[NHL] On The Blue Line

The NHL lockout is seemingly over and once all the lawyer work is wrapped up the CBA will be ratified this Friday (7-22-05), but that hasn’t stopped teams from already begining to operate under normal circumstances and now that the NHL has put it’s lesser half in it’s place, teams are looking to revamp their lineup to fit the new $39 million hard salary cap (a number that’s still being debated, apparently). Though most teams and by ‘most teams’ I mean small market teams or teams that saw this mess coming a long time ago will be in a good position to keep most of their core players and go out and make some trades or some free agent signings, while there are other teams that, simply put, are in a bind.

There are already rumblings about EXACTLY which players certain teams plan on cutting ties with using the ‘buy out’ option that was included in the new CBA to help teams with high payrolls cut down on salary expenses and slip under the cap. Players that are let loose will be allowed to test the once cash infested waters of NHL free agency. In the Western Conference most are looking at three teams that dominated the latter half of the 90’s: The Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars. Three teams that won a lot and spent a hell of a lot more.

Dallas: Having reached the Finals two years in a row in 1999 and 2000, the Stars had broken through and had helped create the ‘Big Four’ establishment within the Western Conference. But as quickly as success and a Stanley Cup had come to Dallas, things fell apart just as quickly. Brett Hull, after scoring his so called goal to help the Stars win the Cup in ’99, had left for Detroit and things weren’t going very well in the Stars lockeroom. Rifts between coach Ken Hitchcock and goalie Ed Belfour were becoming apparent with Belfour clearly not playing to his talents and the team as a whole was sinking fast. In 2002, coming off missing the final playoff spot in the West by 4 points, the Stars went shopping. Owner Tom Hicks reached deep into his pockets and picked out the players that he wanted signed and the team even went as far as making DVD’s to woo their prized free agents. The Stars ended up signing 3 players: Defenseman Phillipe Boucher (4 years/9 million), Wingers Scott Young (2 yrs/7 million) and Bill Guerin (4 yrs/45 million). The Stars had previously fired head coach Ken Hithcock and replaced him with Rick Wilson and after missing the playoffs they went out and hired former LA Kings assistant coach Dave Tippet to be their new head coach. Tippet came in and dramatically changed the play of the Stars and with Ed Belfour having been let go, newcomer Marty Turco came in and the Stars roared into the playoffs only to be eliminated by that year’s Cinderella story, the Mighty Ducks in the second round. However, it wasn’t all about spending for the Stars as they made some trades and even saw their Captain Darien Hatcher sign with the Red Wings. Early speculation sees the Stars possibly buying out Bull Guerin’s contract and it’s most assuredly that the Stars will cut ties with Center Pierre Turgeon who has just had a horrible time in Dallas. There’s even some doubt that the Stars can re-sign the face of their franchise, Mike Modano but chances are they probably will and guys like Turgeon will be gone. At this point, the Stars have 8 players under contract, totalling $22.6 million. Leaving just under $17 million to fill 15 roster spots.

Detroit: The labeled Yankees of the NHL have just parted ways with Dave Lewis as head coach and brought in the man who was at the helm in Anaheim when the Ducks swept the Wings in the 2003 playoffs, Mike Babcock. The Red Wings and owner Mike Ilitch have never been shy about spending money to bring in big names to go along with long time Wings Yzerman and Shanahan, but this might be what the Wings needed to realize that they don’t really have to spend so much money on free agents to remain an elite force in the NHL. With young kids like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk the Wings have their future in pretty good hands, that’s if they can re-sign them. When the Wings won the Cup in 2002 their roster included Hall of Famers: Yzerman, Domink Hasek, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Niklas Lidstrom, Sergei Federov, Igor larionov and possible HoF’er Scott Pipp…uh, Brendan Shanahan. The next year, GM Ken Holland brought in high priced goalie Curtis Joseph and that idea bombed. They brought in former Stars defeseman Darien Hatcher before he injured himself and only played 15 games for the Wings. They even signed Ray Whitney for some reason. Once the end of the 03-04 season was coming up, it was the usual battle of the guns between the Wings and AV’s….so Detroit traded for sudden scoring machine Robert Lang. The previous year they traded players, money and a first round pick to Los Angeles for Defenseman Mathieu Schneider. The Wings have said good bye to players like Larionov, Federov, Hull and Joseph and now look to be parting ways with more players. Workhorses Darren MaCarty, Tomas Holmstrom and Kris Draper are looking to be casualties of the new cap, whether it be via a buyout or a reduced salary, it’s up to them. Darien Hatcher and his near $5 million a year contract doesn’t look too good and as they stand, the Red Wings are right near the cap with 16 players under contract at $38 million. That leaves $1 million for 7 players and they still HAVE to re-sign Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Yzerman.

Colorado: Since moving to Colorado in ’96 the AV’s have battled for Cups and for the rights to be the Yankees of the NHL. However, their core of homegrown talent (as homegrown as it can get in the NHL) has been vastly superior to almost any other team in the league but that hasn’t stopped GM Pierre Lacroix from bringing in players to help out his team or from trading for his son, Eric, after the AV’s won the Cup and then trading him away the season before the Av’s won the Cup again. As of now, the Avalanhce have 11 players under contract at $22.8 million. Out of that number, Captain Joe Sakic and Rob Blake make about $11 million. Much like the Wings, the Avalanche have two talented restricted free agents to worry about: Alex Tanguay and Milan Hejduk, two guys who have been Av’s their entire careers. They must re-sign goalie David Aebischer and there’s this guy named Peter Forsberg who remains a big question mark. If Forsberg decides to return to the NHL after playing Sweden then the Av’s must re-sign him. Forsberg has said that he wants to return to the NHL and the Av’s if the money is right. During this past extra long off season the AV’s signed free agents Vincent Damphousse and Ian Lapperierre. Talks have Steve Konowalchuk and Chris Gratton being buyout casualities and superstar Paul Kariya will not be back, either. Like the Wings, the Av’s aren’t afraid to pull the trigger on a late season trade: In 1999, the AV’s acquired Theoren Fleury from Calgary and lost in the Western Finals to Dallas. They acquired Ray Bourque in 2000 and then Rob Blake in 2001. The Avalanche finally repeated as Stanley Cup champions that season and on the final game there was a sign in the crowd that read: “Sign Sakic, Blake and Roy. Sell the Nuggets”. The Nuggets really sucked back then, but it did seem like that’s what it would take to resign these guys. In 2002 they made small trades that added up to not much and lost talented forward Chris Drury to Calgary in one of those trades. And, of course, following Patrick Roy’s retirement and leading up to the 2003-2004 season the Avalanche had signed Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. The pair never got a chance to play their game in Colorado and they weren’t exactly as fleet footed as they were back in 1996 so things didn’t work out very well at all once injuries and problems with the coaching staff are tossed in.

With all of this said, there are still teams like St. Louis who are also jam packed with over priced veterans who despite having a great regular season never seem to get anything done in the playoffs. It can be realistically said that we may have seen the end of the trading wars in the NHL and more specifically amongst Detroit and Colorado. Both franchises will have enough trouble trying to keep their team together but perhaps after the new economic system has been in the works in the NHL and salaries finally take a tumble, teams will be able to maneuver their rosters enough to the point where big trades can be made and teams won’t be too hesitant to sign a big name free agent…at a reasonable cost.