling out as far as the free agency period is concerned. Does any of it really matter in terms of the who-left and who-arrived via free agency (or something close to it)? Let’s look at the Southeast Division…



Cristobal Huet wasn’t supposed to be a rental. He was supposed to sign a three-year, $15 million deal, be the bridge to the next generation of netminder – presumably Simeon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth – and everyone was to live happily ever after. Instead, the Capitals have Jose Theodore – a former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner who has made more news off the ice than on it, it seems, since winning those trophies. Since his big dual-trophy year, Theodore has posted a record of 112-113-21, 2.76, .905. What’s more, he’s been inconsistent from year to year, going nine games under .500, five games over, .500, two games under, and seven games over in the years since winning the Vezina and Hart Trophies. He has the capacity to be a solid number one netminder, but this is hardly a given. He has some “show me” to do.

Keith Aucoin is a depth forward who can give Hershey some quality minutes and fill in with NHL experience in his resume in an emergency.


Matt Cooke supplied a bit of energy in the home stretch that the Caps weren’t getting from Matt Pettinger. But, as George McPhee put it, “you can’t keep everybody.” And, with the Caps having already signed their minimum season’s requirement of Matt’s (Bradley), Cooke became the odd Matt out.

Olaf Kolzig…Let’s leave names out of this. It’s hard to do, but let’s try. Consider…only three goaltenders playing more than half their team’s games last year had a worse GAA than Kolzig – Jason LaBarbera, Johan Holmqvist, and Dwayne Roloson. Only one – Holmqvist – had a worse save percentage. Only one – Roloson – had fewer shutouts. Was Kolzig the worst goaltender in the league?...no. But his age showed over significant stretches over the year. It was the seventh consecutive year in which his minutes decreased. That was a function of his being benched when Huet was brought on board, but even had he been the go-to starter over the last few weeks, he might have ended up with the second fewest number of minutes played since he became a starter ten years ago. If the Caps needed to go 11-1 over their last dozen games to make the playoffs (and they did), it seems unlikely they would have done so with Kolzig in goal. He will be missed for what he meant to this franchise on and off the ice over the past decade, but the fact of the matter is that the tense in that verb – “meant” – is the past tense. Could his departure have been handled more adroitly? Perhaps, but would not have been a certainty that this would be a playoff team in 2008-2009 with Kolzig in goal.

Cristobal Huet…11-2-0, 1.63, .936. Then…3-4, 2.92, .909. The regular season, the playoffs. Since the lockout, he has been 69-41-13, 2.44, .921, with 13 shutouts…in the regular season. He’s also been 5-8, 2.65, .919, with no shutouts, and no series wins…in the playoffs. This is not meant to bash someone who skipped out on the Caps, merely an effort at providing perspective. Huet was the best available goaltender to the Caps when free agency started – Jose Theodore is not as promising a replacement. But the manner in which Huet closed the regular season was atypical of his performance over his career (it is atypical of Martin Brodeur’s for that matter, but that’s another subject). Had Huet been re-signed, the Caps would have a goaltender who has never played more than 52 games in a season and only twice played more than half his team’s games. It is entirely reasonable to suspect that Brent Johnson would be getting more work than he was used to backing up Olaf Kolzig, and we do not suspect that his contribution would be much more than a .500 record (he is 22-35-10 in three seasons in Washington). That has to be factored into the matter, too.


Mike Green was as close to a “must re-sign” as there was. Having a break-out year last year, leading NHL defensemen in goals scored, he had a skill set that the Caps did not have anywhere else in their system for the foreseeable future (one might picture a Josh Godfrey in this role, but he is some years off from competing for a roster spot).

On balance, on paper…

The Caps are not as good a team today as the one that lost game 7 in the opening round of the playoffs to Philadelphia. They are a team with the theme, “show me.” As in, show me Jose Theodore can put his recent inconsistency behind him and at least approach his Vezina/Hart form. As in, show me Mike Green wasn’t a one-year wonder. As in, show me that the rest of this group didn’t plateau (or just play over their heads) the last month of the season.

