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Monday, September 30, 2013
Ramblings: Alfie's contract, Drouin's future, Ference's leadership and more

By Scott Burnside

DENVER -- You've no doubt read my colleague Pierre LeBrun’s popular "rumblings" blog. Well, this is more a rambling than a rumbling. To whit:

Cheat deals: Like most people, we're fascinated to see how the Daniel Alfredsson experiment turns out in Detroit. But the one thing we still can’t get over is that the NHL decided not to act on Alfredsson’s blunt acknowledgment that his previous contract with the Ottawa Senators was, in fact, a blatant attempt to circumvent the salary cap under the previous collective bargaining agreement. Alfredsson told reporters before training camp that when the four-year deal was signed, neither side expected Alfredsson would play in the contract’s final year -- worth only $1 million in real money even though the cap hit was $4.875 million annually. It was exactly that kind of wink, wink, nudge, nudge deal that the league had been warning teams about for years -- Alfredsson made $7 million in each of the first two years of the pact -- and which ultimately cost the New Jersey Devils mightily in their first attempt at a contract for the erstwhile Ilya Kovalchuk. The so-called cheat deals were, in theory, eliminated by new parameters put on contracts in the new collective bargaining agreement, and the league’s position is that they are going to look forward instead of back. Good news for the Senators, but maybe in the spirit of CBA détente, the league should forgive the Devils the first round draft pick they must forfeit next spring for having done no worse than what Alfredsson admitted the Senators did in his case.

Captain Ference: I love the idea of Andrew Ference wearing the captain’s ‘C’ in Edmonton. Head coach Dallas Eakins has many options, but Ference has the right temperament for what promises to be a demanding job. Yes, Taylor Hall may yet be the Oilers’ captain of the future, but Ference comes from a culture of winning in Boston, and in Calgary before that when winning was something the Flames actually did. He’s won a Cup and been to two Stanley Cup finals. He’s smart, thinks through the game well and interacts well with the public and the media. When we spoke to Eakins during training camp, he talked about the variety of skill sets that Ference brings to an Oilers' table that has not seen a taste of the playoffs since 2006, and he was speaking as much about the off-ice skill set as the on-ice toughness and ability to move the puck.

Not so fast, rookie: I must admit I was surprised to see the Tampa Bay Lightning ship No. 3 overall draft pick Jonathan Drouin back to junior where the folks in Halifax will be happy to see the skilled winger. His junior teammate and No. 1 overall pick Nathan MacKinnon has long been penciled into the Colorado Avalanche's opening lineup. Likewise, No. 2 pick Aleksander Barkov will start in Florida, and Seth Jones, No. 4 in one of the greatest top-heavy draft classes in recent memory, will stick in Nashville. But GM Steve Yzerman and the Lightning staff obviously didn't feel Drouin was ready. As desperate as the Bolts are to return to the playoffs after missing since their surprise berth in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, the team decided it was best for Drouin’s overall development to return to junior, where he will play significant minutes as well as be a part of Canada’s effort at the World Junior Championship. Given that Yzerman spent his entire career playing in Detroit, a franchise whose trademark for the past two decades has been one of patience and never (or rarely, anyway) rushing a player to the NHL, maybe the move isn't all that surprising. As he explained to reporters in Tampa, Yzerman wants his young players playing all the time, not relegated to fourth-line minutes in the NHL or sitting in the press box. In that same vein, the Lightning also sent former No. 6 overall draft pick Brett Connolly back to the Bolts’ American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse.

The young and the discarded in South Beach: Is it just us or does this year’s version of the Florida Panthers bear a striking resemblance to the one that two years ago went from a rag-tag bunch of summer signings to an unexpected Southeast Division title? We didn't have the gumption to pick the Panthers to be that kind of team this season, but with new ownership taking control last week, GM Dale Tallon has locked up former Vezina Trophy winner and playoff MVP Tim Thomas to a one-year deal, while adding useful players Brad Boyes and Tom Gilbert -- both of whom were on tryouts -- to one-year deals. Boyes played top-line minutes with the New York Islanders last year, and Gilbert will add some depth to a blue line that is still very much in transition with Erik Gudbranson hoping to evolve into a franchise blueliner. Now, a lot can go wrong, but it’s interesting that two summers ago when Tallon brought in a bevy of newcomers, including Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Fleischmann and Sean Bergenheim, few people gave head coach Kevin Dineen a chance to make it work then. With an emerging Gudbranson, defending rookie of the year Jonathan Huberdeau and Barkov, there is an intriguing blend of the young and the discarded.

Vokoun's health: We were pleased to read agent Allan Walsh’s comments to Pittsburgh writer Rob Rossi regarding the health and potential recovery of netminder Tomas Vokoun, who required surgery during training camp to deal with a blood clot issue. It’s not the first time Vokoun has dealt with the medical issue, but Walsh told Rossi that reports out of the Czech Republic that Vokoun’s career is over and he nearly died as a result of the illness were not true. Not a knock on reporters in other countries, but a reminder that sometimes stuff gets lost in translation. Walsh told Rossi that Vokoun is looking forward to resuming his NHL career, although an exact timetable remains unknown. Vokoun’s story is inspirational, as he’s overcome many hurdles to carve out a solid NHL career. He was nothing but a gentleman as he took over for Marc-Andre Fleury in the first round of the playoffs for the Penguins last spring and guided the Pens to the Eastern Conference finals. Here’s hoping he makes a speedy return to the game.

Kings of depth: One of the reasons to like (or fear, if you’re a Western Conference opponent) the Los Angeles Kings is the kind of depth GM Dean Lombardi has assembled in LA. The team sent Tyler Toffoli to the minors over the weekend after the youngster made a strong impression last season. He was especially impressive in the playoffs, collecting six points in 12 postseason games and earning time on the Kings’ power play. Toffoli will start the season in Manchester along with talented linemates Linden Vey and Tanner Pearson -- a group Lombardi has likened on a number of occasions to famed LA Dodgers Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Steve Garvey and Davey Lopes, who all blossomed together in the Dodgers’ farm system before becoming star major leaguers. In short, you may not see them in a Kings jersey in October, but it won’t be a surprise when, at some point this season, you see not just Toffoli, but perhaps all three making their case for a permanent stay in Hollywood.

Goalie buzz: And finally, of all the goaltending drama unfolding around the NHL -- Tim Thomas in Florida, the Jonathan Bernier/James Reimer duel in Toronto, Roberto Luongo’s return as the erstwhile starter for the Vancouver Canucks -- perhaps none has been as curious as the decision to find the heir apparent to Miikka Kiprusoff in Calgary. Now, expectations are low for the Flames (OK, that’s a bit of an understatement, especially with Mike Cammalleri’s availability for the start of the season now in jeopardy thanks to injury) but with journeyman Joey MacDonald, Swiss sensation Reto Berra and former Lightning prospect Karri Ramo jostling for the right to start on opening night, it has created at least a little buzz around the team. If we had to guess, we would go with Ramo, who got rave reviews for his play in the Kontinental Hockey League and is now trying to prove he’s NHL-ready. Our guess is he’s about to find out.