Wednesday, August 10, 2011
One more shot: Players trying to come back
By Scott Burnside
Every year at this time, the air in NHL cities is full of shimmering dust mites.
The mites are called hope.
Those glittering specks of expectation shine for the likely and the unlikely all the same. They also shine for those players who hope for one last shot at glory or redemption or, heck, just another paycheck.
Here's a look at an eclectic group of "off the scrap heap" players hoping to make an impact this season or at the very least make an NHL roster:
As we first reported a couple of weeks back, Emery will get a tryout at the Blackhawks' training camp in September, but it's hard to imagine he won't be in a Hawks jersey when the season opens. The Marty Turco experiment didn't go so well last season for Chicago, and the Hawks need a viable Plan B to help support sophomore Corey Crawford, who was very good for Chicago last season as a rookie. Emery was instrumental in vaulting Anaheim into the playoffs in place of injured Jonas Hiller. There was no room for Emery in Anaheim for the coming season, though, so now he's taking his surgically repaired hip and his rehabilitated reputation to Chicago. Emery led Ottawa to its only Stanley Cup finals berth in 2007 and was 7-2 with a .926 save percentage down the stretch in Anaheim. Agent J.P. Barry told us recently Emery's in terrific shape and completely recovered from the hip issues that threatened to end his career. If the Blackhawks are hoping to bounce back to Cup-contender status after a disappointing post-Cup campaign, they'll need a solid backup for Crawford and there's every reason to believe Emery could be that guy.
We have to admit, we were a bit surprised no NHL team bit on Nolan last season when the veteran winger was coming off a 16-goal performance in the 2009-10 season and a 25-goal season in just 59 games for the low-scoring Wild in 2008-09. But here's the rub for the 39-year-old once-elite power forward: durability. Nolan has never played 80 games (or more) in any NHL regular season. Nolan told Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province recently that playing in Switzerland last season actually helped him get fully healthy and rekindled his desire to not just play but win at the NHL level. He will try to catch on with an offensively deep Canucks team that won't have that much turnover from their run to the Stanley Cup finals. But if he can bang some bodies and show he's still got a nose for the net -- and oh yeah, stay out of the sick bay -- there's no reason Nolan shouldn't add some veteran sand to an already annoying Canucks forward contingent.
Here's another veteran hoping to work his way into the Canucks' lineup after being absent from an NHL roster last season. Tough as nails, the 32-year-old Fedoruk missed all of last year with a knee injury, and his ability to crash and bang on the rehabilitated appendage will speak volumes about his ability to stick with the Canucks. By the end of the finals, the Canucks were banged up and getting pushed around by the Boston Bruins. Fedoruk is the kind of player, if healthy, who could be a boon to the Canucks' third or fourth line, especially with the departure of former Canucks agitator Raffi Torres, who signed with Phoenix.
We still shake our heads at the dramatic descent for one of the nice guys in the NHL. The winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy with 56 goals in 2005-06, Cheechoo signed a two-way deal with the Blues in the hopes of rediscovering the goal-scoring touch that made him one of the feel-good stories in the league post-lockout. A native of remote Moose Factory, Ontario, Cheechoo scored just five times in 61 games for Ottawa in 2009-10, his last NHL experience. He did manage 18 goals for San Jose's AHL affiliate in Worcester last season and was inked to a two-way deal with the Blues this summer. It's a low-risk, high-reward kind of deal for GM Doug Armstrong. And frankly, it's difficult to see Cheechoo, 31, cracking the lineup out of camp -- barring significant injuries -- given the Blues' collection of talented young forwards and the additions of Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner in the offseason. What might be more likely is that Cheechoo plays well on the farm and finds himself as an injury replacement, especially if the Blues can stay in the playoff hunt.