Tampa Bay:


Where to start…OK, Ryan Malone. Technically an arrival via trade for negotiating rights, Malone enjoyed his best season as a pro – 27-24-51, +14 in 77 games. Perhaps surprisingly, he averages 24 goals per 82 games over his career. That’s the good news. For three years, he’s been a teammate of Sidney Crosby (meaning that if he isn’t on Crosby’s line enjoying his playmaking, he’s not facing the opponent’s top checking line, either). For two, he’s been a teammate of Evgeni Malkin (see: the previous sentence). Is that worth $4.5 million a year? He’s going to be flanking another young center, it seems, in Steven Stamkos, and might have a gray-beard on the other side in Mark Recchi (more on that below). On balance, we’re guessing that Malone is going to be the 2008-2009 version of the decent player, overpaid in free agency.

Olaf Kolzig’s shortcomings were described above. He can, however, provide insurance for a young goalie (Mike Smith and Karri Ramo have a combined 81 games of NHL experience) or provide some quality minutes. He is probably not, at this point in his career, a goalie who can put a team on his back and carry them to the playoffs. His legendary temper will be tested, though. Tampa Bay was dead last in the NHL in goals allowed-per-game. Their defense is not better than last year, and in fact their team speed is probably not up to last year’s squad. Kolzig will face, if not a ton of shots (although that seems likely), then a ton of opportunities.

Gary Roberts – another arrival via trade for negotiating rights – would have been a decent pick up three years ago, perhaps as a deadline deal. But now? A 42-year old coming off a season in which he had a broken leg, groin injury, and pneumonia? On a one-year deal? $1.25 million seems a lot for a player who is probably a fourth-liner who might miss 25 games to injury for a team that isn’t going to make the playoffs.

For Vaclav Prospal, last spring was probably something he will look back upon in years to come and ask, “did it really happen (yes, we know, he’s played there before)?” After playing 225 games with the Lightning over three seasons, he was shipped to Philadelphia for 35 games (including 17 playoff games). Perhaps it was the stress of picking either Pat’s or Geno’s, but Prospal is now back in Florida, where he has enjoyed his greatest individual success (he’s averaged 23-46-69 per-82 games with the Lightning). Oddly, perhaps, he was in Anaheim when the Lightning won their Cup in 2003-2004 – the one season that interrupted his run in Tampa. Well, he’s not winning a Cup this year, either, but he might be the best signing of the lot for the Lightning.

Radim Vrbata…uh, why? Last year was his first with as many as 50 points (54), his first with as many as 20 goals (27). This will be his fifth team in seven seasons. He might be a 20-25-45 guy, if he gets 16-18 minutes a night. Maybe the Lightning were looking for a Lady Byng candidate (118 PIMs in 422 career games).

Mark Recchi…all one needs to know about this signing is this quote, “I've known Mark for about 20 years.” That was Len Barrie – the other new owner in Tampa – speaking about the acquisition. It’s true, as Barrie pointed out, that Recchi is a future hall of famer, but what he is in the here and now is old…40 years old, and in the three years since the lockout has seen his goal production go from 28 in 2005-2006 to 24 to 14 last year with Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Scary to the point of frightening on a team as defensively challenged as this, Recchi is -53 over the past three seasons. At a buck and a quarter for one year, he is not much of a stress on the checkbook of the boy owners, but he’s not likely to be a difference maker, either. This signing seems more of an indulgence (“Hey, Len…this is fun, now you sign somebody”) than an ingredient to success.

Adam Hall. Tampa Bay will be his fifth team since the lockout (Nashville, NY Rangers, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh being the others). He’ll probably be a fourth liner with the Lightning, and he is one of those role players that can make a quiet difference. We suspect he’ll be better at his role than any other signing, with the exception of Prospal.

Brandon Bochenski…ok, here’s the deal – Bochenski is 26 years old. He has 121 games of NHL experience. Tampa Bay will be his sixth team (Ottawa, Chicago, Boston, Anaheim, and Nashville being the others). And, he has never spent an entire NHL season with one team – Ottawa and Chicago in 2005-2006; Chicago and Boston in 2006-2007; and Boston, Anaheim, and Nashville in 2007-2008. One would think Norfolk is his future for the time being.

