Now that the Draft is over, the next big step in the "let's remake the Jackets!" off-season comes this Friday, as free agency begins. If I might editorialize, Scott Howson appears to be batting well over .500 this off-season so far, as he hired the two assistant coaches (Ian Clark and Todd Richards) that should be solid-to-great hires; he traded for Jeff Carter, addressing on paper one of the team's biggest needs throughout its entire history; and he stocked up on centers in the draft, making the position one of the best in the organization, which is something that could not have ever been said before.
The one thing left on his shopping list? Defense, defense, defense.
Howson wasn't able to bolster the blue line on draft night, despite rumors that he might have been in on Brian Campbell and that Brent Burns changed addresses. Again to editorialize, the former costs too much in the ledger (five more years with a $7.1 million cap hit) and the latter cost too much in terms of assets (San Jose gave up their 1st rounder, last year's first rounder, and newly minted Devin Setoguchi, who probably feels like Jeff Carter did when he learned he got traded).
It looks like perhaps Howson was expecting to do his remaining blue line heavy lifting when free agency dawns on Friday. To that end, we at The Cannon will spend this week taking a look at who might be on Howson's radar. First up today? Carolina's Joni Pitkanen, Boston's Tomas Kaberle, and Buffalo's Andrej Sekera.
The Case for Pitkanen
Joni Pitkanen is 27, and has been in the league since the '03-'04 season after being selected 4th overall in 2002 by Philadelphia. He played his first three seasons for the Flyers, spent a year with the Oilers, and has been with the Hurricanes for the last three seasons. In 483 career games, he has 256 points, including 51 goals and 205 assists. He's a career +5. He's 6'3" and 210 pounds. He is an unrestricted free agent, coming off of a three-year, $12 million deal in Carolina. He made $4.5 million this past season as part of that.
Pitkanen combines a big body with the ability to move the puck and contribute on offense. His best season point total was 46, which he hit twice. His overall best year was the first post-lockout year, in which he played just 58 games but scored 13 goals and added 33 assists, and was +22 (with Philadelphia).
Over the span of this past contract in Carolina, Pitkanen played 71, 71, and 72 games, and scored 18 goals over that span. He made his impact as a facilitator, though, with 96 assists over those three seasons. He can also contribute on the Power Play, as four of his goals and 41 (or, damn near close to half) of his assists in Carolina came on the man advantage. In that respect, he's almost a perfect fit for what Columbus needs on the blue line.
I polled my brother, who's a Hurricanes fan whose opinion and realism I obviously respect, and these were his musings on Pitkanen in response to my questions about whether he's a legit top-pairing guy, and about his Power Play record:
"On *our* team he is a top pairing guy. He is an ideal #2 PMD, but not an ideal #1 (which is what he has been asked to do here). He is one of the best skaters on our team and a great passer, but he can be a bit of a space cadet. Big body, but doesn't really use it. ... [The Power Play is] his saving grace. He is a PPQB extraordinaire, to the extent that he may only take 5 PP shots from the point all season (for better or probably worse)."
This is the big question. Up until the draft--and even during the first round when Carolina selected Ryan Murphy--most Hurricanes fans seemed to believe that Pitkanen was gone. My bro's summation:
"I am guessing he is going to get more than he's worth, but then that always seems to be the case for FA PMDs. I would assume we offered him about $5M per, and the GM has made it sound like we're not even close. To me, that's already pretty steep for what he brings, but then we tried for years and years to get a top PMD and I can't believe we're letting him walk."
Given what Pitkanen made this year, and most likely the competitive nature of the FA market (Porty quoted Howson as saying: "Free agency is about overpaying in terms and in dollars," over the weekend), look for Pitkanen to start in that $5 million per year range as a floor. The only potential mitigating factor is the breadth of the overall free agent defensemen market, which in terms of Pitkanen (he's probably #5 or #6 on the overall list) might cost him *some* money.
However, it's now being reported that Hurricanes' GM Jim Rutherford has made some headway with Pitkanen (as well as free agent forward Jussi Jokinen). To wit, his quote this weekend: "I wasn't very hopeful and I really didn't think there was a lot of hope, based on what I was hearing, but to have face-to-face meetings here with their agents has worked out well, and I'm at the point now that I do have hope that we're going to be able to sign both players."
