NHL Free Agency: 2012 Wrap up

zach-pariseWhile calling it a “frenzy” might be a bit inaccurate, the first two weeks of NHL Free Agency have been eventful. Here are a few thoughts about the signings and lack thereof.

1) The Minnesota Heat

The two biggest prizes of the free agent class both headed North in the hopes of revitalizing a hotbed of American hockey. On the 4th of July, both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed identical 13 year contracts with Minnesota Wild totalling $98 million (and a $7.5 million cap hit). The move instantly makes the hockey crazed state of Minnesota relevant again as both players are young difference makers and strong leaders in the locker room. The moves though do not make the Wild Cup favorites. Offensively, the Wild can put together a great top line of Parise-Mikko Koviu-Dany Heatley, but after that there are questions as the rest of the offense is full of youth and depth players. Suter will also anchor a very young defensive corp. So the Wild will eventually be good, but do not expect a Stanley Cup run next year.

The other interesting story here is how these deals got done and the parellels to the 2010 NBA off-season. Reportedly, Parise and Suter were in communication during the negotiations and work together to get deals done, à la Lebron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade. It was reported other teams made stronger offers to each player, but both chose to go to the same spot, which happens to be Parise’s hometown. Much like Bosh and James going where James wanted to go, with friend Wade. It will be interesting to see whether this is an isolated situation or a new trend in the NHL.

2) What About Semin?

We are officially two weeks into the free agent period and arguably the most talented player avaliable is still without a home. Alex Semin, formerly of the Washington Capitals, is a former 40 goal scorer and is thought by many to have the talent to be a Top 5 player in the NHL. So why is he unsigned? Semin is reportedly seeking a multiyear deal and teams are unwilling to give the enigmatic Semin term. Despite improved 2 way play under Hunter, Semin has a reputation for being lazy, only playing when he wants to, taking bad penalties, and disappearing when the games matter the most. He was also famously ripped by the TSN Canada panel as a “coach killer” and “complete loser”. There is also the KHL question, where he reportedly has a $10 million per year offer.

So when and where does he go? Semin will land somewhere, but if he wants term it will be in the KHL or for a lower tier NHL franchise, like the Islanders or Blue Jackets (although the idea of Semin with Taveres could work). Look for Pittsburgh, who reportedly offered a deal, to be in the mix for a 1 year deal after missing out on Parise and the always offense starved Rangers to make a bid. And do not count out Detroit, where Datsyuk could provide an example and leadership for the Russian star.

3) Who Improved the Most?

The easy, and likely correct, answer here is the Minnesota Wild. But besides the Wild, the Colorado Avalanche had a nice yet not flashy FA haul. Their big signing was former Islander PA Parenteau, who will add upwards of 40 assists and 20 goals to the Avalanche attack. Some will argue they overpaid, but the Avs were in the playoff race early last season and were willing to pay to improve their staying power ths year. The Avs also added former Ranger depth forward John Mitchell, who played important minutes in the playoffs last year and can add some goals here and there. Mitchell is a very good under the radar signing for a team looking to make the playoffs. On the back-end, Colorado resigned young defenseman Erik Johnson and added veteran stay a home defender depth in Greg Zanon. Again, not flashy, but solid moves.

Other “A” signings included:

– Mikael Samuelsson back to Detroit: Maybe the steal of FA. If he’s healthy, he scores 20 easy.

– Joe Corvo back to Carolina: Corvo has always had success in his previous runs with the Canes and will now QB a powerplay with Staal, Staal, Skinner, and Cole. Not too bad.- –

-Jason Garrison to Vancouver: The Canucks continue to bolster their defense corp year after year and Garrison will work the powerplay point well with Edler. And kudos to Garrison taking less (although still a lot) of money to play in his hometown for a contender.

– Wojtek Wolski to DC: The shootout specialist has had 2 straight down years, but the Caps signed him for 1 year just north of the leage minimum. Even a 10 goal year and this is a steal with little risk.

4) “Knock, Knock, Anyone Home?”

