Our summer questions to ponder
It's August, the longest month for a hockey fan. The free-agent frenzy is a memory, and training camp is still more than a month away.
Luckily this summer, there are the Olympic orientation camps and our annual (really?) summer questions primer to help buoy your spirits.
Hang on, folks; September is just around the corner.
1. Did the Tampa Bay Lightning buy out the final three years in Vaclav Prospal's grisly four-year deal because they have no money? Or have they actually made their team better by dislodging the notoriously streaky, overpaid forward and adding by subtraction, given the opening for impressive prospects (Dana Tyrell and Johan Harju, playing this year in Russia) and potential addition of another top-6 forward (Alex Tanguay, maybe)? Give the re-rebuilding Bolts the benefit of the doubt and pick the latter.
2. Have we seen the last of world-class defenseman Sergei Zubov, who reportedly is leaning toward returning to his native Russia to play in the KHL after ending his long-standing relationship with the Dallas Stars? We can't help but feel sorry for the Stars, who supported Zubov through a couple of injury-plagued seasons -- and paid him handsomely while he rehabilitated -- but couldn't persuade him to return to Big D.
3. How many goals did the Toronto Maple Leafs' offseason acquisitions Mike Komisarek, Colton Orr, Garnet Exelby, Francois Beauchemin and Wayne Primeau account for last season? Seven. How about their average height and weight? A shade more than 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds. Brian Burke is in the house.
4. So, how will the Dany Heatley saga end? We're not sure, but guessing it ends badly wherever he ends up isn't much of a stretch, is it? If I'm the Edmonton Oilers (and only rarely do I pretend to be the beleaguered western Canadian franchise), I back very slowly but surely away from my proposed deal to bring the confused winger to the Oil Patch.
5. Speaking of ending badly, we wonder how the Phoenix Coyotes ownership battle will unfold with the team auction set for Wednesday. Not sure how Jerry Reinsdorf will work out if he ends up with the team -- the NHL's board of governors unanimously approved Reinsdorf and rejected Jim Balsillie on Wednesday. But don't be so sure, as the Canadian media are, that Reinsdorf's taking over the team spells the end of Wayne Gretzky as coach. Sources familiar with the situation suggest it's not that cut-and-dried, and it's possible Reinsdorf would merely want to renegotiate Gretzky's monster contract and determine the best course of action for the product on the ice. Maybe Gretzky stays, maybe he goes; but it's not a done deal.
6. How many more goaltenders will the New York Islanders sign before the end of the summer? Along with the Netminder for Eternity, Rick DiPietro, the Isles brought in veteran starters Dwayne Roloson (who played with Edmonton this past season) and Martin Biron (Philadelphia), making for a very crowded crease on Long Island. All of which suggests that Mr. DiPietro, well on his way to becoming one of the greatest No. 1 overall draft pick busts in history, isn't anywhere near ready to play.
7. In the end, who will be the bigger disappointment on Broadway, new Ranger Marian Gaborik, he of the frequent groin injury, or Scott Gomez, peddled to Montreal to make way for Gaborik this summer? Maybe the better question is, what is the over/under on the number of games Gaborik plays before his first prolonged stint on the injury shelf? We say 15.
8. Is the bloom off the rose for the lovable Chicago Blackhawks? (They unceremoniously fired GM Dale Tallon, got ripped by former forward Martin Havlat, screwed up qualifying offers to a handful of top young players, then found out top free agent Marian Hossa had a bum shoulder when they signed him and won't appear in a Hawks jersey until about Thanksgiving -- the U.S. one.) Probably not. But with expectations as high as they've been in years, Chicago has to get off to a good start to prove that all the offseason commotion hasn't set the team back.
9. Which is the more confounding coaching hire of the offseason, Marc Crawford plucked from the broadcast booth to take over for highly respected Dave Tippett in Dallas, or Jacques Lemaire returning to suck the life out a New Jersey Devils team that continues to shed key players on an annual basis? Is it possible that neither of these teams will be invited to the playoff dance in the spring? Yes.
10. Right now, who has the better goaltending lineup for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics? The Canadians likely will go with Martin Brodeur, who hasn't advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs since 2003, and Roberto Luongo, who imploded in the second round this past postseason and has never played in a conference finals game, let alone a Stanley Cup finals matchup. The Americans will go with Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller, who has backstopped the Buffalo Sabres to two berths in the Eastern Conference finals since the end of the lockout. Just asking.
11. What was the best under-the-radar signing of the summer? Even though he got fired a few days later, Chicago GM Dale Tallon's acquisition of former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner John Madden more than adequately replaces departed Samuel Pahlsson and should make the Hawks even more difficult to play against this season. An honorable mention goes to Anaheim and its signing of former Montreal captain Saku Koivu. Playing with old friend Teemu Selanne, Koivu should enjoy a bounce-back season offensively as the Ducks are once again a Cup contender in the Western Conference.
12. OK, then, which big-name signing has the biggest bust potential? Well, we already suggested that Gaborik's long-standing health issues make him a high risk for the Rangers, but what about Jay Bouwmeester in Calgary? The one-time Panthers franchise player has played in the shadows his entire career, never has played in an NHL playoff game and will be in the spotlight in Calgary, where once again Cup dreams burn brightly (we didn't say those dreams were well-founded, just that they're out there).
13. Will the NHL and the KHL ever settle their differences? Uh, not likely. Not until it comes time for the NHL to commit (or not) to the 2014 Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
The Russians will be desperate for NHL participation, but the fact that the KHL continues to try to poach players who remain the property of NHL teams (such as Jiri Hudler of the Detroit Red Wings -- or of the Moscow Dynamo, depending on which side of the cold hockey war you stand) suggests the Russians have to take a more conciliatory approach, else they can kiss Sidney Crosby and the rest of the NHL goodbye in four years.
As for Hudler, he has shown potential on the ice, but you have to wonder about the kind of advice he's being given: He filed for arbitration with the Wings, which makes him their property, before reportedly signing a deal to play in Moscow. Duh.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.