Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News. He's been part of the THN team since 2011, but he's been married to hockey since he got beat up for collecting NHL sticker books in the mid-1980s. If you like strong opinions on the game itself, fantasy hockey tips and a hefty dose of pop culture in your readings, he's your man. And yes, the eyebrows are real.
Any smug prognosticator convinced Las Vegas’ NHL franchise will be a laughing stock has a head start. It’s an expansion team, after all, and recent NHL history tells us brand-new franchises normally fall flat on their faces.
The San Jose Sharks joined the NHL 25 years ago and won a combined 28 games in their first two seasons. The Ottawa Senators arrived a year later and won 24 games over their first two years. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators… each of those franchises wobbled out of the womb like a baby calf. The 1993-94 Florida Panthers set the gold standard of modern expansion club respectability, and even they didn’t finish .500, going 33-34-17. None of those teams made the post-season in its first two tries.
It thus stands to reason Vegas, a market already inviting some skepticism of its ability to fill an NHL arena long term, is in trouble. History suggests teams take years to build their youth crop and field competitive clubs. If the Vegas fan base is as fickle as some perceive it to be, that’s a deadly combination of lack of winning and lack of interest.
But Vegas has something going for it no franchise has before upon its inception: the salary cap. Vegas is the cap era’s first expansion team, and it will have advantages every other new NHL franchise has lacked.
Few NHL teams in recent memory will put the copycat coaching theory to the test like the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins. Mike Sullivan’s group won the Stanley Cup with a north-south approach that used speed and stretch passes and generated oodles of shot attempts, catering to “analytics hockey,” and it thus may have broken a barrier. More and more teams may try to win with the possession game, and that will be drilled into new coaching recruits from the ground up.
“As a coach you have to be careful,” said Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins, “because it’s one thing to run a system with one team, and then all of a sudden you have different personnel, and the system won’t work with different personnel. You always have to adjust what you’re doing to your personnel. Just because it’s worked for one team it doesn’t mean that system will work for you.”
It’s an interesting debate, and it’s one aspiring coaches might strike up with Desjardins at the 2016 TeamSnap Hockey Coaches Conference. He’ll appear there as a speaker when the conference comes to Toronto July 15 and 16. San Jose Sharks assistant Steve Spott and hockey journalism maven Bob McKenzie, former Hockey News editor in chief, will join Desjardins along with many other prominent names in the industry. The conference then shifts to Vancouver, where Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters, AHL all-time wins leader Roy Sommer and legendary NCAA Div. I women’s coach Shannon Miller headline the group of mentors speaking July 22 and 23.
It was a wild day, to say the least. As is customary in the era of the five-day negotiation window preceding it, free agency started with a deluge of signings as previously struck deals were made official. Per capfriendly.com, 131 players signed for $651,249,125 in total contract dollars.
But plenty of impact players remained unsigned after Day 1. The 10 best still out there after July 1:
1. JIRI HUDLER, RW
2015-16 cap hit: $4 million
Career year in 2014-15, then tanked in contract year. Still a handy playmaking forward for someone’s top six.
2. RADIM VRBATA, RW
2015-16 cap hit: $5 million
One season removed from arguably being the Canucks’ best player. Will attract teams starved for secondary scorers.
3. KRIS RUSSELL, D
2015-16 cap hit: $2.6 million
A trap signing? Lauded for shot blocking but possession numbers suggest he was a below-average defender in 2015-16. Reports July 1 suggest he’s in for a payday north of $5 million per season.
Mikkel Boedker had plenty of suitors as he hit unrestricted free agency. At 26, he was among the youngest top-six forwards available. He’s one of the faster players in the game. And, while his career highs of 19 goals and 51 points are modest, he never played with top-end talent before the Arizona Coyotes traded him to the Colorado Avalanche at this year’s deadline.
Still, of all the teams seeking help on the wings…the San Jose Sharks? They already have one of the deepest forward corps in the league. The first line of Joe Thornton between Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski is dominant. Logan Couture, the second-line center, led the 2016 playoffs in scoring. Joel Ward brings thunder and clutch scoring from the third line. Patrick Marleau serves as a swingman who can play in the top six or center the third unit. Youngsters Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson have shown flashes. First-round picks Nikolay Goldobin and Timo Meier should get their chances eventually.
