At some point in an athletes career, they realize their time is done. For some it is when they can no longer get a contract, in other cases they simply can’t making it onto the ice or playing field. When its time to say good-bye to their time as a player, many paths are taken. Some guys go into the broadcast booth having planned it out since junior hockey. Others just want to sit out porch and watch their kids play. A few will go with dramatic career changes that bring them someplace as far removed from athletic competition as the world of fashion or politics.

Having watched a lot of two particular players getting towards the end of their playing tenure, I wonder if the best use of their talents might be behind a bench. Having watched just about all of Hal Gill’s career, you can’t doubt for a minute he has a deep understanding of the game that allows him to take advantage of his average athleticism. He’s been invaluable in several systems under widely different coaches and playing philosophies. Given the number of coaches in the NHL now who were less gifted defensemen than he is, and who likely mentored less men along the way, a coaching position in the NHL, AHL or elsewhere might be the perfect occupation for the next twenty or so years for the towering Massachusetts native.

The other man is possibly even more interesting as a potential coach. Of limited finesse, and clearly a self-made player Shawn Thornton might just be the next Gordie Dwyer. As you no doubt know, Dwyer was a highly physical player who made the transition to major junior head coach. Along the way Dwyer more than double the number of wins his squad put up from first year to second. Thornton has proved a valuable asset to his teams over the years with his gloves on and off, demonstrating an understating of his teammates that allowed him to steer them in the teams best interest. During his professional career he’s played both wing and defense.

Both Thornton and Gill epitomize the adaptability needed to stay in the NHL long term, both have been a part of Stanley Cup wins, and seen all the changes the last decade or so have thrown at players, coaches, fans and the families of players. Either gentleman could be exactly the right cog to help an organizations move forward if they step behind the bench.

The Nashville Predators had an enviable stretch of year where they made the playoffs and even advanced to the second round. That run was ended last year, and ended cruelly with a lottery placing. If you’d asked most hockey observers before the season what their best and worst case regular season finishes would be they’d have topped around fourth in the west, and bottomed out at ninth or maybe tenth. A 14th place finish in the conference was literally inconceivable.

Last year has past and all things have some silver lining. The team managed to bafflingly leave the draft with its biggest prize in Seth Jones as three teams bungled their future. Colin Wilson accumulated another 25 games of NHL experience, and Craig Smith added 44 of his own. They added Victor Stalberg after the season. Ann Arbor’s native son Austin Watson got his first season of professional experience including four crucial playoff games for the Predators AHL affiliate, and 2009 second round pick Zach Budish finished his fourth year at University of Minnesota before diving into the AHL and getting immersed in nine regular season games and a half dozen second season contests.

When you come down to it there are two things that need to  happen for the Predators to  hunting in the second round, and perhaps beyond. The first is an offensive upgrade. There is certainly some young talent with upside on the roster, and one or two more who will push for a spot. But none of them are likely to make the impact of a veteran forward, with skill, grit, and something to prove. The second is finding a way to get  Pekka Rinne enough rest to be fresh when the playoffs come without sacrificing too much playoff position by playing an untested backup.

Austin Watson and Zach Budish, even Taylor Beck can come in and dazzle Music City fans from October to May, but is any of them going to satisfactorily fill the leadership void with both Hal Gill and Ryan Suter gone? And while Magnus Hedberg had a very good season in Milwaukee last year that was his first dose of hockey on this side of the pond. Even less experienced in North America is Marek Mazanec who hasn’t even played one game in the AHL, ECHL or CHL in his career.  What’s a playoff hopeful club to do?

Fortunately there are two ready made solutions available. In goal we know that most goalies playing sixty five or more games a season just run out of steam sometime in late April or early May. So a veteran goaltender who doesn’t have to be jollied along and who can pick up 25+ games or so during the season and let Rinne, who may also be headed to the Olympics in Sochi, relax would be ideal. A two time Vezina trophy winner, Jennings Trophy winner, multiple time All Star, and Conn-Smythe winner would count as veteran in anyone’s book right? It just so happens one Tim Thomas who additionally owns a Stanley Cup and spent time in playing in Finland is between gigs. If there’s any goalie in the world who history tells us performs better with his back to the wall and something to prove than Thomas, I don’t know who they are.