Janne Niskala might start for the Lightning on opening night, such is the state of Tampa Bay’s defense. He will be 27 on opening night and has never played in an NHL game. On any other team, this is a depth signing. With the Lightning? Not even God knows.


There are a number of free agents the Lightning have chosen not to resign, but they haven’t been picked up elsewhere, either. Hardly surprising for a club that finished 30th in the league last year.


Ryan Craig…might seem like an odd re-signing. He missed 59 games with a knee injury last year and 13 games before that with a herniated disk in his back. Perhaps the Lightning are counting on Craig and Roberts to split 82 games between them.

Evgeni Artyukhin…is a re-signing of a sort, having spent the last two years in Russia. As best we can tell, the significance of this signing is to add evidence of Tampa Bay’s desire to sign every available forward on the planet.

On balance, on paper…

The Lightning have been busy…so were the Rangers in 2001-2002 (Matthew Barnaby, Pavel Bure, Tom Poti, Martin Rucinsky) and 2002-2003 (Alex Kovalev, Anson Carter), and the Rangers were under .500 and out of the playoffs both years. The Lightning has a similar look of pieces that aren’t yet (or near) a coherent whole. The Lightning have signed – so far – nine forwards through free agency. Tampa Bay could have half of their roster or more replaced by opening night in 2008. Barrie says, "I'll predict right now, Tampa Bay will win the division. That's how much we like our team." Uh, no…too many new parts of indiscriminate assembly. We say…80 points.



Ron Hainsey is a nice defenseman. Is he $4.5 million a year for five years nice? Probably not, but consider the Thrashers’ plight…they are now used as bargaining leverage, as in, “you could end up in Atlanta.” And this a club that was a playoff team two years ago. As for Hainsey, he has two full NHL seasons under his belt, so the thinking here must be “upside”…as in, this guy still must have some considerable upside. Given that he is now the second highest salaried Thrasher, he’d better have some. What Atlanta gets is a guy who probably doesn’t play to his size (tied for 145th among defensemen in hits last year), who has a glimmer of offensive potential. Statistically, he is vaguely reminiscent of Tom Poti.


Bobby Holik…might have found a home and a role with Atlanta after being bought out by the Rangers, a team that miscast him from his checking/shut down role he enjoyed with the Devils. Well, it didn’t work here, either. Over his past 11 seasons, the last three in Atlanta were his worst offensively and his worst on the plus/minus ledger. Given that Atlanta was 29th in the NHL this past season in goals allowed per game (15th and 24th the previous two seasons), he wasn’t helping to shut down much of anything. He might find a role more to his liking back in New Jersey, but in Atlanta, the value of his leaving is in freeing up $4.25 million in cap room.

Mark Recchi…didn’t really contribute that much to the Thrashers last year. After the trading deadline, he was 2-9-11, -7, in 18 games. In his last dozen games, only twice was his ice time over his average for the year. Atlanta might not make up his overall production this year, but for a team that has to move forward, it isn’t production that will be missed all that much.


Johan Hedberg…seems, at this point, comfortable with his role. Whether the number one ends up being Kari Lehtonen or Ondrej Pavelec, Hedberg will be the guy in the baseball cap, ready to go. And having played 57 games over his two years with Atlanta, it seems a good bet he’ll get work.

Eric Boulton…Here’s your fun Eric Boulton fact – in seven seasons, he’s never had as many as ten points. Four times he’s had more than 100 PIMs, including three times when he played fewer than 60 games.

On balance, on paper…

This isn’t a very good team. They didn’t add much. When the big thing is that they are close to signing Ilya Nikulin, there doesn’t seem to be a lot in the near term future, either. This is a team that is years away from competing.



Joni Pitkanen…the restricted free agent came over in a trade for Erik Cole, but is on the receiving end of a three-year, $12 million extension. Pitkanen had a good rookie year with the Flyers, then a very good year the following season. But in that second season, he suffered a torn abdominal muscle, the result of which was his missing 21 games. The next year, on a bad Flyers team, he had an indifferent season that resulted in his being traded to Edmonton. He then had another disappointing season (given the expectations he brings as a former #4 overall pick). Now, he tries to resurrect his career on a team that needs defensive help (25th in goals allowed per game last year) and offensive support from the blue line (no defenseman had more than 25 points scored with the club – Joe Corvo had more for the season, but he arrived in trade).

