Ah, the smell of warm coconut oil and the sound of mellifluent beach tunes blending seamlessly with lingering Zamboni exhaust. Does it get any better? Of course not, and it can mean only one thing. The NHL's annual silly season is upon us. Beginning Tuesday morning, the multimillionaires-to-be line up deep and wide to begin fielding offers with the commencement of free agency.
A good many of the impending free agents, of course, are already multimillionaires, which adds just another layer of, shall we say, quirkiness (read: choice) to what can be an emotionally charged and, certainly from a fan's perspective, interesting few days.
A viewer's guide to a few of the key free agents, factors at play, and some things we might see, or expect to see, when the bidding begins:
What's up with Hossa? - At this point, it looks as if Slovakian right wing Marian Hossa will sleepwalk into offers of $8 million a year or more, and according to a variety of sources, he is leaning toward signing with a club that can be considered both a short- and long-term contender. In other words, welcome to Detroit. But don't discount the Rangers or Canadiens trying to convince him they're in the Cup hunt for keeps, too. Boston's chances: slimmer than the teenage Gretzky.
Anyone seen Sundin? - Montreal general manager Bob Gainey worked a deal with Toronto before last weekend's draft to speak one-on-one with Mats Sundin about coming to Habtown. Sundin was in Sweden and made it clear, when Gainey called, he wasn't in talking mode (again, read: choice). He could still end up a Leaf. Or a Red Wing.
Avery questionable play - Chased out of Los Angeles for bad-boy behavior, Sean Avery made the Rangers much better, and now he wants to be paid for it - to the tune of around $4 million a year. Headed into the weekend, the Rangers weren't biting on that sour apple. The ornery winger can be a total jerk, on the ice and in the dressing room, which makes him a difficult fit, on both the harmony and financial sides. Columbus needs to end the lifetime of playoff DNQs, and Ken Hitchcock is one of the few coaches who could keep Avery in line. But for how long, and what price, beyond the dollars?
The cap factor - The salary figure for 2008-09, announced by the league Thursday, will be $56.7 million, nearly a 50 percent bump from when the league reopened for business with a $39 million cap in the autumn of '05. There's a big bucket of cash out there, and that alone will lead to some acute overspending this week. Could someone really be willing to give defenseman Brian Campbell $7 million a year? Uh, yeah . . . and maybe even more.
Falling star - Remember, the Senators chose to let Zdeno Chara walk (to Boston), and kept Wade Redden as the key to their defensive fortunes. Ouchamagoucha. This year, he had a decent regular season (38 points/plus-11), then tanked big-time in the postseason (1 assist/minus-4). He appears to be in severe need of a venue change, and he'll get it. The most likely to overinflate his value (at $5 million-plus per year): Islanders, Sharks, Thrashers, and possibly Kings.
The newbie factor - New Lightning owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie have adopted an aggressive stance to roster building, standing eager to make a splash. Feels a lot like Dallas in the days when owner Tom Hicks had his management minions flitting around in a private jet to extend outlandish UFA deals, such as the one to Bill Guerin. Had Guerin delivered the same numbers he brought to the table, the Dallas offer had him receiving some $100,000 per point, based on his previous five years of offense. Lunacy. Koules and Barrie sound ready to spend, but at least they have ex-Bruin forward Brian Lawton, agent turned boss of hockey ops, on hand to flash yellow flags.
Thy kingdom come - LA has remained deep in the La Brea Tar Pits, and GM Dean Lombardi, who only recently canned coach Marc Crawford, needs to bring back to life the fossilized Staples franchise. With slightly less than a $30 million cap commitment on the books, he can easily buy $20 million worth of help this week. The spending's easy. Making the dollars count is the tricky part. If he signs a guy like Miroslav Satan, not good.
