Five free agency myths that were busted this summer

Thumbnail image for kovalchukhighfive.jpgGoing into this summer’s free agency, there were some preconceived notions about what was going to happen. Many folks thought there could be a crush of action and free agents would go flying off the market like a hot toy at Christmas time. Others had it pegged that the elite talent would draw a lot of action. Some people guessed that some teams would be in a crush to make huge moves to put themselves in a better place to challenge for the Cup. All we’ve found out this summer is that prognosticators are excellent at becoming creators of urban legends without even realizing it.

Here’s a list of five post-season thoughts that were crashed out in a Mythbusters-esque kind of way.

1. Ilya Kovalchuk would be the most pursued free agent this summer

Yes, he’s the most talented free agent on the market. He’s also got the highest asking price around. While the Devils had to be in the mix for him after trading for him last year, the number of teams that could afford to make a run at Kovalchuk were very few. In fact, it turns out that it was just one other team that made their intent to go after the superstar Russian forward, the Los Angeles Kings. While Kovalchuk is still very noticeably on the market, it’s believed that the Devils are still the only team really in the running to sign him. After all, once you had a contract agreed upon only to have the league blow it up, that’s pretty much calling “dibs” on a guy. If the Kings were able to work out a deal for him in the end, that’d make for quite the Hollywood ending to the story.

2. Goalies are going to make a ton of money this off-season

Boy, this one got busted out pretty badly. After seeing guys like Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller both get bounced in the first round and Evgeni Nabokov get swept out in the Western Conference Finals, while virtual no-names like Jaroslav Halak, Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi all had huge success, NHL GMs took this to mean that big money, big name goalies weren’t worth spending precious salary cap space on. Instead of seeing Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco setting the goaltending market this summer, we saw backups and also-rans seize their moment to lock down jobs and potentially be the next big stars of the league.

Meanwhile, Nabokov read the NHL market the right way and headed to Russia while Marty Turco waited things out and took less money to become the defacto starter for the Blackhawks while they walked away from Antti Niemi’s $2.75 million arbitration award.

3. The hunt for Ilya Kovalchuk will slow down the free agent market

For a while it seemed as if this was the case. While the Kings and Devils publicly negotiated for Kovalchuk’s services, other teams seemingly weren’t signing anyone to deals or got their shopping done on the first day of free agency. While many good players stayed out on the market, the other 28 teams that weren’t gunning for Kovalchuk stayed quiet and for the most part have for the entire summer. While the free agent market has been slow, it wasn’t Kovalchuk that caused it to do so. Teams being unable or unwilling to spend money on free agents did that and they’ll now look to find ways around that by asking some veterans to come in on a tryout basis to win a job. Training camp just got a whole lot more important for many players.

williemitchellfreeagent.jpg4. The Los Angeles Kings are going to fill out their roster and become a force in the Western Conference

A funny thing happened along the way to becoming the “next Chicago Blackhawks.” While the Kings had tons of salary cap space to play with this summer and the willingness to spend the bucks needed to turn the Kings into a supremely formidable team this year, things didn’t exactly break right for them. First Paul Martin turned them down to sign with Pittsburgh, then Dan Hamhuis opted to move closer to home and signed with Vancouver. The Kings then chased hard after Ilya Kovalchuk only to see him sign with the Devils and end up rejected by the league. While they still could get Kovalchuk, the Kings have moved on elsewhere. They signed Alexei Ponikarovsky and now they’re in on defenseman Willie Mitchell. Ponikarovsky certainly isn’t the player Kovalchuk is and Mitchell could turn out to be a really solid pickup. The big splash GM Dean Lombardi was hoping to make, however, never came.

5. The Washington Capitals need to make a statement after a miserable playoff failure

Well, they didn’t. That said, a team that won the President’s Trophy doesn’t really need to blow it all up and start over again. Sure, the Caps will have some question marks going into this season. They don’t have a proven second-line center to lead the way for Alex Semin, they’re lacking a serious defensive defenseman (signing Willie Mitchell would alleviate this issue) and they’ve made the choice to go with two very young goalies. Sure they could’ve made a push for Alex Ovechkin’s friend Evgeni Nabokov, and sure they could’ve made a run for a second line center like Matt Lombardi, but that’s not quite how the Caps operate.

While it would’ve been easy to panic after losing in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens, they’ve got a farm team that’s won the Calder Cup two years in a row and building from within can be done on the relative cheap. If it doesn’t work out this year, however, there’s a very excitable fan base in D.C. that will get ornery fast.

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    Keep your head up: Hurricanes reportedly hand Raffi Torres a PTO

    VANCOUVER, CANADA - MAY 3:  Raffi Torres #13 of the San Jose Sharks celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal against the Vancouver Canucks for a 3-2 victory in overtime in Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, May 03, 2013 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
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    From opting against fighting the NHL’s 41-game suspension to seeing his season derailed by knee issues, there was the feeling that the league had seen the last of controversial forward Raffi Torres.

    Perhaps not.

    The Carolina Hurricanes reportedly handed the 34-year-old a PTO, according to former Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward.

    It’s something the Raleigh News & Observer’s Chip Alexander also mentioned on Monday.

