Deals, rumors and story lines on the eve of draft day
OTTAWA -- It seems like a long time ago that the NHL shook off its post-lockout cobwebs and gathered in Ottawa for a truncated version of the 2005 entry draft.
Now, preparing for the fourth post-lockout draft, general managers have a clearer picture of the NHL landscape. In many ways, the news has been good. The league is coming off a season that saw a wildly successful outdoor game in Buffalo and a terrific Stanley Cup finals series featuring Crosby and the emerging Penguins, and the Detroit Red Wings. Television ratings were up. Interest in the playoffs was up.
By the fall, the salary cap will have risen to somewhere between $53 and $56 million, and average salaries have already surpassed pre-lockout levels. This makes you wonder why the league had to close its doors for a year, but, at this stage, that question is moot.
What remains constant about the draft, however, is that each team arrives with a wish list and a sense of hope that this will be the start of something special -- if not next season, then sometime down the road.
Another constant is the beehive of activity at the draft as scouts, coaches, GMs, agents, prospects and the media all cram into the same handful of hotels and restaurants and bars for three or four days.
Here's a look at some of the story lines that might reveal themselves between now and on Saturday afternoon, when the seventh and final round of the draft wraps up.
It wouldn't be NHL draft weekend without a blockbuster trade, or at least the threat of one. Two years ago in Vancouver, the Canucks made headlines by acquiring netminder Roberto Luongo from Florida for Bryan Allen, Todd Bertuzzi and Alex Auld in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory.
At the 2001 draft, the New York Islanders shipped their No. 2 pick and hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin. So, there's a little symmetry at play with rumors that the Ottawa Senators might be willing to move Jason Spezza, perhaps for the Vancouver's 10th overall pick.
Another hot rumor making the rounds involving the Canucks has rookie GM Mike Gillis shopping the team's top two offensive players: Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. Gillis pooh-poohed those rumors, but acknowledged teams had been calling about the talented twins. He said Thursday he wasn't pursuing a deal and wanted to work to extend the Sedins' contracts before they become unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2008-09 season. But this one seems to have legs.
And what would trade rumors be without one involving San Jose captain Patrick Marleau, who has been rumored to be on the move to virtually every other NHL team at some point during the last three seasons. It seems unlikely, however, that the Sharks would move Marleau now given there's a new coach in town in Todd McLellan, who has some history with Marleau given both are from Saskatchewan.
Life of Brian
One thing about Anaheim GM Brian Burke is that he's never far from the headlines. This weekend, he will find out whether Hall of Fame-bound defenseman Scott Niedermayer will return for another season. We're guessing playing for half a season and getting bounced in the first round isn't exactly how Niedermayer envisioned his swan song, so look for him to give it one more go. Burke also will field offers on a No. 12 overall pick acquired from the Oilers, courtesy of a contentious offer sheet presented to Dustin Penner by the Oilers last summer. There's also the ongoing story of Burke's apparently imminent departure from Anaheim to Toronto as soon as the final year on his contract runs out after this coming season. Adding fuel to that persistent blaze is the recent hiring of Al Coates by the Leafs to act as director of player personnel. Coates did work with interim GM Cliff Fletcher back in the day in Calgary, but Coates most recently was senior advisor to Burke in Anaheim. Ah, the plot thickens.
Burke continues to carry a man-sized grudge over the Oilers' move on Penner from 2007, but don't think for a moment the strategy isn't being considered by every other GM in the league as this summer's signing period approaches. While many top-level players have been locked into long-term deals, there are a handful of franchise-type players who have yet to be brought under contract as the draft approaches. Leading the way in that group are three franchise-style defensemen -- Jay Bouwmeester in Florida, Shea Weber in Nashville and Mike Green in Washington. All three defensemen could be the subject of offer sheets in the area of $5 million per year if their teams can't get them under contract. If these teams don't believe they can get the job done, the draft will be the perfect place to test the marketplace.
