Welcome back to Northern Exposure, your weekly NHL Canadian tour. Join me as I make a stop in each of the seven Canadian NHL cities, discussing stories of interest in each.
After looking at Calgary last week, we travel to Edmonton AND Vancouver in depth this week in an effort to look at all Canadian stops before this weekend’s draft.
The Edmonton Oilers are still in the learning phase with a young franchise that is on the way up. They will also get a great prospect with the 1st overall pick, or if they decide to deal the selection, should end up with 2 or 3 very good assets that will be blocks in the rebuilding. Either way, the light is visible at the end of the tunnel, and the trials and tribulations the Oilers have gone through the last number of years will start to show the fruits of the frustration.
KEY FREE AGENTS TO BE: UFA: Jim Vandermeer, Jason Strudwick, Jeff Drouin-Dleauriers RFA – Ryan O’Marra, Andrew Cogliano, J.F. Jacques, Liam Reddox, Ladislav Smid, Taylor Chorney, Theo Peckham
WHERE THEY ARE SET: With the 30th best record in the NHL, you could argue that they are not set anywhere. However, they will only get better, as most of the core is under 25 years of age. With Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky the elder statesmen at 32 and 28 years of age respectively, this group of talent can mold together for years to come.
NEEDS : As good as they are (or will be) up front, they outlook on the blue line is not so rosy. At their peak, the group that includes Ryan Whitney, Ladislav Smid, Tom Gilbert and Kurtis Foster has potential, but they lack the consistency and the top level “go-to” guy. Between the pipes, rumours of Nikolai Khabibulin‘s departure have come up, but with one more year on his deal, I would suggest they ride out the season with him and Devan Dubnyk as the tandem, and determine if DD can be the answer going forward.
TOP 5 OFF-SEASON PRIORITIES
1. #1 Draft Pick – Do they keep it or trade it? Do they use it on a top flight D-man in Adam Larsson or add to the bounty of forwards with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or the rising star Jonathan Huberdeau? If it were me, I would take Larsson, who could be the missing ingredient on the blue line within 2 years.
2. Sheldon Souray – The on-going drama with the defenseman has to end soon, with one year and $5.4 M due this year. I can’t imagine Daryl Katz enjoys writing those cheques for Souray to play in the minors for another organization. Buy him out, trade him or suck it up and bring him back to the team, but do something with him.
3. Veteran Leadership – Finding a grizzled veteran who has been through the wars. Someone who can step in and lead by example on and off the ice, to show the young studs what it takes to be successful in the NHL.
4. Added Depth - Injuries have been a problem in past years, and when a player like Hemsky or Gilbert goes down with injury, there is a serious drop-off in talent from the replacements brought in.
5. Ales Hemsky – Every time a rumour comes out of Edmonton, Hemsky’s name seems to be attached. He is very talented, but a decision needs to be made. If you are going to trade him, then get it done, but he is the type of player whose play can be affected by the incessant rumors, and you are doing nobody a favor by keeping him twisting in the wind.
CONCLUSION – The wait is almost over for long-suffering Oilers fans. The team is on the verge of greatness, and for the die hard fans, hopefully it is worth it. As this group matures, they will be an homage to the Oilers of the 80’s. I’m not saying they will win multiple championships, but contending every season is not too much to ask from this group.
The Vancouver Canucks have the least time to prepare for the off-season, and they go in stinging from the Stanly Cup Final loss. After losing 4 of their last 5 games in non-dramatic fashion, there will be lots of questions asked this summer. Roberto Luongo will be the focal point of criticisms, after his series of gaffes, weak goals and media comments all conspired to make him look particularly bad. So the task for the off-season is to regroup, reload and come back with something to prove to the 29 other teams. However, it could look like a very different Canucks team that takes the ice come October.
KEY FREE AGENTS: UFA: Chris Higgins, Jeff Tambellini, Raffi Torres, Tanner Glass, Kevin Bieksa, Christian Ehrhoff, Sami Salo, Andrew Alberts RFA: Maxim Lapierre, Jannik Hansen, Sergei Shirokov
WHERE THEY ARE SET: The top 6 forwards are in place and will be for some time. This group is talented but essentially disappeared in the finals when the chips were down. Other than Alex Burrows’ 3 point performance in game 2, there wasn’t an oustanding game in the bunch that includes the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond.
