Hockey Player Emancipation Day, Part II: Free Agents on the Prowl

After spending a bit of time searching through the free agent lists and looking at the Sens’ roster and what holes there are in it and what’s available to fill the holes, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have no idea what’s going on and Sens fans everywhere should be very glad that I’m not the one running the team because I’d probably run it right into the ground. It’d be even worse than last season. This General Managing stuff is hard. Nevertheless, here is my attempt to review the NHL’s free agents as they relate to the Sens and determine which ones the Sens should take a long hard look at with their best come hither eyes, and which ones they should maybe nod hello to but then look away quickly and avoid making eye contact with.

The Puck Stops Here About 92% of the Time (If We’re Lucky): Goaltending

This is the easiest situation to deal with, to my mind anyway, maybe because you only have to deal with one of these guys at a time so there’s less thought involved. It seems surprising that the goaltending situation in Ottawa should be clear cut, but it really is quite simple once you accept that Martin Gerber is going to be the #1 goalie in Ottawa next season, barring a massive trade (unlikely). The UFA goalies out there just aren’t all that appealing. Jose Theodore is the best of them, and he’s risky and probably expensive — too expensive, with Gerber’s $3.7 million cap hit on the books. There’s also Cristobal Huet, but I’m not convinced he’s that big of an upgrade over Gerber.

The best solution for this year, I think, is to sign a cheap backup for Gerber. Really cheap. Under $1 million or bust! Ty Conklin was making $500,000 in Pittsburgh last season and played well. Curtis Joseph seemed to do well as backup in Calgary last season and his veteran-ness might make him a nice, possibly steadying presence behind Gerber. And then there’s our old friend Patrick Lalime, who played 32 games in Chicago last season and made $950,000. Don Brennan is plugging the idea of a Lalime return to Ottawa in the Sun these days. Lalime back with the Sens … ye gads. Last time I saw Lalime, he was on OTR saying how much he enjoyed watching the Sens lose. I’m not sure that’s the attitude we want in the locker room, really.

The other possibility is, of course, our own Brian Elliott. You never know, he could turn into Patrick Roy and make the team out of training camp, then carry them all on his back to a Stanley Cup. No pressure though.

Trying to Prevent the Puck from Getting That Far in the First Place: Defence

This one gets a little dicier. From the Sun’s little blurb about Luke Richardson, we learn how the defence corps shapes up so far: Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Brian Lee, Andrej Meszaros (if he signs), Christoph Schubert, and Lawrence Nycholat, plus a seventh d-man, as yet unknown, possibly Richardson, or possibly the recently re-signed Matt Carkner. I look at that lineup and I think to myself that I’m going to need a prescription for anti-anxiety meds to make it through the season. Once you get past the always solid Phillips and Volchenkov, the whole thing looks mildly heart attack inducing. Lee has great potential, but he’s only a rookie and we have to expect that he’ll make mistakes as he adjusts to the NHL. Schubert’s development on defence has been stunted by all the time he’s spent playing forward, in my opinion, and he seems to take at least one bad penalty per game. Meszaros I’m unsure about. Sometimes, he seems very good. Sometimes, he scares me. Nycholat has a grand total of 31 games of NHL experience in the last five years. Carkner? 1 NHL game in his career. This sounds as though it could make last year’s defence look Detroit-esque by comparison.

I know that the big trend is to pursue a free agent puck-moving defenceman like Brian Campbell, and actually Campbell has been one of my favourite players since his days with the Ottawa 67’s so in theory I would love nothing more to see him wearing Sens red. In reality, though, I think the Sens’ priority needs to be defensive stability. Aside from that, Campbell is probably going to sign for about a billion dollars, and Ottawa just doesn’t have the cap room for him. The Rangers’ Michal Rozsival, who just had hip surgery, and who appears on Darren Dreger’s list of the top ten UFA defencemen, might be a slightly cheaper option, and the Sun has reported that Murray could try to go after him. He was paid $2.3 million this year, but no doubt will be looking for a raise. There’s also the Habs’ Mark Streit, who played the point on Montreal’s very effective power play last season.

In terms of more defensively-oriented defencemen, the Sens could try to go after Philadelphia’s Jason Smith, who captained the Flyers this season and played in the playoffs with two separated shoulders. Now that’s tough. Smith is 34 and made just under $2 million last season, so he’s probably affordable. Colorado’s Jeff Finger is another possibility. I don’t know that much about him, but he seems to be considered a puck-moving defenceman who is also fairly solid in his own end, and I like the sound of that. He made only $475,000 last season. The Avs also have Kurt Sauer, another UFA defenceman I don’t know much about, who sounds as though he could be a decent, possibly cheap stay-at-home option. Detroit’s Brad Stuart, who made a big impression with his physical play with defence partner with Niklas Kronwall during the playoffs this year, is another player I think might be a good addition for the Sens, but he could be a bit pricey.