At forward the solution is even less risky. The pride of Belarus, Mikhail Grabovski was bought out with reasons that could only make sense to a member of whoever is currently in the Maple Leafs brain trust. A gritty forward who owns a personal single season goal total higher than every Predators forward not named Hornquist, and who has proved  his proven he belongs in someones top six with a tough nosed , two way game that has earned him respect in both his own and rival fan bases.

Given that both men absolutely have something to prove and Grabovski at least has his buyout money firmly in pocket, it is unlikely the total cost of signing the pair would cost north of four million for a year. Thomas and Grabovski would insulte the development of young players, add leadership and on one or two year contracts be as close to risk free as the NHL gets. The upside of each could be quite high. and if they are only average at the deadline they can be flipped for picks or prospects from a team who thinks they will play better in their system.

Some of the biggest cities are really tight to the cap, the Bruins, Flyers, and Lightning could all use a touch more cap space to deal with. Both the Bruins and Flyers are likely to lose pieces to free agency. The Canadiens are in danger of losing Ryder and Armstrong. Boston is supposedly getting attention on Seguin, and the Lecavalier to Montreal rumors won’t die until he’s retired or the Canadiens move, unless of course he does sign there.

What We Know

(By New Divisions)

Division C

Boston: After a run to the finals with lots of injuries, and some key contracts that are due, the Bruins could be in for a bigger offseason makeover than expected. With Horton headed to free agency, questions about Seguin and a previous lack of depth at that position, the right wing position is an area of need.

Buffalo: Miller rumors persist, as do rumors of trading nearly everyone. With the eighth and sixteenth picks overall, the Sabres should be able to get at least one more building block that enters the lineup and contributes within two seasons. It is an open question if that time frame is enough to keep Regier in the general managers office.

Detroit: Moving back into the eastern conference might be an advantage in start times and travel for the Red Wings, but they are no better than the third best team in their new division. They are fortunate enough to have a solid goalie, and two stars at forward, not much else is worth noting about the team with the longest active playoff streak.

Florida: The Panthers have just about declared the starting job for Markstrom by putting Scott Clemmenson on the market. Taking home a 2nd round draft pick or solid NHL player for that trade would be great. With the 2nd pick they ought to be able to solidify one position on their team. Tallon has shown he isn’t afraid to spend on free agent so don’t be surprised by surprises in Sunrise.

Montreal: Having returned to the playoffs last year after an embarrassing hiatus they need to take a long hard look at who they expect to be the core of the team going forward. There are some clashes between players that are visible on TV, they may or may not be short-lived events. But, building around a hollow center isn’t the best of ideas. It may feel wrong to do it, but making a move to ship out a good soldier or two for more cap space, less conflict and younger picks or prospects might be the best thing to do. The Norris trophy winner also has just one year left on his contract.

Ottawa: The first two questions the Senators leadership should be asking about any player they want to sign or draft are: can they stay healthy, and are we sure about that? From there fitting them into the roster or the farm system is the next step. With a bit more health the Senators might just have knocked off the Penguins. Adding a veteran playoff competitor like Briere, or Horton might push this team to the next level.

Tampa Bay: With the expiration of the Southeast division, the Lightning find themselves more in need than ever of improving a threadbare defense. In the last three seasons they’ve finished 28th, 30th, and 21st. They’ll be drafting in the lottery forever at that rate. Swapping for defense with a team deep at the position like St Louis or adding veteran Andrew Ference would be a step in the right direction.

Toronto: They made one of the more interesting moves of the offseason by picking up Bernier. Some say there was no need and Reimer was good enough, neither Nonis nor I agree. They have a clutch of offensively gifted defenseman, a lot of roster space, and decisions to be made on Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and most the defense they iced last year. They are in a position of great flexibility but also a lot of vulnerability. The next two weeks will likely tell us how long it will be before the Maple Leafs next playoff appearance.

Division D

Carolina: With the Staal brother, Semin, Skinner, and Tlusty offense won’t be an issue for this team so long as Faulk and his henchmen can get the puck out of their own zone and away from the triage unit that served as goalies last season. Improving the defense could come at the cost of Ruutu or several draft picks. For the first time in recent memory the Hurricanes don’t have a huge amount of cap space either. With the new divisions configuration, they need to act and act smart.

