Happy August everybody! The 2009 Free Agent Frenzy is a month old today, a month of excitement, frustrations, surprises, and disappointments for the fans of the 30 NHL teams. We haven't watched a live game of hockey since the conclusion of the 2008-2009 season in June, but have been entertained by the Entry Draft, Free Agent Frenzy, and the occasional trade, hiring, or firing. Like other teams, our Atlantic Division franchises are implementing their respective plans focused on altering their squads for the upcoming season. All 5 teams seem to have approached the summer from a different perspective, causing their fans to anticipate, welcome, or dread the start of their 2009-2010 campaigns.
New Jersey Devils
"Out with the old, in with the new"
It was a frustrating July 1st as outraged Devils fans helplessly watched fan favorites such as John Madden, Brian Gionta, and season hero Scott Clemmensen sign elsewhere, while the Devils made no moves whatsoever. Lou Lamoriello made it clear that after failing to advance past the first round for 2 consecutive seasons, changes were needed and he feels the best way is to bring people up from within the organization.
Save the signing of Finnish right wing Ikka Pikkarinen and goaltender Yann Danis, the only major moves the Devils made were signing Johnny Oduya and Travis Zajac to long term extensions and hire Jacques Lemaire as the team's next head coach, refreshing the entire bench in the process. Financially, I think the Devils are in great shape since they have around $10 million in cap space. We won't know if this summer's youth movement will pay off until the kids start playing. Lamoriello implied the likes of Rod Pelley, Pierre Leblond, Ikka Pikkarinen, and possibly Nicalas Bergfors, Matt Corrente, or Matt Halischuk will become regulars this season.
The way I see it, 1 of 2 things will happen. The Devils will either maintain above .500 play and make their usual playoff appearance, or the whole thing could blow up in Lou's face. In either case, the Devils have the cap room and commodities to improve their squad at the trade deadline for a strong playoff run, or have a few players they could deal should things take a turn for the worst. On paper, the Devils are a different team than last year's that needs to be tested for its legitimacy to be verified.
New York Islanders
"The dawn of a new beginning"
Obviously, the highlight of the Islander's 2009 off season came in June when they proudly selected John Tavares with the NHL Entry Draft's No. 1 overall pick. With Tavares signed, he's ready to make his NHL debut in October and become the nucleus for the Islanders to hopefully initiate a resurgence to make them a competitive and successful franchise for years to come.
Aside from their successful draft, the Islanders made some noise this summer by signing goaltenders Dwayne Roloston and Marty Biron. This seems to insure solidity in net should they lose Rick DiPietro to injury after his proneness to such occurrences was clarified. Unlike the Penguins when they drafted Sidney Crosby, the Islanders didn't go on a summer shopping spree and made no major additions or alterations. With plenty of cap space, the Islanders look like they're continuing to develop their young core, which Tavares should boost tremendously.
I don't want to say a rookie can step in, regardless of a team's overall skill or condition and can be guaranteed to put up 80 points. It wouldn't surprise me if Tavares conquers that feat next season and boost the play of players like Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielson, and Trent Hunter. I think the Islanders are a more competitive team to play against if they have a full and healthy squad and I think injuries orchestrated the turbulent and unfortunate turnout of their previous campaign. Overall, it looks like the Islanders are on the right track and are embracing the start of a new era. I don't expect them to make any deep playoff pushes this year, but since no prediction is guaranteed to be true, you never know what will happen.
New York Rangers
"Did we get it right this time?"
As a Devils fan, the Rangers are the rivals, the team you love to hate, love to beat, and hate to lose to. The Devils fan in me says they're a bad team whose upcoming season stops after 82 games, but that's a bias, unfair, and unprofessional assessment. This summer, Glen Sather continued the annual tradition of leaving his mark on the off season. He traded Scott Gomez to Montreal for Chris Higgins, and 2 or 3 prospects, lauded the retirement of Marcus Naslund, which freed up $4 million in cap space, and let trade deadline acquirements Nik Antropov and Derek Morris seek employment elsewhere.
Sather cashed out July 1st by signing Marian Gaborik for 5 years at $7.5 million per. Critics described the move as typical, outrageous, and defeating of the purpose of trading Scott Gomez, which unloaded the gross contract Sather signed him to. The only thing I'll admit is signing Gaborik puts the Rangers in a high risk/high reward scenario. Gaborik is a 40 goal scorer when he's healthy and may be capable of producing more now that he has more to work with on a team that plays a more offensive system.
Aside from Gaborik, the Rangers signed enforcer Donald Brashier and Ales Kotalik. Brashier obviously brings a physical presence on a team that their own head coach described as being too soft, while Kotalik is a proven scorer, who put up 21 or his 43 points last season on the power play. The only changes I see coming on defense are the addition of a rookie or 2. As far as I know, my guess is Corey Potter and Bobby Sanguetti are the likely candidates, but spearhead a pool of humming defensive prospects in the Rangers minor league system.