One of the most interesting offseason acquisitions was the remade Flyers taking a flyer (ha, ha, get it?) on the five-time NHL scoring champ who looked almost certain to head to Pittsburgh or Detroit before making a U-turn and signing a one-year deal with Philadelphia. Expectations will be high for Jagr, who hasn't played an NHL game since the end of the 2008 playoffs, when he was a member of the New York Rangers. He is 39, but defenseman Chris Pronger noted in a conference call this week he thought Jagr could be counted on to chip in 50 to 60 points as the Flyers will be looking to replace significant offensive production with the departures of Jeff Carter, captain Mike Richards and Ville Leino. Jagr had 71 points in his final NHL season, but it will be a major coup for GM Paul Holmgren if Jagr gets to that level this season. The flip side will be if Jagr doesn't have enough left to make a regular contribution and becomes this year's Nikolay Zherdev, a player pulling in a full salary but unable to make an impact on the roster.
We spoke with the former Islanders captain a couple of weeks ago and his situation vis-a-vis a return to the NHL is no clearer today. In fact, the potential for a Yashin return may be even less likely now that the Islanders helped out their pals in New Jersey by acquiring Brian Rolston for Trent Hunter in a move that helped the Devils free enough cap space to sign Zach Parise to a one-year deal. Rolston is 38 and Yashin will turn 38 this fall. Is there room for two graying forwards on an Islanders roster that is (or should be) built on speed and youth? Yashin didn't seem all that worried one way or the other. He feels he can play at the NHL level and is not bothered by the fact the Islanders bought him out of his monster 10-year deal and continue to pay against the cap for him not to play on Long Island. He also isn't considering a return to any other NHL team. Like Jagr, Yashin's skills in his prime were undisputable. The question remains whether enough of those skills remain for the Isles to take a chance on him.
We chatted with Commodore moments after he signed a one-year deal with the Wings in early July, and excited didn't quite cover it for the big defenseman who was banished to the AHL last season by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Plagued by injury and expectation after signing a big four-year deal in 2008, Commodore will be asked to come into Detroit and provide good, tough-nosed defense for head coach Mike Babcock. Nothing more, nothing less. A Cup winner in Carolina and a member of a Calgary team that went to the Cup finals in 2004, Commodore should fit in nicely with a talented Detroit team that still has Cup designs in spite of the departure of guys like Brian Rafalski, Chris Osgood, Kris Draper, Chris Chelios and Kirk Maltby over the past couple of seasons.
Souray is another player who fell afoul of his former team -- in this case the Edmonton Oilers management -- and was exiled to the AHL. Their relationship was so fractured that the Oilers didn't even send Souray to their own AHL team but loaned him to Washington's farm team in Hershey. Souray once upon a time scored 26 goals, and he possesses one of the biggest shots in the game from the blue line. He will be asked to fill a veteran, mentor role in Dallas, where the Stars are getting younger while trying to stay competitive. Souray told us he is physically in great shape and highly motivated to prove that he's still got NHL game left. We're guessing he's right, and if he can stay healthy -- yes, it's a big "if" -- it wouldn't be surprising to see Souray approach the 20-goal mark again as he'll log lots of power-play time for the Stars.
Not even Nabokov knows how this is going to play out on Long Island as the longtime San Jose netminder has indicated he'll show up at the Isles' training camp. With Rick DiPietro under contract until the next century or so and Al Montoya under contract for the coming season following an impressive run as the team's starter down the stretch last season, it's hard to know exactly how Nabokov fits in. Nabokov was acquired on waivers last season after Detroit tried to sign the netminder following a failed experiment in the Kontinental Hockey League. Nabokov initially declined to report to the Islanders. He insisted it was all a misunderstanding and seems ready to be a good citizen for the long-suffering Islanders. Now, he will be hoping to get enough opportunities to play so he can drive up his trade value. Assuming that DiPietro stays healthy, always a question mark, there's always the possibility that Nabokov could end up sharing the workload with Montoya. Wouldn't that be more than a little ironic if Nabokov ends up helping the Isles to an unlikely playoff berth? The more likely scenario is that Nabokov goes the way of Dwayne Roloson, trying to stay sharp until GM Garth Snow can find a trading partner and ship the veteran netminder to a team with Cup aspirations.