As starts go, they couldn't have scripted it any better.
The Philadelphia Flyers, statistically the worst team in the NHL last season, went on the road to play the team that won more home games than anybody else a year ago (Calgary Flames) and squeezed out a 3-2 opening-night win, thanks to a late goal by the $52 million-dollar man, Daniel Briere. The Flyers got ahead early but were hanging on the ropes when they took advantage of a miscue/bad bounce to score the winner, Simon Gagne to Briere, who demonstrated again that he is one of the most opportunistic finishers in the league right now.
Just about everybody believes the Flyers can rebound from last year's disaster to some degree this season, as a result of an impressive overhaul orchestrated by general manager Paul Holmgren over the past six months.
Holmgren created what may be the new template for rebuilding in the salary-cap era: If you're going to be bad, it's better to be really, really bad - rather than forever try to hang around the cusp of the playoff race, never really getting good enough to compete for a championship, but never really getting bad enough to prevent your die-hard fans from praying for a miracle.
Now, employing a scorched-earth strategy generally comes with a price - and last year, two men (coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Bobby Clarke) paid the price in Philly. After a 1-6-1 start, the Flyers fired Hitchcock while Clarke resigned, citing burnout. John Stevens was promoted from the minors to run the team; Holmgren received the manager's post on an interim basis, or until it quickly became clear that he had the smarts and the vision to handle the job on a full-time basis.
Holmgren's greatest achievement was not being afraid to fail in a splashy, eye-catching way. There was nothing to salvage about last year's Flyers anyway, and so sentiment did not enter into any of his decisions. Even though Peter Forsberg wanted to stay, he was traded him away. Even though Joni Pitkanen was the sort of young highly drafted player that teams are loath to part with, they moved him anyway. Anybody looking for an asset to help for the stretch run found a willing listener in Holmgren, which is how he came to land Braydon Coburn, a 6-foot-5 defenceman from the Atlanta Thrashers organization (and the second rearguard taken in the 2003 entry draft, just behind Ryan Suter and just ahead of Dion Phaneuf) in exchange for Alexei Zhitnik. Coburn is 22, with a big upside (he's playing at the moment with 6-4 Derian Hatcher on the Flyers' No. 1 shutdown defence pair). Zhitnik is 35 and nearing the end of the line.
The net result was that Holmgren opened up some salary-cap space for his team, stockpiled other attractive young assets (Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent) and then aggressively began the process of making the Flyers better, even before the free-agency window opened on July 1.
Consider for example that he parted with only a second-round draft choice to land goaltender Martin Biron from the Buffalo Sabres. It seemed like an odd deal at the time because Biron was destined to become an unrestricted free agent in a few months anyway. But by bringing in Biron for 16 appearances, they got the inside track on signing him and received an up-close-and-personal chance to evaluate whether he had the right stuff to be a No. 1 goaltender, at a fairly modest price.
Compare that to what the Toronto Maple Leafs surrendered the past two seasons to land, first Andrew Raycroft (giving up top Finnish prospect Tuuka Rask, a former first-rounder) and then Vesa Toskala (first- second- and fourth-round draft choices to the San Jose Sharks). Do either Raycroft or Toskala represent significantly better net-minding options than Biron at the moment? Probably not.
None are in the absolute first tier of NHL goaltenders; all can get the job done. The only real difference is that Philadelphia's acquisition costs were significantly lower. Biron's presence on their roster (plus a big pile of cash) helped them lure Briere, a former Sabres' teammate and close friend, to the City of Brotherly Love. Briere, Kimmo Timmonen and Jason Smith — all newcomers to the Flyers this season — captained the Sabres, Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers last season, meaning the Flyers also upgraded their leadership quotient at the same time as they improved their on-ice personnel.
The Flyers took their lumps in the short term by plunging to the bottom of the NHL standings — something that also gave them a chance to draft James vanRiemsdyk second overall in June's entry draft — and have reversed field nicely. Their opening-night roster featured five former first-round picks age 25 or under (Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Joffrey Lupul, Scott Hartnell and Coburn), plus two others on injured reserve (Upshall and R.J. Umberger), not to mention blue-chippers vanRiesmsdyk and Parent, plus the love-him-or-hate-him pest Steve Downie.
