Fluto Shinzawa | Hockey notes

Pucks move, bucks follow

Transition defensemen will skate off with cash

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / June 8, 2008

A message to the parents of NHL wannabes: Make sure your kid can skate, has good vision, and can retrieve pucks and get them out of the defensive zone faster than you can say "Brian Rafalski."

The market, for years to come, will be welcoming to puck-moving defensemen.

"First of all, he's a good skater, so I think he can get there first a lot," Detroit defenseman Brett Lebda said of Rafalski, considered one of the NHL's finest at the art of puck movement. "I'm a guy like him - smaller in stature but I can skate.

"I try and take a lot from him. He's just so smart. Without even taking a look over his shoulder, he knows where the guy is already before he even makes the turn. He goes back and makes that first pass better than probably any defenseman in the league.

"It's all hockey sense."

As is the case every year, hockey watchers dissect the most recent Stanley Cup winner, hoping to find the secret to hoisting the athletic world's biggest prize. And given the dominance Detroit displayed at times during the six games of the finals, mobile back-end puck-rushers will be sought after this offseason - and in future summers.

Puck-movers like Rafalski, Lebda, and Niklas Kronwall turn defense to offense. They keep pucks in their team's possession instead of rimming them out or flipping them into the offensive zone. They get help from their forwards, who are savvy enough to skate efficient routes and be in the right position for pucks coming out of their zone.

"That's how our team is set up and that's what we thrive on," said Lebda. "The faster we can get back to pucks, the more we're going to have success through the neutral zone."

Because of the rule tweaks in the post-lockout NHL that don't allow you to slow down onrushing forwards, it's been easier to find Nemo than to identify defensemen with the skills and courage to fish out pucks in the teeth of no-holds-barred forechecks, while also having the hockey sense to kick off the transition.

With such commodities so few, coaches have had to devise other systems, with the most popular being working the hinge. When one defenseman carries the puck, his partner drops behind at a 45-degree angle, acting as a safety valve for a drop-back pass when the forecheck becomes too heavy. Hinging opens up options, but it also sends the puck away from the attacking zone, something the go-go Wings aren't taught to do.

"Me? I love the hinge," Lebda said. "But when you start hinging a lot, going back and forth to your D-partner, it sets their forecheck up a lot.

"Every team in the league plays a 1-2-2. It's a trap. If you go back and forth, it just gives them time to set up. Then you have to skate through five guys. If we have a play, we want to go right up with it and catch a team as fast as we can.

"We're a transition team. We skate. That's what we do. The faster we can get up and get on the offense, it's better for us."

Not every team has been as successful as the Wings in spotting and acquiring such talent, which is why open checkbooks will be the norm when puck-moving defensemen hit the market. Brian Campbell, acquired by San Jose from Buffalo at the trade deadline, can ask for $7.5 million annually and most likely will get his wish. Lesser talents such as John-Michael Liles and Ron Hainsey could earn $5 million per year.

"Scarcity," said Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli. "And that comes about because of the way the game has gone. Scarcity, style of game, and market. I can't explain the market, maybe other than it's a byproduct of the scarcity. It's been a big jump in compensation levels."

Just look at the Bruins. Dennis Wideman is the best puck-mover of their bunch, and the conversation for re-signing the restricted free agent starts at an annual $3 million, even though the 25-year-old has had only one solid NHL season.

Wideman can command his price because the market already has been set by signings such as the following: Minnesota's Brent Burns ($3.55 million annually), Chicago's Brent Seabrook ($3.5 million), and Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien ($3 million), all players with short periods of effective big-league service.

Other RFA defensemen include Ottawa's Andrej Meszaros, Nashville's Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, and Philadelphia's Randy Jones.

But the kingpin of the market is Washington's Mike Green, the 22-year-old puck-mover who had 18 goals and 38 assists in 82 regular-season matches, then averaged a point per game in the playoffs against Philadelphia. Washington GM George McPhee is expected to match any offer sheet for Green, who could command a five-year extension worth as much as $5 million per season.

