Draft the calm before free-agency storm
OTTAWA -- The 2005 NHL Entry Draft may have been Draft Light, trimmed from nine rounds to seven and held in a hotel ballroom instead of an NHL arena, but it didn't lack for drama, rumor and intrigue.
Here's a look at some of the buzz surrounding the draft weekend and what lies ahead with the deadline for making qualifying offers to restricted free agents Sunday afternoon and the opening of the free agent market Monday afternoon.
• Any suggestion that Thrashers star restricted free agent Dany Heatley wants out of Atlanta appear to be greatly exaggerated. Sources with knowledge of the situation say the rumors are false and that Heatley is expected to strike a deal with the team in the near future. If ever there is a player who has a debt to repay a franchise and a city, it's Heatley, who has enjoyed extraordinary understanding from all concerned following the deadly car accident that claimed the life of teammate and friend Dan Snyder in the fall of 2003.
• Among the hottest free agents to hit the market Monday will be Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. Talks between the Russian netminder and the Bolts broke off over the weekend and he will test the free-agent market. Sources close to the team say that Khabibulin would like to return to the Lightning, but is also curious about his value on the open market. The dilemma for Khabibulin is that to get top-of-the-line money, somewhere around $4 million per year, he might have to move to a team that has little chance of competing for a Cup. If Khabibulin is interested in securing his reputation as an elite NHL netminder, he'll be back in Tampa.
• Another Lightning player whose future is creating a buzz is Vincent Lecavalier, the MVP of the World Cup of Hockey. The former first overall pick wants to stay in Tampa long-term, but he's also eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next summer under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement. The consistent rumor is that Lecavalier wants to become a free agent next summer and then sign with his boyhood heroes, the Montreal Canadiens. But a source close to the situation said that scenario is more media creation than reality and that Lecavalier is comfortable with his role in Tampa, where he's emerged as an elite player and dressing-room leader. To go to Montreal would set up an entirely different set of expectations. Another source said talks this weekend between Lecavalier, a restricted free agent, and the Lightning were "very positive."
• One event that took place this weekend in Toronto may turn out to be among the most significant events of the offseason. A handful of coaches, general managers, players, on-ice officials and league officials met late last week to start fine-tuning how the rule changes are going to work. Crucial among them is the new enforcement of obstruction and stick fouls, especially in the neutral and defensive zones. Said one participant, if a player even raises his stick in a way that looks as if he's going to try and slow down an opponent, he'll be called for obstruction. The key, he said, will be in taking the momentum from the session and transferring it to training camps and then into the regular season.
• The Leafs were part of the most significant trade of the weekend, acquiring former 40-goal scorer Jeff O'Neill from Carolina for future considerations. O'Neill signed a two-year deal worth $1.5 million per year. GMs around the league will be salivating at the thought that this deal may set an early benchmark for the coming free agency frenzy as O'Neill's deal is about half of what he would have made if the Hurricanes had made him a qualifying offer. But O'Neill, who is from the Toronto area, wouldn't have signed this deal anywhere else. He is expected to fill a role on the right side previously occupied by unrestricted free agent Alexander Mogilny. The trade comes a little more than a week after O'Neill's brother Donnie was killed in a car accident north of Toronto. "It's been tough to talk business," said Toronto GM John Ferguson Jr.
• The only other NHL regulars to be dealt on draft day were defenseman Shane Hnidy who went to Atlanta from Nashville and Todd White who found a home in Minnesota after spending the last three seasons in Ottawa. The reason for the dearth of trades is simple said Philadelphia GM Bob Clarke. "Nobody has any extra players," he said. Any dead weight has either been bought out or hasn't been made a qualifying offer, Clarke said.• The ugliest buyout award clearly goes to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Owen Nolan. The Leafs, as expected, divested themselves of the prickly, injury-prone forward and his $5.6 million price tag for the coming season. But it's a matter that isn't likely to be resolved for many months. Nolan and his representatives insist he shouldn't have been medically cleared to play during the lockout, and as a result, is owed his full salary from last season plus his full salary for the 2005-06. The Leafs' position is that Nolan injured his knee in a non-hockey incident after the 2003-04 season and is in fact an unrestricted free agent and as such won't cost the Leafs a dime in buyout money. Regardless, the Leafs at the present moment have more cap room with which to pursue defenseman Scott Niedermayer and/or forwards Markus Naslund or Peter Forsberg. What remains to be seen is what becomes of Nolan, who had knee surgery last week. The fact he chose to announce his injury on the eve of the buyout period has done little to enhance his reputation.Things have gotten ugly between Owen Nolan and the Leafs.
