The Blues, coming off of last season's remarkable stetch run that led to their first playoff appearance since 2004, followed by a crash-and-burn effect in the first round of the playoffs against Vancouver, have seemed to be relatively quiet this offseason. Other than the typical few moves here and there to bolster depth, nothing has really stood out to me in what they've done. And, honestly, I'm fine with that.
Anyone with common sense and a background on the Blues' situation knows they weren't going to make any ridiculous, high-priced signings that could potentially hinder their "youth movement" approach that General Manager Larry Pleau and Team President John Davidson have been preaching about since new ownership took over the team following the lockout. So far, they've stuck with the plan. The signing two years ago of Paul Kariya was solely to bring in a veteran presence that has been known for years as a quick, fast-skating, scoring winger that could have a major influence on the younger talent on the Blues' roster. Unfortunately, injuries the past two years have severely limited his ability to produce at a high level, along with having him miss significant playing time. After surgery on both hips during last season, the team hopes in the final year of his contract with the Blues that he can show them why he deserves the money he's being paid, and why the Blues invested so much into him.
That being said, let's look at the moves made so far by the Blues this offseason:
- Re-signed Keith Tkachuk for one year: Good move by the team to keep the veteran forward with the team for another season. The 500+ goal scorer and future Hall of Famer had offers from numerous teams, including his hometown Boston Bruins, to jump ship and play for a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. But, the loyalty factor came into play with Tkachuk, and he opted to stay with the team he's been with since 2000. Tkachuk stated in an interview following the signing that he likes the Blues' chances this year with the youngsters and veterans on this team, and feels they have a shot to go far this season.
- Bought out the last year of Jay McKee's contract: Another good move by JD and Co. McKee was a perfect example of someone in sports being highly overpaid for what they're really worth. Don't get me wrong...I've met McKee and talked to him on many different occasions. On a personal level, he's a great guy and very personable with the fans. But, on the ice, the Jay McKee of 6-7 years ago was not the Jay McKee that the Blues were expecting him to be. Along with his numerous injuries during his time with the Blues, he had a tendency to get caught in bad positions on the ice quite often. His puck-handling skills were very sub-par. He had a tendency as well to turn the puck over a lot in his own zone. Not to mention his shot is nothing special from the point. The Blues needed an offensive-minded, puck-moving defenseman going into this season, and McKee was not a part of their plans. It was time for him, and his $4 million salary for the upcoming season, to be bough out so he can find a home with a new team, and hopefully get a fresh start somewhere else.
- Signed Ty Conklin to a two-year contract: Finally! A proven, legitimate backup goaltender that is capable of being a short-term starter as well. As people probably know, the Blues' goalie situation has not been the best in the world. Since Grant Fuhr left town, it's been more like a revolving door. Last season was no different. Manny Legace was the guy...that was until that little piece of carpet, waiting for Alaskan Governor Sara Palin on the night she was to drop the ceremonial puck at Scottrade Center, came out and bit Legace and showed no remorse. Actually, he tripped on it and fell to his knees, but who's counting? Things went terribly downhill after that incident, where in the game he was pulled after the first period because of a leg injury he suffered in that mishap. Then came the concussion a few weeks later in Anaheim, and the nail in the coffin was the miserable game Legace had in Detroit on National Television, when he gave up four goals in just under a period and a half before being pulled. That game marked the end of the Manny Legace era in St. Louis, and the Chris Mason era debuted. Going into this season, everyone knew Legace wasn't coming back, and Mason was the starter. But, did the Blues want to waste a year of Ben Bishop sitting on the bench when he could be honing his skills in Peoria? The obvious answer to that was "no", so the day of NHL free agency, the Blues went out and got the best backup goaltender available in Ty Conklin. Conklin played in 40 games with Detroit last season, and posted a record of 25-11-2 with a GAA of 2.51 and a save percentage of .909. I've heard people bash this signing, but honestly, if there's a backup goaltender out there that has a career GAA of 2.58 and save percentage of.909, why wouldn't you want him. He's a backup...he needs to be good, not great. The Blues backup goalie situation and the word "good" haven't been mentioned in the same sentence in a very long time. And, if you needed anymore reason to believe that he's not a good backup goalie, Conklin has posted 73 wins as a backup in six seasons in the NHL. That's pretty darn good.
Note to Manny Legace: Carpet is not part of the ice surface. Stay as far away from it as possible if you see it on the ice, and you'll be just fine from now on.