With the Wild landing the 2 biggest names, there are a lot of teams usually near the top in terms of salary that are over $10 million under the cap, including the Red Wings, Penguins, Capitals, and Rangers. We know the Pens are low after being shut out of the Parise sweepstakes, but the others are surprising considering all had needs that could have been met. The Capitals need a Top 6 forward, and Wolski does not count yet (and with Green and Carlson as RFA, their salary will grow). The Rangers need an offensive boost as usual, and even the Wings need help on the backend after the retirement of Nick Lidstrom. This inaction coupled with cap space could mean some big in season trades for these perennial contenders.

5) What are the Stars doing?

When the Dallas Stars sent center Mike Riberio to the Capitals on draft day, it signaled to many that the Stars were beginning a rebuild. Less than a week later, they added the 2 oldest forwards on the market in Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr. Not quite the standard rebuild model. These deals would seem to say the Stars think they can compete this year, despite trading away their top playmaker in Riberio. Others have suggested the Jagr was a “name grab”, as attendance was low last season. Still, very curious moves in Big D.

Capitals tab Adam Oates Head Coach

Adam OatesThe search for the next head coach of the Washington Capitals came to an end Tuesday with the news that Adam Oates would become the 16th coach in franchise history. The former Devil’s assistant reportedly beat out former Hawks Assistant Mike Havelind and Norfolk Admiral Head Coach John Cooper for the job. Oates has no head coaching experience but has been an assistant coach in both Tampa Bay and New Jersey, culminating in this past seasons run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Oates also had a stellar playing career, ranking 6th on the All Time list for career Assists and 16th overall in Points. And like his predecessor Dale Hunter, Oates is a former Capital, spending 6 years in DC, which continues the recent trend in Washington of bringing old players back into the fold. He was also a key component to the Capitals only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.

General Manager George McPhee’s decision to hire Oates will surprise some who maybe expected him to opt for a more experienced coaching, but in reality it was predictable. McPhee has hired 4 coaches before Oates, none of which had any previous NHL head coaching experience. And despite saying he wanting to bring Hunter back, McPhee recently has made comments that seem to say he was not as enamoured by Hunter’s style of play as we thought. Oates has never been a head coach, so it is difficult to judge what his style is but we can look at for a clue is his playing style and the systems he has coached in. As a player, Oates was known as a cerebral player, which manifested itself on the ice as he was one of the most élite playmakers in the league during his career. As a top center, Oates also needed to be and was defensively responsible, which is also a hallmark of cerebral hockey players. In terms of system, the previously trapping Devils became a much more offensive and balanced under DeBoer and by association Oates, while still stressing defense. All this seems to point to the Capitals hiring a down the middle coach, which seems to be what is needed following the extremes of Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter, while acknowledging the offensive tendencies of the roster. Oates has also been described by past teammates and players like Petr Bondra, Jeff Halpern, and Danius Zubrus as being a brilliant offensive mind, a man’s man coach, and an excellent communicator. All good signs for a first time head coach.

Another interesting angle to take on this hire is the Ovechkin factor. As an assistant in New Jersey, Oates had at least some role in transforming Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russian Kovalchuk had always been a goal scorer, but saw his numbers drop as his career went on. He also had a stigma for being lazy on defense. Sounds a lot like the criticisms of Ovechkin. But, as a Devil, Kovalchuk learned to play a more complete game on the entire ice surface and even saw time on the penalty kill. Kovalchuk also started to use his teammates more in the offensive zone rather than going one on one all the time. One has to assume that Oates had a role in remaking Kovalchuk into a complete player and that he can to do the same for Ovechkin who finds himself in almost the exact spot Kovalchuk was in. And if that happens, look out.

There are some question marks though with the hire. Oates has never won a Stanley Cup in any capacity and the Capitals are desperate. Maybe it would have made more sense to bringing someone who has done it before (although his run with the Devils last year should ease that concern a bit). In addition, all accounts from former players about how great a coach he is relates to him as an assistant. The assistant is always he favorite coach and no one knows how he will operate as the head man. For all the deserved accolades, there’s no doubt there is a great deal of uncertainty in this hire, which could spell trouble for a team with the aspirations of the Washington Capitals.

