The two hottest non-NHL free agents in the market last spring/summer were wingers Fabian Brunnstrom, who was nabbed by the Stars, and Blake Wheeler, Boston's resident rookie 20-goal scorer.
Brunnstrom finished a lackluster 17-12 -29 after potting a hat trick in his debut. However, with the Stars now postseason DNQs (first time since '02), Brunnstrom was at his best at season's end (five-game point streak, 4-2 -6).
As for this spring's hottest non-NHL free agent, expect a lot of talk about Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson, believed to be high on the shopping list of both the Maple Leafs and Stars, among others.
A Tuukka Rask-like 6 feet 3 inches, 180 pounds, Gustavsson blocked Farjestad to the SEL championship this season with a league-leading 1.96 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.
Ex-Bruins netminder Andy Moog, now the Stars goalie consultant, has made the trip to Sweden to see the 24-year-old stopper. Ditto for Leafs goalie coach Corey Hirsch, who is a lasting part of Swedish folklore, if somewhat by unfortunate circumstance.
Hirsch was in the Canadian net when Peter Forsberg potted his gold-medal-winning goal in the '94 Olympic Games at Lillehammer, and both Hirsch and Foppa were immortalized on a Swedish postage stamp commemorating the shootout.
How many letters from Stockholm do you suppose were mailed to Hirsch's house? Answer: the same number that were stamped "return to sender." The US missed its chance in 1980 when it won the gold at Lake Placid. Imagine that stunned look on CCCP coach Viktor Tikhonov's face preserved for the ages on a first-class stamp?
Gustavsson reportedly is excited to continue his career over here next season, but is said to be looking for real playing time off the hop (similar to Brunnstrom's '08 demands).
If that's the case, he could have a better shot of getting that in Toronto, where Vesa Toskala struggled this season, than in Dallas, where Marty Turco had only five wins by Thanksgiving but again cracked the 30-win plateau before fizzling out in his last seven outings (1-6-0).
Rask, only 22, is expected to back up Tim Thomas here in the Hub of Hockey next season. Never drafted and two years older, the lesser-known Gustavsson right now might be considered the hotter NHL prospect.
But remember, we're talking goaltenders, which makes projections more art than science, and probably more rock-paper-scissors than anything else.
Bruins, WBZ may be dialing in on deal Charlie Jacobs
, still reluctant to label the Jan. 1 outdoor game at Fenway Park a done deal, says there has been recent progress made in attempting to continue the partnership with WBZ for at least another year of Bruins radio broadcasts (with Dave Goucher
and Bob Beers
in the booth).
Jacobs and business lieutenant Dan Zimmer shopped the product in recent months and found limited interest. According to a number of sources with ties to the broadcast industry, Lynn-based WFNX evinced some interest, but it could take months to build out a network of New England stations, and the penetration would be challenged to come close to BZ's reach.
"I would think we are close [to a WBZ deal], but I'm not sure how it will shake out," said Jacobs, the club's executive vice president. "Our preference would be that it be more than a one-year deal, maybe 3-5 years. We also know we are not in position to dictate term."
The junior Jacobs hoped to have the new radio deal wrapped up by this week, allowing salespeople to work clients when the product is at its best during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Once the ice melts, hockey radio sales go ice cold.
As for an extension of general manager Peter Chiarelli's contract, which is reaching the conclusion of its third year (of four), Jacobs would say only that he and the former Ottawa assistant GM have discussed it.
"Right now," said Jacobs, "that's about as far as I want to surf out on that subject."
Count them out
The Panthers made it as far as Thursday night before they were eliminated from the playoffs for a mind-numbing eighth consecutive season. They at least remained in contention longer than many pundits (see attached byline) suggested. Now they likely will suffer the added indignity of watching star backliner Jay Bouwmeester
walk away when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1. Rumors remain rampant, too, that Jacques Martin
, general manager since September 2006, will get the gate.
Still carrying the torch
No surprise that Ron Wilson
, who backed the Team USA stars at the first "pro" hockey Olympics at Nagano '98, will be back as the Yanks' boss for Vancouver 2010. Amid the red-white-and-blue freefall in Japan, Wilson shaved his locks, appearing behind the bench as if he had registered in a witness-protection program for easier return passage to North America. Good coach, Wilson, but count me among the cranky purists who would prefer a US-born coach to work a US Olympic bench. Wilson, 53, was born in Windsor, Ontario, all but a full-length icing from Detroit.
Hardly hot stuff
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman
remains committed to his Sun Belt brethren, but as one GM said the other day, "Something's eventually got to give." The worst of the bunch, of course, is Phoenix, where the Coyotes, now six straight seasons out of the playoffs, have hemorrhaged money for virtually all their days in their sparkling Glendale arena. All well and good that Phoenix has a large population base and big businesses that, in theory, would support the product. But bad hockey equals empty seats and suites. Better to get a franchise or two back in Canada. Maybe Quebec City doesn't have a big enough corporate base, but it has a hockey-crazed citizenry that proved during the Nordiques days that they'll fill the building each game. Maybe that pencils in only modest returns, but modest is better than morose.
Greasing the skids
Now that the Oilers have missed the playoffs for a third straight season after going to Game 7 of the Cup finals - not done since the Rangers in the early '50s - look for ex-Bruin Craig MacTavish
to be gone as bench boss after an eight-year run (including six seasons of playoff DNQs). The Oilers have some decent kids in their lineup (Sam Gagner
, Andrew Cogliano
) as well as a more seasoned Ales Hemsky
, but they've gotten little pop out of key free agent signing Dustin Penner
, who has proven to be their version of Marty Lapointe.
Perhaps a new bench boss will tease more out of Penner, the ex-UMaine Black Bear. But, really, his production has been just about in lockstep with what he did in Anaheim before Edmonton signed him. His final year with the Ducks (when they won the Cup): 23-24 -47 in 82 games. In two years (159 games) in Edmonton: 40-44 -84. All at a price of $4.25 million for three more years.
Case isn't closed
The long-running Glen Murray
arbitration case continues to run, following a hearing last Tuesday that was supposed to put a wrap on it. The issue? According to Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli
, it will set a precedent in regard to the terms covering the standard player contract - specifically, how much time does a player have to get a second opinion? Murray was bought out over the summer, at a one-third reduction of the $4.15 million he had coming this season. But he contends he was hurt, and injured players cannot be bought out, per terms of the CBA. At least one more hearing date left.
Granted, Claude Lemieux's
numbers (0-1 -1 in 17 games) are less than humble, but he's back in the San Jose lineup after missing a month with injury. And this week really begins Lemieux's season. He could be the most interesting "extra" in this year's playoffs . . . Once the outdoor game at Fenway is official, look for the NHL to announce a couple of new marketing wrinkles into the event. If the Sox don't need to have the sheet hustled off the field, why not leave it in place for a few days of public skating? Ideally, the league could bring two setups to the Winter Classic city each year - one sheet at the game venue, one elsewhere in the city to create buzz and goodwill. Or maybe run a contest, offering to set up a mini-sheet, boards and all, in the winner's backyard for the months of January, February, and March. Hot chocolate not included . . . Friends of Jim Gregory
, the NHL's senior vice president of hockey operations and one of the game's best ambassadors, report that he is home and recovering nicely after a Feb. 27 heart attack. Gregory, 73, was stricken while at the league's offices in Toronto.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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