Sadly, the Leafs fall into the other category — of a team that perennially tries so hard to compete in the here-and-now that they are forever caught in between, with never enough assets to legitimately challenge for a championship, but never really bad enough to draft blue-chip youngsters or bold enough to trade "untouchable" core players. What if, the year the Leafs were destined to miss the playoffs coming out of the lockout, they'd moved — among other assets - Bryan McCabe, Mats Sundin and Ed Belfour at the deadline? Could they have gotten a Zhitnik-like package for McCabe (remember, he didn't sign that five-year contract extension until June of 2006; so he wasn't considered an overprice property at that time). Could they have gotten a Peter Forsberg-like package for Mats Sundin? And could Belfour, who was in the midst of his last good season for the Leafs, have produced something akin to what the Minnesota Wild received from Edmonton for Dwayne Roloson.
Naturally, we'll never know now. But if the Leafs had conducted a player purge in the spring of 2006, they would have been in a position to land Chris Pronger out of Edmonton (provided Mrs. Pronger gave the thumbs-up to a move to Toronto). They would have had the extra salary-cap room to wade into the free-agent market (instead of tying up all those dollars in McCabe). And if Pronger had landed there, they probably wouldn't have needed to overpay Pavel Kubina either. In short, it would be a far different look in Leaf-land which, given the current state of organization, probably wouldn't be such a bad thing.
The Flyers aren't all the way back by any means, but there's a palpable sense of excitement around the team, brought on in equal parts by fresh blood, an aggressive management team, and a deep-seated conviction that extended mediocrity is perhaps the worst sin that a team can visit on its fan base — and that it is far better off to hit rock bottom and then yo-yo up again as opposed to flat-lining somewhere in the middle.
The Boston Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont used to describe the Hartford Whalers that way before they moved to Carolina. He called them 'the forever .500s' — a team destined to get just so good, but never any better, making the playoffs six years in a row and bowing out in the first round every time. All that changed, when the franchise shifted south. Now, the Hurricanes are the poster boys for wild dizzying swings in the standings: three years out of the playoffs along with two trips to the Stanley Cup final and one championship over the past five seasons. Probably just about anyone who supports the Leafs would consider that crazy up-and-down pattern as a trade-off well worth accepting if it actually put an end to that 40-year Stanley Cup drought.
JUST DUCKY: Put the Anaheim Ducks in the same boat as Carolina.
They've missed the playoffs in four of the past seven years, but in the other three, qualified for the Stanley Cup final twice (winning last year) and the conference final the other year. Carolina lost its opener to the Montreal Canadiens, a team they play three times in the first month and with whom they've developed something of a rivalry.
The Ducks, if they split their next two, have a chance to survive a tough early season schedule at .500 - five points in five games, which they'd take, given their injuries (to J.S. Giguere, Mathieu Schneider and Sami Pahlsson), defections (Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne still in limbo) and the fact that they opened the season in Europe and then returned to provide the opposition for Detroit, Columbus and Pittsburgh in their respective home openers.
The Kings, who opened the season in London, England against the Ducks last weekend, opted to go a different scheduling route. They took a week off to re-acclimate to the Pacific time-zone before their home opener Saturday against visiting St. Louis, meaning Kings rookie forward Brady Murray will play his third-ever NHL game against his dad, Andy Murray, who happens to be the Blues' coach.
Andy Murray is the all-time Kings coaching wins leader and was their coach when the Kings drafted Brady 152nd overall back 2003. This will mark the fourth time in league history that a father coached a game against his son: The others: Bob Johnson, Calgary, vs. Mark Johnson, Hartford (first meeting was Oct. 21, 1982); Bill Dineen, Philadelphia, vs. Gord Dineen, Ottawa (Feb. 9, 1993) and Rick Wilson, Dallas, vs. Landon Wilson, Phoenix (Feb. 26, 2002).