Eating your mistakes
The clock is ticking on Ray Emery's final days in Ottawa. The club will be looking for a buyer for the troubled netminder, but it's hard to imagine any team biting given that Emery will almost certainly be bought out and then become an unrestricted free agent, making him available at a fraction of the $6.75 million he is currently owed for the next two seasons.
The Boston Bruins will have to decide what to do with Manny Fernandez, who played just four games last season and is owed $4.75 million if he's healthy. With Tim Thomas showing he is a top NHL netminder and Tuukka Rask looking for NHL experience, the Bruins might look to shop the temperamental Fernandez (good luck) or buy him out.
The Bruins might also be in a position that they could buy out veteran forward Glen Murray, whose value to the team has declined precipitously in recent years. Murray is owed $4.15 million this season and, at that number, it's unlikely another team would be interested. Murray had just 30 points in 63 games in 2007-08.
In Atlanta, the lamentable Alexei Zhitnik is still on the books for $3.5 million this coming season. Given that Zhitnik was so out of game shape the team not only benched him, but didn't bother to take him on road trips down the stretch, it was curious to see GM Don Waddell quoted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying the team had never considered buying out Zhitnik.
"That's never been talked about," Waddell told the newspaper this week. "We think he'll be a big part of our future. We expect him to come back and be part of our team."
That sentiment will no doubt come as great comfort to the rest of Zhitnik's teammates in Atlanta, not to mention the fans who have yet to see the franchise win a single playoff game.
Over in Toronto, there continue to be rumors that Fletcher would like to buy out half his team (OK, maybe just a quarter) and Darcy Tucker tops that list. He is one of the Muskoka Five who refused to waive their no-movement deals at February's trade deadline.
The rights game
One of the interesting trends since the end of the lockout has been the movement of players' signing rights in advance of the start of the free-agent period on July 1. Teams that don't believe they're going to be able to re-sign a player have been aggressive about allowing players to try to find a match with another team. Then they trade the player's rights, usually for draft picks.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, for instance, gave up a seventh-round pick this week to reacquire the rights to forward Vaclav Prospal. That's a little surprising given that sources say agent Ritchie Winter has told Prospal he can deliver $16 million over four years (again, we say good luck). But Prospal has had success playing with Vincent Lecavalier, and new ownership is apparently willing to spend money to get the Bolts back into the playoffs after finishing dead last this past season.
Denied in his bid to move captain Mats Sundin at the trade deadline, Fletcher would no doubt like to find out sooner than later whether he can bring Sundin back into the fold. If not, he'll try to find a partner for the big Swede that might yield some assets for the asset-starved Leafs. Detroit, Ottawa and Montreal are all rumored to covet the veteran center's services.
Columbus is rumored to be hot after Pittsburgh forward Ryan Malone and would likely ante up to get ahead of the curve in obtaining his rights. Malone looks like he wants to test the open market, but if the Blue Jackets are aggressive enough -- and they have wads of cash to spend against the salary cap -- they might be able to convince Malone otherwise.
Speaking of Pittsburgh, the Pens are doing their best to bring forward Marian Hossa under contract before July 1. He is another Winter client, so that must be making for interesting times for GM Ray Shero. But if Hossa and the Pens can't agree on just how much of a Crosby discount Hossa is willing to take to stay, Shero would no doubt like to find a team (did anyone say Boston?) that might be able to work a deal with Hossa before July 1 and provide the Pens with a draft pick or two in return.
Defensemen John-Michael Liles of Colorado and Wade Redden of Ottawa could both be unrestricted free agents on July 1, but it's believed Carolina and the New York Rangers would like to solve some defensive problems before that time, so there could be movement with those two teams before the marketplace opens.
Another player whose rights could be had is defenseman Brian Campbell, who was dealt from Buffalo to San Jose at the trade deadline, but might not be able to come to a deal with the Sharks before July 1. The Sharks will want to try to obtain some assets for Campbell, for whom they gave up prospect Steve Bernier and a No. 1 draft pick.