It looks like the Rangers solidified the forwards and are creating opportunities for new youth on defense. They're an unpredictable team to determine on success, but look like a force on paper. After a second consecutive summer of changes, the only plausible excuse I can think of should the Rangers struggle in the standings and statistically is the team adjusting to learn how to play and develop with one another. Two moves I think the Rangers should make are making Dubinsky the No. 1 center, and keep Nikolai Zheredev. I think he was their best forward last year, and put up solid numbers on an offensively inconsistent team. With Gaborik and Dubinsky as line mates, I'm sure that trio could become one of the most offensively sufficient lines in the league.
"The pieces are in place...(?)"
The Flyers made their big moves in June when they signed goaltender Ray Emery and acquired Chris Pronger in exchange for Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, and a pair of 1st round picks. Less than 2 weeks later, Pronger signed a 7-year extension that basically guaranteed he'll wear orange and black until he retires. Most people skeeve at the contract, but when Pronger's on top of his game, he's worth every penny. Pronger is an all around player, someone who can skate, hit, fight, shoot, score, and quarterback a power play. Adding him to a blue line already manned by Kimmo Timonen, Brayden Coburn, Matt Carle, and Randy Jones makes the Flyers a lot better.
Due to cap issues, the Flyers lost Andrew Alberts and Mike Knuble to free agency. Knuble scored 27 goals and was an effective player but is 37, while Alberts was a replaceable loss. Knuble's departure also creates an opportunity for a younger player like Claude Giroux to step up and take a bigger role with the team. Between Lupul and Knuble, the Flyers lost 52 goals and 97 points. They made a difference last year, but I see no reason why those 97 points can't be replaced. I think Philly’s top 6 are Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne, Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux, and Daniel Briere. Richards, Carter, and Gagne will score 30+ when healthy, while Hartnell can score at least 20-25, maybe more than last year's 30 if he ups his game next season. I think Briere is an effective top 2 center when healthy as well and is someone a youngster like Giroux should play alongside to be mentored and develop with. What I'm trying to say is the Flyers could potentially possess one of the most dynamic offenses in the league next year, especially if this past season was any indication.
Cap issues currently seem to retain the Flyers from adding without subtracting even though I don't think the Flyers have to do much else. I think Pronger and Emery are the final pieces the Flyers need to make their first serious cup run in years. They lacked solidity between the pipes and a presence like Pronger's this recent season and playoffs, whose outcome could've been totally different if this current Flyers team played Pittsburgh. With a healthy squad, I think now is Philly’s most opportune time to become a dominative force in the league and ride that momentum deep into the playoffs, possibly until they're the last team standing. Need I remind Flyers fans Ray Emery was an asset in the Ottawa Senator's 2007 Stanley Cup Final appearance, and could benefit from the change of scenery after taking a year off from the NHL.
"Ready for round 2"
Pittsburgh probably has the most pressure of any team going into the 2009-2010 season, solely because they have to defend their Stanley Cup title. After destiny became a reality for Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins, they entered a decisive situation to determine whether they keep their championship squad together or change things up. The Penguins re-signed Bill Guerin, Craig Adams, and Rusian Fedotenko, but didn't or were unable to re-sign a handful of notable unrestricted free agents such Petr Sykora, Miroslav Satan, Hal Gill, Rob Scuderi, Mathieu Garon.
The Penguins weren't lured into the hype of Free Agent Frenzy and signed Mike Rupp and Jay Mckee to 2 and 1-year deals, respectively. Sykora and Satan combined for 42 goals and 82 points, but weren't reliable difference makers. Sykora only had 25 goals and 46 points playing with Evgeni Malkin most of the season, and disappeared in the playoffs...again. Satan didn't even break 20 goals. Both players are up there in age and I think it would make little difference if Pittsburgh lets them walk or re-signs one or either of them. Not only does it save cap space, but relinquishing Satan and Sykora enables the Penguins to try and acquire a more potent wing for their top 6 or gives rookies or younger players such as Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Staal a chance to step in or take a bigger role on the team.
What's scary about the Penguins is their core players such as Crosby, Makin, Staal, and Fleury are signed long term and will remain on this team for years to come, giving them plenty of time to get better. The Penguins lost a couple of players, particularly on defense, but McKee was a solid acquirement, and Mike Rupp gives the Pens a physical presence. You can't say a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Sergei Gonchar is bad, but it isn't perfect. Aside from a scoring wing, the Penguins could also invest their cap space in acquiring a top four defenseman to establish more stability on their blue line and help maturate Pittsburgh's relatively young defense corps.