THE JASON SPEZZA WATCH: The contract the Ottawa Senators gave Dany Heatley this past week was for a few dollars more and one year longer in term than the one the Flames signed Jarome Iginla to earlier in the summer. Heatley received a $7.5 million average over six years (front-loaded so that he'll earn $10 million in the first season), while Iginla took $7 million over five years. Both were eligible to become unrestricted free agents next summer and would have been interesting comparables had they hit the open market together.
Heatley is the more accomplished sniper; Iginla a far more complete player. Both have led their teams to one Stanley Cup final appearance, but have yet to win a championship. The fact that Iginla cumulatively outscored Heatley over the past three seasons (234 points to 233) was mostly because Heatley played 38 fewer games in that span. Iginla is 30, Heatley 26 — and while Iginla is clearly the top forward on Calgary, Heatley gets competition from both Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson for that designation in Ottawa.
With Heatley in the fold, attention will now turn to signing the 24-year-old Spezza to a long-term contract as well. Spezza becomes a restricted free agent next summer, with a chance to become unrestricted in July, 2009, if he and the Senators cannot hammer out a long-term deal.
Of course, things could get interesting far sooner than that. This past summer, the Edmonton Oilers' Kevin Lowe broke a long-standing gentlemen's agreement among NHL general managers and signed two prominent young players — Tomas Vanek of Buffalo and Dustin Penner of Anaheim — to offer sheets as restricted free agents. The Sabres matched the Oilers' offer to retain Vanek's rights; while the Ducks let Penner go — and started a cold war between the respective managers, Lowe and Brian Burke, that shows no signs of abating.
If Vanek can command a $50 million offer sheet, what might some team (say Toronto?) be prepared to pay Spezza who, on a points-per-game basis over the past two seasons, is one of the league's absolutely elite stars? It could set a post-lockout record — and it's something the Senators clearly need to ponder as they develop their long-term payroll strategy (and almost certainly means that Wade Redden's future in the nation's capital is coming to an end), unless he is willing to take a significant pay cut to stay on.
Redden showed his commitment to the cause by dropping the gloves twice in the opener against the Maple Leafs, something that sent a signal to the dressing room, if nowhere else. But the reality is, Redden's two-year, $13 million contract, signed two summers ago, is now far more than the Senators can afford to pay, given their other contractual commitments, present and future.
THE EVER QUOTABLE JACQUES MARTIN: As part of their season-opening coverage, just about every newspaper does the standard predictions and/or question-and-answer sessions with the home team's managers and key personnel. And so it was that the Miami Herald posed a question to Florida Panthers' general manager (and ex-Ottawa coach) Jacques Martin on the eve of their opener against the New York Rangers: "True or false — the Roberto Luongo trade is the worst trade in the history of your sport?" Martin, according to the paper, replied "True."
A day later, team captain Olli Jokinen was asked to weigh in on the deal a day later to the rival Sun-Sentimental newspaper, and agreed — to a point. "Probably, as far as this franchise, yes," answered Jokinen. "It was shocking. It was a bad move."
Of course, purists with longer memories than Martin might offer up the Nov. 7, 1975 deal between Boston and Chicago that saw Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield join the Bruins for Pit Martin, Jack Norris and Gilles Marotte as the most decidedly one-sided trade ever. And Leaf fans of a more recent vintage could probably state the case for the Toronto-Calgary 10-player deal that effectively saw Doug Gilmour swapped for Gary Leeman.
The Panthers were supposed to have solved their goaltending issues with the off-season acquisition of Tomas Vokoun. On the second night of the season, when six of the seven games on the schedule featuring five goals or fewer, the Rangers lit up Vokoun for five goals, including four in fewer than seven minutes in the third period, in a 5-2 New York win. Wonder if Vokoun was reading the local papers on line that day?
