Checking in on the Northwest

The biggest free agent signing in August talks to the player who has the best chance to cost an NHL GM his job.

Halfway through July I looked at what each of the four other teams in the Northwest division had done since the start of free agency. One month later, each team has made at least one more move in an attempt to improve the team (whether for the present or the future). The Calgary Flames have done the most to improve, most notably this weekend when they signed Scott Hannan, but after the jump, I'll take a look at the new moves each team made and talk about how those moves may have changed my outlook for each club heading into the 2011-12 season.

Calgary Flames:

What I said in JulyThe Flames aren't much better now than they were when free agency started. Babchuk and Butler fill the holes on defense, and they'll probably be fine, but they aren't likely to provide much in the way of surplus value, and the Flames defense still looks worse now than it did at the start of 2009-10. In my last post on the Flames, I talked about the team being at a crossroads: not good enough to win now, not enough good young talent to have much hope that the team is getting better, not much in the way of prospects, and not bad enough to tear the thing down and focus on the future.... Now, this team is good enough to be considered a bubble team, so they may well make the playoffs, but if your goal is to make the playoffs, you probably shouldn't be intentionally leaving some spots open on the big-league roster for unproven talent. It's just not very smart. This off-season has done nothing to change my overall impression of this club: they're on the slow boat to the elevator shaft.

What have they done since then?

Signed D Brendan Mikkelson to a one-year contract with an NHL cap hit of $721,875 - When Mikkelson was signed, it looked like he would have a pretty good chance at earning a spot as the seventh defenseman on the roster, which is a pretty good spot for a guy who's played at least twenty NHL games in each of the last three seasons. With Calgary's subsequent moves, it now looks more like he's battling with a mix of youngsters and veterans slated for Abbotsford to be the first call-up when injuries hit, assuming he clears waivers to start the year (Calgary picked him off the waiver wire at the beginning of last season). That makes this a very good depth signing for Calgary.

Signed F Brendan Morrison to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $1,250,000 - Morrison obviously learned from his experience last off-season. After a pretty good season with Washington in 2009-10 (he scored 42 points in 74 games), Morrison waited and waited, but a contract never came. He ended up going to the Canucks' training camp without a contract, and even though he didn't get a job with them, he showed enough in the pre-season to get a deal from the Flames. It's safe to say he beat expectations. With 29 even strength points (and 44 overall) in 66 games, Morrison had a very good offensive season playing consistently in Calgary's top nine forwards. Yeah, he rode the percentages last year, but he also had the toughest end-zone start ratio among the club's forwards (still over 50%), which should help to explain his relatively poor Corsi numbers (although they were still just marginally below even). With Daymond Langkow coming back, Morrison will be in tough to make the top nine to start the year - by my count there are eleven players who could be there. That's a very good thing for Calgary.

Signed F Max Reinhart to a three-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $640,000 - Max Reinhart was selected with Calgary's first pick in the 2010 draft, 64th overall, and he seems to be on track with what you'd expect from a guy taken that deep in the draft. The numbers weren't great in his draft year, but he took a big step forward in 2010-11, scoring 79 points in 71 regular season games to lead the Kootenay Ice in scoring. He followed that with 27 points in 19 playoff games as the Ice rolled to the WHL Championship. His +30 rating (second-best on the club), and scouting reports both also suggest that he plays a good two-way game, so we're not talking about a guy who's all offense. He clearly deserved the entry-level deal, and the opportunity to establish himself at the AHL level.

Signed D Scott Hannan to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $1,000,000 - This is obviously a great deal. Scott Hannan may not be as good of a bet as Robyn Regehr, but he's a much better bet than Cory Sarich who gets pushed down to the third pairing with Hannan's addition. Hannan had an up-and-down year with the Avalanche and Capitals in 2010-11, but he was far from bad, is only thirty-two years old, and was quite good for the Avalanche as a shut-down defenseman in 2009-10. Presumably, that's the role he'll get with the Flames. The defense still isn't as good as it was to start the year last season, but the addition of Hannan makes it a whole lot closer.

