Charlton's NHL: Next Year Begins

Rick Charlton
June 14th, 2002

Time to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

After two somewhat somnolent months punctuated by the occasional brief flurry of adrenaline (A New York Post story calling for a $17 million offer sheet for Jarome Iginla, the loss of Jarrett Stoll and the signing of Jordan Leopold), the Flames figure to swing into frenetic action at the 2002 draft next week in Toronto.

In truth, the backroom work at the Saddledome has never really stopped in spite of yet another ignominious conclusion to a sub-par season.

The first visible signs of life for fans, however, should show up next weekend when one of those rare pressure points in a year, when all GM's come together in one setting, primed and ready to swap, will provide ample opportunity for GM Craig Button with one of the last opportunities to re-shape the Flames for next season.

Desperate for an upgrade in players, particularly scoring forwards who can help the team immediately, it figures Button, in the number nine position at the draft, will either trade down the list or move his pick altogether.

THE ARGUMENT TO TRADE THE PICK - This draft has been well-analyzed as an unusually weak one looking much like the crop of 1996 where Chris Phillips, Andrei Zyuzin, JP Dumont and Alexander Volchkov, the top four overall, continue to struggle to find their roles in the NHL six years later.

With the gift of hindsight, we can see the 1996 draft failed to produce a single discernable high-end talent, Derek Morris and perhaps Daniel Briere considered the best of the bunch but both still groping to qualify as genuine NHL stars. In fact, The Hockey News in its latest edition reshuffled the 1996 draft in terms of results and found Morris, considered to be a risky long shot phantom pick at the time, to be the highest rated player.

For a team six years removed from its last playoff appearance and 13 years in arrears of its last playoff series victory, any asset should be considered expendable in the interests of improving the team for today. Furthering that argument along is the acknowledgement that anyone chosen in a draft will typically take as long as five to seven years to make an impact on the roster of the parent team, well beyond the expiry sticker of Button and potentially the franchise.

It should be noted as well that Button was particularly active last year and established a precedent by deftly trading down while still securing the player he wanted - Chuck Kobasew - and adding an additional second round pick as well.

A weak draft year combined with a desperate need for help now makes for a compelling argument to move the pick.

THE ARGUMENT TO KEEP THE PICK OR TRADE HIGHER - Drafted players are essentially free pickings and are particularly important to the competitive well-being of a small-market franchise which can't replace large numbers of players through free agency. Teams must draft well, of course, to realize that potential but trading away picks inevitably carries a heavy price tag further down the road.

THE FLAMES WILL SELECT - With somewhat of a swelled head I will remind readers this space correctly forecast the Flames taking Kobasew in 2001, his qualities of hot rod speed, shot and aggressiveness fitting the bill Button himself had laid out in numerous interviews. And Button's wish list of qualities doesn't seem to have changed a bit over the last year.

It's simply speculation on my part, but should the Flames stay at number nine overall - which I seriously doubt will happen - a logical selection would be Eric Nystrom. Why? Because he'll play in the NHL, which is a lot more than you can say for many of the higher risk choices that seem to pervade this weakest of weak draft years. Any one of Pierre Marc-Bouchard, Jiri Hudler and Alexander Semin might be the exception and look good on paper in comparison to their peers, but realistically the warts of size, strength and competitiveness are screaming against their chances. The downside with Nystrom is that he plateaus as a bigger Stephane Matteau. The upside is considerably more. He's a safe pick. He'll play. In a lousy draft year, that might be all you can ask for. The risk is going for an improbable home run and likely ending up with a bust.

If the Flames draft later in the first round, a reasonably safe prognostication would be Alexander Steen. It helps that his father was once a star with the Winnipeg Jets and can impart some wisdom regarding expectations upon his son. The kid has the goods to play in the NHL. Pedigree, as with Nystrom, counts for something as well.

There is some thought that the logical hole in Calgary's development pipeline is in goal but I've long maintained that small-market teams shouldn't be bothering with diaper training netminders, certainly not to the extent of using a first round pick on one. The position is simply too important to the success of a franchise which logically operates with a thin margin of error and can't afford the mistakes which inevitably come with working a youngster into any position. The answer for a small market is to go out and do what it takes to acquire strong veteran goaltending when it's required while concentrating on the development of young defencemen and forwards. The acquisition of Roman Turek last summer may be an indication that Button is thinking along similar lines.

THE TRADE FRONT - The primary challenge for Button this summer is to build a second scoring line, assuming Rob Niedermayer has fallen into the third line centre role. Button had made allusions earlier to a potential Oleg Saprykin, Savard, Kobasew combination but that might be as much wishful thinking as entering training camp last year counting on Chris Clark and Ronald Petrovicky as 15 goal men.