--- Luongo, by the way, makes his first regular-season appearance against Mike Keenan, the man who traded him out of Florida, for Vancouver against Calgary Saturday night
--- The Avalanche started goaltender Peter Budaj on back-to-back nights, in part because Jose Theodore was recovering from knee surgery and not ready to play yet. The Avs assigned Theodore to their minor-league affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, to get a game under his belt before returning to the team Sunday.
Even though the Avs have steadfastly advised just to leave Theodore in the minors (thus striking his $6 million salary from their payroll), they appear to be content to let him be a high-priced back-up this year. According to GM Francois Giguere, Theodore "is in the final stages of his rehabilitation work and both our hockey staff and he agreed that actual game action would be the way to complete this process."
SWIMMING WITH SHARKS: The San Jose Sharks' new season got off to a rocky start with that shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers Thursday night — and probably brought back lots of bad memories of how they frittered away their 2006 playoff hopes in the same arena, blowing a 2-0 lead in a series they should have won going away.
Curiously, their recent pattern of failure is one reason why so many pre-season prognosticators like the Sharks to finally shed their image as playoff also-rans this spring. The Sharks had the Detroit Red Wings on the ropes last spring as well, only to let them off the hook, something that Joe Thornton says will provide them with gobs of motivation this season.
In an era with no real clear-cut powerhouses on the NHL horizon, motivation can sometimes be the single most important factor in winning or losing at crunch time. For reasons that even they have a hard time explaining, teams that win a Stanley Cup one year often have trouble finding the same motivation the next year. They're just not as hungry. By contrast, teams that lose a playoff series they think they were good enough to win often find they have motivation in large quantities the next year.
How hard was it for the Sharks to come so close two years in a row and then to let a series slip through their fingers?
"Real hard," answered Thornton. "That's why most of us re-signed for the number of years that we did — because we believe in these guys and we really do believe we have a chance to win the Stanley Cup this year, next year, the year and the year after that — the next four years. That's why I signed for another three years, why Patty (Marleau) signed for two more, Milan (Michalek), (Craig) Rivet. We feel like we're right there and we just need to put it all together this year."
Two years ago, Thornton led the league in scoring while linemate Jonathan Cheechoo led in goals. Cheechoo's numbers fell off last year, partly because he was playing with two hernias at the end of the season that required summer surgery. He also needed time to recover from a knee injury suffered in the opening round against Nashville (on a Scott Hartnell hit) that limited his effectiveness. Thornton, meanwhile, played all year with a bad toe and still managed to give Sidney Crosby a run for the scoring title. In the past three seasons, Thornton is the NHL's overall scoring leader — and it isn't even close. He's had 312 points in that span; the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr is next at 293.
"He feels healthy and I feel healthy," said Thornton. "Last year, he (Cheechoo) got 39 goals. That's a successful year, but everybody was expecting him to get 50 again. I think anywhere from 40 to 50 is a successful year for him."
Cheechoo's operation limited his movement and effectively stopped him from training for six weeks, which left his conditioning a little behind when training camps opened.
"You can't do much," he said. "It takes a while for it to heal, every time they cut you open. And you kind of need your core to do everything. It's not like you can work on something else, while you're waiting for that to heal."
The presence of 37-year-old Jeremy Roenick on the roster masks the fact that the Sharks are one of the youngest teams in the league. But not too young, said Thornton.
"You can just see the maturity in our young defencemen and some of our young forwards," said Thornton. "When I was 22, the year you turn 23, that makes a huge difference mentally and physically. You get more confidence. Everybody on this team is going through that together, which is fun. You can just see the improvements within everybody's game. Everybody works so hard. Hopefully, it'll pay off this year."
AND FINALLY: If Peter Forsberg returns to play in the NHL this season, which is looking increasingly likely with every passing day, the thinking is that Colorado would be his first choice. Forsberg wants to play in a comfortable environment and have a chance to win again. The Avs would provide him with that opportunity (he played their most of his career), as would Philadelphia (last year's club), Detroit (with its heavy concentration of Swedes) and Vancouver (see Detroit). Forsberg is skating again back home with MoDo, his former team in the Elitserien.