NEEDS: The Canucks need to decide what direction to go with the bottom two lines. The umber of free agents that require new contracts are going to handcuff management. After Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler, the blue line has no top end defensemen under contract. July 1st could be a scary day for the Canucks if they can’t get some of their UFA’ signed before then.
TOP 5 OFF-SEASON PRIORITIES
1. Rebuild Fans Confidence -Whatever the Canucks do will be under a microscope this summer. The cannot show panic, but also need to take care of business and show that life goes on and they will win next year.
2. Keith Ballard – With a $4.2 M cap hit for the next 4 seasons, something has to be figured out with Ballard. That is too much cap space to be sitting in the press box for much of a season, or in the minors. Either Alain Vigneault needs to give him a chance to get some confidence, or they need to cut their losses and deal him for minimal return.
3. Michael Samuelsson – Much like Ballard, Samuelsson seemed to fall in and out of favour with coach Vigneault, even before the injury that removed him from the playoffs. He seems too taleneted for a 3rd or 4th line role, but can’t stay in the good graces long enough to stay in the top 6.
4. Cap Dilemma – The Canucks are up against it. They need to sign some top level players and don’t have a lot of space to do it. With players like Ballard and Samuelsson playing out of salary slot (or not playing at all), this will further handcuff Mike Gillis from doing what needs to be done to get back.
5. Move On, But Never Forget – The epic collapse in the finals is the new defining point of this franchise. Many of the stars of this team, who are signed long-term, failed to meet expectations in the pressure cooker. Until they can prove they can win, their reputation will precede them. They can make all the excuses they want, but they didn’t get the job done. They need to move on from the loss, but always remember the feeling they had watching the Bruins lift the Cup in Rogers Arena.
CONCLUSION – Not getting the job done makes the Canucks’ off-season that much harder. Some difficult decisions must be made as to who stays and who goes. With 10 regulars needing contracts and only $13-15 M in cap space available, it is going to be a long, hot summer in Vancouver.
The Calgary Flames added to the coaching staff, bringing in former Ducks, Hawks and Senators head coach Craig Hartsburg to be an assistant coach on Brent Sutter’s staff. They also added former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk to the staff as the team’s goaltending coach.
The Ottawa Senators finally got around to naming a head coach, and it seems that Paul MacLean is a popular hire in Sens Army. At his press conference last Tuesday, MacLean stressed the importance of communication and the fact that it is not him against the players, but all of them as the Ottawa Senators against the other 29 NHL teams. This attitude is far removed from Cory Clouston and his “my way or the highway” approach. Not quite as popular is the alleged hiring of Dave Cameron to be one of MacLean’s assistant coaches. Rumored to be one of the early favorites for the head job, Cameron left the St. Michael’s Majors in a move that has been already criticized as a case of the owner meddling in hockey decisions again. Eugene Melnyk is on record that he appreciates Cameron’s loyalty to him, and some people are already alleging that MacLean should be watching his back already.
The Montreal Canadiens had a quiet week, when until today the most meaningful news was what didn’t happen. With the naming of coaches in Florida, Ottawa, Dallas, and Minnesota, the Habs are closer to being able to retain Kirk Muller for at least another year. He had been widely speculated to be this summer’s “It” guy, who would be scooped up by one of the teams on the hunt for a new coach. With Winnipeg and New Jersey still on the hunt, they can’t breathe easy yet. Today, the Canadiens announced that Max Pacioretty has been resigned to a 2 year contract, which is good news considering there was questions as to whether he would play again after the Zdeno Chara turnbuckle incident.
The calm before GM Brian Burke’s storm seemed to be continuing for another week, with the only news of not being the extension of Carl Gunnarson’s contract for 2 years at $2.6 M total. However, today he fired assistant coaches Keith Acton and Tim Hunter from Ron Wilson’s staff. Replacing them are Greg Cronin (former Winniped Jet) and former Isles’ head coach Scott Gordon. An interesting move considering Wilson is in the last year of his contract and he has not been extended by his good friend Burke.
In Winnipeg, the interviews are still being done to find the Head Coach of the team. Current coach Craig Ramsey is one of the front-runners as is former Oilers bench boss Craig MacTavish. The search should be over soon, as should the waiting game with regards to the team name. One thing they are not waiting for is how to identify the arena, which will continue to be the MTS Centre for at least another 10 years as they extended the naming rights agreement with True North Sports and Entertainment.
That is all for this week’s edition of Northern Exposure. By this time next week the entry draft will have completed and fans will be looking ahead to the future of their teams. I will have full coverage of the draft from the Canadian perspective next Monday!