July 3, 2006
Free agency puts hockey back on top
By Al Strachan
In the days of the pre-cap National Hockey League, it was often suggested that trading-deadline day should be a national holiday in Canada.
Now it is.
The free-agency auction is more fun for hockey fans than the trade deadline ever was, and coming on July 1, it happens to coincide with Canada Day.
With all the big-name free-agent moves that took place on Saturday, hockey was back on top of the news in Canada. The Blue Jays' streak, the Argos' latest woes and even the Refereeing Roulette Cup over in Germany were all relegated to lower positions on the topic-of-interest table.
The underlying premise is the same as it was for trading-deadline day. All of a sudden, teams acquire players who are supposed to be the answer, acquisitions who will take their new squad to the Stanley Cup.
The free-agent auction is still rent-a-player time, but now teams are renting the players for a few years rather than a few weeks.
And, as was always the case with players acquired at the deadline, most of them will fall short of expectations.
There's only one Stanley Cup per annum, but every team that picked up a high-priced free agent said it did so with the intention of winning that Cup.
A couple of those aspirations may be well founded.
The Vancouver Canucks, for instance, seem to have an excellent chance of making a run at the 2007 Cup even though they missed the 2006 playoffs. As the Carolina Hurricanes demonstrated so capably, that kind of leap is nowhere near as improbable as it used to be.
The Canucks got the goaltender they so badly needed through a trade, then bought Willie Mitchell on Saturday. They had tried desperately to get Mitchell, a local boy, at the trading deadline and missed out. Now they have him. Granted, they lost Ed Jovanovski to the Phoenix Coyotes and Mitchell won't replace the offence that was lost in that move.
But Mitchell is a solid player, schooled under Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota, and he possesses the kind of leadership qualities that have been desperately lacking in the Vancouver dressing room.
Mitchell and Jovanovski were just two of the quality defencemen who made the headlines on the weekend, a further indication that it is the blue-liners who are the most coveted commodity in today's game.
The Maple Leafs, for instance, first signed their two big guns, Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe, then bought Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill.
Whether those were wise moves or not remains to be seen. Retaining the first two was fine, but Gill is ponderously slow by today's standards. And while Kubina is an excellent offensive defenceman, it would seem that the Leafs already had two of those creatures.
When you've got three, it's an almost certain formula for grumbling -- unless coach Paul Maurice's innovations lean towards a three-defenceman power play.
The Boston Bruins lost Gill and replaced him with Zdeno Chara, an upgrade of no small proportion.
The Ottawa Senators, who lost Chara, also lost Brian Pothier, a useful youngster who appears to have considerable upside.
But Senators general manager John Muckler, far too sharp a hockey man to let his blue line be totally degraded, found the money to keep Wade Redden, and bought Joe Corvo, one of the more under-rated defencemen in the game.
There were lots of other intriguing shuffles -- too many to mention here -- as Free-agent Day emerged as one of the most entertaining days in the hockey calendar.
But perhaps is should be moved from July 1 to July 4. Let's keep Canada Day what it is and put the American hockey people to work on their national holiday.