This series could be described as “A Tale of Two Cities In Freefall” by someone who particularly loved Dickens. That writer would no doubt treat their readers to a wordy, drawn out description of the teams records fillled with references to the a book most people never bothered to suffer through; that writer isn’t me. Neither the Blues who ended the season on a zero for six slide, nor the Blackhawks who played mediocre hockey have much to shout about coming into the post season.

Saint Louis Blues

The list of players dinged up over the last month of the regular season for the Blues reads like a who’s who of the team. David Backes spent time on the shelf, Olympic sharp shooter T.J. Oshie was down-checked, faceoff stud and defensive stalwart Valdimir Sobotka is down and out. Vladimir Taresenko hasn’t taken the ice since mid march, and both Brenden Morrow and Patrik Berglund found themselves in need of time to heal. Which makes it remarkable that the team was still within striking distance of the President’s Trophy until the final games of the regular season. This is a very talented team when healthy, who work hard and are coached well.

Best Players

On a team this deep, it is hard to winnow the list. Backes and Steen have gotten a lot of attention, but Oshie was second on the team in scoring. On the backend, it is hard to argue that the a more talented group has hit the ice for a playoff run since Bourque and Roy were in Colorado together. This team has three defensemen who could be considered number ones in Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, and Kevin Shattenkirk. In net they have Vezina winner and Olympic medalist Ryan Miller who is having one of his better years despite how much of the year he spent on the woeful Sabres.

X-Factor

This team has all the talent in the world, how well the execute and stay focused will determine how deep they go. Two years in a row they ran into the Kings and produced two brilliant, beautiful series which they lost. This year its the Chicago Blackhawks on the agenda.

 

Chicago Blackhawks

The defending champions had a very fast, very talented roster. Where the Blues thrive in games that are ultra physical and play a counter punch style many nights, the Blackhawks are quite happy to win on pure skill and determination. This team can make lots of great passes, the core group has been together a long time, and know each other very well. Of that core, Hossa, Toews, and Kane have all missed time due to injuries.

Best Players

Like the Blues, this is a pretty deep roster. Sharp led the team in scoring in the regular season, Seabrook is a very effective defensive-defenseman, Keith might be on the shortlist for the Norris, and not many GM’s would take too long thinking about a trade package coming their way that included Toews or Kane.

X-Factor

How much will fatigue and the physicality of the Blues affect this team? The Stanley Cup finals didn’t end until just before the draft in late June and most of this roster was part of that win, many of their top players played in the Olympics, and they do not have home ice advantage in this series.

The NHL has surprises here and there, injuries unexpected firings, and ridiculous hirings. But the for the most part, NHL observers can expect exactly the train-wrecks and triumphs that are written in the stars just waiting to be read.

7:  Jarome Iginla & Brendan Morrow

Both Morrow and Iginla ended up as part of the augmentation of talent for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they made a run towards the Cup. The team fell short, and what came next, should surprise 0.0% of hockey fans. Brendan Morrow who’s offense has fallen off the cliff since the 2010-11 season is without a contract. He performed like a third line rookie in the playoffs, and his skating was not impressive. Iginla on the other hand is signed to a contender having put up nearly a point per game despite the Pittsburgh Penguins season ending a lot like David Carradine, only without the consent or fun.

6: Nathan Horton Bolting Boston

When players who spend a lot of their career in very laid back markets without a strong (and occasionally vicious) media presence suddenly get dropped into the crucible of a major hockey market, the result is often less than pretty. Players have flamed out in Toronto, Montreal, New York and Boston. For Horton who spent most of his career in Florida where on an average day the training staff outnumber the media contingent Boston was destined to be uncomfortable. Add in six seasons of never getting to the playoffs and then suddenly winning the Cup, and he literally had no reason to stay. Columbus is about as close to southern Ontario as Boston, a quieter town, and as much as the team has improved, it will be a playoff team most of the next seven years so he wasn’t giving up much.

5: Bryzgalov goes Bye-Bye

Speaking of guys going from small markets to major hockey markets, witness the rise and fall of one Ilya Bryzgalov. Was all of his disastrous stay in Philadelphia his fault? No. Are the Philadelphia Flyers the kiss of death for goalie talent? Yes. Did everyone outside the Philadelphia Flyers front office see this coming? All the way across the humongous big universe. The buyout of Bryzgalov was both needed and inevitable. Sadly, he and his contract were not the biggest issues with Flyers, otherwise know as the home of things that make you go hmmm.