The GM is aided by the fact a great many teams seem ready and willing to engage in a facelift, just as there were last summer. Those teams might be among the 14 which failed to qualify for the post-season or the 15 of 16 which failed to win a Stanley Cup or were otherwise disappointed by their playoff results.

In fact, the only GM who seems willing to sit relatively pat over the summer is Carolina's Jimmy Rutherford, who has already publicly testified that he intends to bring back much the same crew which emerged as the surprise finalist out of the NHL's Eastern Conference.

Even Wings GM Ken Holland, helped by freaks of nature like Chris Chelios, Steve Yzerman and Dominic Hasek, faces a long summer of rebuilding with the consequences of natural aging and retirements kicking in.

Button's mood turns decidedly glum when the question of Marc Savard's status is brought up. A recent interview on QR77 had Button openly dismissing Savard's probability of returning to the side of Jarome Iginla while opining the 5'10" centre needed to accept his fate and work on helping lift whatever linemates he may have. The implication, of course, is that said linemates were last year having to carry a pouting Savard, his minus 18 statistic pointing out the obvious truth of the observation. But there are many of the opinion that Savard won't see a training camp in Calgary anyway, that next week will lead to his being dealt outright as part of package to acquire skilled help at forward which better fits the game plan of coach Greg Gilbert. We have seen situations like this many times around the NHL, where a particular player simply doesn't fit the style of play in one city but might be amply qualified to be inserted into the game plan of a different coach in another locale. It seems obvious that a physical, two-way centre with size, skill and speed, able to control a wide swath of the centre of the rink, is the type of player Button and Gilbert want and more importantly, need. The deliberate acquisitions of Conroy and Niedermayer should spell that out in spades, even if Niedermayer floundered in his role last year. Savard struggled with Gilbert but might be an excellent fit in Atlanta, Anaheim or Tampa Bay as three examples. Unlike Val Bure, whom the Flames had to practically give away last year, Savard should invite at least a modicum of interest.

Compounding Button's task is the puzzling status of Kobasew, drafted with much fanfare, delight, smiles and hand-shaking all around. But within weeks of telling a national television audience of his intent to return to Boston College, Kobasew was angling towards the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets, a move which would put him in the unusual position of being an unrestricted free agent next summer. Last October Kobasew had secured an NHL roster spot with a brilliant training camp but balked at the offer placed in front of him by the Flames. In fact, everything Kobasew has done since mid-July last year would indicate an agenda beyond what you would normally expect. It might be the Flames will have to decide as early as next week if Kobasew intends to sign here. If not, he too should be part of a package heading out of town. And that would be a damned shame. The kid is the real deal.

Plan B would be the assumption the Flames will sign Kobasew and keep Savard while trading a defenceman for a scoring winger.

Who would that defenceman be? Button recently singled out Morris via radio interview, saying it was time the defenceman, entering his sixth NHL season, decided to step up not one but several levels and become the dominating player his talent says he should be. Morris got off to the best start of his career in the early going last year, in spite of still being an adventure in his own zone, but injuries and a slow recovery crippled his season. Morris is obviously a critical player for the Flames. If he's traded, there will be 25 to 30 minutes a night that will need to be replaced and newcomer Jordan Leopold, green behind the ears by a country mile, isn't an obvious candidate. Interestingly, it isn't unthinkable the Flames might actually be a better team in their own zone without Morris. And Leopold might serve a role as a power-play replacement until he gains sufficient experience for a regular shift. Morris would obviously fetch a fairly high value package in return, probably a forward. Presumably the Flames would look to the free agent market to find a defenceman in the Bob Boughner mold, then divide Morris's minutes among the survivors.

All of the above, of course, is merely scribbling doodles on a notepad, a large mix of hoping combined with a dash of logic.

On a team which has missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons, the only thing safe to say is that no one is safe.

And that's the way it should be.

"THE LAST GENERATION TO SEE HIM PLAY AND PRACTICE and the opportunity to play with him was my generation, born in the 1960s and `70s. After we left Russia, we were the last ones to truly be influenced by him and I think that's why Russian hockey is struggling now." Sergei Fedorov, waxing poetic on the influence of Igor Larionov, who may have played his last game yesterday in Detroit's Stanley Cup clincher.