So how does it look?

I'm still bearish on the Flames' future, but the additions of Morrison and Hannan will help this team to be better in the here and now. The club isn't at the level of the best teams in the Western Conference (which I have as Chicago, Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver, and maybe Los Angeles), but these moves give them more solid footing near the top of the second tier of teams. They're still a bubble team, but especially with the weakness of the rest of the teams in the Northwest division (Vancouver obviously excepted), I'd be a little surprised if this team misses the playoffs. 

 

Colorado Avalanche:

What I said in July: I can't really see the Avalanche burying a contract in the minors, so this might just be it, and looking it over, there's just no way that I can see this club making the playoffs unless everything breaks right for them. In fact, it seems to me that the lottery is more likely than the playoffs. The top forwards are obviously good players, but they're not any better than what everyone else has in the West, and some teams are a lot better. The middle six forwards look like they'll probably get beat up, especially since the top four defense is just adequate at best. The depth guys on "D" won't kill them, but this team will likely be doing a lot of penalty-killing because of the emphasis on physicality on defense. The goaltending has a chance to be very good, and that might be enough to save them. But only maybe. Yeah... I'll be surprised if Greg Sherman still has the GM job by this time next year. 

What have they done since then?

Signed F Evan Brophey to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $525,000 - Brophey is a depth player at the AHL level, so I was somewhat surprised to see his minor league salary get bumped up to $105,000. Nine of Rockford's forwards had more points than Brophey's 19 last season and his even +/- rating was decidedly middling. He did get one game with the Blackhawks, so he must have some checking ability, but I doubt Brophey sees any NHL action this season.

Signed F Gabriel Landeskog to a three-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $3,575,000 - I thought that Landeskog was overrated at this year's draft because he didn't seem to have the same offensive upside as some of the other prospects, but he does seem ready to step in and play. The Avalanche fast-tracked Matt Duchene and Ryan O`Reilly in the recent past, so it seems likely to me that Landeskog will get the same treatment. I don't think Colorado will want to bury a contract in the minors, so that means one of the men under contract will need to start the year on injured reserve, or the Avalanche will need to make a trade. With T.J. Galiardi (expected to be back by the start of camp, but you never know) and Peter Mueller (haven't heard, but he missed all of 2010-11 with a concussion) still recovering from injuries, I'd bet on one of them (or someone else) starting on injured reserve to make room.

Signed D Duncan Siemens to a three-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $1,350,000 - Siemens was Colorado's second first rounder in 2011, but he doesn't have much chance at earning a job in this year's camp. To start with, there are seven guys with one-way deals, plus Kyle Cumiskey still to sign (who really should have gone with arbitration), so there really isn't room. And that's a good thing because he's not ready. His effectiveness in junior hockey comes from his skating and his ability to use his size and strength, and at 6'3'' and 196 lbs. (as of this year's combine), and (at least) the last two advantages won't exist for him at the NHL level. Further, there are some questions about his ability to make good decisions with the puck, and when that comes across with a guy in junior, it's a tell that he's not ready for the NHL. Anyroad, Siemens is a quality prospect, and it's good for Colorado to get him under contract early (paying out his signing bonuses without paying out his salary will lower his cap hit in the future), but he's not going to be a factor at the NHL level in 2011-12.

So how does it look?

They were definitely done, and it still looks just as bad as it did a month ago. The Avalanche have some good young players, but trading away this year's first round pick and finishing in the NHL's bottom ten is going to be painful, especially if Semyon Varlamov spends significant time out of the lineup due to injury. On the bright side, when the Oilers had no first round pick, the fan experience was much better. There was no hint of tanking, and there was never any inner conflict about a late-season win. It was all so liberating! Because of that, even if the doom-and-gloom projection above comes to pass - and Avalanche fans curse Greg Sherman's name - I think it will still be a fun year to be a fan watching your favorite team's young players grow.  

