What teams to watch out for during free agency madness

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Free agency kicks off at noon ET and with the doors swinging open to the shopping mall that is the NHL free agent market, it’s not quite like hitting Saks Fifth Avenue but more like digging through the dollar store to find that perfect gem. While there you’ll see a lot of stuff in the impulse buy area that might seem like a really good idea at the time, but after you give that player a contract that crushes your salary cap for the next five years, the buyer’s remorse weighs heavily.

While there are a lot of potential gems to be found out there for teams to use for the coming seasons, there are duds too and some teams are going to be more interesting than others to watch during free agency season. With the madness set to begin this afternoon, here are the teams we think will be worth keeping a close eye on.

Philadelphia Flyers
While the said they’re not going after Steve Stamkos, they’re going to be factors in free agency somehow. They’ve got a little money to play with and they’re looking for a little help along the wings and perhaps one more center. After all, banking on Brayden Schenn to step in instantly and be a big producer is asking a lot of a rookie. Perhaps a guy like Michal Handzus, who has played in Philly once before, would be ideal to fill in depth.

Along the wings, you could see the return of Simon Gagne to Philadelphia after a year away in Tampa Bay. He’s not likely to be back for the Lightning and he still loves Philly. He’d be a solid contributor there again if the Flyers had room for him. Another name to watch here is Erik Cole. The Hurricanes power forward scored 26 goals last year and his former coach in Carolina, Peter Laviolette, would be overly familiar with his game.

One other reason to watch Philly during all this? GM Paul Holmgren has proved himself to be totally nuts and will do anything. The Flyers could make a run at Brad Richards and Jaromir Jagr if they wanted to because Holmgren has shown he’s just that wacky to do it.

Florida Panthers
Seems crazy to want to keep an eye on the Panthers, doesn’t it? They could be the team that throws the free agent market into madness since, according to CapGeek, they’ve got nearly $22 million to spend to reach the salary floor. With that kind of cash needed to be spent and a free agent market ripe for the overpayment, the Panthers and GM Dale Tallon could be the foils for many teams looking to land players this year and looking to lock up their own players in the future.

A lot of markets have already been blown up thanks to deals made by Steve Montador, Christian Ehrhoff, and Florida’s own Tomas Kopecky and with the Panthers being forced to dig into their wallets they’ll either be making some crazy signings or end up involved in the trade market to acquire other fat contracts.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Leafs GM Brian Burke is almost always worth keeping an eye on as it is, but during free agency it’s a fascinating case study. In previous free agency years we’ve seen him open the vault for defensemen like Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Jeff Finger, and Brett Lebda. All right you win some and lose some. While the Leafs will be all in on trying to land Brad Richards, they’re a team that could use help at forward. They’re rumored to be hot for Maxime Talbot as well as Richards and they could stand to land another good defenseman as well.

Of course, if Burke gets a little spend crazy, they could wind up overpaying for both Richards and Talbot and even go crazy for a defenseman out of the blue. One way or another, the Leafs need to improve a bit and this free agency class might not be the best way to do it. Will fans in Toronto freak out if they stay quiet? We’ll see.

New York Rangers
The Rangers are another big market team with money to burn this offseason. They too will be all in after Brad Richards but should they not land him, we’re curious what their Plan B might be. After all, two years ago they came out of nowhere to deal Scott Gomez to Montreal and used that free cap space to sign Marian Gaborik. No one expected that to happen at all and Glen Sather will be under the gun to do something to help spark things in Manhattan.

The Rangers do still have to get RFAs Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan squared away but they need a little more than that to give Gaborik and others some help. Sadly for them there’s not too much to be found up the middle. Guys like Tim Connolly and Jason Arnott might not provide the answers the Rangers are looking to for production.

Richards or bust? It’s sort of looking that way.

Tampa Bay Lightning
They’ll be on Stamkos watch all day long, but they’ll be looking to fill ranks elsewhere. Sean Bergenheim appears destined for a new location and Simon Gagne won’t be coming back to Tampa. GM Steve Yzerman was able to push the right buttons last year to give Guy Boucher a team that he took to within a win of the Stanley Cup finals.

Who will the Lightning be looking for? You have to think they’ll be going with a similar attack plan this summer looking for diamonds in the rough. Guys like Bergenheim, Dominic Moore, and Pavel Kubina turned out to be great pickups that no one really thought much of at the time. All of them put together made the Lightning a very difficult team to deal with. With a free agent market filled with those sorts of players, the Lightning might do just fine casually shopping around.

Colorado Avalanche
Considering they’re a team without a starting or backup goalie at the moment, they’re going to be factoring in heavily in the market for any and all goalies available. The big prize is Tomas Vokoun but other names like Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Pascal Leclaire, Ray Emery, and Mike Smith are out there as starters. As far as backups go… Take your pick as there are plenty to choose from.

The Avs also have to get a little bit of money spent to get to the salary floor as CapGeek has them about $15 million below the floor. The Avs aren’t big spenders these days, but they’ll have to give some big money out to a few guys to get caught up.

Pre-game reading: Bettman insists NHL isn’t ‘anti-Olympics’

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— Up top, members of the Detroit Red Wings and their fans recall some of their fondest memories from Joe Louis Arena, which will host its last NHL game on Apr. 9.