Let’s agree on one thing: Alexander Radulov in hockey-mad Montreal should be interesting.
Will inking Radulov to a one-year, $5.75-million contract go down as a stroke of genius for Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin? Or will it be another ill-fated tire kick, as we saw with enigmatic Alexander Semin last year?
It’s very difficult to say. Radulov, who turns 30 next week, has been one of the KHL’s best players in the eight seasons he’s spent there. He hums along at well north of a point per game, year in and year out. He’s a Gagarin Cup champion.
We can’t classify him alongside recent KHL import busts like Roman Cervenka or Sergei Plotnikov because, of course, Radulov isn’t a traditional import. He cut his teeth in major junior, scoring like crazy with the Quebec Remparts under coach Patrick Roy. The Nashville Predators chose Radulov 15th overall in 2004. He scored 18 goals as a rookie with the Preds in 2006-07 and, in his last full NHL year, posted an impressive 26 goals and 58 points in 2007-08. He was just 21 then. The guy can play. He returned after a completed KHL season to finish out his entry-level NHL deal in 2011-12 and, in 17 games split between the regular season and playoffs, had four goals and 13 points. We know Radulov can handle the North American game.
Chicago Blackhawks fans can breathe easy right now. Their team addressed a dire need Friday and did so with minimal risk, signing Brian Campbell to a one-year deal carrying a $1.5-million cap hit and $750,000 in performance bonuses. As for the future? Well, GM Stan Bowman just has to take this one year by year.
Last summer the Hawks, squeezed up against the salary cap for the umpteenth year in a row, had to let blueliner Johnny Oduya walk as an unrestricted free agent. Oduya would never have been mistaken for a Norris Trophy candidate but was a highly capable and experienced second-pair blueliner. He and Niklas Hjalmarsson formed such a strong tandem that coach Joel Quenneville could almost roll with just four defensemen, the other two being Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, in the playoffs. Oduya won Cups with Chicago in 2013 and 2015 and averaged 24:45 of ice time during the 2015 run.
Unrestricted free agent goalie James Reimer’s starting options dried up in a hurry. The Carolina Hurricanes re-upped Cam Ward, the Toronto Maple Leafs acquired Frederik Andersen and the Calgary Flames dealt for Brian Elliott. No other NHL team had an obvious need for an unquestioned No. 1.
But the deal Reimer signed with the Florida Panthers July 1 is the type that makes you say “Ohhh, I get it.” Is a five-year, $17-million contract with a $3.4-million hit starter money? No, but it sure as heck ain’t backup money, either. The Cats have set themselves up with an ideal fallback for – and perhaps successor to – Roberto Luongo. His contract actually ends after Reimer’s, but Luongo is 37. The odds of him playing out that deal through 2021-22 are slim. Luongo appeared in 62 games this past season. Before the all-star break he posted at 2.08 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. Afterward: 2.82 and .907. He understandably wilted down the stretch and admitted to feeling exhausted during Florida’s first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders.
Reimer, for starters, can spell Luongo for 25 or even 30 games in 2016-17. Reimer has had longer looks as a starter than the departed Al Montoya, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Reimer play a 1B role instead of taking on strict backup duty. The $3.4-million annual investment suggests as much. Reimer is 28, with many good years left, so he could take over the No. 1 job in a couple years depending on when Luongo retires or suffers a significant age-related decline.
Did left winger Loui Eriksson have an excellent bounce-back year in Boston? Absolutely. Is he worth $6 million a year? Probably. Might he fit beautifully shifting to the right wing on a line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin? Sure. But does it make any sense for the current incarnation of the Vancouver Canucks to sign Eriksson, who turns 31 July 17, to a six-year deal?
One again, the Jim Benning regime shows its personality is multiple personalities, a blend of buy and sell, of rebuild and playoff push, of acceptance and denial. To try and break down what this team has done over the past few seasons, here’s a rough sketch…