"He'll get a bleepload of money," said one NHL executive.

Red Wing guidance works in steering Helm

In 2005, the same year the Bruins made a middle-round pick that would turn into a sooner-than-expected NHLer (Vladimir Sobotka, selected No. 106 overall), the Red Wings made another late selection that projects to become a winner. With the 132d pick, Detroit chose forward Darren Helm, who has become a big-leaguer just a year out of junior hockey.

Last spring, Helm experienced heartache when his Medicine Hat junior club lost in the Memorial Cup to Milan Lucic's Vancouver squad. Just more than a year later, however, Helm, 21, lifted the Stanley Cup over his head, even with a sore leg courtesy of a heavy hit from Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik.

Helm, like most Detroit prospects, was expected to take his time getting to the big club. But he shuttled between Detroit and Grand Rapids, the AHL affiliate, four times last season before being recalled for good April 13.

During the playoffs, Helm appeared in 18 games centering the fourth line - 11 more than he dressed for during the regular season. Helm was on the ice for linemate Jiri Hudler's winning goal in Game 4, and scored in the second period of Game 5.

"He's going to continue to get better," said teammate Kris Draper. "His work ethic is very good. He's a great skater. The Detroit Red Wings are going to see a lot of Darren Helm over the years here with the way he can skate and the calmness he has with the puck. He's going to continue to improve."

The drafting and development of Helm underscore, again, the focus with which the Detroit front office operates. It targeted a player with characteristics it seeks in forwards - high levels of skating, hockey sense, and competitiveness - and surrounded him with mentors.

"He can really skate," said coach Mike Babcock. "Looks to me like he's got good hockey sense and has a chance to develop into a real good player."

Deposed Lightning coach Tortorella
would bolt for another job

John Tortorella, officially canned by the Lightning Tuesday (although rumors of his demise were floated long ago), shouldn't be out of work for long. The Concord native, who attended Salem State and the University of Maine, is considered a candidate for the Ottawa vacancy along with former Anaheim coach Craig Hartsburg.

Movie producer Oren Koules, on the verge of acquiring the Lightning, appears to be following a Hollywood script, as word around the league has Tampa Bay hiring ESPN analyst Barry Melrose (out of the NHL since 1995) as coach.

Tortorella plans to keep Tampa as his offseason residence, but if he is granted permission to talk to other teams (he has one year remaining on his Lightning contract), he will listen.

"I want to work," Tortorella said during a conference call Wednesday. "I want to work. I want to get back in. It's the greatest job in the world, working in the National Hockey League on a coaching staff.

"I don't know how to approach this situation. I've never done it before. I'm not going to bang on the phone and plead with people. But I hope I have the opportunity to talk to some people. Then we'll see where the situation goes from there."

Tortorella is known as a demanding coach, as proven by his past clashes with franchise player Vincent Lecavalier and this past season's disagreements with forward Vaclav Prospal. For a club like Ottawa, where youngsters such as Jason Spezza and Ray Emery might be well-served by some heavy-handed coaching, Tortorella could be the right fit because of his insistence on accountability.

"I've got this reputation of being some kind of lunatic and kicking the [heck] out of people," Tortorella said. "No. Throw the X's and O's, all the meetings and tapes out the window. If there isn't accountability within your room and the players in the room don't see the same accountability from this corner and that corner, you don't have a locker room.

"You don't win until the locker room is straightened out. That's the whole thing with me: accountability. I'm not too interested in making everybody happy. To make everybody happy, you win."

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster has some work to do. Feaster will take center Steven Stamkos with the first overall pick in this month's draft, but the bigger priority is addressing the Lecavalier situation. The star pivot is scheduled to hit the open market after 2008-09 and could command a deal worth more than $10 million annually. Either Feaster has to lock up Lecavalier or trade him for a bundle.