4: Russians Mute On Anti-Gay Laws

Whatever they think, Russian players in North America aren’t going to speak up about their government’s further encoding homophobia into the nations culture. If they agree with their home nations laws, they risk ostracizing here.  If they publicly disagree with the laws, the risk legal censure at home and possibly even being barred from the Sochi Olympic and other international competition. Here groups like You Can Play would keep them busy defending themselves, and well, National Geographic has convinced me I don’t ever want to see a Russian prison.

 3: RFA Contract Disputes Dragging On

The swallows return to Capistrano, and NHL teams drag their heels and try and sweat young players. Both happen with enough regularity that they cease to be amazing. Last year P.K. Subban’s contract negotiations dragged into camp, the year before it was Drew Doughty, this year it is Alex Pietrangelo. All of them are great young defenseman who any team should be happy to have and want to keep happy. But, these are NHL teams we’re dealing with.

2: Unsupportable Ranking of Sidney Crosby in NHL Fantasy Column
The NHL marketing department, which seems to have a super majority of the brain trust in league HQ, simply can not help itself, or the league. No matter what happens they keep beating the same drum over, and over in the same pattern. In the last three season Sidney Crosby has missed (113) more games than he’s played (99). His injury history should lead no one to think he’ll be healthy the majority of the season. Marc-Edouard Vlasic who was taken 34 picks after Crosby and started his NHL career a year later has played 49 more NHL games, Patrick Kane who was drafted two full years later and has suffered his own injuries has played just 36 games less. Alex Ovechkin, Andrej Meszaros, Andrew Ladd, Johan Franzen, Mark Streit and Travis Zajac several of whom have had serious injuries entered the league the same year or later have all played more games as well. Yes that includes 9th round pick Mark Streit, who missed an entire season.  So why is Sidney Crosby the #1 ranked Fantasy Hockey property? Because it sells jerseys.

1: Big, Dumb Contracts

Leaves fall from trees, cats chase mice, Matt Cooke is surprised when he is sent to the penalty box, all are slightly less predictable than a general manager in the NHL handing out incredibly dumb contracts sometime in the first two weeks of July. This year immediately after he was bought out Vincent Lecavalier was able to make it big (again) thanks to the generosity of Paul Holmgren Philadelphia Flyers General Manager. But Holmgren couldn’t help himself, he also made sure Mark Streit didn’t starve in the streets. Between the two he tied up $10,000,000.00 in cap space, Streit’s is a +35 contract and Lecavalier has a full no movement clause.

But Holmgren is hardly alone there. The Boston Bruins joined in by signing a goaltender who has never one a championship, not in World Juniors, World Championship, Olympics, AHL, ECHL, CHL or any place else to a contract they gave him $8,000,000.00 a year despite the lack of success and injury trouble. Tuukka Rask can thank Peter Chiarelli and Can Neely for buying a nice bill of goods.

Not to be outdone, Ray Shero’s golden handshake with Kris Letang was arguably the worst contract given to a defenseman since Dennis Wideman signed in Calgary. Letang’s playoff performance this year makes it doubtful to many people that he’s a $5m defenseman. Shero clearly believes that Letang is a $7,250,000.00 defenseman.

The lockout shortened season was another year of almost realized playoff hopes. Another year of almost succeeding, another year almost being memorable. February 17th with fifteen games in the record books saw the team glowing atop 7th place. By March 2nd they’d slide beneath the horizon into 10th place. Jamie Benn forced to center, a position he hadn’t played in the NHL struggled and missed 7 games. Ray Whitney missed 16, and the two still led the team in points. Jaromir Jagr would be gone at the trade deadline. Derek Roy was gone on April 2 despite piling up 22 points in 30 games. Michael Ryder who had 35 goals the year before was traded before the season was half over. Brendan Morrow, and Joe Morrow would both exit as well.

Overall, the confusion on ice would spell an 11th place finish for the team. Was it a “bridge year”? Was it a “rebuild on the fly”? Was it just someone wanting to be seen doing something? We may never know. What we do know is that two of the teams that finished ahead of them last year won’t be vying for any of the eight playoff billets in the west this year. In the off season the front office continued to spin the personnel kaleidoscope. They sent Loui Eriksson shooting off to Boston, and in return brought back Rich Peverley an experienced NHL center good in all three zones, and a demon in the faceoff circle, and Tyler Seguin a highly regarded talent who’s off ice life and maturity came into question in a system he never fit into. Shawn Horcoff was brought in from Edmonton as well.  The first five games feature an interesting mix with the Panthers and Avalanche book-ending games against the Capitals, Jets and Wild.

