Fun-killers: Four players who could have made today’s free agent frenzy more exciting

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It’s true that some of the big chips have already fallen in the last couple days, but there are still enough players out there to make the approaching free agent frenzy interesting. That being said, the free agent pool lacks much zesty, big-time players beyond soon-to-be-richer forward Brad Richards.

That didn’t need to be the case, though. If it weren’t for a few proactive players, franchises and agents, this market would have enjoyed some fantastic intrigue. The list below contains four players who could have been interesting free agent targets if they hadn’t signed contract extensions well before July 1, 2011.

Zdeno Chara

There’s a good chance that the over-sized Boston Bruins defenseman might have signed his final NHL contract – or at least his last big one – when he agreed to a seven-year deal in October 2010.

Considering the Downy-soft market for free agent defensemen, one can only imagine the kind of market Chara would generate. He has a Norris Trophy to his name and was a finalist for the 2010-11 award. Chara raised the Stanley Cup up to a height that some would need a ladder to reach after the Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.

Year-in and year-out, he’s a defenseman who plays big minutes, occasionally uses his big body and isn’t shy to unleash his big shot either. There aren’t many true cornerstone defensemen in the NHL, even if teams are paying guys like Christian Ehrhoff and James Wisniewski in hopes that they can resemble those kinds of players. There is no mistaking that Chara is one of those blueliners and one can only imagine the kind of ridiculous contract offers he could have generated.

Joe Thornton

Would there be a more intriguing barometer for how much general managers listen to the unwashed masses and flippant media than if Thornton became a free agent? On one hand, they might have believed the reverse-hype about his supposed “choking” in big games. On the other hand, GMs could have looked at his long track record of leading teams in scoring and the fact that he’s consistently among the league’s elite passers.

Thornton signed a three-year deal to stay with the San Jose Sharks, so we might not get to see how an unrestricted free agent market would react to Jumbo Joe’s presence until he’s past his prime. It would have been a lot of fun to debate Richards vs. Thornton this year, but loyalty and a need for familiarity beat that out.

Alexander Semin

Unlike the other players involved, Semin could be a free agent as early as 2012. The Washington Capitals have taken an odd path with their other right-handed sniping Russian left wing named Alex, signing him to two consecutive one-year deals while they try to figure out what to do with Semin.

Whatever flaws he has in his game – whether people think he’s one-dimensional, too injury prone, mercurial or all the above – there is no denying his wicked shot. He scored 40 goals once, 30+ goals two other times and averaged almost a point per game over his young career.

The free agent market is often friendly to flawed but super-talented players like Semin. Maybe we’ll get to watch that fascinating process next year?

Patrice Bergeron

Bergeron isn’t as sexy a choice as the other three could-have-been free agents, but he would probably get his fair share of attention after a great playoff run with the Bruins. Bergeron chose to stick with the Bruins for what seemed like a steep price at the time, but who knows what a versatile center such as himself could make on the market today.

He might not put up the points totals of Thornton or the goals of Semin, but Bergeron is a strong two-way player who can do a little bit of everything. It would have been interesting to see how savvy general managers would have been about his skill set.

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Don’t get me wrong, today should be a lot of fun for the hockey world. It’s just startling to think what could have been if a few meddling teams weren’t so annoyingly proactive (and selfish, really) with their superstar players.

Canadiens’ Drouin ‘day-to-day’ with upper body injury

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Some mildly concerning news for the Montreal Canadiens on Monday as the team announced Jonathan Drouin will not play in their preseason game tonight due to an upper body injury.

He is currently listed as being day-to-day. He will be replaced in the lineup tonight by veteran forward Torrey Mitchell.

At this point it is just something that is keeping him out of a preseason game, so it’s not really a huge deal at this point. Seeing as how the game doesn’t count there is no sense in risking further injury for a player that is going to be a key piece of this year’s roster. But the fact he still has something that is bothering him enough to keep him out of a game has to be at least a little bit of a concern for Canadiens fans.

The Canadiens acquired Drouin this summer for top defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev and are counting on him to be an impact player. They also immediately signed him to a six-year, $33 million contract extension.

The plan right now seems to be to try him out at center to help fill what might be the Canadiens’ biggest organizational need — a top-line, No. 1 center.

Drouin is an exceptional talent and still has superstar potential and is coming off of a season that saw him take a huge step forward. In 73 games with the Lightning he scored 21 goals and added 32 assists. His 53 total points would have made him the third-leading scorer on the Canadiens. If he takes another leap in his development and solidifies that No. 1 center spot his addition could be a total game-changer for the Canadiens’ roster.

