Jun 11, 2001
Though the process at times seemed eternal, there is no denying the entertainment of this year's NHL playoffs. The underdog Toronto Maple Leafs made a nice run, intriguing but not satisfying Canadian fans. Mario Lemieux, the league's most beloved player, helped his team to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars put on a battle General Patton would be proud of. Roman Turek and the Blues were taught a lesson on the importance of goaltending by Patrick Roy, while the Devils and Avalanche provided an exciting 7-game final. But as good as the playoffs were, they are in danger of being upstaged by what looks to be an unbelievable offseason.
Maybe that statement is a bit of a stretch, but the summer months will prove to be very interesting. The first bit of good news teams have is that after three long years, they will not have to worry about losing a player in an expansion draft. Four teams have joined the league since the 1998-99 season, bringing the total number up to thirty. Imagine an organization's frustration with consistently losing a player to one of these new teams each year.
Just look at a team like the Dallas Stars. Two years ago, they possessed an entire stable of promising goaltenders. Ed Belfour was a fixture in net, Roman Turek backed him up and both Manny Fernandez and Marty Turco were waiting in the wings. Turek was traded to avoid losing him to an expansion team for nothing while the Minnesota Wild drafted Fernandez. Only an aging Belfour and Turco remain, forcing the Stars to once again concentrate on re-building their goaltending depth.
No expansion draft is a breath of fresh air for general managers. Their focus can once again be concentrated on adding depth in the offseason, rather than losing it.
The first chance teams will have at building this depth will take place at the Entry Draft on June 23rd. Possibly the deepest draft in sometime, several prospects have GM's chomping at the bit. Ilya Kovalchuk, a speedy winger with great hands and Jason Spezza, a talented playmaker, lead the way. If Kovalchuk goes first, it will mark the first time in the draft's history that a Russian has gone number one.
With the depth of the draft, several teams will hope to cash in early while many will look at moving down. Trades and trade rumors will be abundant, maybe even surpassing the hoopla Islander GM Mike Milbury provided at last year's draft. The Atlanta Thrashers are rumored to be shopping the first overall pick for goaltending help. With the number two pick, the Islanders are also listening to trade offers that would land them immediate help in return.
But picks and prospects will be only half the fun of draft weekend. Numerous big name players have the potential to be part of draft day deals. Michael Peca, Doug Weight, Eric Lindros, Alexei Yashin, etc. have all been rumored to be on the move and the draft may be the impetus for GM's to get the ball rolling.
Once the draft has taken place the next phase, unrestricted free agency, begins. On July 1st the floodgates will open and the deepest and most talented group of players the NHL has ever seen will be listening to offers. Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Patrick Roy, Jeremy Roenick, John LeClair, Luc Robitaille and Pierre Turgeon will be available and highly sought. What makes free agency even more interesting is that more teams than normal seem to have money to spend. Maybe the biggest target this offseason will be power forward Martin Lapointe, who appears to have interest from a dozen teams.
So hockey fans, hold on tight. The season may be over but the fireworks are about to begin. A very different look to the NHL may be upon us. Alexei Yahin making the Islanders a contender? Jeremy Roenick in a Blackhawks' uniform again? Rob Blake going home to Toronto? All are not only great stories, but distinct possibilities as well.
With so many big names available via free agency or trades, we could see radical roster changes and a shift in the NHL's balance of power. After finishing first overall in their respective conference, Colorado and New Jersey provided us with a fantastic 7-game Stanley Cup Final. Will they survive free agency and be back next year in a continuation of their dominance? Only time and money will tell.
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