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

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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.

Hitch: ‘I see the devastation in our locker room’

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Despite a late comeback attempt, the 2015-16 season came to an end for the St. Louis Blues, as they lost the Western Conference Final in six games to the San Jose Sharks.

And with Wednesday’s loss, the off-season will settle upon the Blues. It will be an intriguing one in St. Louis, starting with their head coach Ken Hitchcock. He’s on a one-year deal and he has already outlined that he’s fine with taking short-term contracts. But is an appearance in the conference final enough to solidify his place behind the St. Louis bench for next year?

The Blues have, according to General Fanager, five pending unrestricted free agent forwards, including Scottie Upshall, Kyle Brodziak, Steve Ott, and most notably Troy Brouwer and David Backes.

Backes, 32, is the team’s captain and coming off a 21-goal, 45-point regular season, which is a decline from the numbers — 26 goals and 58 points — he posted the year before. Brouwer, 30, enjoyed the best post-season of his career, with eight goals and 13 points in 20 games, and he could potentially cash in on that this summer.

However, while there are questions ahead for the Blues, the emotional toll this loss took was clear.

“I see the devastation in our locker room right now. Guys aren’t even able to speak. I’m more worried about our guys right now, to be honest with you. We got some guys that are pretty shook up right now,” said Hitchcock to reporters.

“I’m not going to talk to them for a day or two. They need their space with each other. They’ve bonded together here better than any team I’ve coached in the last 10 years. They need their time together. They don’t need me interrupting them right now. We’ll talk at an appropriate time. But right now they need to be with each other.”

 

Video: So, Joe Thornton is pretty stoked about playing in the Stanley Cup Final

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‘Jumbo’ Joe Thornton is off to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his career. The San Jose Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

And yeah, the 36-year-old Thornton, a veteran of 1,367 regular season games with 1,341 career regular season points, is pretty excited for both himself and his team when it comes to this feat.

It hasn’t been easy in San Jose. It hasn’t been easy for the franchise, for the fans, for the players, for Thornton or for Patrick Marleau, who is also 36 years old and has played his entire career (1,411 regular season games) in San Jose.

There have been playoff failures and a regular season disappointment last year. There has been a coaching change and harsh words exchanged between Thornton and management — more specifically, GM Doug Wilson — and an organizational decision to remove the captaincy from Thornton.

After all that, however, the Sharks are four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Did we mention Joe Thornton is excited about the final?

Franchise history: The Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final

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For the first time in franchise history, the San Jose Sharks are off to the Stanley Cup Final.

This, after a monumental and historical collapse in the first round to the L.A. Kings two years ago. This, after they failed to make the playoffs a year ago, resulting in a coaching change. There have been other post-season disappointments along the way before that, too.

Those difficult times may never be forgotten. But the Sharks have rebounded, and it culminated with a 5-2 victory over the visiting St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday. Fans at SAP Center could feel it, too, especially after Joel Ward scored his second goal of the night, giving San Jose a three-goal lead early in the third period.

The Blues attempted a furious comeback but couldn’t quite complete it.

The Sharks this year have eliminated the Kings, Nashville Predators and now the Blues in that order. They await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins.

 

The Sharks got off to the perfect start in the series clincher versus St. Louis. Joe Pavelski recorded his 13th goal, which leads all players in this post-season, and the Sharks continued to roll from there.

Ward increased the lead in the second period and again in the third. His second of the night proved to be the winner. Joonas Donskoi‘s goal, making it 4-0 San Jose before the midway point of the third period, proved critical as the Blues tried to spark a desperation comeback.

The Blues’ leading scorer Vladimir Tarasenko (40 goals, 74 points in the regular season) was held off the score sheet through the first five games of this series, before finally striking for both St. Louis goals in Game 6.

Penguins, Lightning prepare for the ‘roller coaster’ of Game 7

TAMPA, FL - MAY 24:  Ryan Callahan #24 of the Tampa Bay Lightning checks Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 24, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) Sidney Crosby is in no mood to get caught up in his own personal narrative, the one eager to attach whatever happens to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday against Tampa Bay to the superstar’s legacy.

Forget that Crosby has the game-winning goal in each of Pittsburgh’s victories in its entertaining back-and-forth with the resilient Lightning. Forget that he hasn’t been on the winning side of a post-series handshake line this deep into the playoffs since his glorious night in Detroit seven years ago, which ended with him hoisting the Penguins’ third Stanley Cup.

Yes, he’s playing well. Yes, his dazzling, imminently GIF-able sprint through the Tampa Bay zone late in the second period of Game 6 added another signature moment to a career full of them. Yet lifting Pittsburgh back to the Cup final for the first time since 2009 does not rely solely on him so much as the collective effort of all 20 guys in his team’s retro black and Vegas gold uniforms.

Related: Vasilevskiy ‘is the big reason we’re in Game 7,’ says Bolts coach Cooper

Depth has carried the Penguins this far. Crosby insists Game 7 will be about the team, not him.

“You give yourself the best chance of winning by keeping it simple and not putting too much emphasis on kind of the story line around it,” Crosby said.

Even if it’s easy to get lost in those story lines. The Lightning are on the verge of a second straight berth in the final despite playing the entire postseason without captain Steven Stamkos and losing Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop in the first period of the conference finals when he twisted his left leg awkwardly while scrambling to get into position.

Yet Tampa Bay has stuck around, ceding the ice to the Penguins for significant stretches but using their speed to counterattack brilliantly while relying on 21-year-old goaltender Andrei Vasilevski. The Lightning are hardly intimidated by having to go on the road in a series decider. They did it a year ago in the Eastern final against New York, beating the Rangers 2-0 in Madison Square Garden.

“You’ve got to go back to a tough environment, just like the Garden was last year,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “And you’ve got to have your A-game.”

The Lightning hoped to avoid revisiting this spot. They could have closed out Pittsburgh at home but fell behind by three goals and didn’t recover, fitting for a series that appears to be a coin flip as a whole but not so much night to night. The team that’s scored first is 5-1 and there’s only been a single lead change in 18-plus periods spread out over nearly two weeks: Tyler Johnson‘s deflection in overtime that gave Tampa Bay Game 5.

“You always want to play with the lead, and always the first goal is big,” said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 7-0 in Game 7s. “But, again, we were down 2-0 in Game 5 and came back from that. So it’s not cut in stone, the outcome of the game, no matter if you’re down a goal or two.”

Maybe, but it’d be cutting it pretty close. Tampa Bay’s rally in Game 5 was Pittsburgh’s first loss when leading after two periods all year. The Penguins responded by going back to rookie goaltender Matt Murray – who turned 22 on Wednesday – and putting together perhaps their finest hockey of the postseason. Their stars played like stars while Murray performed like a guy a decade older with his name already etched on the Cup a few times.

The Penguins will need to rely on Murray’s precocious maturity if it wants to buck a curious trend that started well before Murray was born. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a Game 7 on home ice since Mario Lemieux and company beat New Jersey in the opening round of the 1991 playoffs to escape from a 3-2 series deficit and propel the Penguins to their first championship. The Penguins have dropped five straight winner-take-all matchups since then, including a loss to Tampa Bay in the first round in 2011, a series Pittsburgh played without either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, who sat out with injuries.

They’re healthy now and showing extended flashes of the form that seemed to have the Penguins on the brink of a dynasty when they toppled Detroit. And the Lightning, who are 5-1 in Game 7s, are hardly comfortable but hardly intimidated as they play on the road.

“I think it’s a roller coaster,” Cooper said. “But Game 7 is Game 7. There’s no two better words than that.”