 

Minnesota Wild:

What I said in JulyIn the end, if this is summer is the start of a conscious rebuild, I think that the Wild have done very well for themselves by acquiring significant young assets for Brent Burns, moving around at the draft to get the prospects they liked, lowering their risk by moving Martin Havlat to San Jose, staying out of the UFA market, and getting themselves in position to stay under the midpoint. He's managed to do all of that and still get a "name" player in Heatley and without talking about rebuilding, both of which are helpful in selling tickets. The Wild probably won't be a very good team next season, but all in all, I'm quite impressed with what Chuck Fletcher has accomplished this summer after being pretty down on his performance for the majority of his tenure. 

What have they done since then?

Traded F James Sheppard to the San Jose Sharks and received San Jose's 3rd round pick in 2013 - The Wild have just twelve one-way contracts on the roster, so it's not like there was no room for Sheppard on the roster, and you'd think that a twenty-two year-old who was taken with a top ten pick in 2006 would be just the kind of guy this team might hold on to. But Sheppard missed all of 2010-11 after crashing his ATV, and has now had a couple of knee surgeries. Before that, he'd struggled mightily at the NHL level with just six points and a -14 rating in 64 games during the 2009-10 season. He was put in some pretty rough waters that year, and had some bad luck too, but I can certainly see why the Wild decided patience wasn't a virtue in this instance, and that it was time to get something for the player while it was still possible to do so.

So how does it look?

Whether or not James Sheppard is on the roster doesn't materially impact my view of the team, so I'm still pretty sure that they're going to be bad. Still, the trade inspired this excellent Earl Sleek cartoon, so there's one obvious plus to their work in the last month.   

 

Vancouver Canucks:

What I said in JulyI think that teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, and Chicago have all improved since last season, but Mike Gillis has done an excellent job making sure that Vancouver comes in with all of the high-end players and most of the depth that they had in 2010-11. Most of these players are in their prime, and the Canucks still have plenty of room to add another significant piece either before or during the season. As such, I think that the Canucks should probably be favored to win the Western Conference at this time. But let's not dwell on it.

What have they done since then?

Signed F Byron Bitz to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $700,000 - Bitz spent all of 2010-11 on Florida's injured reserve with a sports hernia, so it's not too surprising that he wasn't able to get a one-way deal. Still, in the two seasons before that Bitz played a combined 87 games in a fourth line role, and played in five of Boston's six playoff games in 2008-09. He doesn't score much, but he's 6'5'' and likes to hit, which fits Alain Vigneault's fourth line modus operandi almost perfectly (it'd be nice if he had some experience on an NHL PK). The Canucks will no doubt have a very competitive training camp, but with guys like Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler potentially starting the year on injured reserve, I think Bitz has a pretty good chance to start the year in the NHL.

Signed F Jannik Hansen to a three-year contract with a cap hit of $1,350,000 - This deal buys one of Hansen's unrestricted free agent seasons, which makes a contract that already looks like pretty good value even better. Hansen isn't a world-beater, but he spent most of last year on a very effective third line (with Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres) that started in the defensive zone as much as any line in the league in order to provide cover for the Sedins and allow Ryan Kesler to play some more offensive minutes. Despite the harsh circumstances, Hansen posted both a positive Corsi rating and a more-than-solid five-on-five +/- rating of +13. He didn't score a tonne, but it is worth noting that 28 of his 29 regular season points came at even strength (with one coming short-handed). He's obviously not a superstar, but Hansen should provide great value on that (smartly front-loaded) contract.

So how does it look?

In addition to these two, the Canucks have also extended training camp invites to Owen Nolan and Todd Fedoruk so as I mentioned earlier, training camp should be very competitive, especially since several lower level jobs will be up for grabs (Mike Gillis isn't afraid to send one-way contracts to the minors). Still, I think I may have been overrating the Canucks a little bit in my previous post. They were the best team in the league last season, but in the two years before that they weren't close to as good. I know there have been plenty of changes since then, and that the team has grown, but I think they properly belong in a group of favorites to be the best team in the Conference, rather than the one clear favorite. Still, the Canucks are a very good team, and are the one clear favorite to win the Northwest division.

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