With that said, Oates track record would seem to say he can do the job as he has seen success as a player and assistant. And to make McPhee look even better, he can now say his new Head Coach is a Hall of Famer, since about 2 hours after he was hired, Adam Oates was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Safe to say Oates and the Caps have had a better day than you have had.

Penguins, Capitals win the NHL Draft; Columbus the big loser

NHL Draft Class 2012With the CBA looming, the Pittsburgh Penguins both hosted and were maybe the biggest player at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Here are some of the biggest winners and losers of the 2012 NHL Draft.

Winner: Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguin’s GM Ray Shero continues to prove he is one of the best in the business. For years now, the Penguins have had the greatest luxury in hockey, a 2nd (or even 1st) line center playing on the 3rd line in Jordan Staal. News broke just before the draft that Staal had turned down a 10 year contract in Pittsburgh and the race was on to try to land the center in light of a thin free agent class. Now, Shero could have kept Staal for the upcoming season, which many thought was possible given his skill and the Penguins ambitions for a Stanley Cup. The only way Shero would make the deal is if it did not hurt those ambitions. And despite knowing he would be available next offseason, Shero found a buyer, moving Staal to Carolina to join his brother Eric for center Brandon Sutter, prospect Brian Dumoulin, and the 8th overall pick in the draft, an extremely impressive haul for a player who wanted out. While Sutter is not as gifted offensively as Staal, he is arguably better defensively and has not yet reached his potential as an offensive player (and it’s not as if the Pens are short on talent down the middle). He is a more true 3rd line center than Staal and really creates balance in the Penguins offensive attack. The Penguins used the 8th pick on defenseman Derrick Pouliot (14th ranked North American skater and 8th best defenseman) before somehow adding the 4th highest rated North American defenseman Olli Maatta at 22. That’s two top 8 North American defenseman in a draft where almost everyone picked defenseman. And to top it off, Shero moved the overpaid Zybnek Michalek back to the Coyotes, clearing cap space for a run at Ryan Suter. An impressive weekend for the host Pens.

Loser: Columbus Blue Jackets
If Shero is the best, Scott Howson is one of the worst. While their 2nd pick Ryan Murray is one of the few NHL ready prospects in the draft, Howson reported turned down EVERY ISLANDER PICK, including the 4th overall pick, for the 2nd pick. While the immediate dropoff from Murray to the 4th pick (Griffin Reinhard) is big, it will not be in the longterm. And the Jackets are supposedly trying to rebuild. An addition 6 draft picks could have moved that rebuild up a year. Howson’s decision defies logic. And this was after he traded 3 picks (2 this year including a 2nd rounder) to the Flyers for the wildly inconsistent Sergi Bobrovsky. Top that off with there still being no resolution to the Rick Nash saga and it was not a good weekend for the Blue Jackets.

Winner: Washington Capitals
Capitals GM George McPhee made his most aggressive move yet to fill one of his teams biggest needs when he traded prospect Cody Eakin and a 2nd round pick for center Mike Riberio. For the last 5 years the Caps have been searching for a legitimate 2nd line center and Riberio is the most skilled player to try to fill the role yet. He routinely tops the 50 assist 70 point mark and should flourish playing either with Ovechkin or on the 2nd line with lesser defenders. He also has a tough streak for being such a skilled player and is great in the shootout. Huge improvement. And the cost was low for a player of Riberio’s caliber as Eakin projects as a 3rd line center and they kept both their 1st round picks. And it is good that they did, since the top rated European skater Filip Forsberg fell into McPhee’s lap at number 11 due to the run on defenders early. With the impending departure of Semin and the uncertainly surrounding Kuznetsov, the big and mature for his age goal scorer with one of the hardest shots in the draft will prove valuable. They later added the toughest player in the draft in Thomas Wilson, which is another type of players the Capitals routinely are looking to trade or sign. All in all a solid weekend for the Capitals.

