The free agent market proves to be unfriendly to veteran NHL talent

1 Comment

andreaslilja1.jpgThis off-season’s free agent market, in case you haven’t noticed, hasn’t been all that friendly to those veterans seeking new employment in the NHL. Both superstars and role players alike are finding out that the job market in the NHL is almost as difficult as the job market is for regular Americans and Canadians alike. While it’s tough as a regular everyday shmoe to really feel badly for guys that make at least $500,000 a year, for players that many fans have enjoyed watching throughout their careers, it’s easy to empathize with their plight.

Mlive.com’s George Malik leads us to a Swedish website with a story about former Red Wings defenseman Andreas Lilja who sounds a bit frustrated after the Red Wings filled out their defensive depth with former Ducks and Avalanche defenseman Ruslan Salei. For Lilja, who had been in contact with the Red Wings throughout the summer, having the Red Wings go in another direction has left him feeling cold about his prospects and worried about his family.

The biggest frustration isn’t at the professional level.  It’s at the social level.

“The vast majority of the frustrations are for family, I think.  The fact that we have children who attend school, you want to go to the city you’re going to play in to get them into school, get into the system as soon as possible and find a house and so on.  So it becomes tougher and tougher as each day passes.”

To add to that, Lilja is skeptical about what NHL teams’ motives are for not employing players who are in similar situations to his. Those being veteran players with at least a decent playing resume to stand up for them.

“They want to drive down salaries.  At the same time, I believe that there are many teams that want to attract younger players and give them a chance to play,” he says.

If nothing else, those reasons are all connected. Younger players are generally on cheaper contracts because whether they’re free agents or draft picks, younger players aren’t going to get a lot of money until they’ve proven themselves in the league. Even then, trying to land a big contract can be difficult. Just ask Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan.

While Lilja recognizes that playing in Europe is always an option, it appears to be one he’s not eager to embrace as European leagues have already started training camps. As the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch shares with us, for some veteran players like Shean Donovan going to Europe, while not an optimal choice, is at least still a choice that exists.

“If there’s no chance of me getting a deal, then I’ll be okay with Europe and we’ll make a decision about where we’re going to go in Europe. The decision is going to be about my family and what’s the best situation for them.”

Donovan has worked hard to stay in shape this summer. He has been skating with Senators winger Chris Neil and some of his family on a regular basis. This week, Donovan is focusing on training in the gym.

Donovan played only a limited role with the Senators, struggling with a knee injury that forced him to miss 14 games last season.

“I’ve told every team I’ve spoken with in Europe that I’m committed to trying to play in the NHL first,” said Donovan. “I’m just going to wait until training camp. I’ve let them know that’s where I’m at.

“I will play somewhere. A couple of (NHL) teams have said they were interested, but every team has been dealing with things like arbitrations and getting their own free agents signed.

“I don’t really know what I’m going to do here.”

For guys in positions like Donovan and Lilja where they’re not superstars and are instead third-pair defensemen or third and fourth line players, this is what the league’s nature has become. If you’re not an exceptional player, you’d better be willing to play for potentially below market value or else there’ll be someone willing to play for less or a younger guy automatically making less that can take your spot. It’s stuff like this that spurred my spitball theory on having now be the right time for expansion in the NHL.

While guys like Shean Donovan or Andreas Lilja may not immediately come to mind as important NHL players, they’re guys that understand their role in the game and have the smarts to keep up with the way the league plays. Lilja was one of Detroit’s hidden gems in their Stanley Cup season in 2008. Donovan has been a role player throughout his career and has managed to defy some opinions and able to stay in the NHL. If jobs for players like these two are going to rookies and unproven foreign imports, this makes for an uncomfortable trend amongst veteran players who have earned their keep in the NHL over the years and one that will provide a fascinating case study for success and player development should it continue.

U.S.-Canada women’s hockey classic makes us forget NHL

Getty Images
1 Comment

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Who needs the NHL?

We’re good with Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson pulling off the sickest of moves – her shoulders dipping to and fro, her blades cutting this way and that, her magic wand of a stick guiding the puck past a helpless Canadian goalie who had been reduced to a pretzel.

We’re good with Maddie Rooney making one last stop – squeezing shut the tantalizing gap in her pads as the shooter swerved in front of the net, swatting away a puck that lingered perilously in the crease, throwing up her arms and disappearing into a dog pile of blue-clad teammates near the blue line.

Certainly, this was the only gold medal hockey game that matters at these Winter Olympics.

When it was done – three thrilling periods of regulation, another free-wheeling 20 minutes of overtime, a shootout that went six tension-filled rounds – the Americans littered the ice the sticks, gloves and helmets, whooping it up in a raucous, fitting celebration of their 3-2 triumph over the heartbroken Canadians .

Some will surely say this was a victory for women’s hockey.

That would be selling it short.

This was a victory for all of hockey.

”They played great. We played great,” Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin said, her voice barely above a whisper. ”It just shows how much women’s hockey is growing. We want to keep going, keep getting better.”

