The final days of summer are ticking down on the hockey clock -- some training camps open as early as Sept. 10 -- and a sprinkling of bigger-name free agents remain on the open market.
Peter Forsberg, last seen going down with the ship in Nashville, remains in decision-making mode, uncertain whether he'll come back to the NHL or return to full-time citizenry as a national hero in Sweden. Eddie Belfour, bumped out of the net in Florida when the Panthers acquired Tomas Vokoun, last week pondered an offer (perhaps his only?) to play in Sweden (Leksands, former home of the dastardly Ulf Samuelsson).
Meanwhile, in Anaheim, general manager Brian Burke awaits word on whether the esteemed likes of Teemu Selanne and/or Scott Niedermayer will suit up for the Cup-defending Quacks.
"Still waiting to hear," Burke said Friday morning, some 10 weeks after watching his squad rub out the Senators in the Stanley Cup finals. "I'm not sure if we'll have an answer here over the weekend, or if this is something that could drag out through training camp, or even into the season. These are two players we'd love to have back, but whatever the case, we feel we've made the necessary moves if they don't return."
Fearing that both could opt for retirement, Burke in recent weeks signed Mathieu Schneider (two years/$5.625 million average) for the blue line and Todd Bertuzzi (two years/$8 million total) for the front line. And for now, he waits, hopeful that Selanne (94 points) and Niedermayer (69 points) find their way back to the Honda Center.
Both Selanne and Niedermayer have enrolled their children in area schools for the upcoming academic year; perhaps that's a harbinger of good news for the Ducks, or perhaps it's just a couple more multimillionaires who feel SoCal isn't a bad place to spend their dough and live out their dotage.
Selanne, who turned 37 last month, is an unrestricted free agent, and can either retire or return whenever he sees fit, and right now he has no immediate impact on the club's salary cap. If he packs it in now, he'll next be heard from in November 2010 when he enters the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But Niedermayer's case is considerably different, and complex.
The Ducks captain, who will be 34 Friday and is also a Hall of Fame lock, is on the books for two more seasons at $6.75 million. If he files his retirement papers, he is effectively done for the season, because the 29 other NHL teams would all have to "sign off" on his return to Anaheim if he wanted back sometime during 2007-08. No doubt Los Angeles and San Jose, to name just two clubs, would raise their objections.
Not to mention Edmonton, where GM Kevin Lowe is still feeing the sting of Burke's vitriol in the wake of the Oil plucking Black Bear Dustin Penner off the Ducks roster with an eye-popping Group 2 offer sheet (five years at $4.25 million).
"The act of a drowning man reaching out for a piece of wood to save his life," said Burke, still irate that Lowe pirated his player with an offer that Burke feels will prove to be both "stupid" and inflationary for the entire league. "It's a desperate measure by a GM trying to keep his job."
Meanwhile, the Ducks are operating about $5 million below the $50.3 million salary cap as of today. If the smooth-skating Niedermayer puts in his quittin' papers, that leaves Burke with an extra 6.75 million shopping dollars. All of which would have sounded like a luxury around July 1, at the start of free agency. But today, with just that sprinkling of big-name UFAs out there, it's money that Burke is more likely to hold, either for use in some lopsided dollar swap during the season, or to roll out for the 2008 UFA shopping spree.
"We've told Scott, 'Look, we don't want you to retire -- and no one in the NHL wants you to retire,' " said Burke. "The last time we talked was about 10 days ago, and my impression then was that he was still leaning toward retirement. That could change, and I hope it does, but . . . the good news here is, he's in such great shape, I bet it would take him only about four days to get ready."
Seats of judgment will be relocated
Visitors to NHL games around the league this season likely will notice a significant change in the stands behind each net. Teams have been granted permission by the league to relocate the two goal judges' positions, opening up some prime seat locations in the loge.