• Expect Steve Yzerman to announce to the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday that he'll return for one final season. The classy captain spent three hours on Friday with Wings GM Ken Holland and senior vice president Jim Devellano in Toronto, where the team presented him with a one-year offer. Yzerman, 40, was going to discuss the contract with his wife over the weekend and let the team know by the end of day Sunday, the day before the free agency market opens. Yzerman already has been invited to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp in British Columbia in two weeks and is expected to return for at least one more go-round. "He's not going to go anywhere else," Holland said. "Hopefully, he'll still come back. I think he should go out playing on the ice."
• Wayne Gretzky will make an announcement this week on whether he'll accept the job as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. The sooner the better for GM and close friend Mike Barnett. Several unrestricted free agents, including Dallas captain Mike Modano, have indicated they'd be interested in playing for Gretzky and his decision could set in motion a domino effect of free-agent movement.
• Talk about symmetry. The Calgary Flames selected a young man named Brett Sutter of Viking, Alberta, with the 179th pick. The 5-foot-11 forward is the son of Calgary coach and GM Darryl Sutter. Cue the Twilight Zone music. Darryl Sutter was himself drafted in the 179th slot in the 1978 draft.
• An estimated 2,000 people attended a clinic Friday morning featuring a handful of top prospects, including No. 1 pick Sidney Crosby. The event was held at the Senators' practice facility and saw fans standing three and four deep around the arena glass. If that's an indication of the level of interest in the draft, the league made a serious miscalculation by holding the event in a downtown hotel where the public was denied access as opposed to holding it at the Corel Centre, the Senators' home rink, and opening it to the public.
• Turn left and keep going. Top-ranked defenseman Jack Johnson was scheduled for an interview with Minnesota Wild officials early Thursday evening at an Ottawa hotel. Unfortunately the directions provided by a hotel employee to Johnson's father, Jack Sr., saw father and son go in the wrong direction, leave the province of Ontario and head into Gatineau, Quebec, where, not surprisingly, they could find no members of the Wild organization. The interview was rescheduled and took place late Thursday night. Johnson on Saturday was selected third overall by the Carolina Hurricanes.A record four United States hockey players were taken in the Top 10 of the NHL draft.
• Anaheim GM Brian Burke surprised some by not selecting Johnson with the second pick and instead chose Bobby Ryan, a right winger who learned the game in Southern California and is a star in the Ontario Hockey League. Burke had shopped the second pick, but his asking price was too high -- a young player already under contract and ready to step into the Mighty Ducks' lineup. "He said you'll have to overpay," Flyers GM Bob Clarke said. "At least he was honest."
• Speaking of U.S.-born players, the four taken in the top 10 of the draft (Johnson at No. 3, Ryan at No. 2, Jack Skille at No. 7 and Brian Lee at No. 9) was a record and an indication of the bright future for U.S. hockey. On two separate occasions, three U.S.-born players were taken in the top 10. In all, eight Americans were taken in the first round, another record.
• Atlanta GM Don Waddell, the GM for the 2006 U.S. Olympic team, was to meet with Carolina head coach Peter Laviolette this weekend and it's believed Laviolette will be asked to assume head coaching duties in Italy in February. Laviolette was head coach for the U.S. entry in the past two World Championships. It's also expected John Tortorella, head coach of the Lightning and an assistant with the 2005 World Championship team, will also be asked to return to Laviolette's staff.
• Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli kicked off the draft by welcoming fans and suggesting he would change his name to 'Sidney' for his next re-election campaign. Senators owner Eugene Melnyk then referred to Chiarelli as Mayor Sidney. Ha, ha. Guess you had to be there.
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