Columbus: The Blue Jackets came within 2 points of getting into the playoffs last year. The most important thing they can do is to sign their goaltender Bobrovsky, after that getting some scoring and puck distributing touch up front will make them a much better team. With three first round picks 14, 19, and 27 as well as their own 44th pick, via trade or draft this should be a productive weekend for ‘Lumbus. If Lecavalier could be landed at a reasonable cap hit together with Dubinsky the team team could have a very strong 1-2 punch at center.

New Jersey: The Devils are rumored to have two suitors interested in buying the “financially stable” team. Its unknown what impact that will have on team activity over the next week to ten days, but the team has enough holes almost anything is a good move. A slick passing center to maximize Kovalchuk’s shot, an aggressive defender or two to keep Broduer from having to work to hard, a future goaltender so the team doesn’t experience its own Flyers like run of disasters in net going for stop gap after stop gap. It might just be a good idea to resign Henrique and Clarkson before to long too.

New York Islanders: The  Islanders really should reup with Hamonic, and if at all possible swing a deal for another blueliner with playoff experience. It also might not hurt to have an NHL worthy goaltender under contract. It is likely the empty forward roster spots will be filled with the return of some combination of Boyes, Bailey, Aucoin and prospects.  Hickey was a solid find too, his contract is up as well.

New York Rangers: A new coach is coming, and no one knows what he’ll bring to the roster. It is hoped he can perform some necromancy on the powerplay and get it to shamble along. Brad Richards is being given one more chance after playing less minutes and posting less points against the Bruins than their enforcer Shawn Thornton. Former coach John Torterella said the team wasn’t “stiff” enough. With most key position filled, the Rangers can afford to be picky with free agents, but might want to get a head start on locking up core players. Only one defenseman is signed beyond next season,  neither goalie is, and there are just three forwards who are.

Philadelphia: The bloodletting began with the Bryzgalov and Briere being bought out. It is unlikely to end any time soon as this team is a disaster cap wise and not much better on the ice. To make matters worse Coburn is one of the names most active on the rumor mill and their defense is not pretty even with him.

Pittsburgh: Kris Letang has the gratitude of Penguins scribes for giving them something to write about. He’s rejected long term huge money deals. I’ll be shocked if he’s a Penguin on opening night and even more shocked if he’s still there after the trade deadline. The Penguins still need to come to terms with the issues with Fleury, and there is something wrong with the mental makeup of this team when the playoffs arrive. They’ve lost composure and the ability to play at both ends of the ice in the same game over the last three post seasons. Maybe they should reacquire Gill and Scuderi?

Washington:  Oates had done solid work rehabilitating this team, but he can only work with what he’s given. A big roster shakeup is overdue for this team. Regardless of what they say to the media, there is too big a gap between their regular season scoring and their post season scoring for this team to believe in itself. Without that swagger you just can’t win in May or June.

More games, more hockey Americana to enjoy.

Tonight in God’s waiting room the Sunshine State the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will square off, no word on early bird specials at the concessions:

  • Seeing Red are Scott Clemmensen, Peter Mueller, George Parros, Drew Shore, and Jack Skille
  • Flashing across the ice in White and Blue are, Ryan Malone, Nate Thompson, B.J. Crombeen, Adam Hall, Matt Carle, Brian Lee, and Matt Taormina.

Toronto’s home squad are hoping to be inhospitable hosts to their fellow Ontario team as the Karlsson and Speazza deprived Senators roll into town. The twoWant will be looking to leapfrog Montreal and tie Boston in points for a share of the Northeast lead.

  • Casting a vote is likely team USA goaltender Craig Anderson, backed up by Ben Bishop, Mike Lundin owns a piece of the blueline while Jim O’Brien and Erik Condra make their way as forwards.
  • Toronto’s Americans are rearguards John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek, the forwards are Phil Kessel, James Van Riemsdyk, David Steckel, and Mike Brown.

