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.

Oilers recall D-man Oesterle from AHL Condors

EDMONTON, AB - FEBRUARY 23:  Jordan Oesterle #82 of the Edmonton Oilers warms up against the Ottawa Senators on February 23, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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The Edmonton Oilers made a move Sunday, recalling defenseman Jordan Oesterle from the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL.

In 18 games with the Condors this season, the 24-year-old Oesterle has three goals and 11 points.

The decision comes one day after Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson missed Saturday’s contest against the rival Calgary Flames because of a lower-body injury.

While he isn’t a flashy player, Larsson seems to have made a positive impression on the Oilers coaching staff during his first season in Edmonton following last summer’s blockbuster trade involving scoring winger Taylor Hall.

No surprise this development is leading to questions about the health of Larsson, with the Oilers set to begin the second half of a six-game home stand and sitting second in the Pacific Division standings.

Video: Reaves and Boll drop the gloves in heavyweight bout

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Heavyweight fighters Jared Boll and Ryan Reaves dropped the gloves during the second period of Sunday’s game between the Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues.

Those were some thunderous right hands thrown there, both combatants landing their fair share of punches before officials finally intervened.

The Wild sit all alone in top spot of the Central Division

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The Minnesota Wild bested the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, and now sit in sole possession of first place in the Central Division.

Playing the second half of a back-to-back situation that involved travel from Dallas, where Minnesota won Saturday, the Wild fell behind Chicago courtesy two goals from Patrick Kane. Sure, the first goal on Devan Dubnyk was fluttered off the stick of Kane and under the arm of the Minnesota goalie.

But Dubnyk played the remainder of this pivotal game the way Wild fans have become accustomed to since he was acquired. He made 33 saves and was busiest in the second period. Outside of Kane’s second goal, Dubnyk was solid in the middle period and didn’t give up anything the rest of the way. The Wild came back for a 3-2 win. On the road. In hostile territory.

Minnesota, not far removed from a franchise-best 12-game winning streak, now sits at 61 points in 42 games, two points ahead of the Blackhawks and with four fewer games played.

Jason Pominville scored the winner early in the third period.

There are many reasons for the Wild’s success through the first half under coach Bruce Boudreau. Dubnyk’s play has been Vezina caliber. He has a .940 save percentage and a 1.77 goals-against average. Minnesota is second in the league when it comes to the lowest number of goals-against per game and only Washington is better in that category.

The Wild have been scoring plenty, too, fourth in the league with 3.19 goals-for per game, with contributions throughout their lineup.

Free agent signings can always be a risk — an expensive risk — but Eric Staal has rewarded the Wild by producing at just under a point per game rate. He could have his most productive season in several years — at the age of 32 and approaching 1,000 regular season games played.

They won’t have long to enjoy their view from the top.

The Wild host the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday to begin a four-game home stand.

More bad news for Bolts: Callahan out four weeks with lower-body injury

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 10: Ryan Callahan #24 of the Tampa Bay Lightning reacts against the Chicago Blackhawks during Game Four of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 10, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Four points out of a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and about to begin a six-game road trip, the Tampa Bay Lightning face a tough task trying to climb the Eastern Conference standings.

There was more bad news for the Bolts on Sunday.

Forward Ryan Callahan, who hasn’t played since Jan. 7, will miss approximately four weeks because of a lower-body injury, the club announced.

Callahan made his season debut at the end of October. The start to his season was delayed due to the recovery from hip surgery he underwent to fix an issue from last season. Based on a report from Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times on Sunday, Callahan is once again dealing with a hip injury, although the club didn’t elaborate, announcing it as a lower-body injury.

In 18 games this season, Callahan has two goals and four points.

The Bolts, Stanley Cup contenders that have gone deep into the post-season in each of the last two campaigns, are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. Right now, Toronto, Ottawa and Florida all sit ahead of the Lightning in the battle for third in the Atlantic. Now into the second half of the season, they will have to quickly get out of this funk in order to close in the post-season race.

“The results are all that matters,” Brian Boyle told the Tampa Bay Times. “We need to change our attitude a little bit, kind of find our mojo, carry ourselves with a little bit more confidence. We can score quick goals. We can come from behind, jump out to leads and bury teams. We’ve done that in the past with this group.”

The Bolts begin this six-game road trip Monday against the L.A. Kings.