- Scott Burnside, NHL
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This is ground zero for NHL franchises -- the annual entry draft.
Retool, rebuild; trade up, trade down; add a front-line player with an eye to the 2008 postseason, which is now a mirage.
And with the first round of the draft set to go in prime time on Friday night in Columbus, Ohio, rumors are thick that this draft weekend will see plenty of wheeling and dealing (the following six rounds take place beginning Saturday at 10 a.m. ET).
With a draft that is chock-a-block in offensive possibility, but short in star quality, at least impact star quality like Sidney Crosby, Erik Johnson, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Jack Johnson (the gems of recent drafts), the potential for all kinds of wacky things is great.
"It's going to be fascinating come Friday night," predicted St. Louis Blues president and former player and broadcaster John Davidson in an interview this week. "There are going to be some creative things happening. I just have a sense of that."
The Blues, one of the surprising teams of the second half of the 2006-07 season under new coach Andy Murray, boast three first-round draft picks thanks to Davidson and GM Larry Pleau's dealing of veterans Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk at the trade deadline. Both players were underwhelming in San Jose and Atlanta, respectively, but the Blues will shed no tears over that.
Instead, the issue for the Blues, as it is for all teams in the new NHL, is when to deviate from the plan to strike while the iron is hot, especially in a market where the team's relevancy has been jeopardized by mismanagement prior to Davidson's arrival.
Davidson acknowledged the Blues have come a "long, long way in 11 months. But there is still a long way to go before the team is competitive on an annual basis, the goal for any franchise. You have to be really careful."
A watchword for all NHL teams.
Given that, here's a look at some of the story lines that could be fleshed out during draft weekend in Columbus.
For sale: One slightly used, slightly fragile netminder
Having signed first-year phenom Niklas Backstrom to a two-year, $6.2-million deal, Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough will be pressing the flesh in Columbus and looking for a taker for enigmatic former No. 1 netminder Manny Fernandez. Fernandez has two years left on his contract, each of which reflects a $4.3-million cap hit. Risebrough said he'll wait for the right deal and doesn't mind starting the season with both Backstrom and Fernandez in camp. Of course, he doesn't have to go in the dressing room if he doesn't want to, so look for him to possibly take on another team's smaller contract woes if it means clearing his goaltender plate. Teams looking for goaltending help include, but are not limited to, Phoenix, Boston, Los Angeles and Toronto.
New boys in GM club
Two of the NHL's longest-suffering franchises, the Coyotes and Blue Jackets, will hit the draft with new GMs. Don Maloney in Phoenix and Scott Howson in Columbus reflect a thoughtful, analytical approach to the game that respective ownerships hope will see their teams move into playoff contention in the next season or two. At least, that's the theory for franchises that have combined for one playoff appearance in the last six playoff years.
One longtime agent said Howson is "the anti-Doug MacLean," referring to the Blue Jackets' first and only GM who was fired earlier this spring. "He's not a BS artist."
Howson, who comes from Edmonton where he was GM Kevin Lowe's right-hand man, and Maloney, Glen Sather's workhorse in New York, will have to deal with high-powered coaches in Ken Hitchcock (Columbus) and Wayne Gretzky (Phoenix). Both new GMs bring with them a wealth of scouting and contractual experience, and their jobs will be to unearth and secure top prospects for teams that have failed miserably to improve via free agency. The Coyotes have the third and 21st picks of the first round, while the Blue Jackets have the seventh overall pick, one behind Howson's former team.
And now for the limbo ...
It might be appropriate for officials to strike up Chubby Checker's "Limbo Rock" when Nashville GM David Poile and assistant GM Paul Fenton make their picks in Columbus given the uncertainty surrounding the franchise.
Every day brings new headlines out of Canada, where potential owner Jim Balsillie continues to prepare as though the team will be moving to Hamilton within the next year, and in Nashville, where there appears to be a rudimentary local ownership campaign under way. Balsillie's representatives (Balsillie rarely speaks to the press, preferring to spend all his waking time annoying NHL officials) insist if Balsillie's whopper $220-million bid for the Preds goes through, the team will spend to the cap to be competitive. Of course, that's a mighty big "if" and it's easy for Balsillie et al to say they will spend like drunken sailors when they don't have to put up any cash.
Until that happens, Poile and Co. will be restricted in deals they might make at the draft that would mean increasing payroll. Case in point: Monday's deal with the Flyers that sent forward Scott Hartnell and defenseman Kimmo Timonen to Philly for the second first-round draft pick the Preds acquired in the Peter Forsberg trade.
The issue becomes even more acute over the next two weeks as the Preds have more potential unrestricted free agents ready to hit the market, including Paul Kariya and Forsberg.
Without a set budget and/or owner, look for the Preds to float in no-man's land. That won't do much to sell the game in a market that already has indicated it cares little about hockey, which conspiracy theorists around the hockey world figure is just what Balsillie would like.