Loser: Detroit Red Wings
Thee Wings do not do much wrong, but with an old roster and needing to replace Lidstrom, the weekend could have gone better. The Wings again had no 1st round pick as they traded it for Kyle Quincey and had a new horse enter the race for Suter (Penguins). The Red Wings always find late round gems, but someday they are going to need a high draft pick and in a deep draft, this would have been the year to have that pick.

Other Notables:
Despite rumors to the contrary, the Oilers made the right choice at the top, selecting the ultra talented Nail Yakapov. Yakapov will made an immediate impact and unlike other Russians is Canadian trained and is unlikely to ever consider the KHL.- The Bruins also did well, adding the best goalie on the board, Malcom Subban, to replace Thomas down the road. Subban is the brother of Canadien defenseman PK, which will only add more intrigue to one of the most heated rivalries in hockey.- Interesting trade between the Flyers and Leafs went down after the draft with James Van ReimsDyk moving North for Luke Schenn. Nice move by Burke as JVR should thrive with more ice time.

Matt Ragghianti is an NHL writer for The Sports Blitz.  He can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com.

 

NHL Southeast Division offseason checklist

Carolina HurricanesThe draft and free agent signing period is almost here and we here at Daily Shootout have decided to prepare a 3-4 point offseason plan for each team, organized by division. Today we look at the Southeast division:
Carolina Hurricanes:
1) Draft or Trade for a defenseman: The Canes are looking at possibly losing both Bryan Allen and Jaroslav Spacek in free agency. While the loss of Allen might be easier to compensate for filling the shoes of Spacek, both offensively and defensively, it could prove to be more difficult.
2) Trade for a top-notch forward to play alongside Eric Staal: OK. We know Staal has a boatload of talent and can produce when needed. Unfortunately, he spent the past season trying to do too much offensively, thus the defensive part of his game suffered to the tune of a minus-20. Staal needs a forward that can help take the offensive pressure off of him. The Canes do have 2011 Rookie of the Year, Jeff Skinner, but he missed time during the 2011-2012 season with concussion issues. Past that, there’s Jussi Jokinen but he’s getting up there in age and has been battling injuries also. Staal needs someone to play with for much of the season, therefore creating some chemistry with them.
3) Give Kirk Muller a full training camp with the team: The Canes fired Paul Maurice around midseason of the 2011-2012 campaign. Shortly thereafter Muller was named the Canes’ head coach. Muller didn’t have much time to turn things around as the Canes were floundering at the bottom of the Eastern Conference but he did what he could, at least making the team competitive again. He would benefit from an entire training camp with his players though, just to get to know them a bit better. Read more here…

Dale Hunter will not return, options to replace the Capitals head coach

Dale HunterAfter the Capitals fell in a Game 7 to the top seeded Rangers on Saturday night, the mood of the fan base in DC was a familiar one. Yet again their beloved Capitals came up short in a Game 7 in a series they could have won and once again the core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Semin could not bring a Stanley Cup to the Nation’s Capital. But, unlike in past years, there was a feeling of optimism about the loss. Despite a subpar performance in Game 7, the Capitals for once did not exit in embarrassing style. In fact, if not for a missed coverage in triple overtime and a poor penalty in Game 5, there is a chance the Capitals are still dancing. They played inspired hockey and seemed to gel and buy into a system that can get it done in the post season. That optimism vanished this afternoon though, as the man who got the team to play that style and who was suppose to perfect the system next year, Dale Hunter, stepped down as Head Coach of the Washington Capitals.

While this is a gut punch to an organization that despite the loss had made great strides this season thanks in large part to Hunter’s new approach, it should not be a total surprise. Much of the sports media has been discussing for a long time not whether the Capitals would bring Hunter back but whether he would want to come back. As has been well document, Hunter owns a wildly successful team in the Ontario Hockey League (London Knights) that means money is not an issue for the Hunter family. He owns a farm in the area that he has lived on since his retirement from the NHL and his family remained in the area while he was coaching in DC. Not only has the team been successful, but Hunter has proven he can create NHL players, such as John Tavares, Patrick Kane, Michael Del Zotto, and John Carlson. Hunter cites his reasons for leaving being a want to spend time with his family and tend to the family business, the London Knights.