The wild-card factor - No telling which of the restricted free agents could strike it rich. Last summer, Oilers GM Kevin Lowe tried to pirate then-23-year-old Thomas Vanek away from the Sabres, but failed when Buffalo matched the seven-year, $50 million, Group 2 offer. Lowe then turned his sights on the Ducks' roster and snatched Group 2 Dustin Penner, a former Maine Black Bear, for five years and $21.25 million. Group 2 offers have been extremely rare through the decades, and Lowe's actions only served to accelerate the cost of signing players as they exited their entry-level deals. Now we'll see if the rest of the pack deemed Lowe a leader or lunatic.
Murray for Schneider a fit?
Anaheim defenseman Scott Niedermayer met with general manager Brian Burke and confirmed he will fulfill the final year of his contract (at a cap hit of $6.75 million), preventing a repeat of last season's scenario that had Niedermayer "retired" for more than half of 2007-08.
Even with Niedermayer back, the Ducks will be under the new cap figure ($56.7 million), but it's all but a lock that ex-Mount St. Charles star Mathieu Schneider (due $5.75 million on the final year of his deal) will not be back on the Anaheim defense. The average pay next season for the trio of Chris Pronger, Niedermayer, and Schneider: $6.25 million.
Many clubs don't have three top forwards who average that kind of dough. To wit: The Bruins, with Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, and Glen Murray (average next season: $4.72 million). Someone back there has to go, and chat around the league has Schneider, who turned 39 June 12, the one to be moved.
Burke, uncustomarily tight-lipped on the subject, only would confirm that Schneider's deal lacks a no-trade clause. The GM on Friday also cleared the way for Todd Bertuzzi's buyout, which would trim $2.66 million off Anaheim's books.
Despite his age, Schneider remains a strong, fluid-skating, efficient puck-mover, and a valuable power-play contributor. Losing him to Anaheim last year on the first day of free agency had the Red Wings rushing out to sign Michigan homeboy Brian Rafalski at five years, $30 million (rumored to be about $1 million a year less than Montreal's offer).
No question, as a first option Schneider would not fit into the Bruins' trend of trying to build via youth.
But Schneider still has speed, and he could present a viable one-year patch to Boston's need for more mobility and production along the blue line - a need that exists even if Dennis Wideman, headed to self-elected salary arbitration next month, is kept on the roster after his arbitration award is rendered. Remember, clubs retain the option to walk from awards they deem onerous, immediately rendering the player an unrestricted free agent.
A Schneider-for-Murray swap would make sense for both sides, albeit with the Bruins adding $1.51 million to their cap commitments. If GM Peter Chiarelli can't find a better fix in the free agent market this week, it quickly could become his best option.
Before shopping, teams are adding to bank accounts
With free agency set to begin Tuesday morning, many clubs were busy last week, pruning what they deemed deadwood salaries from their payrolls. On Friday alone, the Ducks initiated the process to buy out Todd Bertuzzi ($4 million), and ditto the Leafs with Andrew Raycroft ($2.2 million) and Islanders with Shawn Bates ($1.2 million). If bought out, their salaries are reduced by one-third.
Below, a look at what each club held in salary cap commitments as of Friday morning, reflecting the kind of shopping room they have with the cap set at $56.7 million:
Anaheim $52.8 million
Los Angeles $29.1
New Jersey $42.3
NY Islanders $32.0
NY Rangers $33.3
St. Louis $43.5
San Jose $44.4
Tampa Bay $35.5
Ex-Bruins netminder Andrew Raycroft was vacationing in Europe Friday - making his way from Sweden to Spain - when the final steps to his buyout in Toronto became official. Raycroft had a year left on his three-year deal, and his $2.2 million will be trimmed to $1.47 million, payable over two seasons. Now what? "He's only 28, and just entering the best years of his athletic life," said his agent, Jordan Neumann. "Based on calls I've been getting, he'll have a lot of opportunity to play in the NHL again, and we've had a ton of calls from Russia - calls that were coming in even before the buyout was official." Might the onetime star Boston rookie, the NHL's Calder Trophy winner in 2004, consider playing in Russia? "Andrew's an open-minded guy," noted Neumann, "and I'd say he's open to all opportunities." Ex-Bruin goalie John Grahame already has signed to play in Russia in 2008-09.