But the displaced judges won't be out of work. Most of them will move, plungers in hand, to the press box. If that takes them too far from the action, they'll be positioned elsewhere in the building, perhaps at the Zamboni entrance. Otherwise, the job will fall to referees and replays, and sometimes the scrutiny of the Toronto-based "war room" that pipes in telecasts of the games.
Neely for president?
Hall of Fame winger Cam Neely is moving into the Bruins front office, amid rumors in recent days that he was about to assume the president's chair left vacant since last summer when Harry Sinden was nudged to the "senior adviser" role as part of the club's still-ongoing reformation project.
"We're still working out the logistics, but we'll find a fit here for him," said general manager Peter Chiarelli, who met Thursday with Neely to discuss front-office options. "Cam has such passion. He's a true Bruin. He stands for everything we want to bring the organization back to."
Neely, 42, confirmed that he was looking forward to finding the right fit, one that would allow him time to spend time with his other business and charitable endeavors. As for ascending immediately to the presidency, the hard-rock winger said with a laugh, "Might be nice to get my feet wet first, don't you think?"
Chiarelli, in attempting to define Neely's management role, said it likely would be a blend of responsibilities, including "player development, advisory, and hockey operation" roles.
Neely will be alongside Chiarelli and Charlie Jacobs, the club's executive vice president, Tuesday night at the Garden for a "State of the Bruins" forum that will encourage season ticket-holders (maximum 100) to ask questions of the management team. A few players, some of whom will begin informal practice at Wilmington tomorrow, also will be on hand.
"Cam is one proud Bruin," noted Chiarelli. "And he wears it on his sleeve. I like that a lot."
Headed to St. Louis via Chicago
Top Bruins goalie prospect Tuukka Rask, along with ex-Bruin netminder Hannu Toivonen (now with the Blues), will spend this week in Chicago, tuning up with a bunch of other clients of Chicago-based agent Bill Zito, including Jeff Hamilton, John Madden, and Brian Rafalski.
"Hannu's psyched about the opportunity in St. Louis," said Zito. "A bunch of the guys there -- Larry Pleau, John Davidson, and Jarmo Kekalainen -- have all called him. And the message has been the same: Come to St. Louis, relax, have fun and play. Forget everything else -- just play."
Pleau is the Blues general manager, Davidson the president, and Kekalainen, the former Bruins forward, is assistant GM. It's a safe bet that Kekalainen, a fellow Finn, pushed to put Toivonen in the Blue Note.
Persistent rumors on the Internet this summer have hinted that the Bruins were looking to deal Patrice Bergeron. Never the case, said general manager Peter Chiarelli, who confirmed that Montreal GM Bob Gainey called him at the February trade deadline to inquire about the Quebec-born pivot. "Anyone who has called, I've emphatically told them we're not interested," said Chiarelli. For now, he plans to leave the Boston roster the way it is leading up to the start of training camp Sept. 13. "We might do something small before then," he said. "But I want to see how things come together in training camp and in the preseason."
Ex-Bruin Al "The Planet" Iafrate, now 41 and retired for nine seasons, attended an autograph signing last week just outside of Toronto. Handed one of his 1990 playing cards to sign, Iafrate took a moment to read the back, which noted that he often made goalies duck for cover when he teed up his mighty (100 m.p.h.-plus) slapper. "How cool is that?" he told a Toronto Sun reporter. "It makes me sound like some kind of superhero." The Planet these days works in Warrior's hockey division, helping to develop playing equipment, especially sticks.
An alteration for new Jacket?
Michael Peca, signed for a $1.3 million base with the Blue Jackets last week, is having somewhat of a homecoming in Columbus. He played under Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock on the 2002 Olympic squad at Salt Lake. The former Sabres stalwart will add another $500,000 if the team finally makes the playoffs this season. Also in the pivot mix with Peca: Sergei Fedorov, Gilbert Brule, Manny Malhotra, and Jiri Novotny. Interesting to see if the 33-year-old Peca, who projected as a potential elite scorer out of junior (Ottawa 67s), now backs off the diligent checking role and helps the Blue Jackets put up some much-needed offense.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.