There is no doubt that the react by many in DC will be that Hunter quit on the Capitals. That is an understandable but unfair reaction. If there is any group Hunter owes nothing to, it is the Washington Capitals. He is arguably the most popular players in the history of the franchise and was willing to leave the Knights in the first place to help his former team out. In fact, Hunter has said the Capitals were the only team that he would consider leaving London for. Family should always come first and no one should fault Hunter for not wanting to bring his family back into the rigors of NHL life fulltime. No doubt many will question whether his supposed rocky relationship with Alex Ovechkin played a role in his decision, but unless that story come out from Ovechkin or Hunter, the fans and media owe Dale Hunter the benefit of the doubt.

So what does this mean for the Capitals? Dale Hunter brought to DC what it was desperately missing under previous administrations; accountability, commitment to defense, and toughness. If you did not play well under Hunter, you did not skate, as Mike Knuble, John Erskine, and even the Alex’s (Ovechkin and Semin) learned. That accountability was seen no more than in Ovechkin’s drop in ice time when the team was leading due to his defensive lackings. The Capitals also learned how to play real team playoff defense under Hunter, as they played incredibly in their own end. And everyone bought into it, something Boudreau could never do, due largely in part to Hunter’s pedigree as a coach and player. This was shown no more clearly than in Game 5 when Alex Ovechkin dropped to block a shot from the point. He also took bit players under previous coaches and turned them into key cogs in the machine, such as Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks. But most importantly, Hunter taught this team how to be tough, both mentally and physically. Under his tutelage, the Capitals become the only team in NHL history to bounce back from OT losses with a victory four different times. Many Capitals cited it was easy to bounce back from bad games under Hunter, mainly due to his calm demeanor. This team responded to Hunter better than they ever did Boudreau when it mattered and will be missed.

George McPhee now has quite possibly the most important choice of his time in Washington around the corner; who’s next? The Capitals window for a championship seemed to be shutting this season before Hunter came along. McPhee needs to make sure the team does not regress with the next hire. The news is not all bad though. Hunter was not perfect. With a chance to hire a new coach, McPhee can look for someone who could be an improvement over Hunter in some areas, such as the power play and offensive scheme. He also has a chance to bring someone in with a little more experience dealing with adults rather than teenagers, which was Hunter’s specialty in the OHL. Hunter also reportedly was not a great communicator, which can be improved with the new hire (although we cannot know that for sure). The important thing is he cannot pick an offensive minded coach. He needs to pick someone whose philosophy on winning is similar to Hunter’s. Defense and toughness wins championships, as these Capitals now know.

So who are some options? Here are a few who might fit the bill:

–          Mike Kennan: Iron Mike has been working in the NBCSports studio the last year and is a more charged version of Hunter. He too plays a defensive style and helped an underachieving team reach the promise land in 1994 when he brought the Cup to New York in his only year with the Rangers. He is a much more intense coach than Hunter though, so he might not be the perfect fit if they want Hunter 2.0.

–          Marc Crawford: Similar to Kennan. Veteran coach out of work who has won Cups. He also has experience working with stars as he won the Cup with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.

–          Jim Johnson: Johnson was brought in by Hunter to coach the defense this year with the Capitals. There is no doubt his impact was positive as defense became the hallmark of the team. His main negative is a lack of head coaching experience.

–          Mark French: French is currently the head coach of the Hershey Bears, the Capitals AHL affiliate. The Capitals have gone this route before when they hired Boudreau and it is the trendy thing in the NHL. But, given the success Hunter had implementing the new style; it is unlikely someone from the Boudreau School of coaching will get the job.

–          Brent Sutter: Former Head Coaches of the Flames has not had a lot of success in recent years, but comes from a solid pedigree and would have a much better roster in DC. He won the Stanley Cup twice as a player and led the Canadian Junior team to two gold medals. He also had success with the Devils, who have always been known for their defense. The Capitals seemed to respond well to a former player, and this one has rings.