Another GM in an interesting situation is Phoenix GM Don Malone, who is heading into his second draft as the main man in the desert. The Coyotes showed surprising promise last season when, predicted to finish at or near the bottom of the standings by virtually every league observer, they stayed in the playoff race until the final quarter of the schedule. Much of that success had to do with the maturation of prospects such as Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal, selected by former GM Mike Barnett.
The Coyotes have the No. 8 pick and four second-round picks, so they could be looking to deal. But they're also looking to fill a gap created when they failed to sign former top pick Blake Wheeler, who became a free agent and has agreed to sign with Boston. While Wheeler hasn't been able to make good on the promise that saw Phoenix use the fifth overall pick to select him in 2004, sources familiar with the player say he will be an NHL player. The fact the Coyotes couldn't get him to re-sign with them is an opportunity lost. The Coyotes received a compensatory pick when Wheeler left (the 35th overall pick in this year's draft), but no matter how you cut, it's a bad deal. The team invests four years of time and money, not to mention a fifth overall pick, and now has a 35th pick to show for it? Those are the kinds of setbacks that are hard to get over.
One of our favorite lines in recent draft memory came courtesy of Nashville coach Barry Trotz, who was asked what his role was at the draft. "Eye candy," he quipped. Given that, there will be some fresh coaching candy (OK, bad image) on display in Ottawa. Peter DeBoer, the hot junior coaching prospect who was pursued by a number of NHL teams including the Los Angeles Kings, will be at the Florida Panthers' draft table. Craig Hartsburg, the former bench boss in Chicago and Anaheim, takes over the Ottawa Senators' coaching duties after a successful stint as a junior coach.
McLellan, fresh off his Stanley Cup party as an assistant coach in Detroit, might be starting to feel the pressure of having to produce a winner in San Jose after another second-round letdown for the Sharks this spring. Speaking of pressure, McLellan's predecessor, Ron Wilson, has already found a new home in Toronto, while Tony Granato might be sensing a little déjà vu all over again as he takes another run at being a coach in Colorado.
While coaches might enjoy the draft because it's a good opportunity to hang out with hockey people, while not really having to do any meaningful work (hey, that's not a knock on coaches, they get to do their heavy lifting in about three months), this is sweat time for the league's GMs.
Trade up? Trade down? Trade those rights? Acquire those rights? The map for the coming season and beyond is drawn on the draft floor and in the back rooms in Ottawa. Among those who are new to the high-stakes game is former agent Gillis in Vancouver and Jacques Martin in Florida.
Gillis has already rubbed a number of people the wrong way since sliding in the back door to the Vancouver job at the expense of Dave Nonis. He has slammed the team's scouting department and has to decide what to do with the 10th overall pick in a deep draft. The Canucks need scoring help, and they need it now. Former client Pavol Demitra has already been doing some sightseeing in Vancouver. That has annoyed Demitra's current employers in Minnesota, but Demitra might be used to fill the void created if captain Markus Naslund becomes an unrestricted free agent.
On Thursday, Gillis said Naslund will wait until July 1 to see what the market looks like, but the GM has ruled out bringing Naslund back. Gillis might also be able to add another piece if he moves the team's first-round pick. Either way, watch for Gillis to try to put his mark on the Canucks early and emphatically.
Martin, on the other hand, is no stranger to drafts or to Ottawa, but his vantage point until now has always been as a coach (see "eye candy" above). Typical of the Panthers' wacky view of hockey ownership, they decided Martin wasn't a good enough coach and forced him to become the GM. Go figure. Now, Martin has to decide what to do with Olli Jokinen, whom he couldn't get along with as a coach. The talented center should yield a big return in terms of a top draft pick or prospects, but what does Martin do about replacing him in the Panthers' lineup? Big decisions for the GM of a moribund franchise that hasn't bothered to darken the playoff door since 2000 and hasn't won a playoff round since it advanced to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NHL HEADLINES
- Avalanche announce 2-year deal for O'Reilly
- Kreider, Rangers able to avoid arbitration
- Vanek helping authorities in federal probe
- Leafs hire analytics guru Dubas as asst. GM