Number of days 1-5: 12

Number of cities: 4

Best opponent: Washington Capitals

Weakest Opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 2

Projected points: 4+

With the turnover in roster talent the team could either come out of the gate energized and ready to fight or tentative and feeling themselves out. Lindy Ruff will still be getting to know most of the players and the questions about if he can coach a team with high end talent is still unanswered. Kari Lehtonen’s health will be forever in question, multiple back and groin injuries make it difficult for him to get and stay in any sort of groove. On the plus side, youth has arrived. Tyler Seguin has speed, a fantastic shot release, and Valeri Nichushkin, and Alex Chiasson. The team isn’t remarkably better or worse than it was last season, it is just different. How well all the moving parts pull together will be the difference between this being a playoff team, an afterthought or a basement dweller.

The NHL is enriched every year with the sagas of aging players who continue to contribute to their team, the NHL and the whole hockey community at an advanced age. But what makes those stories so heartening is the fact that they are so rare. For every Teemu Selanne there are twenty guys who didn’t make it to 30 in the NHL. For every Tim Thomas or Keith Aucoin who have played more games NHL after age thirty than before, there are two dozen guys who play their whole career without being an NHL regular. This is the time of year when for young player hope is ratcheting to an all time high as they put in the work to take a job at training camp. For others, it is the time to give up the dream.

Tim Connolly‘s most recent NHL game was in the 2011-12 season. Last year he played just 28 AHL games. The veteran center was a mainstay of the Buffalo Sabres for years during the last half of the Lindy Ruff era. Originally a New York Islander, it has been almost that long since Connolly was able to play a full season. The number 5 pick in the 1999 draft last played all 82 games in the 2002-3 season. He’s 9th in games played in his draft class, and 6th in points. Connolly is only 32, but health and the salary cap coming down for the first time in years may just have pushed him firmly to the outside.

Brenden Morrow was an iconic player for years in Dallas, last year he was traded to Pittsburgh where his offensive numbers might convince you he’d managed to turn back the clock a decade or more. Unfortunately his foot speed didn’t show up, and his leadership qualities alone haven’t been enough to help him land an NHL job yet. One of the dwindling few who played in the IHL, the former Olympian sits sixth in his draft class in points, 29 behind Sergei Samsanov. Have we seen the last of Morrow as an NHL player?

Steve Montador is one of hockey’s best known vagabonds. At 531 regular season NHL games, the undrafted blueliner has played more games than many 1st round picks. At one point his skill set was topped by a crisp pass and solid skating. Neither of those were what earned him respect in his six NHL stops. That was left to his willingness to standup for his teammates and take horrific punishment for the logo on the front of the jersey. In 2011-12 he played just 52 games on a crowded BlackHawks blueline. In 2012-13, he played exclusively in the AHL.

Roman Hamrlik What you want from a 1st overall pick is longevity, and quality play. Roman Hamrlik was taken first back in 1992, he’s played 218 more games than Sergei Gonchar who has piled up the second most NHL games. In points, as a defenseman he’s fifth overall. He’s played on both sides of the Battle of Alberta, played for the Rangers and Islanders, skated for Montreal and the Washington Capitals after starting his career as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first ever draft pick. Age and various injuries restricted the 39 year old to just 18 games in the regular season and two post season appearances this year. As high as the heat was turned up under now former Rangers head coach John Tortorello, it is hard to say if Hamrlik got a fair shake or not.

Dan Cleary was a part of the championship days of the Detroit Red Wings, and more recently a part of the days when making the playoffs was an open question. The 13th overall pick of the 1997 draft started with the Chicago BlackHawks but has spent almost the entirety of his career a member of the Wings. 10th overall in scoring in that draft he’s 131 game short of playing his 1000th NHL game. IF he can find a two year NHL deal and play 66 games each season he’ll hit that exalted number. The Belleville Bulls alumni has been slightly healthier than usual the last two season playing all 48 regular season games this year, fourteen playoff games and 75 games the previous season. The versatile winger isn’t precisely expensive, and it i certainly possible a team who wants a playoff tested veteran will sign him.