Josef Melichar…is something of an interesting selection. Melichar, formerly of Pittsburgh, spent all of last season in Europe. He is likely to contribute next to no offense, but looking at the Carolina roster, there isn’t a “defensive” defenseman in the group (ok, a good defensive defenseman). If Pitkanen is supposed to contribute offense – and he is – then Melichar is supposed to contribute defense. Carolina could use it. We’re thinking they’ll come up short.


Keith Aucoin…53 games of NHL experience, 38 of them last year. Not exactly a crippling loss.

Glen Wesley…losing a veteran of almost 1,500 NHL games to retirement might be a problem in a lot of places, but Carolina has enough veteran leadership to allow them to deal with this loss. It doesn’t help that it is another hole on the blue line, though.


Michael Leighton…has been in the league for four seasons. He had a 34-game year in Chicago in 2003-2004. Other than that, he has yet to register as many as ten games in a season. This is his seventh organization (Chicago, Buffalo, Anaheim, Nashville, Anaheim, Montreal, and Philadelphia being the first six). Cam Ward played 69 games last year…he might play more this year if Leighton is the backup.

Dennis Seidenberg…is a decent defenseman on a team that needs a good deal more. He received a 50 percent raise with his contract extension, but it would be nice if he was more durable. Over the past three seasons with three different teams (Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Carolina) he has missed more than a third of the games played with a variety of injuries (concussion, wrist, knee twice, and ankle).

Tuumo Ruutu…showed promise off of his rookie year in Chicago in 2003-2004 (23-21-44 in 82 games), but has seen his production decline ever since. He played only 15 games in 2005-2006 (back and ankle injuries limiting him to a 2-3-5 finish), but in the two full seasons since then was 17-21-38, then 10-22-32 last year, split between Chicago and Carolina. On the Carolina depth chart, he is on the third line, manning the left side, for which $2.25 million might be a lot of money (although it is only for one year).

Tim Gleason…might be the best defenseman on the Hurricanes, even with the addition last year of Joe Corvo and the recent addition of Joni Pitkanen. Still only 25 years old, he has 262 games of NHL experience. He might not put up a lot of numbers from the blue line (he doesn’t have, for instance, a 20-point season), but he could be important to letting Corvo or Pitkanen contribute on offense without giving up too much the other way.

On balance, on paper…

Carolina has more or less only tweaked their roster, hoping to squeeze out the extra two or three points they needed to win the Southeast Division last year. The trouble is, 94 points doesn’t seem likely to be enough to win the Southeast this coming year. Carolina probably won’t fall back much with these changes, but they need more to be a division favorite, too.



Cory Stillman…the Southeast Division tour continues. Florida is Stillman’s third stop in the Southeast (Tampa Bay and Carolina being the other two – with Stanley Cups won at each). He brings two things Florida can use…experience and reliability. Florida had a total of three wingers who played in more than 60 games. In his 12 full seasons, Stillman has played in at least 72 games nine times. He brings a total of 839 games of experience, not to mention those two Cups. Florida had three 20-plus goal scorers and two 50-plus point scorers, and a player who was both – Olli Jokinen – is gone. Only once in the last seven seasons has Stillman had fewer than 20 goals; only twice has he had fewer than 50 points. While he has some mileage on him (he will be 35 in December), he is one of those “next tier” signings that is probably going to be more successful than the flashy stuff. He is not the “last piece” by any means to the Florida playoff puzzle, but he will make this a better team.


Olli Jokinen…finally escapes. He has 723 regular season games under his belt. He has no playoff games on his resume. He is tops among active players in that measure of futility and will set the record early next year (Guy Charron – 734). He leaves Florida serving as an appropriate enigma, emblematic of the Panthers’ frustration. He was their best player in recent years; he led the club in goals, assists, and points last year. But he was also a brutal -19, worst (by far) on the team. Only 12 players in the league were worse. Florida will miss the Jokinen of 2006-2007 (39-52-91, +18); they will not miss the Jokinen of last year…it was time for him to move on.


