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.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.