Trades Betray First Signs Of New Economic Order

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The New York Sun

On Saturday, the NHL held its annual Entry Draft in Vancouver, and though the first few picks went as expected, the everchanging landscape of NHL business and finance made for a mad weekend of picks and trades. And it won’t end there. With the league’s free-agency period arriving this coming Saturday and as many as 150-200 players possibly switching teams, it could be weeks before rosters around the league are nailed down.

The NHL salary cap is set to rise from $39 to $44 million for the coming season, with the minimum team payroll rising even more dramatically (by 33%, from $21 million to $28 million). Last summer, teams were operating under a salary cap for the very first time, and some general managers experienced more growing pains than others. But this year, all 30 GMs have a much clearer understanding of the lay of the land, both with regard to rule changes and the cap’s restrictions. With this more level playing field, it came as little surprise that some enormous trades took place both before and during the draft.

On Friday night, the Florida Panthers traded goaltender Roberto Luongo, defenseman Lukas Krajicek, and a sixthround pick to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for forward Todd Bertuzzi, defenseman Bryan Allen, and goaltender Alex Auld. Luongo is one of the NHL’s finest netminders, and his presence makes Vancouver a serious Cup contender for 2006-07. However, he is unsigned, and if the Canucks cannot lock Luongo into a long-term deal, he will become an unrestricted free agent in just one year’s time.

For Bertuzzi, a change of scenery should do a world of good. He struggled with the Canucks last season, perhaps due to the backlash following his attack on Steve Moore in the spring of 2004. Bertuzzi should enjoy relative anonymity in Florida, and will likely bounce back with a strong season.But by acquiring Luongo and the promising Krajicek, Canucks GM Dave Nonis clearly got the better of Mike Keenan, his counterpart with the Panthers.

In another intriguing trade, the Minnesota Wild served notice that they are going to be big players next season. One of the league’s most profitable franchises, the Wild have also traditionally been one of the most thrifty. But with the minimum cap rising to $28 million, the Wild acquired All-Star forward Pavol Demitra from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for top prospect Patrick O’Sullivan and the 17th overall pick in Saturday’s draft. Demitra’s presence could help the Wild sign star forward Marian Gaborik to a long-term deal, and will give the Minnesota offense a much-needed boost.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, appears to be moving in the opposite direction and embarking on a bit of a rebuilding effort. O’Sullivan scored 47 goals for the AHL Houston Aeros last season, and should fight for a starting spot on the Kings next year. New GM Dean Lombardi selected a highly touted goaltender (Jonathan Bernier) with the 10th pick on Saturday, and used Minnesota’s pick to add talented two-way forward Trevor Lewis. With a corps of excellent young players already filling the lineup, the Kings are could be a force for seasons to come.

A third trade, between Colorado and Calgary, served both teams’ needs quite well. The goal-starved Flames acquired offensive star Alex Tanguay from Colorado in exchange for puck-moving defenseman Jordan Leopold, a deal that should help relieve pressure on Calgary captain Jarome Iginla and provide the Avs with the cap flexibility they’ll need to retool for 2006-07.

The Islanders were the first of the local teams to rise to the podium on Saturday, and they selected burly forward Kyle Okposo with the seventh pick. Okposo is a prototypical power forward, and should fit in nicely with new head coach Ted Nolan, who values hard work and grit above most other attributes.

The Rangers added to their stable of young blueliners with their first-round pick, drafting New Jersey native Bob Sanguinetti with the 21st overall pick. A speedy defenseman with excellent playmaking skills, Sanguinetti will need to fill out a bit, but should develop into an excellent no. 2 or no. 3 NHL blueliner within the next few years, capable of running the point on the power play.

As is par for the course, the Devils went “outside the box”- way outside – with their first round pick. Two years ago, New Jersey selected little-known forward Travis Zajac, and he has since become a top-tier prospect while playing with the University of North Dakota. This year, the Devils added gritty blueliner Matthew Corrente, ranked 35th amongst North American skaters by the Central Scouting Service.

As for winners and losers, the Boston Bruins were big winners on draft day. Boston selected talented forward Phil Kessel – the most gifted goal-scorer available – with the fifth overall pick. With their second-round pick, they added defenseman Yuri Alexandrov, a promising Russian ranked fourth among all European skaters by CSS. The Bruins also pulled off a trade, sending 2004 Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Finnish prospect Tukka Rask, who was the best goaltender at the 2006 WJC’s.

Finally, the Montreal Canadiens did extremely well, especially based on the Sun’s pre-draft rankings. With their picks in the first three rounds, the Habs added three players who were projected in these pages to go in the first round: defenseman David Fischer and forwards Ben Maxwell and Ryan White.

Projecting the future contributions of 18-year-old hockey players is an inexact science, but the draft is certainly the most important element in successful team building. Not only do many of these players go on to become key contributors for the team that drafted them, but are also valuable chips to be used in the trade market.

In the coming weeks, the NHL’s upheaval will be nothing short of extraordinary. We’ve already seen tremendous movement, and when all is said and done, expect many of last season’s “havenots” to look like Cup contenders. Though this all but spells the end for dynastic success, it creates a scenario in which every team enters every season with at least a modicum of hope that this is the year they’re destined for greatness.

Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of InsideHockey.com.


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