The big question is whether or not Meszaros will re-sign. If he doesn’t, then that leaves somewhere between $3 and $4 million which could be used to sign one of these players to replace him. So, perhaps the real question is: are the Sens better off keeping Meszaros, or using that money to sign … someone else? Cue dramatic music.

The Best Defence is Supposedly a Good Crop of These: Forwards

Undoubtedly the most confusing part of the team for me. So many possible combinations, so many questions. Do you take Alfie off the top line? If so, who should he play with? Do you split Heatzza into its original Heatley and Spezza components? Given his performance at the World Championships, should Heatley be moved to the right wing? Does Mike Fisher fit in on the second line or the third line? Where does that leave Chris Kelly? Why do we seem to have so many centres? How many, if any, of Antoine Vermette, Cory Stillman, and Shean Donovan will re-sign? If Vermette does come back, where do you put him? Why is the sky blue? I don’t know the answer to any of these things, which is why I’m glad I’m neither Bryan Murray nor Craig Hartsburg.

All I know for certain is that there are 10 forwards right now who seem certain to be on the Sens’ roster when the season starts. They are Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Chris Neil, Dean McAmmond, Nick Foligno, Cody Bass, and Jesse Winchester, who has signed a one-way contract with the organization. (Recently-signed Danish prospect Peter Regin says he expects to start the season in Binghamton.)

If all of Vermette, Donovan, and Stillman do come back, then that’s a full cohort of forwards right there. That’s a big if, however. Should Donovan return, you’d have to assume he’d be on the fourth line, probably with Bass and Foligno. Stillman and Vermette are bigger question marks. Both should probably fit into the Sens’ top six somehow. If they do, though, does Chris Kelly then become our second line centre or is Fisher on a line with Vermette and Stillman? That scenario places Alfie back on the first line with Heatzza, and I’m just not sure keeping the big three together is the best plan for anyone.

Is everyone else as confused as I am? I hope it’s not just me. I try to cut through all the confusion, and somehow my ultimate conclusion is that the Sens probably still need that top six winger everyone always talks about. Ideally, we’d want someone who is big, who will play a physical/gritty style, and who doesn’t suck defensively. No problem! That type of guy grows on trees!

Except I look through the lists of free agent wingers and mostly what I come up with is a list of names I don’t want the Sens to go anywhere near: Todd Bertuzzi – yes, let’s dump Emery for his bad attitude and off-ice issues and then sign this guy; Marian Hossa – way, way too expensive, and also not gritty enough; Ryan Malone – also too expensive, plus has signed with Tampa already so … never mind; Sean Avery – see above re: Bertuzzi, Todd; Markus Naslund – did not have a great season with the Canucks and unless he takes a fairly significant pay cut will likely not be worth what he’s going to get paid; Darcy Tucker and Gary Roberts – I’d rather not hate my own team.

But it’s not all bad! There are some players out there who sound like decent possibilities. Niklas Hagman might not have the crazy offensive skills of Heatzza, but he is considered a good defensive player who plays a tenacious game, and the Stars are not expected to re-sign him. If he doesn’t command a huge salary, the Sens could try to go after him. I don’t know too much about Radim Vrbata, but it sounds like he would at least provide some offence. Whether he fills the gritty/defensively competent portion of my description of the ideal winger, I am not sure. Ruslan Fedotenko won a Cup with Tampa Bay, but was inconsistent with the Islanders last season. There’s also the possibility of going with someone older, like Brendan Shanahan or Owen Nolan. Both these guys have a wealth of experience, and I think Shanahan in particular would be a great addition to the team, assuming his age doesn’t slow him down too much. He averaged about 18 minutes of icetime with the Rangers last season, so it doesn’t appear to be too much of a problem.

Conclusion: Good Luck Figuring it Out, Bryan Murray

Go forth and sign, Mr. General Manager, and return to us on Tuesday evening with the best possible team so that we may spend the rest of the summer devising interesting line combinations.

Tomorrow morning I’m heading back out to Kanata with my father in tow (no interminable bus ride this time! WOO HOO!) to watch the 3-on-3 tournament at the Sens’ Development Camp. My living circumstances during the upcoming hockey season will likely make it impossible for me to attend all but one of the Sens’ regular season games, so I’m trying to get to as many Sens-related events as possible while I’m in Ottawa. I’m looking forward to seeing current and future Sens in action! After that, only one more sleep till Free Agent Day. Should be a good week for hockey!

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