The Philadelphia Flyers will be bringing a very Canadian squad to Montreal:

  • The only American on the Flyers roster is Tom Sestito, the pride of Rome New York (we’re not counting the traitor Couturier who plays for Canada internationally.)
  • The 20% American roster of the Habs includes possible Olympians Alex Galchenyuk and Max “Tweets At The Movies” Pacioretty, team captain Brian Gionta, Eric Cole, and blueliner Francis Bouillon

Wang’s “not really for sale” Islanders host the equally financially stable Devils tonight:

  • Rick Dipietro is on pace to pass last years total games played, Joe Finley and Brian Strait will skate in front of the crease, Kyle Oksoso leads the American presence with Marty Reasoner as its elder statesman, and Colin McDonald and Keith Aucoin round out the roster.
  • First round draft pick Stefan Matteau and Stephen Gionta will be joined by Bobby Butler, Mark Fayne, Andy Greene, and Peter Harrold are the Devils Americans.

Anaheim will stop to roost in Nashville for the night.

  • Bobby Ryan and Nick Bonino will be in the lineup for the Ducks and Patrick Maroon, Kyle Palmieri, will be out there with Nate Guenin and Ben Lovejoy.
  • Hal Gill stands on the blueline for the Predators, the nearly as tall Paul Gaustad plays pivot, and with them are Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and the teams longest tenured American David Legwand.

The Blue Jackets are looking to look their best for their new General Manager, while the Coyotes hope to slip past the idle Wings.

  • Jack Johnson leads the blueline with James Wisniewski, John Moore and Tim Erixon, while the forwards are missing the injured Cam Atkinson, RJ Umberger, Brandon Dubinsky, Jared Boll, and Nick Foligno will all look to make their presence felt.
  • Keith Yandle, a probable Olympian, Chris Summers and David Moss are the American contingent for the desert dogs.

In a battle of bottom feeders the Oilers and Avalanche will square off.

  • Erik  Johnson leads the Avs blueline, assisted by Matt Hunwick while Aaron Palushaj represents the forwards.
  • Edmonton occasionally lets Ryan Whitney on the ice along with blueliners Core Potter and Jeff Petry and forward Chris Vandevelde.

A team USA hockey squad without New England ties would be something close to criminal. No, I take that back. It’d be a crime against the region that hosts America’s oldest NHL franchise, and nurtured the Hartford Whalers for decades. New England is where the AHL has their home offices. The Manchester Monarchs, the Providence Bruins, Springfield Falcons, Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Worcester Sharks, Connecticut Whale, and Portland Pirates all have their roots deep in the communities of New England. The Eastern Junior Hockey league holds sway over young players. Hockey East is the battle ground for some of the best academic and athletic institutes in the world.

At the current camp for team USA’s world junior squad their are four New Englanders. At six foot five overlooking Jon Gillies would require a monumental effort. One look at the numbers the towering tender has put up for the Indiana Ice over the last two years say putting the puck past him is no easier. Concord New Hampshire and South Portland Maine both claim him.

Colin Blackwell, a draft pic of the San Jose Sharks is in camp as well. The North Andover, Ma native doubled up his New England ties and is a Harvard scholar-athlete. ECAC competitors would probably rather he didn’t sharpen his skills any further at the international level as his rookie campaign’s assist total was third among forwards for Ted Donato’s Crimson.

A north shore home address didn’t stop Jim Vesey from skating into the draft as a member of the South Shore Kings of the EJHL. Nashville got a the EJHL MVP in the third round. While he’s likely headed to Harvard this fall, if he does end up playing for the Predators he would be joining Hal Gill of Concord Ma, and Colin Wilson of Greenwich Ct on the roster.

North Andover is represented by 2012 Boston Bruins draftee Matt Grzelcyk. The blueliner is headed to Boston University after having helped Team USA reach the post season in the USHL last year. Soft hands, and wheels to spare are Grzelcyk’s stock in trade.

John Gaudreau who hails from Carneys Point New Jersey will be returning to the home that adopted him sometime during last years Boston College campaign where he put up some eye popping numbers.

Good News Bad News For Both the Bruins and Capitals

Item 1: The Bruins solved Holtby.

Item 2: The Capitals won anyways.

***

With Raffi Torres gone for the foreseeable future it will be interesting to see if the much discussed penalty free buyout is included in the next CBA if the Coyotes or whoever they are and wherever they are by next fall, decide to use this on him. His contract isn’t outrageous unless of you believe he shouldn’t have one at all, so it is possible a buyer would decide to bury him in the AHL if he didn’t change his game.