    With Bryan Bickell added to the mix during this off-season, the Hurricanes seem interesting in adding some beef. It’s unclear if Torres is really in the sort of condition to make a mark, but Carolina’s going to at least take a look at him.

    Beware, pre-season opponents and training camp teammates.

    Capitals bump Todd Reirden up to associate coach

    PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 10:  Assistant coach Todd Reirden of the Washington Capitals talks to the power play unit during a time-out against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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    The Washington Capitals announced that Todd Reirden (pictured) was promoted from assistant to associate coach on Monday.

    What does that mean, exactly? Well, most directly, the team shared word that he’ll run Capitals training camp while Barry Trotz works with Team Canada at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

    Giving Reirden a promotion makes sense, as he’s been linked to some head coaching searches. The Washington Post compiled some of his opportunities:

    In the past two years, Reirden has been a serious candidate for two NHL head-coaching gigs. According to the Calgary Sun, Reirden was a finalist to coach the Flames before they settled on Glen Gulutzan, and he was considered for the New Jersey Devils’ vacancy last summer, too. Lane Lambert, another Capitals assistant, was a finalist for the Colorado Avalanche head-coaching job earlier this month, according to the Denver Post.

    The Capitals have a pretty well-regarded coaching group, as many credit goaltending coach Mitch Korn with some of Braden Holtby‘s improvement since Trotz took over.

    Maybe we’ll see Reirden and Lambert get head coaching gigs at some point, but for now, Trotz’s “coaching tree” stays intact.

    Penguins believe Kessel, others can heal up by start of next season

    SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    Going deep enough into the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup often comes with the cost of stacking up injuries, and the Pittsburgh Penguins paid the price.

    As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and others report, Phil Kessel (wrist) and others aren’t guaranteed to be healthy to start the 2016-17 regular season.

    “All the injured guys are tracking in the right direction,” GM Jim Rutherford said. “Until they all get here, we won’t know 100 percent where they’re at, but it sounds like all the guys should be ready for camp.”

    The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review runs down a significant list of players who likely accrued bumps and bruises that may carry over:

    Defenseman Trevor Daley, for instance, suffered a broken ankle on May 20. Kris Letang (foot), Nick Bonino (elbow infection), Bryan Rust (hand), Patric Hornqvist (hand) and Evgeni Malkin (elbow), among others, dealt with physical problems of varying severity at times.

    If recent history is any indication, Kessel will probably fight hard not to miss time.

    For all the weird criticisms he receives, he’s been remarkably durable, playing in every game during the past six seasons.

    That’s impressive stuff, but the Penguins would be wise to keep an eye on the big picture. If it comes down to making Kessel and others swallow a little pride to limit the odds of aggravating injuries, they need to do it.

    Even if it means a bumpy start to their title defense.

    Win now, worry later: Why the Lightning should go all-in

    CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Ben Bishop #30 celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    This is part of Lightning day at PHT …

    The Chicago Blackhawks employed some great teams in winning three championships so far during the Jonathan ToewsPatrick Kane era, but there was something special about that first group.

    For one thing, Toews and Kane were playing out the final years of their entry-level contracts. Those CBA-powered savings gave the Blackhawks a surplus of players who would eventually be too expensive to retain, most notably Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Brian Campbell.

    That fantastic group never faced elimination during an overpowering run to the 2010 Stanley Cup.

    Thanks to deft maneuvering by GM Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were able to reload and put together other strong supporting casts even after big losses, and that could be a profound lesson for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    It might be tempting for the Bolts to merely keep their window open as long as possible. Instead, they should take a big swing in 2016-17 and then trust management to recover from any fallout.

    Bishop’s expiring contract

    The safe move would be to trade away some of the expiring contracts on Tampa Bay’s roster instead of risking getting nothing when they leave.

    Many believe that Ben Bishop is on his way out. With one year left on a contract that carries about a $6 million cap hit and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting the Jake Allen-style “you’re the man” extension, it seems like a matter of time.

    Keeping Bishop around for one more season might just pay off, though.

    For one thing, Vasilevskiy’s shown signs of brilliance, yet his current NHL numbers aren’t overwhelmingly strong. Bishop, meanwhile, kept the Bolts afloat during some tough times in 2015-16.

    Even if the Lightning feel like Vasy is the guy, what if he gets hurt? They’ve already seen goalies get injured at inopportune times, and the reigning champion Penguins provide another reminder.

    (For more on the Bishop situation, click here.)

    Win low, worry later

    GM Steve Yzerman deserves ample credit for signing Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman to relative bargain deals, but those are still expensive contracts. The squeeze is coming.

    That said, the Lightning may want to identify their own Byfugliens and Ladds and go for broke in 2016-17. Let’s not forget how close they were to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance even with Stamkos on the shelf.

    It’s tough to imagine the Bolts managing to keep all of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine many opponents managing to contain an attack that features Stamkos, Johnson, Palat, Drouin and other dangerous attackers.

    (Plus, another year of evaluation would give Yzerman time to determine who is truly a core member.)

    ***

    It’s a challenging situation, but the Lightning easily rank alongside the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and maybe a few other select teams as the cream of the East crop.

    They’re positioned to jostle with the elites for some time, but why not take their best shot in 2016-17 and then make the best of things later on?

    Sometimes the difference between really good and truly great comes down to having the courage to make these tough calls.