As bad as the Chicago Blackhawks have been in recent seasons (this year will mark the fifth time they've drafted in the top 10 since 2001), they have yet to hit the draft jackpot a la Pittsburgh or Washington, who drafted building blocks Crosby and Ovechkin, respectively. That's not to say they haven't assembled a stellar cast of young players, including scoring sensation Jonathan Toews, Jack Skille, Cam Barker, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith.
Even though they possess the first overall pick this spring, there is no clear-cut path for them to follow. With a strong, young defensive corps and the top end of the 2007 draft top-heavy in offensive prospects, the Hawks will go for offense, and the betting money is on Patrick Kane of the London Knights. But would Chicago drop down in the draft to get a similarly talented player while adding another pick or a prospect? Stay tuned.
Still, there was an interesting swapping of millstones leading up to the draft. The Blackhawks dumped Jassen Cullimore after two disappointing seasons (he missed 45 games over two seasons and was minus-30) and forward Tony Salmelainen to Montreal for disgruntled Russian forward Sergei Samsonov. The move is pure salary dump for the Habs, who have said they'll buy Cullimore out of the last year of his $1.9-million contract.
The move is more risky for Chicago as Samsonov has shown he has skill, but has been a significant disappointment in Edmonton and last season in Montreal, where he was a healthy scratch through much of the last part of the regular season.
Whither Alexei Cherepanov?
Cherepanov is the top-rated European player in the draft and at one point looked to be the first overall pick. But issues with consistency as a player (world-beater one night, dog the next), plus uncertainty over his availability given the lack of a transfer agreement with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, make him a draft wild card.
Because he is under contract with Omsk of the Russian elite league (or at least that's the word out of Russia, which means almost nothing), he might be prohibited from coming to North America until the end of that contract or until the Russians sign on with the International Ice Hockey Federation's transfer agreement.
Regardless, Cherepanov represents a significant gamble. No NHL team can afford to waste a first-round pick on a player who might not be available for the foreseeable future, but he could turn out to be the best of the lot. Stay tuned, Part II.
A season ago, the Ottawa Senators were wrestling over which of their blue-chip defensemen they could afford, Wade Redden or Zdeno Chara. They went with Redden and ended up going to their first Stanley Cup finals. However, Redden was only average throughout the playoffs, and with the emergence of Anton Volchenkov as an elite defender and the team's re-signing of Chris Phillips, there are persistent rumors Redden could be on the move.
A part of a large group of Senators who could become unrestricted free agents a year from now, Redden has a no-trade clause and he's expensive at $6.5 million. Still, there are many teams believed to be willing to take a chance, including Edmonton, which would take the native of Llodyminster, Saskatchewan, closer to home.
Of course, these matters have all been complicated by Monday's front-office shuffle that resulted in GM John Muckler being fired and replaced by coach Bryan Murray, who says he will look for a new coach.
A plethora of netminders
Montreal GM Bob Gainey raised eyebrows around the hockey world when the Canadiens made netminder Carey Price the fifth overall pick of the 2005 draft. It seemed awfully high for a team that looked to be deep in goal. But Price has established himself as one of the top young goaltenders in the world with his play at the junior level and, most recently, by leading the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs to a surprise Calder Cup championship.
Can he play at the NHL level? He'll make a case next fall at training camp. Let's assume Cristobal Huet will have the inside track at the No. 1 job in Montreal. That leaves promising netminders Jaroslav Halak, who nearly guided the Habs into the playoffs when Huet went down with injury, and Yann Danis, who will become a restricted free agent this summer, as having dropped down the depth chart. Would Gainey move Huet, who has one more year on his contract with a cap hit just under $3 million? Unlikely. But with a handful of teams looking for goaltending help and with top free agent Jean-Sebastien Giguere likely to sign in Anaheim, Gainey could find a lot of potential trade partners whispering in his ear in Columbus.
It didn't take long for Boston GM Peter Chiarelli to walk himself to the edge of the job plank. In spite of insisting coach Dave Lewis would return next season even though the Bruins were a mess from the start, Chiarelli turned and fired Lewis and assistant Marc Habscheid late last week and is now looking for his second coach in his second season on the job.
This is a good news/bad news thing.
Lewis was a peculiar choice to begin with given his disappointing tenure as coach in Detroit after Scotty Bowman retired. Granted, Chiarelli originally wanted Pat Quinn, but settled for Lewis, who is a nice man, but one who appears ill-suited to be a head coach.
Now, the dilemma for Chiarelli is he can't afford to make another mistake. Worse, his team is a dog's breakfast of speed and talent (Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, Phil Kessel, Marco Sturm) dragged down by size and immobility (Zdeno Chara, Aaron Ward) and cursed by a lack of identity and character. If Chiarelli can find a coach who can fix all that, he's in line for executive of the year.
Sadly, he might have been further ahead to keep Mike Sullivan, who was snapped up by Tampa Bay as an assistant this summer. Mike Milbury and Claude Julien (could there be more divergent personalities?) are apparently in line for the Bruins' posting, although it behooves Chiarelli to make one more call to Quinn, whose penchant for offense might at least drag a few more bodies through the door at TD Banknorth Garden.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
While the draft prospects themselves might not be turning heads, there could be plenty of wheeling and dealing at this weekend's draft.