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No change - For the better?
Lack of movement may bite the Sharks
8/30/05 - by Ken Smyth

The great NHL free-agent chase has wound down. The Blackhawks and Flyers will be disappointing their fans again but with almost entirely new rosters, the Ducks picked up Teemu Selanne to look like they're serious about playing hockey and Paul Kariya signed with Nashville to look like he's not. Wayne Gretzky is finally going to be behind the bench in Phoenix and Vincent Damphousse is looking for a space on one, someplace. So what's going on in San Jose?

At a glance it looks like the most serious move the Sharks' made was a dramatic redesign of the popcorn boxes. Like about a third of the NHL, the Sharks are sorting and signing their own guys before chasing anybody new (Tom Cavanagh really doesn't count since he was a Sharks' draft pick). Unrestricted free agent Mike Rathje was allowed to leave for a fat deal, as fat deals are now defined, in Philadelphia; joining Derian Hatcher on the Flyers' blueline. Wayne Primeau, also unrestricted, was signed along with restricted free agents Tom Preissing, Nils Ekman, Niko Dimitrakos, Jim Fahey, Patrick Marleau, Scott Parker, Brad Stuart and Marco Sturm and Rob Davison. The only loose end is whether Alex Korolyuk will decide to play in Russia or the NHL.

There's some basic wisdom here- get the core of the team settled and then see how much cap room is left before you start tossing money around. What's the use of burning cap space to get an All-star level winger if you can't afford much of a team around him? (Except where you want to get the fans psyched up to sell some tickets- hello Nashville!) A lot of players' value on the ice will depend on how the rules changes end up affecting the game; if things truly open up back to the 5-3 scores of the early 1990's, the Sharks will do all right. If things simply devolve to clutching and grabbing for three periods while we use a shoot-out to break a 2-2 tie, in other words MLS soccer on ice; the NHL might as well close off the second level of most arenas.

The surprise big winners so far are teams picking up older players. If you ignore Kariya's two-year, $9 million deal with Nashville as a publicity stunt, there are a lot of guys over-30 working cheap this season. Selanne went to the Ducks for $1 million, Phoenix picked up Curtis Joseph for $900K (after the Red Wings decided that Manny Legace could handle their nets and stay healthy with Chris Osgood backing him up and maybe taking his old job back) Both Teemu and Cujo have a couple good years left, and likely would make about $2 or $3 million under the old arrangement. True, there are probably some incentives buried in those deals, but the base is pushed way down compared to two years ago.

Also, the little escape clause in the salary cap rules that allows cap relief if a high-salaried player suffers an injury, in a perverse way, can stretch the careers of some guys who you'd think would be hanging them up. Eric Lindros, who just signed with Toronto, is a good example. If he bangs his head again, the Leafs are free of the contract. If he's productive and stays healthy the Leafs look smart, which doesn't happen that often. But watch out in the shower, Eric: somebody on the staff may "accidentally" dump five gallons of shampoo on the floor if you have a few bad games in a row. That escape clause can be painful.

So long to the Rat- You probably know by now (especially if you read the second paragraph) that unrestricted free-agent defenseman Mike Rathje signed with Philadelphia, a five-year deal worth a sweet $17.5 million dollars. (Don't worry, he's not taking Tres Gringos' with him, you can still get a drink on 2nd Street after the show at the Improv). That's a really weird place to go for a guy who didn't like being booed by the home fans, sort of like complaining about the hot summers in San Jose and then moving to Phoenix.

When you also consider that Rathje's lifetime NHL fight total is what a proper Flyer legend would rack up in a week of bar-hopping, this doesn't look like a good fit. Still, Rathje will be well suited to coach Ken Hitchcock's cogwheels-in-a-clock style of game, and the cushy travel schedule of the Atlantic Division could add a year or two to his career. If nothing else, he can do a good job blocking the referees' view of Hatcher (or for that matter, Peter Forsberg) mugging somebody.

Big Deal of the Month-so-far: Ottawa sends Marion Hossa and Greg deVries to Atlanta for Dany Heatley??- Heatley needs a new start and Ottawa wanted out from Hossa's contract as soon as he signed it. This looks like an NBA deal, almost; with salary cap requirements dictating a player move that wouldn't happen otherwise. If Heatley comes around this could look like another steal by the Senators- (Yes, lets leave the political jokes to the professionals who nominate them!)

Vast Center-Ice Conspiracy Theory number 78- . I'm still pissed that the Sharks won't play the Penguins this season. Now consider that the Pacific Division has no Canadian or "original six" teams. Could that be why we're not playing the Atlantic Division at all this coming season? Before you laugh this off completely, recall that this will be highly-touted rookie Sidney Crosby's first year playing with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and probably Mario Lemieux's last. Another NHL snub for us stupid Californians, eh?

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