I have no idea if there is an informal agreement among NHL owners and General Managers or not to do precious little (you know, any major trades, or the usual late summer free-agent signings to help fill out a given team’s third and fourth lines before training camp) these days because of the negotiations impasse. As the days tick away, we seem to be moving toward an unstoppable outcome: a lockout of the players by the owners on September 15th.
While there has been the occasional signing here and there over the past two or three weeks (Scott Hannan signing on for a year with the Preds) most of the “news” has been about teams signing their own players to contract extensions. This includes Max Pacioretty in Montreal, Jeff Skinner in Carolina and most recently, Mike Fisher in Nashville.
But by and large, things have been deathly quiet on the NHL front. That’s not entirely unusual at this time of the year, but I seem to recall a number of low-profile but still important late-summer UFA signings since the last lockout—and since the new cap was imposed.
What was the last UFA signing this summer that made you, as a hockey fan, do even a small double-take? For that matter, since the van Riemsdyk trade, what have the Leafs done that made you stand up and take notice? Yes, they have signed their first-round draft picks from the last two summers, and that’s all very nice, but the truth is we knew that was going to happen at some point. Where else were these kids going to play? Were they going to wait until a new CBA gave rookies even less negotiation traction? Did anybody really think they were going to the KHL?
So yes, it’s a quiet time, for sure. And again, some, all or none of this may have to do with the current contractual reality. NHL GM’s are not only pre-occupied with the labour talks, I wonder if they have been told, informally—by Bettman and their own owners—to do only what they absolutely have to do in terms of roster housekeeping, as everyone gears down (rather than up) for the reality of a lock-out.
That said, one GM has continued to be active and in fact, quite aggressive this summer, and that, not surprisingly, is Philadelphia’s Paul Holmgren. Holmgren was a ‘take no prisoners’ player during his long NHL career, and we sure can’t say he has been anything less than that in his tenure in management with the Flyers. After huge (and risky) moves last summer to bring in a temperamental number-one goalie (Bryzgalov) at a very high cost, and his decision to deal away two of his top players in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, he tried something even more outside the box this summer, when he attempted to swoop in and grab Shea Weber as a RFA. While the Predators ended up matching Philly’s huge offer, it served notice that Holmgren isn’t interested in standing idly by—or standing pat.
He has now lost two key defensemen (three, really, if we include Chris Pronger) in Lilja and Meszaros. But the guy is in there pitching. He just extended Scott Hartnell with a mini mega-deal after also recently re-signing Jakub Voracek and, as significantly, grinding winger Wayne Simmonds. Of course, we in the Toronto market know that he earlier moved van Riemsdyk- who looked like a star in the making in the playoffs a couple of years ago- for Luke Shenn. Holmgren would like to do more, but doesn’t want to part with emerging youngsters like Brayden Schenn or Sean Couturier. Leaf boss Brian Burke can relate, as his efforts to improve the Toronto roster in certain spots have no doubt been stymied by his (understandable) unwillingness to part with key assets, including defenseman Jake Gardiner.
Now, we can criticize Holmgren for his willingness to spend a lot of money and make bold (some might say risky) roster moves. He and owner Flyers owner Ed Snider may be partly responsible for an NHL that doesn’t know which way it wants to go, in the sense that some teams—like the Flyers—would love to spend well beyond the cap (I’m sure the Leafs and Burke would too) and are part of the NHL’s inflation-creating cycle. All the while, many owners are apparently still losing significant money—and predictably, crying poor. (What did I see recently, the San Jose Sharks lost 15 million last season—and they sell out every night and have playoff revenue every spring…)
But bottom line, Holmgren is not afraid to act.
Here’s what I’m wondering: are you content with Burke’s current patient approach to re-building the blue and white? Or, is at least a small part of you kind of wishing, deep down, that our guy would be a little more like Holmgren, throw caution to the wind and take a shot at much bigger game—in order to try and speed up the re-build?