***

Missing defensemen are becoming more common. The Florida Panthers are playing without Jason Garrison. The Philadelphia Flyers are definitely missing the services of Grossman. The Boston Bruins will very likely not put Corvo on the ice next game after he blocked a shot earlier today.  Hal Gill hasn’t played in a while for the Nashville Predators.

***

The Florida Panthers series against the New Jersey Devils has to be the most entertaining series in the opening round. The tempo has been solid, the play tight. There’s been offense, there’s been defense and lots of drama. You might not be used to seeing half of one roster on TV and in arena advertisements a few dozen times on your way to your seat, but hot damn the actions been good.

The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins on the other hand have been painful to watch. The sloppiest hockey the NHL has seen since the preseason following the lockout. Stupid penalties by players who should know better, and goaltending who’s most consistent well executed play is digging the puck out of the back of the net.

***

For those who missed it, the NHL network is playing OHL games midday you can get a look at top prospects like Cody Ceci in action.

***

How good it is for the NHL as a whole and the teams individually for both the Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes to win their first division titles can’t be understated. Florida will probably not ever produce NHL superstars at the rate that Ontario does, but there is a big enough population there so that even if only 1% of teens reach the USHL, division one college or CHL level hockey, that is still a very large number of young men. Arizona isn’t a small state either and it could if the Coyotes stay and are successful match Saskatchewan or Newfoundland. Between the two states you’ve got a population almost equal to all of Canada which is why they ar ethere in the first place: advertising and tv money if nothing else.

Trades are often a hard thing to gauge, but some just make more sense than others. Going back over the last few weeks there are some teams who have addressed their needs.

Philadelphia Flyers.

Probably the biggest winners thus far. With all the injuries to the team this season, and all the question marks about this mad science experiment they went out early and addressed the sieve that has been their blueline thanks in large part to the injury to Chris Pronger. Neither Grossman nor Kubina can replace what Pronger does, but they are on the ice and each brings an element to strengthen the team.

Los Angeles Kings

They dealt from a position of strength in moving a defensemen who is talented, but not living up to their (possibly misplaced) expectations and getting a player who enhances what they have and addresses a need. Jeff Carter for all the concerns some have over possible partying is at least a part of the solution.

Montreal Canadiens

The train wreck of a season that has happened to the organization the last few weeks have had some benefits. Hal Gill was moved for a couple well regarded prospects and a second round pick. Andrei Kostitsyn was moved out for a 2nd round pick and a 5th rounder. Gill’s movement left room to further evaluate the young players, by moving Kostitsyn they dump a distraction and disappointment for further picks, and if needed for trades later today more cap space.

New Jersey Devils

If the Flyers aren’t the biggest winners n the NHL so far, it has to be the Devils. They got a mobile top 4 defenseman who wants to be there. They got Alex Ponikarovski back on January 21st and all he’s done is pot 11 points in 15 games. Between the two the Devils have managed to pitchfork teams out of the way as they’ve climbed up the standings. On January 20th before acquiring Ponikarovski they were up on 8th place by just 2 points with equal games played, today they are 6 points up on the eight spot with three games in hand on 7 & 8 and two on 9.

As of today, the Montreal Canadiens have twelve players and just under $44million committed for next season. This is hardly the worst cap situation a team has ever been in, but if the cap should go down, or key players demand more than management has budgeted things could spin out of control and get even uglier than the current season.

The biggest issue facing the Habs heading into the off season is who isn’t signed. The bad contracts currently on the payroll are there and just need to be accepted if they aren’t assigned to the minors or don’t miraculously spend the whole of next season on the injured reserve. Hal Gill was just jettisoned for what is potentially an overpayment.

Of the up and coming players Lars Eller and Alexi Emelin are arguably (not that it’s a good argument) at the bottom of the list. Emelin is in his first season in North America but brought with him a level of punishing physicality that can’t be understated. Lars Eller is likely to double his rookie seasons numbers and with a hot streak might just hit the 20 goal mark. Both are guys who performed admirably against a variety of opponents. It’s unlikely that the two will be moved or cost a great deal as both are at the end of their entry level contracts, but it is hard to imagine either signing for no raise or a cut in pay.