— Here’s NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Friday in Chicago: “The league isn’t anti-Olympics. The problem is, the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there is no football and baseball and it’s only basketball and … there’s no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com (and) all of our social media platforms. … If somebody proposes something dramatic and radically different that gets the attention of the clubs where they say, ‘You know what? We don’t like going but on balance it’s worth it because of this,’ we’ll have to look at it again. But overwhelmingly the sentiment of the clubs is it’s too disruptive.” (Chicago Tribune)

— The players have said they won’t negotiate with the league for the right to participate in the Olympics. But they’ve made no secret about their desire to go, as evidenced by ESPN’s lengthy list of player quotes on the topic. Said Steven Stamkos: “In talking to a lot of players, I’ve yet to hear someone say they didn’t want to get a chance to represent their country at the Olympics.” (ESPN)

— Whether the NHL continues its Olympic participation or not, it’s clear the league is eyeing China as part of its growth strategy. In September, the Canucks and Kings are expected to play a couple of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. And according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there may even come a time when an NHL franchise is owned by Chinese business interests. (The Globe and Mail)

— Are the Bruins on the verge of collapse? CSNNE columnist Joe Haggerty saw some concerning signs in last night’s loss to Tampa Bay — a loss that put the B’s in further danger of falling out of a playoff position. Haggerty concludes: “Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.” (CSN New England)

— Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, is ready for — and even looking forward to — a hostile crowd tonight at PPG Paints Arena. “For me, Pittsburgh is the one city as a whole where I’m totally OK with them hating me. For wearing No. 66. Mario Lemieux is a hero, a pioneer for them there, and for them to take it as disrespect is completely understandable.” (Newsday)

Enjoy the games!

PS — Lemieux said he was “fine” with Ho-Sang wearing his old number.

In prepping Vegas for draft, McPhee cites ‘outstanding’ record with Caps

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George McPhee is a veteran of the draft process, having presided over nearly 20 during his time with the Caps.

This year, he’s in a unique position — spearheading the first draft for the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights — and he suggests his past success should set him up well for the future.

“I think we have an outstanding staff,” McPhee said, per the club website. “I think our draft record in my previous job was outstanding.”

Assessments like these are always up for debate — draft success is somewhat subjective, and there are inevitably a bunch of misses among the hits — but McPhee does have a strong history of drafting and developing players, and could point to the current Capitals as validation to his claim.

The active roster has 11 players that were original draftees (Braden Holtby, Philip Grubauer, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom), with goalies Holtby and Grubauer — both fourth-round picks — emerging as pretty good finds.

McPhee’s strategy? Go big or go home.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played it safe going to the draft,” he explained. “I believe in swinging for the fences, and trying to find someone who can be a real difference maker. The difference makers are those core guys on your team, those 4-5 players that become elite players are the ones that can really take you a long way.

“They are hard to find. Those are the ones I’d like to swing for.”

At this year’s draft in Chicago, Vegas should have a shot at landing an impact guy. The club will have the same odds of winning the lottery as the team that finishes with the third fewest points this season and, though it’s considered a weak draft overall, there is some serious talent at the top end.

WHL Brandon’s Nolan Patrick, QMJHKL Halifax’s Nico Hischier and OHL Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi are all considered high-end prospects and — importantly — all three play center. For a team that’s building from scratch, filling that position is of vital importance.

McPhee acknowledged this is a weaker draft, but contended those are the ones “where the best teams excel.” He theorizes that with fewer quality players available, the strongest teams emerge with the good ones.

He also shared how the Golden Knights plan to land ’em.

“We’re really aggressive,” he said. “We try not to play it safe very often.”

B’s ink prospects Fitzgerald, Johansson to entry-level deals

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Boston has brought a pair of talented youngsters into the fold.

Forward Ryan Fitzgerald, who just wrapped his senior season at Boston College, and defenseman Emil Johansson — who spent this year playing in the Swedish Hockey League — have signed their entry-level deals and will begin playing with the club’s AHL affiliate in Providence.

Fitzgerald — who’s father, Tom, is the assistant GM in New Jersey — scored 31 points in 34 games for BC this year, serving as an alternate captain. He was originally taken by Boston in the fourth round (120th overall) of the ’13 draft.

Johansson, 20, was a seventh-round pick in ’14 that’s panned out pretty well. He scored a career-high seven goals and 17 points in 49 games for Djugardens this year, appearing in three playoff contests.

 

 

Ducks send Stoner to AHL on conditioning loan

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Clayton Stoner is going to play some hockey again.

The Anaheim Ducks announced today that the 32-year-old defenseman has been assigned to AHL San Diego on a long-term injury conditioning loan.

Stoner has not played since Nov. 15. He had abdominal surgery in December, at which point the Ducks said he’d miss an additional 4-6 weeks. But a setback in his recovery extended the time frame.

“The setback was kind of just me trying to get back maybe a little bit quicker than I should,” Stoner told the O.C. Register recently. “And I wasn’t ready. Things have been good here for a little while so hopefully I’m just trying to string some days together and earn a spot back and kind of prove that I can be healthy and stay healthy.”