Rostislav Olesz…is a former #7 overall pick who has not (yet?) blossomed. He is 33-44-77 in 190 NHL games. With Jokinen gone, it’s time for him to step up. But first, he has to show up. In three full seasons, he’s had his share of injuries – knee, shoulder, hand.

Greg Campbell…won’t dominate the stat sheet, but he’s improved steadily over his three full seasons and has gotten increasing ice time in the mean time. But, -11, -10, -12 in those three years has to improve.

On balance, on paper…

Florida will not miss Jokinen as much as his career statistics suggest, and Stillman could be a pleasant surprise – a solid pro for a team that needs one. Much of their outlook depends on resigning their restricted free agents (losing Jay Bouwmeester would, for example, be a disaster for this club). As currently constituted, they probably slip back a notch.

Grading the Division So Far…

Tampa…We look at Tampa and think, “Al Czervik,” the character in “Caddyshack” who tossed money around like confetti without a clue about what he was doing (“I’ll take six o’ those…gimme a box o’ those…”). They will have won the off season, but it won’t be enough to make the playoffs, Len Barrie’s confidence notwithstanding. Grade: C

Washington…The Caps lost a bit of ground here, but had a backup plan to cope with the loss of Cristobal Huet. It is a team that is built to stand pat (depending as it does on its youth). Part of that is not losing its youth, and keeping Mike Green is part of that. Grade: B-

Atlanta…It’s hard to see a way where Atlanta escapes the Southeast Division cellar this year. Their performance in free agency hasn’t put a coat of optimism on that view. To its credit, we suppose, it hasn’t tried to buy its way to a shortcut back to competitiveness…such strategies rarely, if ever, work (as Tampa will find out). Grade: C-

Florida…We’ll say right now that Cory Stillman will be the best UFA addition (as opposed to re-signing) in the Southeast this year. It will not make Florida a playoff team; there are too many holes. They will probably fight with Tampa Bay to see who can win the Sunshine State. Grade: B-

Carolina…The free agency period seems more for fans and media that it is for teams. Big signings more often than not, it seems, are all sizzle and no steak. Carolina pursued a moderate path, adding players where they need them (defense) and eschewing the big deal. Does this make them better? They will miss Erik Cole, but they are probably a more balanced team. Their success depends more on who returns (Eric Staal, Rod Brind’Amour, and Cam Ward in particular), but the moves they've made look measured and sensible. Grade: B

Day Two...The Need for Speed

Today was Day Two of "Christmas Hockey in July" at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. We took in the morning session with the Group B players, and the keywords seemed to be "gadgets" and "speed." The first half of the session was devoted to measurement -- spider-like meters set up around the ice surface in what seemed to be an effort to measure individual players' speed...blue line-to-blue line, taking corners, and a number of slalom-type courses. After a few of those, it seemed the guys were ready (we'd have been dead).

After the ice was resurfaced, Coach Boudreau took over the session and worked the boys through a number of skating drills. The Coach does seem to be in his element, taking advantage of the teaching moment. Some of the time, it almost looked as if the drills were as much an effort to see who could remember the instructions...

The highlight, though, was a competition at the end of the session. The group was divided into two squads, and pucks were lined up at each blue line. The object of the exercise was to deposit all of the pucks into the net, players taking turns in the effort. If a player missed, he had to collect the puck and high-tail it back to the blue line, leaving the biscuit for another player. First team to clean its blue line of all the pucks wins. The group shooting at the balcony end of the ice fell behind early and at one point had four pucks left to the Caps "Retired Numbers" end group's one puck remaining. But the Balcony Boys crawled back to tie things up, each group with a puck remaining. This brought out the competitive juices of each team as the tempo picked up in skating in, shooting, and -- several times, it turned out -- lugging the puck back to the blue line to get the next skater on.

Finally, the Balcony boys completed their comeback, and you'd have thought the guys had won a championship as they leaped off the bench to congratulate one another. The losers had to stick around to do a round of "herbies" (the full herbie...blue line/back, red line/back, far blue line/back, far goal line/back).

All in all, a very nice way to spend a summer's day in sweltering DC.

click on the images for larger versions.