–          Patrick Roy: This one would seem unlikely has there is also an opening in Montreal. But he has seen success at the Junior level, like Hunter, and has a proven track record of success as a player.

–          Steve Konowalchuk or Craig Berube: Both former Capitals current in assistant in the NHL (Colorado and Philadelphia). Neither has NHL head coaching experience and neither has won Stanley Cups, so they are unlikely hires. More just a fun option to throw in light of Hunter’s connection to the Capitals.

There is no doubt that the decision not to return made by Hunter is a gut punch to the end of a season that was surprisingly optimistic for the future despite the normal playoff failure. The next few months will be very interesting for the Capitals as they not only decide who should coach, but what players return, mainly Mike Green and Alex Semin. But rather than question Hunter’s motives or being angry or worried about the future, Caps fans should thank Hunter for one hell of a post season ride and for showing the Capitals how to win.

Matt Ragghianti is an NHL writer for The Sports Blitz Network and can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com

Stars lead the resilient Capitals to huge win over Rangers

Branden HoltbyThe Washington Capitals responded to their marathon overtime loss in a big way today with a huge 3-2 victory at home to knot the series at 2-2 with the New York Rangers heading back to MSG. They did it with the three keys you need to win in the playoffs; solid defense, stellar goaltending, and excellence for your stars.

In what has become a hallmark for the Dale Hunter Washington Capitals, the line of Jay Beagle, Troy Brouwer, and Matt Hendricks were a force defensively and led all forwards in ice time. Hendricks has become a fan favorite in DC as he made a key block late in the game and was a perfect nine for nine in the face off dot while playing his normal punishing style. And speaking of fan favorite, Holtby again put in a solid performance as both goals were defensive gaffes and he stood tall when it mattered late.

The play of the stars though is a welcome change to this run for the Capitals. Ovechkin scored early on a bad play by Chris Kreider despite playing only 15 minutes in the game. The slumping Backstrom potted the second goal with a rare physical play followed by a nasty wrist shot. And the annual playoff goat Mike Green scored maybe the biggest goal of his career late in the 3rd to ease the pain of Thursday morning. And not to be left out, Alex Semin made the play to help keep the puck in the zone to set up the game winner.

If one thing has been made clear this postseason it is that these are not your typical Washington Capitals. In years past, the heartbreaking triple OT loss to the New York Rangers in Game 3 would have spelled disaster for the Caps. Just as it did in the past when Pat Lafontaine, Petr Nedved, and Martin St Louis ended long games that ultimately ended the season for the Capitals. In the last few seasons, the Capitals would not have even been in this series as the team likely would have lost Game 7 to the Bruins. And no one would pick the much maligned Mike Green to deliver any goals in the postseason, let alone a clutch goal. But these are not your typical Washington Capitals.

There has been many words that have been used to describe the Washington Capitals over the years. Soft. Regular Season or Off Season Champions. Defensively lacking. Lazy. Pittsburgh South. But never resilient. These Capitals are resilient. Every time they have had a chance to wilt, they have answered with wins. Early OT goal by Chris Kelly against the unproven Holtby? Double OT winner by Backstrom. Suspension to Nick Backstrom? Gutty win in Boston. OT loss to Tyler Seguin with a chance to win series on home ice? Joel Ward knocks the Champs out on home ice in dramatic fashion. One goal games do not bother this team and neither does the media trying to make a story out of Ovechkin’s drop in ice time. They are defensively solid and do not panic no matter what the situation, following the lead of their unflappable coach and young goaltender. Players accept their roles and do whatever it takes to win. Dale Hunter has this team believing they can win and the team is buying in. Things will not get any easier in Game 5 as the Capitals will likely have to play without Alex Ovechkin in New York as there is a good chance he will be suspended for a high hit while leaving his feet on Girardi. This series is still up for grabs and neither team will go quietly. The Rangers have always been resilient and they will show up for Game 5 ready to take the driver seat again. But one things is clear. These are not your typical Washington Capitals and they are not ready for this surprise run to end.

Matt Ragghianti is an NHL writer for The Sports Blitz and can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com