From Russia with doubts
The Bruins got a reprieve last Sunday, the believed-to-be deadline to sign prospect Yuri Alexandrov, their second-round pick from the 2006 draft. Because of the absence of an IIHF transfer agreement, the Bruins, instead of losing their rights to Alexandrov, will instead have them extended for an indefinite time. The situation illustrates the NHL's current state of business regarding Russian players. Because there is no transfer agreement, any NHL contract a Russian signs is not considered firm. Another factor: The recent formation of the 24-team Kontinental Hockey League (formerly the Russian Super League) gives Russian players a cash-rich option to the NHL, considering many of the clubs are bankrolled by oil money. Teams can only rely on the word of the players and their agents who proclaim they want to play in the NHL. Last season, only seven Russians were taken in the draft.

Judgment days
Upon completion of their amateur meetings in Toronto, the Bruins have finalized their list for the upcoming draft (first round June 20 in Ottawa, Rounds 2-7 the following day). The list could be tweaked when the Bruins huddle one last time in Ottawa. "We all have particular tastes in players," said general manager Peter Chiarelli. "But what we want to try and find out about each player we assess is whether they have a little element in them that says, 'He's a Bruin.' There's got to be an area in that player that tells me that he's a Bruin. That's how we rank them." One correction: Scott Bradley, director of amateur scouting, will preside over this year's draft. This space previously noted that Bradley had shifted to the pro side and amateur scout Wayne Smith would oversee the draft.

Shuffle is afoot in AHL
The official word won't come down until Tuesday, but the worst-kept secret has Buffalo shifting its AHL affiliation from nearby Rochester to Portland, Maine, for 2008-09. Anaheim is moving its AHL operations from Portland to Des Moines, part of a two-year plan that eventually has the Ducks placing their farm club in Southern California, with San Diego one option.

A second period with Vancouver?
According to a Vancouver source, the Canucks would prefer to trim goalie Roberto Luongo's workload in 2008-09. Over 73 appearances last season, Luongo played a total of 4,232:32, sixth-most among NHL goalies. With backup Curtis Sanford heading to the open market, one candidate to become Luongo's No. 2 man is Boston's Alex Auld. In 2005-06, Auld played in 67 games for the Canucks, posting a 2.94 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. Ex-GM Dave Nonis shipped Auld out to Florida in a package for Luongo, but with Mike Gillis now calling the shots in Vancouver, Tim Thomas's backup might draw some interest from his former club.

Wheels in motion
Today is the first day NHL clubs can begin negotiations with Blake Wheeler, the former University of Minnesota winger. Wheeler will most likely take some time to make his decision; the Minnesota native may even visit a city or two to determine the best fit for him. Wheeler, drafted fifth overall by Phoenix in 2004, left school a year early and submitted his letter-of-intent to turn pro May 8, giving the Coyotes 30 days to sign him. The sides didn't come to an agreement, making him a free agent and giving Phoenix a compensatory pick (35th overall) in this year's draft.

Loose pucks
Boston University forward Colin Wilson, projected to be drafted high in the first round, may have climbed even more with an outstanding performance in the NHL combine in Toronto. Wilson might even be ready to play in the NHL in 2008-09, according to one GM . . . Prior to Game 5 of the Cup finals at Joe Louis Arena, Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury sent a squirt of water toward Zamboni driver Al Sobotka, better known as the octopus twirler. "I just missed my mouth by a little bit," joked Fleury. Guess a splash of water is preferable to a shower of octopus juice . . . While Ken Holland must tuck away some cash for future unrestricted free agents Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Mikael Samuelsson, the Detroit GM might be interested in re-signing ex-Bruin Brad Stuart to a multiyear deal. "I like it here," said Stuart, who earned $3.5 million in 2007-08. "It's been a good fit." . . . Doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that if Toronto hires Ron Wilson, the move could set up the arrival of Brian Burke for GM duties. Wilson and Burke were members of Providence's Class of 1977, playing for current New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello. Wilson was the first coach of the Ducks, while Burke is the current Anaheim GM . . . Sign in the bowels of Mellon Arena, next to a pair of parked Zambonis: "Flood Like A Champion Today."

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at

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