- Re-signed BJ Crombeen to a two-year contract: The son of former Blues' forward Mike Crombeen had a pretty good year for the Blues after being plcuked off waivers from Dallas halfway through the year. He's a gritty, tough, hard-nosed forward that also has a scoring touch that was flashed in various points of the season with the Blues. The main thing Crombeen needs to work on is keeping his head in the game, and not taking dumb penalties that will cost your team games (see Game 3 of the playoffs against Vancouver for further confirmation).
- Retained the rights to Hannu Toivonen and signed him to a one-year, two-way contract: Remember this guy? He was acquired two years ago in a trade with Boston that sent highly-touted prospect Carl Soderberg to Beantown. His first season with the Blues in 2007 as their backup to Manny Legace started good...that was until the game in December in Colorado, when he got lit up like Glass Joe on "Punch-Out Mike Tyson" for the Nintendo Game System. Toivonen allowed nine goals in that game, and his game, along with his confidence, disappeared...never to be seen with the Blues again. Well, that's what we thought. Last season, Toivonen played in Finland and apparently re-discovered his game there. I'm not saying that hockey in Finland is the same as the NHL, because it's obviously not, but his agent convinced the Blues that Toivonen is ready to give it another go at the NHL level. So, here we are, two years later, and we have a Hannu Toivonen spotting ladies and gentleman! He's going to have a tough time seeing the NHL level for at least this season, because besaides Mason and Conklin being penciled in as the Blues starting goaltender and backup, respectively, Toivonen will be fighting Ben Bishop and Chris Holt for a goalie roster spot in Peoria. Bishop is expected to be the man in Peoria, so that leaves Holt and Toivonen to decide who stays and who gets shipped to Alaska to play in the ECHL affiliate of the Blues. Alaska, by the way, doesn't have a starting goaltender as of now, since the rights to J.P. Lamoreux and Marek Schwarz weren't retained, making them free agents. At last check, Lamoreux is trying to catch on with the Edmonton Oilers and their affiliate, while Marek Schwarz...who knows? That was a complete waste of a first round draft pick, in my opinion. A young, promising goalie with tons of potential, but just couldn't handle the North American style of game.
The Blues still have work to be done, most importantly trying to re-sign defenseman Roman Polak to an extension. Polak is a restricted free-agent, and is subject to getting an offer sheet from another team at any time. The Blues cannot afford to lose this up-and-comer to another team that's willing to outbid the Blues for his services. I would also like to see the Blues convince 2007 first round draft pick Ian Cole to leave Notre Dame and compete for a spot with the Blues. Cole has been dominant on defense for the Fighting Irish in his first two seasons there. I think he's done what he can at that level, and it's time for him to step his game up another notch, and play with the big boys. It's a distinct possibility that he could start the season in Peoria, because of the abundance of defenseman on the roster at this point (Erik Johnson, Polak?, Weaver, Brewer, Jackman, Colaiacovo, and Pietrangelo). With Jay McKee being bought out, and Jeff Woywitka not being qualified a contract, that leaves the possibility open of one defensive roster spot available. Guys like Steve Wagner, Tyson Strachan, Jonas Junland, and Andy Wozniewski are going to be fighting for this spot. But, are they ready? And, barring any injuries to the six defenseman already on the roster, there may or may not be a need to carry a seventh defenseman. Throw Ian Cole into the mix and we have ourselves a little competition on our hands for that seventh defenseman, once again, if needed.
My thoughts on NHL free agency and trades/possible trades:
What a wild few days of free agency we've seen. This free agency has really sttod out to me as being one that some players are being paid a lot money than what they're really worth. Some of the contracts I've seen go down have had me shaking my head and questioning what that team was thinking. I have jotted down a few that really stood out:
Nikolai Khabibulin - to the Oilers for four years, $15 million: Khabibulin has made a career out of slacking off until his contract year is up. His contract years have been some of the best in his career (especially 2004 in Tampa Bay, winning the Stanley Cup). But the years before show a lackluster goaltender. When he wants to get paid big, he plays hard. Sorry to say, Edmonton fans, but you're goaltender situation just went from bad to worse....well, for at least the next three years. You should've stuck with Rolosson.
