For the past few days, much of the sports world has been swept up in breathless anticipation of the future of NBA phenom LeBron James. The superstar is mulling over whether to re-sign with a Miami Heat team he led to two championships and four league Final appearances in the past four seasons, or whether to return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Some observers have a tough time believing James could wave goodbye to the sun and sights of Florida for Ohio’s far less exotic environs, but his deep connections to his birthplace of Akron, Ohio and his lasting roots in the area clearly are tempting.
The pressure on James after a return to Cleveland would be monstrous, but it’s a credit to him that he’d be willing to deal with it as a form of community service – and, let’s face it, a karmic payback for clumsily leaving the Cavs in 2010. Sure, the Cavs have enough elite young talent to make his return pay off competitively, but James could play on any team for any amount of money and he should be commended for considering heading back to that environment.
But it got me to thinking: when will there be a LeBron James for the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Here’s what I mean: with the NHL’s salary cap limiting the amount of money any team can pay a star player, personal choice is as big a factor, if not the biggest factor in the employment decisions free agents make. In recent years, we’ve seen numerous NHL stars eschew higher-profile destinations in favor of teams/cities they had an off-ice connection to: In 2012, Minnesota signed stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in part because Parise grew up in that state and Suter’s wife hails from there; this summer, Thomas Vanek turned down more lucrative offers to sign with the Wild because his wife is from the area and because he attended college at the University of Minnesota.
But the same never seems to be the case for the Leafs. Read more
We’re a week removed from the mania of NHL free agency and the draft and the summer can take many twists and turns from here, so take this for what it’s worth – but the rejigged Tampa Bay Lightning are earning an increasing amount of respect from THN staffers. In an informal poll of editorial employees in our palatial North Toronto offices Tuesday, more than a few of us spoke about how impressed we were with what Bolts GM Steve Yzerman has done thus far in the off-season.
Full disclosure: I was one of those more-than-a-few. In fact, barring some unforeseen multi-team blockbuster that sees Patrick Marleau, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Quick traded to the Penguins for Marcel Goc and Craig Adams, I’m ready to say it: I think the Lightning are going to be the Eastern Conference’s most dangerous team next season. Read more
Status: Tampa Bay Lightning right winger
HT: 5-foot-10 WT: 170 pouds
DOB: July 2, 1990 In: Burnsville, Min.
First Hockey Memory: “I don’t know if I have a first memory, but I remember, obviously, doing a lot of outdoor skating and then playing a lot of street hockey with my friends.”
Hockey Inspirations: “I think just the base thing is being with all your friends, that right there is good enough for me, that’s why I play the game, you meet people and obviously it’s a fun sport. Just being around the guys and being with your friends is something that other people wouldn’t know about.” Read more
1. TORTORELLA CHARGES FLAMES DRESSING ROOM
Every NHL team has its best-and-worst-case scenarios laid out before each season begins, but there’s no way the Vancouver Canucks could have envisioned the nightmare that was to unfold. The franchise stumbled and bumbled on and off the ice and fell from third in the Western Conference in 2012-13 to 12th in 2013-14. And it’s hard to say which mistake was worst.
If you go back to the summer of 2013, the trading of goalie Cory Schneider certainly qualifies as a contender. After years of grooming Schneider to be Vancouver’s starting goalie for the next decade or more, then-GM Mike Gillis shocked the hockey world when he shipped the 28-year-old to New Jersey for the ninth-overall pick in last year’s draft. Schneider and veteran Roberto Luongo, who had nearly been dealt at the 2012-13 trade deadline, were dumbfounded by the move. But that was only the beginning of the madness. Read more
When Mikhail Grabovski signed a four-year deal with the New York Islanders that will pay him $5 million a season, he pretty much hit the jackpot. Not the Vincent Lecavalier jackpot, mind you, but the windfall was still mind-boggling.
That’s because Grabovski is one of 28 players who are being paid not to play hockey for the teams that originally signed them under the leagues’ compliance buyout system. You know the one. It’s the buyouts that essentially have given teams a mulligan on bad contracts that were signed before the last collective bargaining agreement. It’s also the one the NHL Players’ Association seemed dead-set against having part of the new system, although when you see the money that teams threw around, you’d have to wonder why. Read more
The CHL Import Draft is complex. On the surface of course, it’s straight-forward: Every team from the Ontario, Western and Quebec League has the opportunity to select two European players, assuming they have two import slots open on their roster.
But if one of your Europeans went in the first round of the NHL draft, you can keep the rights to three, in case the first-rounder bounces between the pros and junior (it’s basically the Mikhail Grigorenko rule). And you’re not allowed to take goalies anymore, which is protectionist and ignores the fact American netminders have been “taking jobs” from Canadian kids as much as Europeans were.
Also, some folks will tell you it’s not quite a draft because some teams have unofficial deals with players beforehand – which led to last year’s awkward situation where Washington Capitals pick Andre Burakovsky thought he was going to Windsor, only see to Erie scoop up his rights first. After a lot of fuss, Burakovsky went to the Otters and helped Erie make a nice playoff run.
The 2014 installment of the Import Draft happened on Wednesday and as always, there was drama, beginning with the first pick. The OHL’s Sarnia Sting tabbed Czech power forward Pavel Zacha first overall, but the youngster’s agent, Allan Walsh, immediately took to Twitter to announce that Zacha, a potential top-10 NHL pick in 2015, has a contract with Liberec back home and that Sarnia just wasted the pick.
You’d hope by now it wouldn’t need to be said that the real winners of the NHL’s annual first day of free agency are at least as often as not the teams that don’t throw lavish contracts at every flavor of the summer. Today’s impulse buy can become tomorrow’s cold-blooded buyout quicker than ever – ask former Rangers captain and new Blackhawks center Brad Richards – and nobody can predict with absolute certainty how any player will fit into his new environment.
Nevertheless, when all teams come away from this first day spinning it as working in their favor, somebody has to try and make sense of it all. That’s what this free agency winners/losers column is all about: one opinion on which teams can realistically claim to have improved, and which ones you can argue have hurt themselves with their activity – or, as the case may be, their lack of action:
The Stars signed winger Ales Hemsky to a very reasonable (three-year, $12-million) deal and added worker bee forward Patrick Eaves and backup goalie Anders Lindback via free agency, but their best acquisition Tuesday was the trade with Ottawa for center Jason Spezza. Nill made his team significantly better up front at very little cost to the roster – and, just as importantly, he’s given up virtually no contract flexibility (he’ll have some $35.4 million in cap space to spend next summer) to do it. In this day and age, that’s as much as you can ask for on free agent day.
After a couple years of trade rumors, Sam Gagner is finally on his way out of Edmonton. Coming in to the Oilers is another offensive winger in Teddy Purcell.
In terms of scoring, Edmonton gets the more productive and more healthy player over the past few seasons. And Gagner’s days as Edmonton’s second line center were all but over after another season without improvement and with his no-trade clause about to kick in. But the acquisition of a top-six winger is curious. The move creates a convenient roster hole for center Leon Draisaitl, who the team picked third overall in Friday’s draft. Not that they would make a trade like this to create an automatic opening on the second line for an 18-year-old (at least, we don’t think so), but without many other acquirable centers available, the opportunity will be hanging there for the German. Read more