So, Pitkanen may not make it to Friday and the open market. But, if he does, look for Howson to give his agent a call.
The Case for Kaberle
Tomas Kaberle is 33, and has been in the league since the '98-'99 season after being selected in the eighth round by Toronto in 1996. He had spent his entire career in a Maple Leafs sweater, until being traded to the Bruins this season and helping them to hoist Lord Stanley. In 902 career games, he has 529 points, including 84 goals and 445 assists. He's a career +31. He's 6'1" and 215 pounds. He is an unrestricted free agent, coming off of a five-year, $21.25 million deal. He made $4.25 million this past season as part of that.
Kaberle has decent size, and has been a horse, playing in 82 games in three of the past four seasons; in fact, he's played 82 games seven times in his 12 NHL seasons. Kaberle brings offense in spades; he's been over 50 points three times, including a 9/58/67 season in Toronto in '05-'06. He's been over 40 points eight times in his career. Other than his rookie year in which he had just 18 assists, his assists total has never been below 27 for a season. He brings that instant credibility in terms of being a defenseman who can contribute and facilitate.
Kaberle also brings a huge addition to the Power Play unit, where he's been a constant contributor throughout his entire career. More than half of his career assists have come on the man-advantage (235 of 445). He's also added in 31 PP goals in his career.
The biggest knock on Kaberle is that he's now 33, has just won the Stanley Cup, and may be looking to cash in one last time in his career. This is purely speculation on my part, but he wouldn't be the first player in history to get to the top of the mountain, sign his last big contract, and then coast a bit. There have also been trade rumors and hints of his prior discontent before being traded this past season--as well as rumors of clashing with Leafs' coach Ron Wilson--that have followed him for several years. To his credit, Kaberle has always said the right things, and never seemed to let it affect his performance on the ice.
Kaberle will most likely be one of the more saught-after blue-liners this summer, given his career resume and his success in Boston in winning the Cup. And, given some teams' need to make a splash (ahem), he will probably get is pay-day. Is he worth a five year deal that averages out to $5-$6 million? Is that what he's asking for? Would a team still want to be paying a 37- or 38-year-old that much money?
One thing it would seem thus far in the off-season is that Scott Howson is trying to remake the dressing room in the image of RJ Umberger and Rick Nash. Kaberle might be too strong a personality to fit in there. Then again, he might not.
It seems clear he's gone from Boston, as they got what they needed from him. I personally feel that Kaberle's too high-risk high-reward for Scott Howson's blood, but as we've seen so far this off-season Howson seems far less risk-averse than in years-past. He also knows he has to do *something* to improve the blue line, so I wouldn't rule making a push for Kaberle out.
The Case for Sekera
Andrej Sekera is 25, and has been in the league since the '06-'07 season after being selected in the thirdround by Buffalo in 2004. He has spent his entire career in a Sabres sweater. In 233 career games, he has 67 points, including 12 goals and 55 assists. He's a career +5. He's 6'0" and 200 pounds. He is a restricted free agent, coming off of a two-year, $2 million deal. He made $1.25 million this past season as part of that.
Sekera has decent size, and is coming off his best season to date, playing in 76 games and notching three goals and 26 assists. He's not the offensive threat that Pitkanen and Kaberle are, for sure, but he's young and has some upside yet. He's a decent skater, has good hockey sense, and is the kind of player Columbus has a history of pursuing; in other words, a solid but not great guy who isn't the household name and might be more under the radar (and thus, more affordable?).
Sekera also won't bring the Power Play credentials that the other two guys do, as he has just one goal and 14 career assists on the PP in 233 games played. That's not to say he can't contribute there; just that he's not going to instantly make the unit much better like a Pitkanen or Kaberle would.
While he would come cheaper, the other issue is that he's an RFA, meaning that if Howson were to go after him and sign him to an offer sheet, he might miss out on other guys while waiting, and then also lose Sekera if Buffalo matches. That said, he should come cheap, having just cleared $1.25 million this past season and not having the resume to command a boat-load of cash. This might be where Howson looks: he could be a bargain if the price is right. Buffalo has extended a qualifying offer to Sekera, so if Columbus inks him to an offer sheet they'd also have to give up a draft pick to Buffalo; if the salary averages between 1-1.5 million it would be a third rounder. If it was 1.5 - 3 million, it would be a second rounder.