Marian Gaborik - to the New York Rangers for five years, $37.5 million: What in the blue hell was Glen Sather thinking when he gave Gaborik this contract? Gaborik is fresh off of major hip surgery. He played in a grand total of six games last season. So, you're giving a guy who played in six games last season $7.5 million per year? Unbelievable. Given, Gaborik was one of the best snipers in the league before his injury last season. But, that's when he was healthy (for the most part). Sather and the Rangers must have a hell of a lot of confidence in Gaborik, because how healthy and how productive do you actually think Marian Gaborik is going to be coming off of a major surgery like this. Last I checked, hips are a vital part of your body to play hockey. A one-legged man has a hard, if not impossible time winning a butt-kicking contest. A one-legged hockey player can't really do much of anything. The Rangers better hope and pray that Gaborik is fully recovered and ready to go, because if not, Rangers' fans will be asking for Sather's head on a silver platter. Everyone knows that the Rangers wouldn't make the same mistake like they did signing Scott Gomez and Chris Drury to their respective ridiculous contracts, now would they? Oops....too late.
Michael Cammalleri - to the Canadiens for five years, $30 million: You might be seeing a few Montreal singings on this list, Habs fans. Bob Gainey must love throwing money down the toilet and pushing the handle, just to hear that "whhhiiisssshhhh" sound everytime, because this was a big waste of money on a one-dimentional player. Yes, the guy can score, everyone knows that. He put up big numbers in Los Angeles and Calgary. But, other than put the puck in the net, what can Cammalleri do that raises eyebrows? Is he good in his own end defensively? What about keeping his +/- totals in the positive on a consistent basis? No. Is he a consistent scorer in 5-on-5 play? No. I would understand this contract more if Cammalleri was a more well-rounded player, but he's not. This one boggles my mind.
Martin Havlat - to the Wild for five years, $30 million: I understand the desparation the Wild had to replace the loss of Marian Gaborik with another scorer, but you just highly overpaid a guy that has never played one full season in the NHL. He is consistently injured. Whether it be by just sheer bad luck or whatever, Havlat has never been able to stay helathy for a significant amount of time, with the exception being last season, which was his first fully healthy year in his career. When he is healthy and playing, he can put the puck in the net with the best of them. But, the key words there are "if he's healthy". Considering that he has gone through three major injuries to his right shoulder and one major injury to his left shoulder, you have to wonder if one akward check into the boards and his shoulder gets jarred, if he misses significant time again and possibly thinks of hanging up the skates for good.
Nik Antropov - to the Thrashers for four years, $16 million: Are you kidding me? Why any team is willing to pay Nik Antropov four million per season is beyond me, considering since Antropov came into the league, he's been consistently labeled as one of the most overrated players in the NHL. It's sad, because he looked like a young kid with a ton of potential coming into the league with Toronto. Unfortunatley, things have never really panned out perfectly for Antropov, as Toronto could only take so much of him and his ability to hit the "off" switch at any point in time in his all-around game. They exiled him to the Rangers at the deadline last season, where it didn't seem like he fit in there as well. If Antropov is willing to play hard every single night, he could possibly be Atlanta's 1B to Ilya Kovalchuk. But, everyone's been saying that about Antropov for the last nine years. I don't think Antropov gets it yet. Good thing he has a good agent.
Brian Gionta - to the Canadiens for 5 years, $25 million: See, I told you Habs fans. Here's another one I don't get. Brian Gionta has the capability of being a 30-goal a year scorer. How many times has he done that in his career? How about one. 2005-06 was the best year he's had in career. Before that year, and after that, he's been a little more than average player at best. So, Bob Gainey passes up on re-signing Alexi Kovalev, at more than half the price he paid for Gionta (and Cammalleri for that matter), all the while knowing what you're going to get with Kovalev on a consistent basis, and you throw the boatload of cash at Gionta (and Cammalleri)? Not to mention you basically left your team captain and the heart and soul of your team for a number of years, Saku Koivu, holding the bag and waiting for another team to pick him up. Smart move, Mr. Gainey...we'll see how brilliantly your moves work out for you. Until then, you should probably think about investing in a good retirement fund, because the Canadiens are going to sink fast, and your loyal fanbase will be jumping ship and looking for you. This isn't the Minnesota North Stars of the late 1980's-early 1990's your running. This is the Montreal Canadiens, a team that has prided itself on having such a loyal, bleed Canadien red fanbase, and being loyal to their long-standing players who have busted their tails for years for that team...Honestly, by throwing all this money at these so-called "prized" free agents they're getting, Bob Gainey is making a mockery of the Canadiens and their history. Oh, and letting Mike Komisarek walk in favor of aging defensemen in Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek were horrible moves as well. Komisakek has more potential in his career than these guys ever had. It's funny to see how the once bound for glory Canadiens are now slowly trending into a downward spiral because of the moves they've been making, while their hated rival Toronto Maple Leafs, under the watchful eye of Brian Burke, are making all the right moves to put them in contention again. Just goes to show you what good management can do for a team.