When the NHL decided to sit out the Pyeongchang Games, its stars were replaced in the men’s bracket by minor-leaguers, European professionals and only a smattering of recognizable names.

But the Olympics got the undisputed best of the women’s game, monopolized by two North American powerhouses that are the bitterest of rivals and the only real challenge to each other.

The U.S. claimed the first Olympic title, before Canada ripped off four in succession. The two countries have divvied up every women’s world championship since that tournament began in 1990, leaving the rest of the world to scramble for the crumbs. The asymmetrical balance of power must change if the sport is to really grow, but there was no question about the quality of play on Thursday.

Dazzling.

The Americans jumped ahead in the first period. The Canadians claimed the lead with two goals in the second. That set up a crucial sequence with just under 7 minutes left in the third.

Canada’s Laura Stacy swooped in all alone on Rooney, looking to put a capper on another gold medal with a shot into the top left corner. But the 20-year-old goaltender nicked the puck with her blocker, just enough to send it wide of the bar and careening around the boards. Kelly Pannek picked it off in front of the American bench and spotted teammate Monique Lamoureux-Morando – Jocelyn’s twin – breaking free behind the Canadian defense.

The pass was right on the mark. Lamoureux-Morando glided in on the breakaway, holding the puck as long as she could before lifting a shot over the glove of Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados.

It stayed 2-2 through the rest of regulation, setting up a 4-on-4 overtime period. Even with one less skater per side and all that open ice, neither team was able to break through with the winning goal. The gold medal would be decided with a shootout, which is generally a less-than-satisfying way of settling such an important matter .

This was the exception.

First, Gigi Marvin pulled off a brilliant recovery to put the Americans ahead. Beginning to fall and the puck slipping away, she somehow managed to flick it past Szabados before crashing into the side of the net.

Then it was Melodie Daoust giving Canada the upper hand with a stunner of a move. She looped through the right faceoff circle, darted down in front of Rooney to drag her across the crease, before reaching back to bury a one-handed swing of a shot.

Rooney and Szabados had their moments, too, making three saves apiece to send the shootout to sudden death.

Lamoureux-Davidson went for the Americans. As she bore down on Szabados, the toying began.

A fake to the right. A deke to the left. Finally, back to the right again – the sort of ankle-breaking tactic one might expect from Steph Curry. Szabados desperately flailed her body in front of the net, even losing hold of her stick, but she didn’t have a chance.

Canada sent out Meghan Agosta, who had beaten Rooney earlier in the shootout with a shot to an upper corner – top shelf, they call it – but the young American foiled a repeat by venturing far out of the crease. Agosta sliced to her left and thought she spotted enough of an opening in the pads to slip one through the five-hole. Rooney knew what was coming, sealing off the gap with both her stick and pads.

She didn’t totally stop the puck, but got enough of it to leave it about a foot short of the goal line. Rooney knocked it away just in case. The celebration was on.

”It shows how tight our teams are,” U.S. forward Hannah Brandt said. ”Obviously, it’s tough for it to come down to a shootout like that. But just a great game. I hope everyone had a good time watching it.”

The NHL?

Not needed here.

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press

Trade: Bruins send Frank Vatrano to Panthers

Getty
6 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

After acquiring Nick Holden from the New York Rangers earlier this week the Boston Bruins were busy again on Thursday by completing their second trade of the week.

Let’s take a look at the deal.

The trade: Bruins trade forward Frank Vatrano to the Florida Panthers in exchange for a 2018 third-round draft pick.

Why the Bruins are making this trade: There was a time when Vatrano seemed like he was going to be a big deal for the Bruins but it simply has not worked out. They have had a wave of young talent come through the organization in recent years and Vatrano has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle. He was not getting regular playing time, his production has not been great when he has played, and it just seems like he might need a fresh start in a new situation. The Bruins were able to pick up a pick for him that they can maybe use as trade bait in another move or to help replenish the cupboard after making other moves leading up to the trade deadline (such as the one where they traded a pick for Holden).

Why the Panthers are making this trade: It is a good low-risk, potentially high-reward move. Even though things did not work out for Vatrano in Boston he is still a player that has some talent and has shown flashes of ability in the past. During the 2015-16 season he scored 36 goals in 36 AHL games and scored another eight in his first taste of NHL action that season in 39 games. He came back last season and scored 10 goals and eight assists in 44 games with the Bruins. So there is some ability there. The Panthers probably are not going to make the playoffs this season, even after their recent surge, but it never hurts to add a young player with some potential for a small price. That is exactly what they did here.

Who won the trade? It was pretty clear Vatrano was not going to work out in Boston any longer so they were able to get something back in return, but there is a good chance that Vatrano will contribute more to the Panthers than whoever they would have selected with that third-round pick, and he is still young enough to potentially be a player for them going forward. Maybe a slight edge to the Panthers?

[Related: Bruins acquire Nick Holden from New York Rangers]

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Senators seem to be in no-win situation with Erik Karlsson

Getty
8 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Imagine being an Ottawa Senators fan right now.

Now that you have done that for a second and hopefully resisted the urge to set yourself on fire, try to picture the situation that your favorite team is currently facing.

