NEWARK, N.J. -- In the days leading up to Sunday's draft, we've talked to a number of GMs who wondered aloud whether this might be the most dramatic draft period in recent memory. With compliance buyouts underway and GMs for the first time being allowed a two-day window in which to chat with potential free agents before the start of free agency on July 5, and with the salary cap set to decline next season but expected to rise dramatically after 2013-14, the offseason game has never been more fluid.
And oh yeah, there are a bunch of NHL players-in-waiting hoping to hear their names called in the marathon that will be Sunday's one-day, seven-round draft at Prudential Center.
Here's a look at teams and players to keep an eye on:
The veteran netminder and his contract hang like the sword of Damocles over the franchise. With a new coach in John Tortorella, GM Mike Gillis must deal with the goaltending issue that dogged the team the entire lockout season and through its first-round sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks. Does Gillis take one more run at trying to find a trade partner, or does he move to buy out Luongo before the end of the compliance period (5 p.m. ET July 4) and try to find a suitable backup for Cory Schneider? The feeling is that the Canucks are not looking at a buyout but would rather eat some of the contract in a trade or take back another team's contract problems. As a last resort, Vancouver could end up waiving Luongo. Everything else the Canucks do is window dressing until they address this issue. Assuming at some point Luongo is bought out, he will join a crowded goaltender market that includes bought-out Ilya Bryzgalov, Mike Smith, Ray Emery and possibly Ryan Miller.
We know now that the Rangers won't use their final buyout on the center they plucked from the top of the free-agent mountain two summers ago but who finished this playoff season as a healthy scratch. Does new coach Alain Vigneault's presence change things? Does Richards get back into an offensive groove with a new bench boss? We were right in guessing the Rangers would keep Richards. Still, with his longtime pal and former teammate Vincent Lecavalier cut loose by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, it was interesting that both could have been free agents at the same time.
As our Pierre LeBrun reported Thursday evening, Letang and his representatives turned up their noses at an eight-year contract extension worth $56 million, which suggests the clock is ticking toward Letang's departure from the only NHL team he's known. A Norris Trophy nominee this season, he skates like the wind and is a magician with the puck. But he can be a liability in his zone, and he had a miserable postseason, especially against the Boston Bruins in the East finals. Hard to imagine GM Ray Shero will take Letang to training camp if he doesn't think he can sign him to a long-term deal, and that means this weekend is as good a time as any to work up the marketplace for such a rare asset. He's been linked to Toronto, and the number of other teams salivating at the prospect of such a puck-moving gem would easily be in the double-digits. But Shero, who got terrific value for Jordan Staal in a similar deal with the Carolina Hurricanes at last year's draft, will not give away Letang just to move on. Assuming the Colorado Avalanche don't take Seth Jones at No. 1, does Letang even fit there given the plethora of young offensive talent they possess? What would entice Shero? How about the Edmonton Oilers?
After buying out Bryzgalov and Danny Briere, the Flyers would like to do some shopping -- and no GM has more chutzpah than Paul Holmgren. Even though the Bryzgalov signing two years ago was a disaster, and Holmgren's trading of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter hasn't exactly worked out the way he'd hoped (yet, anyway), look for the Flyers to be in or near any and every potential blockbuster. They must find a goaltender to work with and push Steve Mason (Emery would be a natural given his level of play in Chicago and connection to the Flyers, for whom he played), and they need to shore up a blue line that has been decimated by injuries big and small in recent years, even though they recently added Mark Streit. In short, if there's a name on the market, the Flyers will be in on it.
The Buffalo Sabres are a mess even if owner Terry Pegula won't acknowledge it. But the fact that GM Darcy Regier merely maintained the status quo by not looking for a new head coach, instead retaining interim coach Ron Rolston, surely signifies the end is in sight for the Sabres' two most important players: Miller and Vanek. Both can become unrestricted free agents next summer, and both would have value on the trade market, although the goalie market is a little more fluid given the presence of free agents Bryzgalov, Smith, Luongo and Emery. Still, it would seem Regier must move these players sooner rather than later to try to maximize the team's return. According to Capgeek.com, Miller can list eight teams to which he will not accept a trade, while Vanek has no protection against a move should the Sabres decide to deal him. If Regier hasn't moved the duo by training camp, look for another season to start with more distractions and unflattering questions about the team's direction.
With all due respect to Evgeni Nabokov, had the Islanders received better goaltending in the first round against Pittsburgh, it's possible they would have knocked off the Eastern Conference's top seed instead of falling in six hotly contested games. Having allowed Streit to depart via trade to Philadelphia (where he signed a contract extension) and opening the door for John Tavares to become captain, isn't it incumbent on GM Garth Snow to find some suitable goaltending and ancillary pieces who could hasten the Isles' rise to contender status? What better time than the draft to make some sort of statement other than, "Hey, we're the Islanders, what did you expect?" There's also the other not-so-small matter of netminder Rick DiPietro, whose monstrous contract extends to 2021. No word yet on whether the Isles will buy out DiPietro, the top overall pick in 2000 who was sent to the minors during the lockout-shortened season. The NHL's realignment plan does not make life any easier for New York, but the Isles showed last season they are a team on the cusp. The coming days will indicate whether they'll seize the moment.
GM Dave Nonis made a big splash (not to mention a pre-emptive strike) by acquiring Los Angeles Kings backup goalie Jonathan Bernier before the end of the Stanley Cup finals. What does he do to follow up? The Leafs need to get better down the middle, and they, like many other teams, could use a player like Letang to improve the puck-moving aspect of their game. But what assets would/could Nonis move if he's looking to add by trade? Defenseman Dion Phaneuf's name is in the wind, even though he's fit nicely into the captain's role with the Leafs. Stay tuned.
There is much intrigue surrounding the remade Avs and what they'll do with the No. 1 pick. On one hand, logic would suggest that taking defenseman Seth Jones, who has ties to the community through his father (former NBA player Popeye Jones), is a no-brainer. But Joe Sakic, who recently assumed control of all hockey decisions for the team, and new coach Patrick Roy have insisted that if the Avs maintain control of the first pick, they'll take Quebec Major Junior Hockey League star Nathan MacKinnon. Not sure there's a wrong pick among the top four or five players, but you have wonder whether all this talk about Colorado's plans is some sort of subterfuge. Throw in the Avs' trade of David Jones and Shane O'Brien to the Calgary Flames on Thursday for former Avs star Alex Tanguay and veteran defenseman Cory Sarich, and Denver promises for the first time in a long time to be an intriguing place for hockey.
So, if Jones doesn't end up an Av, where does he go? The Florida Panthers, the Lightning, the Nashville Predators and the Hurricanes round out the top-five selecting teams in Sunday's draft. All four could use top-end talent at both ends of the ice, although the Bolts' needs along the blue line seem more acute than the rest. Hey, we get that being a top-end defensive prospect doesn't guarantee NHL success, especially when history shows it's easier to project top-end offensive talent, and that's why there are so few defensemen taken with the first pick. Still, Jones has all the tools, and it's going to be interesting to see how far he falls -- if at all -- and whether teams that pass on him will regret it in the years ahead.