Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On free agency

The objects of most every defense-desperate GM's eyes,
both Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff appear to be out of
the NHL free agency derby before the July 1 opening day.
I'll admit it - when it comes to this offseason "hot stove" activity like the draft and free agency, I'm largely a passive guy.

In the case of the draft, it's for two reasons: 1) I've never seen 99% of those kids play, so I don't know who's REALLY any good (at least in my estimation). 2) I just can't muster the necessary enthusiasm for kids that I won't see on NHL ice for - what? - 3 years, if at all.

Free agency is a similar beast to me.  The National Hockey League is so big, with such a huge schedule, that there's no way a guy who's only followed the sport closely for roughly 3-4 years can judge other teams' talent with any accuracy.

Oh yeah, then there's the whole "lock 'em up before free agency opens" thing, which takes players that fans drool over for months off the table before the free agency signing period starts.  So why spike the blood pressure for guys your team won't have a chance to get (outside of trades, granted)?

Nope, I'll sit back, toss out the occasional goofy comment on Twitter and see what actually comes the CBJ's way.  It's not like general manager Scott Howson and the CBJ fanbase are on different pages.  With center Jeff Carter now safely (and, perhaps more important, comfortably) in the fold, all eyes turn to the blue line.  (However, with 2010-11 scoring as anemic as it was, I wouldn't mind another quality forward or two - of the type that actually can get pucks past goalies.)

Arguably, the top two defensive free agents were from Vancouver, Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff.  The 'nucks went and re-signed Bieksa (my sympathies, Gallos) and, when they couldn't get Ehrhoff done, traded his rights over to the Islanders - who are certain to open the vault to sign a player of his caliber.  That's not to say that Ehrhoff is a guaranteed Islander next season; he may laugh at Mr. Wong's piles of cash and go sign somewhere else in July.  But the Islanders have first shot.

(Funny side note about the Ehrhoff trade: The 'nucks strategy was to trade his rights to the Eastern Conference so as to avoid strengthening intra-conference competition.  It was also to screw up the plans of Detroit Red Wings, who apparently are ready to pounce on the guy and sell him on The Winged Wheel.  Not a bad strategy, but it could have been even better if trade was with Columbus.  Our team is in the same division as Detroit, we're of no substantial challenge to Vancouver this season, and it's sure looking like we're headed to the Eastern Conference in 2012-2013.  So why not poke Detroit in the eye with little long-term repercussions?  But that's me.)

Who would've thought that circumstances in this year's free agent market
would make guys like Jan Hejda into prized players?  (Good for you, Jan!)
Those two players are just two examples.  Other potential free agents are getting locked up (or locked down?) early, just as Scott Howson did a few summers ago with Rick Nash - in the process crushing the hopes and dreams of so many myopic Toronto fans.

Lastly, there's the salary cap.  When the NHLPA flipped the switch on the trigger to boost the cap to $64.5 million, that opened up the market for a whole host of alluring, once-cap constrained teams to jump into free agency this offseason.  Then note that the salary "cap" floor also rose, forcing cheapskate teams to go out and do insane things like trade for OK defensemen who make Nash-like money.  Mark my words: The increased salary cap (and floor) will turn this offseason into a food fight, and salaries will inflate - often unpredictably - as a result.  (Looks like you'll get the last laugh with Columbus, Jan Hejda.)

It's stuff like this makes me simply say, "Show me what you've got when training camp opens."  We know we need significant defensive help in Columbus.  We need additional veteran goalie talent to augment/mentor/challenge Steve Mason.  Howson knows it, too.  I'm content to sit back and see what he does.  He's a bight guy and appears to have some cash to play with.  The Carter fiasco turned into a nice P.R. win for the Blue Jackets, demonstrating to prospective signees that Columbus might not have the history or the track record, but they have the personal touch and commitment to the people that they want.  That's enough for me.

In light of all this, let's just pray that if he has to bring Anton Stralman back, it's on the cheap.

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