New Beginnings For 2007-08

Looking back at the 2007-08 season, the Anaheim Ducks were without question worthy champions, the NHL’s finest team when the games mattered most. Though much was made of the fact that the lion’s share of the contributions came from only 14 of their 20 players, Anaheim’s success was a testament to the strong performances they got from their stars.

If the Ducks’ victory proves to be influential as the other 29 teams remodel themselves during the offseason, look for top-end talent and team toughness to be two very high priorities. And with that in mind, it’s time to begin looking ahead to 2007-08.

Before the free agency period begins on July 1st, the NHL will conduct its annual Entry Draft beginning on June 22 in Columbus. For the last three years, the #1 overall pick was an obvious choice: Alexander Ovechkin in 2004, Sidney Crosby in 2005, and Erik Johnson in 2006. But this year, the field is wide open, and there are numerous candidates for the top spot. Most likely, it will be one of either Kyle Turris, Patrick Kane, or Alexei Cherapanov, but there is no guarantee that the Chicago Blackhawks will limit themselves to that trio when making the first overall selection in the draft on Friday night.

With the salary cap enforcing parity in the NHL like never before, the annual entry draft has become absolutely critical to a team’s success. The Ducks’ success was predicated not only on the contributions of veterans like captain Scott Niedermayer and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, but also on 2003 draftees Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Without top-notch talent playing on entry-level contracts, it will be nearly impossible for teams to achieve postseason success in the modern NHL. And of course, the Ducks’ organizational depth afforded them the opportunity to acquire Chris Pronger from the Edmonton Oilers last summer.

The offseason also includes plenty of front-office activity as well. The Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, and Columbus Blue Jackets have all made major announcements this week that will undoubtedly affect their approach to the free agent market.

Today, the Bruins announced that they have terminated both head coach Dave Lewis and assistant coach Marc Habscheid, so they will be looking for a new bench boss in the coming weeks.

“Since the season has ended, I have completed a thorough review of the team and the coaching staff, and I have determined that Dave Lewis and Marc Habscheid are not the proper fit for the Bruins at this time,” said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “I have a short list of candidates in mind, and I hope to have a new Head Coach in place in the near future.”

Last summer, the Bruins made a huge splash in the free agent market, adding both Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. It will be very interesting to see whether they’re similarly active this time around if a new coach isn’t selected in advance of July 1st.

As legendary football coach Bill Parcells so eloquently put it, a cook is far more successful when he gets the opportunity to shop for his own ingredients. And if the Bruins make dramatic changes to their roster before choosing a new coach, there is the potential for disastrous results if the coach isn’t on the same page as Chiarelli.

Meanwhile, the Flames have hired Mike Keenan to take over behind their bench, a seemingly risky maneuver that actually makes perfect sense. The underachieving Flames clearly need a hard-nosed motivational presence behind the bench, someone who can light a fire under them and make the most of their immense talent. With Miikka Kiprusoff between the pipes and captain Jarome Iginla leading the way up front, the Flames’ time to win is now. And very few coaches over the past two decades have been better with “now” teams than “Iron Mike.”

Of course, this hiring does have its risks. While Iginla is most certainly the type of player Keenan covets, there are plenty of other players in the Flames’ lineup who are likely to struggle under his rule. And first amongst them is winger Kristian Huselius, who broke out in 2006-07 with a 77 point season (to go with a plus-21 rating).

Huselius struggled mightily under Keenan when both were with the Florida Panthers, and this is a situation definitely worth watching. His atrocious performance in the Flames’ first round loss did nothing to endear him to Calgary’s discriminating fans, and it’s quite possible that the talented Swedish winger will be trade bait this summer.

Another playoff underachiever–talented forward Alex Tanguay (one goal in seven games, minus-two rating)–is also a good candidate to be shopped. Not by any stretch a Keenan-style player, the Flames had best deal him before his trade value takes a precipitous fall when the season begins.

Meanwhile, the draft’s hosts, the Columbus Blue Jackets, announced that Scott Howson, formerly the Edmonton Oilers’ assistant GM, will be taking over as the club’s GM. Under Doug MacLean, who was at the helm from the Blue Jackets’ inception, the team never reached the playoffs, and so the only way to go is up. Given the short amount of time he’ll have been in place by next week’s draft, it’s probable that Howson will defer to the Blue Jackets’ scouting department on draft day. But his experience with the Oilers should prove tremendously valuable, and it’s a good bet that he’ll give the roster a meaningful makeover between now and the start of the 2007-08 campaign.

Finally, there’s free agency. The pool of talent is incredibly large, including some very impactful stars, and with the cap going up to as high as $52 million, the bidding is expected to be quite fierce. Where the likes of Scott Gomez (New Jersey Devils) and Jean-Sebastien Giguere (Anaheim Ducks) go will have an enormous impact on the 2007-08 season.

For another example, should Sheldon Souray (Montreal Canadiens) sign with the San Jose Sharks, it will give them a devastating weapon on the point of the power play and a strong physical on their blue line. And it’s fair to say that Souray’s presence just might be the difference between a disappointing second-round exit and a Stanley Cup celebration.

Stay tuned over the next month, for we’ll be covering all of the comings and goings throughout the NHL. We’ll break down the draft next week, providing our predictions for the first 10 picks and evaluating each team’s maneuverings. And then we’ll turn our attentions to the free agents, predicting where they might go and assessing the impact they’ll have on their new teams. In all, it’s going to be a wild and wooly offseason, providing tremendous drama and intrigue. Stay tuned…

And speaking of new beginnings, my wife Joanna and I are proud to welcome Anya Grace Greenstein to the world. Our first child, she was born at 12:02 am on Tuesday, June 12th. The joy she’s already brought us is indescribable, so I won’t begin to try.


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