Next on the list is Andrei Kostitsyn. While his name was mentioned more than once in trade speculation (as it has been for years running) he’s also sixth on the team in points this season, despite missing some games. They will need to replace his goals, something that probably won’t come from their farm system and even if they are lucky enough to win the lottery and draft Yakupov, they haven’t shown a great deal of faith in the ability of rookies to produce in the NHL at a young age. The free agent market will likely have Alex Semin on the list but Semin has made six million each of the last two seasons. Other offensive upgrades are likely to top the reasonably $3.25m Kostitsyn is taking home now.

Raphael Diaz is another player who’s importance is magnified with the cloud of uncertainty that is Andrei Markov’s health on the table. He’s blocked a ton of shots, contributed offensively and not wasted a lot of time in the box. Better still he’s contributed points shorthanded as part of an effective penalty kill, and on the powerplay too. With Gill gone the defensive aspects of his game take on even more importance than his offensive ones.

And then there are the big guns. P.K. Subban and Carey Price. The two are by almost any measure the two most skilled players on the team. Price as a goalie is still maturing and despite playing behind a lackluster defense that was breaking in two rookies as regulars he’s still turned in a .916 sv%. He’s reportedly seeking compensation similar to Pekka Rinne, which would put him in the $7mil a year range. Subban after a rough start is with Josh Gorges one of just two regular defensemen with a positive +/- this season. Add in his offense, which no one thinks was at it’s peak this year, and you’re probably in the four million range.

If either of these players holds out of demands a trade that is an enormous hole in the roster. With a fairly weak free agent market it is unlikely they will fill the holes, retain the right players and put themselves over the top all this summer. Price and Subban have to be signed if they intend to win now. If they intend to win in the future, signing Price and possibly trading Subban for a needed piece like a top center or one or two forward prospects might be the ideal.

If they are going to wait out the Gomez’s contract, and want to retain as many pieces as possible, swapping Subban and or a pick or prospect that will be less expensive now or more valuable in the future. It is possible that a swap for one of the top picks of this draft like Dumba or Murray or Faska, or even a top pick from a recent draft like Brodin or Hamilton. Having two high end young defensemen come in together and help stabilize the team identity as did Keith and Seabrook or Suter and Weber could be an enormous asset to the team for a long time.

The post I wrote because I refuse to speculate about trades today. Sorry Rick Nash fans.

In the west:

1: Detroit Red Wings vs 8: Calgary Flames

  • This clash would be interesting primarily because Iginla, Bouwmeester and Kiprusoff would have done the near impossible: drag a team without a legitimate top center, and limited depth at wings into the playoffs. Neither the team is especially good on the road. But guess what, this matchup won’t happen. Why? The Calgary Flames will be higher in the standings when all is said and done. Also interesting is that neither of these teams is all that good on the road. The reason the Flames will be a position or two higher? 15 home games remaining and only 8 road games left.

2: Vancouver Canucks vs 6: Phoenix Coyotes

  • If I had to pick a matchup for an upset, this is the one.  The goaltending and defense are a dead heat. With Mike Smith’s confidence riding high, I might even give the edge to the Coyotes in that regard, but hey when your lowest save percentage in a month is .914% you can be a little confident. The Coyotes are a lot more physical than the Canucks as well, and that was the Canucks downfall against the Bruins in the Cup finals last year. The Canucks might escape this matchup before it happens, with less than half their remaining games against playoff teams they could edge the Red Wings and Rangers for the Presidents Trophy.

3: San Jose  Sharks vs Chicago BlackHawks

  • This serious could go either way, and Canucks fans would be cheering for the two teams to lay waste to each other. Chicago’s got the better offense, but the Sharks are a better balanced team. The Sharks can win on the road, the Blackhawks are a bit challenged in that regard. This would likely end up the western series with the most offense per game as neither team has spectacular goaltending.

4: St Louis Blue vs 5: Nashville Predators

  • This all central division matchup would by any reasonable expectation be the lowest scoring of the first round, and probably the entire playoffs. But that’s no excuse to miss Erat, Weber and Suter of the Predators rolling into the playoffs with their new running buddy and Stanley Cup Champion Hal Gill (@Skillsy75) . The chance to watch TJ Oshie teleport across the ice, see David Backes run a few people over and pot a few goals while Alex Pietrangelo shows how well he can put points on the board against Rinne.