Vinny Propal is probably the most interesting name on the UFA list. At 38 the two time Olympic medalist was the leading scorer on the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. He’s been remarkably healthy in his career, and the third round pick came up through the AHL unlike a lot of those picked ahead of him. He’s currently 8th overall in games played for the 1993 draft class. Sitting just 3 points out of fourth for the draft classes scoring, that, and the lack of a Stanley Cup championship are likely enough to keep the fires burning, and make him a viable option for a team who needs a veteran forward.

Some of these gentlemen, and their age-mates on the outside looking in will undoubtedly sign an NHL deal before too long, if they do it’ll be just another chapter in some storied careers.

The free agent market is always interesting. Some years the silly contracts fly from all corners of the globe, other years it seems like the prime rib is left on the table while mystery meat is carted off by the ton.

Left Wing:  Vinny Prospal, while one of the elder statesman of this years free agent class, and the NHL as a whole, he still had a highly productive year, especially in comparison to some of the other free agents. Danny Cleary, Brenden Morrow, and Guillame Latendresse probably didn’t have the years they (and their agents) wish they had had, all  of them are at least a little bit younger.

Center: Mikhail Grabovski of all the possible reasons he was bought out by the Maple Leafs none o them seem to suggest competence in the front office. Of all the centers on the market, he’s demonstrated the most upside. You can make cases that Kyle Wellwood, Scott Gomez or Nik Antropov might fit in better on a team but not that an of them are mote talented.

Right Wing: Damien Brunner wins out over Jaromir Jagr on foot speed, and Brad Boyes on consistency. Right wing is clearly the deepest remaining free agent pool, despite having its creame scraped off with the signings of Iginla, Horton, and more.

Defense 1: Ron Hainsey

Defense 2: Ryan Whitney

While the defense is slim pickings this year, an honorable mention goes to Andrew Alberts, and for a team willing to take a risk Michael Sauer.

Goalie: Tim Thomas, yes he took last season off. But looking at the rest of the market you have two guys who were bought out, a guy who hasn’t seen a sv% over .900 in  three years, a guy who was injured when he wasn’t bad for a lottery team and a guy who is even older than Thomas and hasn’t been a number one goaltender for a playoff team in his NHL career.

 

With the deadline looming, and about a bakers dozen games left for many team, it is time to take a look at what we know about all the teams in the NHL.

Pittsburgh: We know Ray Shero likes to make deadline trades, we know health is sorta returning for this team. We also know that with a current cumulative cap hit higher than next years cap, and Morrow’s decline and questionable health that this is likely a one shot deal for the guys currently in uniform.

Montreal:  It’s kinda hard to figure out why more people aren’t excited about his team. They are fifth in goals for, ninth in goals against, there only real bad component is their penalty kill. While we’re at it, Tomas Plekanec deserves way more attention than he gets, if he could drag the penalty kill into respectability, or even just score a shorthanded goal or two he’d be on my Selke shortlist.

Winnipeg; We know this team needs desperately to buy quality defense at the deadline. Adding offense wouldn’t hurt at all, but the backend needs to come first they are one of just two top eight teams in the east to allow triple digit goals already.

Boston: This team needs an attitude adjustment. They do not have the raw focus or hunger they did in their Cup winning year, what body they add isn’t the solution, the size of the fight in that dog is.

Ottawa; Clearly this is a team made up of undercover superheros, or at least the guys left on the ice. They might not go to far this year, but oh man this team has some good young talent and might even lead the conference if they were healthy. A cheap rental forward who can add to the scoring would be nice, but this team could easily produce an upset or two.

Toronto: The fact that no real changes have been made to this team since Brian Burke was fired, and it has just about locked up a playoff spot means he shouldn’t have too much trouble landing his next GM job, and probably trading for Kadri, Gardiner, and Grabovski or pennies on the dollar.

New Jersey: The Devils have spent all season proving last season wasn’t a fluke. How they’ve done this is anyones guess. They are winning right now even without Kovalchuk, It would not surprise me if they became sellers at the deadline, but in a very limited sense.

New York Rangers: We know this is either the Eastern Conference’s best bad team or worst good team.  We know time is running out on the current off ice leadership for this team. We know in order to get this level of under-performance elsewhere in sports you’d have to threaten professional cycling with accurate testing and jail time for violators. We know that if the Islanders and Devils make the playoffs and the Rangers don’t the angst in Blue Shirt nation will be legendary

New York Islanders: We know John Tavares should be getting way more attention than he does, he is after all over a point per game, second in goals, and seventh in points. If the Islanders make the playoffs, he has to be on the Hart shortlist. We know that Brad Boyes would be a frickin’ idiot to sign anywhere else next season given that he has more points in 34 games this season, than in 65 last year.