Marian Hossa - to the Blackhawks for 12 years, $62.8 million: While this may be a good short-term move for the Blackhawks, in the long-term, it's going to come back to hurt them dearly. First, Hossa is 30 years old. He's not going to be playing until he's 42, much less in Chicago for that entire amount of time. I'd honestly be surprised if he made it through five years of that contract. Having said that, Hossa hates losing, just like any typical, competitive human being. There's nothing wrong with that. But, Hossa has made a career out of whining until he gets what he wants. The losing year after year in the playoffs took it's toll on him, so he whined and conplained about wanting out of Ottawa until his wish was granted and he was sent to Atlanta. He lasted a little over two and a half years in Atlanta until he figured they weren't going anywhere fast, so he whined about wanting out until they finally traded him to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh had a team built when he got there that was destined for glory. They went to the finals that same year, but were beaten by the Detroit Red Wings in six games. Hossa, with his win-now attitude, figured that wasn't good enough, and as hard as Pittsburgh tried to re-sign Hossa, they couldn't and he ended up pulling the age-old figure of speech "if you can't beat them, join them" and signed with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings. Do you see a trend here? Detroit goes to the finals, and low and behold, who do they get beaten by? The Pittsburgh Penguins....imagine that. If Hossa would've only waited a year. Hossa, of course turns down Detroit's contract proposal, reportedly around 10 years, but lesser money, to sign a big money, long term contract with the up-and-coming Chicago Blackhawks. Kinda funny seeing as how Pittsburgh was also an up-and-coming team at the time he got traded there, and he couldn't possibly stay there any longer than less than half a season. Makes you wonder what this guy is really all about. The contract with Chicago is a mainly front-loaded deal in terms of the money aspect. This means a bulk of what he's earning in the contract will be paid to him in the first five years of the deal. But, who's to say he'll be there for those five years. He could get all whiny again and want out at anytime. Plus, with the money Chicago has spent in the past two seasons on guys like Hossa, Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky, and John Madden just to name a few, they may have really screwed themselves out of trying to re-sign Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews after their entry-level deals are up this coming season. Both are going to be asking big-money, long-term contracts, speculation being somewhere within the $5-$7 million per season range. There is no way imaginable that Chicago will be able to afford both guys at that price. This year, the NHL has been put on notice...watch out for the Blackhawks, because they're going to be a scary team to play. As for next season, the headlines could read "Kane and Toews Abandon Ship for Greener Pastures".
As for trades/possible trades made:
Scott Gomez traded to the Canadiens for Christopher Higgins (prospects included on both sides): The Canadiens got the Rangers' big free-agency mistake, while the Rangers got the Canadiens' guy they've been trying to unload on someone for a few years now. It was more of a player/salary dump than anything, but this could benefit the Rangers more than anything. Higgins is capable of being a top line winger, contrary to what Montreal thought when they decided he'd be best suited playing on the bottom two lines for the past two years. Higgins knew he wasn't wanted in Montreal, but he knew he had something to prove. He now has that chance since he's been freed from exile and has a fresh start in The Big Apple. As for Gomez, I've said so much about Montreal and their free spending that my head is about to explode. All I'm going to say is if you're expecting to get the Scott Gomez from his early years in New Jersey, good luck on that happening. Gomez left his best in New Jersey, and his best never followed him up the turnpike and into New York City. I doubt Scott Gomez's best makes long distance trips across the Canadian border into Montreal, either.
Dany Heatley - Um, where is he going now?: For the love of God, I wish Dany Heatley would make up his mind already. He is as bad at second-guessing as a first-grader deciding on what color construction paper to use in art class. Since when did Edmonton become the place that elite NHLers don't want to play? Hossa turned them down two years ago, and now Heatley? Ottawa isn't making it easy on themselves by blasting Heatley whenever they get the chance in the media. But, if there is only one team in the NHL that wants you, and offering up a ton in return, you should probably take them up on their offer, Mr. Heatley. Otherwise, you'll be staying in a place where you're not liked, and not wanted, which I'm sure is not what you're willing to go through. Class is over, make your decision.
Kessel for Kaberle?: Under no circumstances should Boston make this move. Kessel is a huge piece to their puzzle if they're looking to win a cup, and I don't think they fully realize the potential that Phil Kessel has and brings to the team. They would be taking a big step backwards, not forward, if they make this move.