Ken Campbell, The Hockey News' senior writer, is in his second tour with the brand after an eight-year stint as a beat reporter for the Maple Leafs for the Toronto Star. The Sudbury native once tried out for the Ontario League's Wolves as a 30-year-old. Needless to say, it didn't work out.
Contractual obligations force your trusty correspondent to declare the definitive list of winners and losers from the first day of free agency at a time before the ink is dry on all of the contracts. Who knows who won the day? After all, Thomas Vanek hasn’t even been a healthy scratch as a Detroit Red Wing yet.
With that in mind, we present our Winners and Losers from Canada Day, better known as the Start of Silly Season. If you subscribe to the theory that is held by a number of GMs that more mistakes are made on July 1 than any other day of the year, then perhaps the biggest winners are the teams that did nothing. Maybe it was the Colorado Avalanche, who picked up two players who were not extended qualifying offers and another who was bought out for a total cap hit of $5.3 million.
But that’s no fun. You, dear readers, demand Winners and Losers. Please keep in mind that everyone overpays. So here goes:
For most high profile free agents, July 1 is the day they cash in. For Eric Staal, it was a day to take an enormous haircut. It wasn’t long ago that people were talking about Staal as one of the most sought-after free agents this summer. But when the dust settled, he took a 58 percent cut in his average yearly salary on a three-year deal. A three-year deal.
If you’re looking for the newly signed free agent who has the most to prove and should be most highly motivated in 2016-17, Alexander Radulov is probably the first who comes to mind. But not far behind will be Staal, who will be on a quest to prove he’s still an elite center in the NHL. He certainly hasn’t looked like that since the lockout shortened season in 2012-13 and is coming off the most miserable season of his career.
Opposing centers in the Atlantic Division might want to start stocking up on Advil right about now, because they’re going to need it. If you don’t play for the Boston Bruins, David Backes is coming for you, and it’s going to hurt.
The Bruins not only replaced a lot of the physical identity they had lost when they signed Backes to a five-year deal worth $30 million, they also loaded themselves down the middle and have one of the most imposing center ice corps in the NHL. Backes joins David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron as the Bruins top three pivots. “You want to number them, that’s up to you,” Backes told TSN after he signed his deal.
For too long, the Edmonton Oilers have been an easy mark. For too long, their young players have been in a losing culture and have learned their lessons well. For too long they’ve been too complacent, not physical enough and seemed to accept losing a little too easily.
That ends. Now.
Signing Milan Lucic to a seven-year deal worth $42 million will instantly transform the Oilers dressing room from a country club to a boot camp. Lucic will be to the Oilers what Gary Roberts was to the Carolina Hurricanes, a veteran player with some snarl and a pedigree that will come in and make his young teammates accountable. In short, Lucic gives the Oilers an identity.
Practice has been over for a half an hour, and the dressing room is largely empty. Most of the New York Islanders have already showered and changed into their civvies, strictly adhering to the NHL off-day dress code of sweat pants and backward ball caps. Some are already on their way out of the rink. A lot of them take the Long Island Rail Road home from the team’s practice facility in Syosset, N.Y., and it’s on a schedule. Welcome to the real world, fellas.
As the dressing room empties, Kyle Okposo remains slumped in his stall, still in full equipment, save for the Islanders cap replacing his helmet. His legs are splayed, his fingers intertwined as they rest on his chest. He’s in no rush to move along. In fact, he looks as though he’s getting ready to go out and take another twirl. Perhaps it’s because he has a two-year-old and a newborn at home and realizes the chaos that awaits him. Or it could be that this is where he feels most comfortable. He speaks easily and relaxed, not the least bit ill at ease or scripted. Finally, a member of the training staff stands in front of him with the bin full of practice sweaters, hoping he’ll take the hint. “Oh, sorry,” Okposo says, peeling off his sweater. “I’m kind of in La-La Land here.”
As long as the NHL faces a concussion lawsuit from former players, you can expect NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to get his back up about the issue of fighting. And if that means he has to go to the same age-old clichés about its place in the game and provide nebulous information, so be it.
That was the case when Bettman was asked about it in an interview with an online broadcast of Sports Illustrated Now. Bettman was responding to questions about a letter he received from Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who accused the league of appearing, “dismissive about the link between head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the game of hockey.” Blumenthal, who is a member of a Senate subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security, posed nine questions to Bettman about how the league handles concussions and whether he believes there is a link between CTE and hockey. Blumenthal asked for a response by July 23 and Bettman complied.
The record will show that P.K. Subban was officially traded by the Montreal Canadiens on June 29, 2016. But in reality, the seeds of it were sown on Feb. 1, 2013 when a GM who used to be a fringe player and a stubborn coach tried to beat the individualism out of their best skater. That’s the day that GM Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien killed the ‘Low 5’ celebration that Subban used to do with goalie Carey Price.
They got past that, but like the couple that we all knew would divorce one day, the split became inevitable. And the Canadiens can spin this any way they’d like, but their decision to move Subban for Shea Weber has the potential for being an absolutely terrible hockey trade, one that could set the franchise back enormously. And it was done because one player brought too much attention to himself and some of the people around him couldn’t stand that.
We can only assume that Steven Stamkos’ agents aren’t terribly excited at the moment. His accountants? Well, since there’s no state tax in Florida and Stamkos will earn an average salary of $8.5 million each of the next eight years, well, that should make them fairly happy. We know fans in Toronto are a little down, as they probably are in Detroit, Montreal and Buffalo, too.
But Steven Stamkos is happy and that is the most important part of the equation. And it’s why, despite a year-long soap opera that accounted for a petrified forest worth of newsprint and countless gigabits in cyberspace, he decided to stay with the only NHL team he has ever known. As first reported by Bob McKenzie at TSN and confirmed by thn.com, Stamkos has agreed to an eight-year deal with the Lightning totaling $68 million. The deal involves a full no-movement clause, which means Stamkos isn’t going anywhere unless he approves of the deal.