Carolina: With several games in hand their current 10th place position is deceiving, we know however they need to win those games. We know that Cam Ward isn’t nearly as irreplaceable as the faithful would have you believe. We know that Jeff Skinner (signed to a big endorsement deal by Dewey, Slewfoot and Diver) will probably not like the attention he receives night after night from top defenses.

Washington: We know that Adam Oates deserves a boatload of capital for turning the ship around on the fly without the benefit of a training camp, stable goaltending, or a team with any confidence in itself. He’s also got Ovechkin back to a point per game by using that weird thing called logic and letting him play more minutes. We also know that this team still isn’t built right and that problem still resides at a higher level than Oates.

Tampa Bay: We know that Yzerman is just as good at constructing a defense as he was at fighting.

We know he needs to fix that if he’s going to make it to his fourth year as general manager. He’s clearly good at identifying offensive talent, so swapping some of the current stable to rebuilding or needy teams for a veteran defenseman or two shouldn’t be completely impossible.

Buffalo: We know Terry Pegula can’t be pleased with the state of his hockey team. We know that with next years realignment no one with an ounce of hockey sense would pencil this team into next years standings about sixth place without major changes. We know if they blow up the team right they could have a pretty good chance at drafty both Seth Jones and Connor Mcdavid.

Philadelphia: We know the keep defenseman healthy the same way The Real World finds the mentally unbalanced to film every season. We know that no to long ago the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals, and have regressed further and further every year. WE know this is another team that’s due for some administrative housekeeping even if the health problems make things look worse than they are.

Florida: We know that last year despite an absurd amount of injuries the team went toe to toe with the eventual Eastern Conference champions. We know that this year, another absurd amount of injuries and dramatically poorer goaltending from the guys not named Markstrom have lead not to the Southeast division title but once again to the eastern conference basement. We know they have a couple more solid prospects in the pipeline. We know there is tons and tons for Dale Tallon and company to do.

Obviously it’d be nice for Calgary Flames fans if the general managers teams on Iginla’s list suffered some sort of stroke and had them offering up the whole farm system and three roster players. That is however unlikely to happen, even if you disagree with some of the choices, or even the general philosophy of the GM’s in question, all four have won a cup recently.

If I’m sitting in Jay Feaster’s chair, here’s what I’d ask from each team that is fairly reasonable:

Los Angeles Kings:

Centerpiece: Slava Voynov, an offensively talented defenseman who at 23 was part of the Stanley cup win and is still on his entry level deal through July first.

Tyler Toffoli a well regarded center prospect who has 3 games of NHL experience, and about a season in the AHL with good numbers.

And:

a conditional 1st round pick either in 2013 or 2015, Calgary’s choice.

Pittsburgh Penguins:

Defensive prospects Scott Harrington, and Derrick Pouliot

A first and  a second round picks.

Boston Bruins:

Centerpiece: Alexander Khokhlachev, a young center, a position the team is deep at.

Rich Peverley a versatile forward with speed, a bit of grit and who is affordable enough to be worth keeping around through the rebuild, Peverley does have a NTC, if he’s unavailable:

or:

Niklas Svedberg who is 9th in the AHL in GAA and 7th in Sv%, with more games played than anyone ahead of him in the latter category except Curtis McElhinney who has never managed to stick in the NHL, this in Svedberg’s 1st season in North America.

And:

A conditional 1st round pick either in 2013 or 2015.

Chicago BlackHawks:

Brandon Saad is technically a rookie, but he played two regular season games last season, two

Adam Clendening, a young defenseman with USNDTP experience, two years of college play at Boston University, and in his first year in the AHL.

A 1st and a 2nd round pick.

Given Jarome Iginla’s age, the fact that he will be a UFA in just a couple months, and the fact that the Penguins and Blackhawks as the number one and two offenses really don’t need him, not to mention the Morrow trade, I think these are fairly reasonable prices. If the bidding got heated, particularly if Iginla expands the list, I can see more being paid, but even as good as Iginla would be with a legitimate 1st or 2nd line center for the first time in a decade, there’s less than 20 games left in the regular season, and then the uncertainty of the playoffs. Each of theses teams should at least hit the second round. Also to be considered is when other teams decide to sell off. If for example Martin St. Louis becomes available, or if there’s suddenly a fire sale in a city whose GM has one foot out the door, prices could actually go down.