Five volatile situations ready to blow
Handful of young and veteran teams under immense pressure to win now
What to do with high-priced star players, underachieving talent and new front-office demands? Scott Burnside looks at five hairy situations heading into the season.
No team has done less with more the past three seasons or so than the Buffalo Sabres. Indeed, it's more than a little mindboggling that an NHL team suddenly gets a dream owner like Terry Pegula (i.e., one who wants to win and is willing to spend to achieve that goal) after years of crippling frugality and somehow manages to regress. But that's what the Sabres have managed, and it isn't likely to get any better anytime soon as they begin the season with a handful of bloated contracts and two cornerstone players entering the final year of their respective contracts. What does GM Darcy Regier do with Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek? Well, the answer to that question will dictate the team's fortunes not just this season but for years to come. To say this is a seminal season for Regier, GM of the Sabres since 1997, and the franchise is an understatement. The team's missteps cost longtime coach Lindy Ruff his job last season, and it's hard to imagine another season outside the playoff dance wouldn't have the same repercussions for Regier. If the team, as most prognosticators believe, is not playoff-worthy and Regier cannot get either or both Vanek and Miller under contract, he will have no choice but to try to trade them by the March 5 deadline. The impact on teams in similar situations -- the Nashville Predators with Ryan Suter and the New Jersey Devils with Zach Parise -- is obvious. To keep assets, even if they might help a team get to the postseason and/or enjoy postseason success, and then have them walk away as free agents without receiving anything in return is counterintuitive to team-building in the salary-cap era. Regier has done a nice job in getting back good assets for other players looking to walk, such as Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, but Vanek and Miller are in many ways the face of the franchise and the pressure will be on to maximize their value. Unless, of course, we're all wrong and the Sabres somehow become a playoff contender. Either way, it promises to be a season of great emotion not to mention potentially great change in Buffalo.
Really, you can't make this stuff up: The Canucks and former Vezina Trophy finalist Roberto Luongo decided it would be best for all concerned if they parted ways after the 2012 playoffs when Los Angeles dusted Vancouver in five games in the first round. But with the lockout and a dearth of interest in the veteran netminder (and his whopper contract) the status quo was maintained. Then Luongo got the start in the playoffs last spring and was OK before being lifted in favor of Cory Schneider, who was terrible as the Canucks were swept in the first round by San Jose. Still unable to move Luongo, Gillis shockingly dealt Schneider at the draft to New Jersey for the ninth overall pick in the entry draft. So Luongo returns, a la Patrick Duffy in "Dallas" (Hey, it was just a dream, right?) for those old enough to remember the old prime-time soap opera. Meanwhile the Canucks throw Alain Vigneault under the coaching bus after two straight playoff flops, and he and former New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella end up switching spots amid speculation that the Tortorella hire is as much an ownership hire as it is a management hire. How will Tortorella, whose incendiary relationship with the media (and some of his players) became legendary in Manhattan, deal with life in the hockey fishbowl in Vancouver? Who knows, but there will be no shortage of drama on the Canadian coast this season as the Canucks try to prove the window has not closed on their Stanley Cup aspirations -- and that Luongo and Tortorella are the guys to keep that window open.
Although the Flyers' attempts to woo free-agent winger Dan Cleary to camp on a tryout basis didn't work out (Cleary signed a one-year deal with Detroit after initially agreeing to come to the Flyers' camp), it illustrates the mandate from ownership on down: Win and win now. You might as well add "or else" to that equation. After a disappointing 2013 season that was marred by injury, and ended with the Flyers missing the playoffs before buying out netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, there was significant discussion about whether owner Ed Snider would lower the boom on head coach Peter Laviolette and what GM Paul Holmgren's status might be moving forward. Laviolette returns -- as he should -- but the Flyers brought in favorite son Ron Hextall, who had built an impressive résumé as an assistant GM in Los Angeles, to fulfill a similar role with the Flyers. This adds another layer of intrigue to a franchise generally speaking awash in intrigue of one sort or another. Then take into account the ongoing goaltending conundrum: Can the tandem of Ray Emery and Steve Mason erase the stink of the failed Bryzgalov experiment? (Let's remember the decision to hand Bryzgalov that nine-year deal came from the owner's office as well.) And then consider the addition of veterans Mark Streit and Vincent Lecavalier, both of whom signed big contracts, and the angst meter already will be in the red in Philadelphia when the puck drops for real next week.
We found it refreshing talking to rookie head coach Dallas Eakins and his insistence that people stop referring to the Oilers as "the young Oilers," the implication being that it's time for this talent-laden team to grow up. Fair enough. That message has been consistent from the moment longtime Oiler player and coach Craig MacTavish took over as GM late last season. MacTavish promised change and hinted that top assets could and would be exchanged if it meant moving the team up the evolutionary ladder. The most significant offseason change was in hiring Eakins, but the Oilers are already dealing with injuries to top centers Ryan-Nugent Hopkins and Sam Gagner, both of whom will miss the start of the season, adding a level of urgency to an already urgent situation. The Oilers look to be in a dogfight to qualify for the playoffs having moved to the deep Pacific Division, and if the team struggles, there will be significant pressure on MacTavish to make good on his promise of not sitting idly by if the team's growth continues to be more neutral than drive. Either way this promises to be an interesting season for the
Everyone knows the storyline: The Jets are rescued from obscurity in Atlanta restoring hockey to its rightful place on the Canadian prairie. Yet the Thrasher DNA has been hard to eradicate, and the team in either jersey has yet to win a single playoff game and has qualified for the postseason just once in its history, including two years of disappointment in the jam-packed MTS Center in downtown Winnipeg. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has taken a conservative approach in trying to create a winning franchise. Fair enough. But having bestowed contract extensions on young players who have yet to prove they can be the catalysts to such winning is a risky proposition. Last year, boos were heard at various points during the season, which suggests the honeymoon is indeed over for the Jets. That's not a bad thing as players will tell you they want expectations to be high and want to be held accountable. And expectations are high for this team, which suggests ownership will be watching closely whether this master plan will gain traction. It better, as far as head coach Claude Noel and Cheveldayoff are concerned, especially given the fact few prognosticators think the Jets will end their playoff misery in the coming season.
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