The Rangers are keeping J.T. Miller at wing

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When the New York Rangers traded center Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes this offseason it created an opening at a pretty important spot in their lineup. With that new vacancy at center it seemed reasonable to conclude that J.T. Miller, coming off of a career year that saw him score 22 goals and record 56 points, would move back to his natural position on a more permanent basis.

According to Rangers coach Alain Vigneault on Monday, that will not be the case to start the season.

Vigneault announced on Monday that Miller is going to open the season playing on the wing, not necessarily because of anything he has or has not done, but because of the play of the other centers in Rangers camp.

This would seem to be good news for 2017 first-round picks Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson. Both have not only been impressing the team at camp, but still remain in the running for a roster spot. With Jesper Fast currently sidelined due to an injury, Vigneault said it is possible both of the Rangers’ first-round picks could start the season on opening night roster.

Along with the two draft picks, the only other move the Rangers made this offseason to address the center position was to bring in veteran David Desharnais.

Mika Zibanejad, who was limited to just 56 games a year ago due to injury, will also be expected to take on a bigger role in what will be his second year with the team.

The Rangers traded Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes over the summer in a deal that brought them back the No. 7 overall pick (used to select Andersson) and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo in an effort to create some cap space and help rebuild their defense.

Jets’ Wheeler: ‘It just felt right to take a stance’

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Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler was one of the few NHL players to make some sort of an unprompted statement in response to President Donald Trump’s weekend comments regarding NFL players and their protests during the National Anthem.

During a speech in Alabama on Friday the President urged NFL owners to fire players that “disrespect” the flag by taking a knee during the National Anthem.

On Saturday, Wheeler was critical of the President’s comments in a series of Tweets.

On Monday, Wheeler was asked about why he spoke out and ended up talking for several minutes on the subject.

“I think crossing over into the sports world it hits home a little more,” said Wheeler, via the Jets’ website. “I think a lot of people, similar to my wife and I, it has been kind of a slow boil. The rhetoric over and over, he has just kind of gone a little too far too many times. It just felt right to kind of take a stance.

“There have been a lot of players who have felt a certain way, one way or the other, when you start coming into their territory a little bit. Some of the language that he used referencing NFL players, I think that was kind of the last straw for a lot of guys, whichever way they feel about it to voice their opinion.”

Wheeler was later asked if he would support a teammate if they decided to take a knee during the National Anthem.

“I’m absolutely for the first amendment,” said Wheeler. “I’m a big believer that what makes America a special place is you’re allowed to stand up for what you believe in. With just cause, if someone were electing to do that they would 100 percent have my support. Even if I don’t necessarily agree with why they do it it is their right to feel that way, it is their right to behave that way. If I didn’t agree with it, I would absolutely sit down, have a coffee, talk about it, try to understand why they feel that way and maybe you become a little more sympathetic.”

His entire media session is available via the Jets.

Jets coach Paul Maurice said he supported Wheeler’s Tweets while adding that Wheeler is “one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met.”

During NFL games on Sunday pretty much every team took part in some sort of a protest during the National Anthem, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans who remained in the locker room prior to their games.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, announced that they will be accepting their invitation to visit the White House just one day after the NBA’s Golden State Warriors announced they would not be attending.

Lightning will retire Vincent Lecavalier’s number on February 10

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The Tampa Bay Lightning announced on Monday morning that they will be retiring Vincent Lecavalier’s No. 4 this season, making sure that no other player will ever wear it for the franchise.

His jersey will be lifted to the rafters on Feb. 10 when the Lightning host the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings were one of three teams Lecavalier played for in his career, along with the Philadelphia Flyers.

“It is a great honor to have my number retired and I’d like to thank the Lightning organization and Jeff Vinik for recognizing me with this achievement,” Lecavalier said in a team statement. “The Tampa Bay community and our fans have treated me and my family so amazingly that this honor is extra special to share it with everyone. My family and I are very excited for February 10 when we can share so many memories.”

Lecavalier was the No. 1 overall pick by the Lightning in 1998 and spent 14 of his 17 seasons in the NHL with the team.

He is currently the franchise’s all-time leader in games played and goals and the second-leading point producer. He will be the second player to have his number retired by the team, joining Martin St. Louis.

Lecavalier and St. Louis helped lead the Lightning to a Stanley Cup during the 2003-04 season. His best individual season was probably the 2006-07 season when he finished with a league-leading 52 goals.