SCORING IN THESE PLAYOFFS HAS FLUCTUATED DRAMATICALLY round to round and series to series but the bottom line through 90 games played was an average of 4.74 goals scored per game, duplicating almost exactly the 4.71 goals scored per game in the 2001 playoffs. This in spite of a number of games generating 10 goals. The NHL averaged 5.24 goals scored during the regular season or, for comparison purposes, 5.48 goals per game adjusting for the fact ties would have led to at least one more goal. The statistics again underline that the best 16 teams in the league, presumably with the best talent, couldn't score more goals than you might find in a typical regular season game.

ONE PLAYER WHO MIGHT NOT BE THRILLED TO HEAR ROMAN CECHMANEK has been resurrected as the Flyers number one goaltender for next season is teammate Jeremy Roenick. "The antics, some of the things that he did, some of the things that were heard that he said can't go on, can't happen. Those things, they deter from team sports, from team attitude, and you can't have that, so I think those things have to be ironed out. The attitude has to be right on both his part and the players' part." Details are sketchy, but Cechmanek is widely assumed to have tried to pull himself during a playoff loss to Ottawa, all the while skating towards center ice and yelling curses at his teammates for abandoning him to the quick Senators.

"I REMEMBER WHEN I WAS A CHILD where it almost had to be an ambulance-type situation for there to be a penalty called. But you have to accept and abide by what's being done here." Carolina's Jeff O'Neil commenting on the large number of penalties called in the first two games of the Hurricanes/Detroit Stanley Cup final. One can't help but wonder what happened in the referee room between the first and second period of Game 3 which seemed to cause the penalty count lever to ratchet down from "high" to "zero" for the rest of the series. A mutiny by the on-ice officials against some over-bearing bosses?

HUMOUROUS, WASN'T IT, to see Don Cherry the other night pointing out his Bruins were playing the trap in the 1979 playoffs when the Canadiens broke out of their zone to set up Guy Lafleur's famous overtime rocket. The trap is as old as the hair on granny's chest and is hardly a modern invention.

"AT THIS POINT IN TIME I REGRET IT. We shouldn't have done it. We helped screw up the economics of the league and that was a bad thing. If I could take that back I would." Peter Karmanos coming clean admirably four years after inking Detroit's Sergei Fedorov to a six year $38 million offer sheet. Interestingly, the deal actually averaged out at "only" $6.3 million per season for Federov, which was actually below the $7 million average commanded on an offer sheet by Joe Sakic the summer before. The bonus structure was aimed directly at the Wings, however, with a $14 million up front signing bonus and a $12 million bonus to be paid if they had gone to the conference finals, something Carolina would never have done at the time. The most famous quote out of the episode came from GM Jimmy Rutherford of Carolina, who dismissed the incident immediately after Detroit matched the offer sheet with, "No harm done."

LINE MATCHING IS PASSE SAYS Colorado Coach Bob Hartley. "The new wave in hockey -- and probably the easiest thing when it comes to matchups -- is when you're on the road and you want certain defensemen against certain lines. When I started to coach, it was your checking line against the other team's best line. These days, rarely do you see a team that will try to put one line against another line. They'll want certain defensemen against certain lines."

SAY HELLO TO THE ONLY HONEST HOCKEY PLAYER IN THE NHL, DOUG WEIGHT. Yes, he confirms, opponents will target injuries if they know where an opponent is hurt."If there are injuries, you attack them. It's a smart thing. It's just kind of a tradition in the game," Weight recently told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Obviously this revelation leads to the bemused claim from every player that they would never deliberately hurt an opponent. And why is everyone ridiculing Toronto's eminently sensible but very nebulous "upper body injury" description for everything from a broken arm to a toothache?

IS FIREWAGON HOCKEY ON THE WAY BACK? That seemed to be the implication from recent comments by Carolina coach Paul Maurice, noting the Leafs are at the forefront of a new type of game currently forcing its way into the NHL. "You see style changes every three or four years. It goes back and forth. New Jersey always seems to be just ahead of that wave. Teams get bigger so they can be like New Jersey, then the Devils go out and produce some speedsters, and everyone then tries to catch up. Toronto is the next team that has moved ahead of that trend. We weren't changing our team to fit a trend, we were trying to get components and it turned out we got bigger and faster as we went along."

"THERE WAS A TIME PEOPLE SAID YOU COULD NEVER WIN A CUP with Brett Hull. Then I won with Dallas and all of a sudden I have 100 (playoff goals) and maybe people will think a little differently about that." Brett Hull, obviously bursting his shirt at the seams and rightly so after transforming himself from a selfish one-dimensional player into a winner. And he can thank Ken Hitchcock for that.