Less than one year removed from being a double overtime Game 7 loss away from being in the Stanley Cup Final, your team is now one of the worst in the NHL and doesn’t seem to have a terribly bright short-term future in front of it.

Your team does have one of the NHL’s best players in Erik Karlsson, a generational talent on defense that can impact the game in a way few defenders ever have.

That is good.

But now your team is in a situation where it probably won’t be able to keep him.

That is … less than good.

It is no secret that Karlsson, whose contract expires after the 2018-19 season, is going to want to become one of the highest paid players in the NHL (as he should be) and is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Senators are going to be able or willing to handle that demand. And even if they could, Karlsson has to actually want to re-sign there.

Are the Senators going to be able to build a competitive team around him? Is he going to want to commit to the team they might be able to build or are building?

Big questions that leave the team in the situation it is facing right now where it has to decide whether or not to trade him at some point before the end of next season.

There is already growing speculation that it could happen before Monday’s trade deadline.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie wrote on Wednesday that the Senators are at least open to the idea of trading Karlsson this season before the deadline, and that a potential deal could also include the Senators trying to package Bobby Ryan with him in an effort to dump the remainder of Ryan’s contract. That would not only severely limit the number of teams that could actually complete a trade, but it would also probably reduce the return they get for Karlsson.

At this point it’s all just talk and speculation, but it’s still a sad reality to consider for Senators fans.

Think about the message that sort of trade would send to your fans.

It would basically be: Hey, we can’t really keep the best player we have and maybe the best player you will ever see play for our team in your lifetime. Oh, and one more thing, we also took a slightly lesser return for him so we could dump another contract we can’t afford. Sorry about that.

It just stinks to even consider.

Having said that, if the Senators are going to do it, if they are going to trade Erik freaking Karlsson, this might sadly be the best possible time to do it.

Normally I am one billion percent opposed to trading players like Karlsson.

You can’t win without them. They are nearly impossible to acquire. You can rarely, if ever, get fair value for them back in return. It is worth paying them top dollar under the salary cap, even if it means you have to trim somewhere else around the edges to keep them. One truly great player is worth more than two pretty good players.

But if you think your chances of keeping the player are slim — whether because you can’t afford them or because they don’t want to re-sign with you — can you really risk losing a player like that for nothing?

If the Senators wait until the offseason or at some point into next season the return likely diminishes because the team getting him is only guaranteed to have him for one season (or less). Any team that trades for him now gets two potential Stanley Cup runs with him. His value is probably never going to be higher than it is right now.

If the Senators actually go through with it would be the type of move we don’t normally see at trade deadline time. The biggest impact players that have been traded over the past years (Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, etc.) have been players that were already in the final year of their contracts. This is a player that is not only one of the best in the world, but still has term remaining.

In the end, it all just seems to be a no-win situation for the Senators.

Keeping him and hoping that he re-signs is a huge risk because losing him for nothing would be a devastating.

Trading him is a gut punch to your fans because you only get players like him every so often and you’re probably not going to get fair value back.

Waiting to trade him next season probably only lessons the return based on how much time the team trading for him is guaranteed to have with him.

But what other choice do the Senators have? There is nothing to suggest this season is a fluke for the Senators (if anything, the previous season was the fluke) and that better days are ahead. There is nothing to suggest they are going to make significant investments to build a better team around Karlsson in the next year to convince him to stay.

If these are the final days of Karlsson as a member of the Senators, it is a frustrating way to go out.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Canadiens’ Shea Weber to undergo foot surgery, miss rest of season

Getty Images
3 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The Montreal Canadiens won’t be participating in the playoffs, so on Thursday it was announced that Shea Weber is set to undergo surgery to repair a tear in a tendon in his left foot, ending his season.

˝Following the diagnosis of Shea Weber’s injury, it was our belief that after a comprehensive rehabilitation protocol under the guidance of our medical team, Shea would be able to return to play this season,” said the team’s orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Paul Martineau in a statement. “Unfortunately, after extensive efforts to heal Shea’s injury, progress has not been made as expected. After further exams, and a consultation on Wednesday in Green Bay, Wisconsin with specialist Dr. Robert Anderson, and with Shea’s approval, it has been determined that he should undergo surgery and will be out for the reminder of the season.

“Our medical group will work with Shea to ensure he is pursuing the best course of treatment moving forward, and we expect him to make a full recovery and be ready for the start of training camp next season. The length of his recovery will be determined following surgery, which will be performed by Dr. Anderson.”

The 32-year-old Weber has not played a game since the Dec. 16 outdoor game in Ottawa. Last week, Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said the defenseman’s foot still wasn’t comfortable in his skate and was going get it evaluated to determine a path to recovery. Surgery is now the only way back.

Weber only played 26 games this season, scoring six goals and recording 16 points. It’s the most time he’s missed since 2007-08 when he suffered a pair of leg injuries while with the Nashville Predators. The Habs’ season is long gone, so there’s no reason to put the blue liner, who still has six more seasons left on his contract, at risk.

Now when do the Chicago Blackhawks do the same with Corey Crawford?

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.