With Barry Melrose finally anchored in safe harbor as Tampa Bay's new coach, ESPN should speedskate to Mike Milbury's front door to tie him up as their hockey guy. He no doubt rankled the Causewayites during his NESN and NBC commentary - especially regarding Phil Kessel - last season. But Microphone Mike (his moniker from his first twirl with ESPN) is excellent TV. OK, he is not as bombastic as Pierre Maguire, hockey's clownish Don Cherry wannabe, but firm in opinion and intriguingly controversial. It's a sport that needs more of that, not less. One possible hangup: Milbury's affiliation last season with NBC, which isn't a good fit with ABC/ESPN.
Let's get things straight
The NHL's annual buyout period ends tomorrow afternoon, except for clubs (such as the Bruins) that have pending salary arbitration cases. To clear up a couple of misconceptions regarding the intricacies of buyouts: 1. Had the Bruins filed for arbitration with Dennis Wideman, they would not have the option of revisiting buyouts in the 48 hours following his salary award - which will not be rendered until late July at the earliest. Clubs such as Boston, with but one arbitration case pending, are denied the opportunity for "second-look" buyouts if it is the club that takes the player to arbitration. But since it was the defenseman who initiated the action, the Bruins will be afforded the chance to revisit the option. 2. Contrary to many media reports around the league, there is no limit to the number of buyouts a club can make in the standard June 15-30 window. Reports of a three-buyout maximum should have specified that such a limit only pertains to buyouts made following the rendering of arbitration awards.
Agent Jay Fee reports that ex-Boston University winger Mike Grier had a troublesome knee cleaned up soon after the Sharks were eliminated in the playoffs and will be back for September training camp. The deal Grier signed in San Jose (three years at $1.775 million per) includes a no-trade clause. He'll enter the new season with 934 games played, including playoffs. Not bad for the 219th pick in the '93 draft, considered by many not to have the speed or skill level to make it beyond the minors . . . Another Fee client, ex-Bruins blue liner Paul Mara, remains Ranger property, but according to Fee, the Rangers have yet to make an offer on the impending unrestricted free agent. Mara, who will turn 29 in September, could have trouble replicating his 2007-08 salary ($3 million), but his age and power-play skills should still bring him a strong payday on the open market . . . Nice career recovery in San Jose by former Thayer Academy standout Jeremy Roenick. J.R. inked a one-year deal to return to the Sharks, and will earn $1.1 million in the coming season . . . Patrice Bergeron and Manny Fernandez, making their way back from season-ending injuries, will use the Ristuccia ice next week when the Bruins hold their development camp (July 8-12). Bergeron noted here last Sunday that he's feeling great. General manager Peter Chiarelli said Fernandez sounded equally encouraged during one of their recent conversations . . . Boston's offer to free agent Glen Metropolit remains on the table, but the versatile forward is not expected to sign anything prior to dipping a skate toe into the UFA market. Look for the Leafs to get involved with the Toronto homeboy. Granted, everything has changed in the Blue-and-White kingdom, but the Leafs attempted to get a deal done with Metropolit last September while he was an invitee to Boston's camp . . . Swedish pivot Carl Soderberg, whom the Bruins picked up last July in the swap for Hannu Toivonen, has a backup deal to play in Sweden (Malmo), but the Bruins expect him to play in North America - be it with Boston or Providence - in the coming season. Based on what Soderberg's agent told Chiarelli last weekend during the amateur draft in Ottawa, Soderberg would only go to Malmo if the Bruins didn't want him at the NHL or AHL level . . . My kid's summer reading: "Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs." Found it on the floor next to his bed. A quick read of the index revealed no reference to the rare Tie Domisaurus. Will report back upon finding a Canadian edition.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.