By Allan Muir
This time last summer, there wasn’t much interest in Michal Rozsival. The big defensemen had played well for the Coyotes during Phoenix’s run to the Western Conference finals in 2012, but coming off a contract that had a cap hit of $5 million, he was seen as too old, too limited. He was viewed as a Plan B type. As time passed, he became a Plan C.
Rozsival lingered on the open market longer than most, his value diminishing with each passing day, before he finally signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Blackhawks on Sept. 11, 2012.
By that point, his signing rated little more than a couple of paragraphs in the Chicago papers. Rozsival was seen as an upgrade over No. 6 defenseman Sheldon Brookbank and insurance in case prospect Dylan Olsen wasn’t quite ready to make the jump to the NHL. But a free agent coup? Not at all.
Rozsival was in and out of the lineup during the season, playing just 27 of 48 regular-season games as part of a bottom-end rotation. But when it came to crunch time in the playoffs, there he was, playing big minutes in key contests against the Kings and the Bruins. There may have been better signings last summer, but how many of them ended up with their names on the Stanley Cup?
That’s just a reminder that in free-agency, it’s funny how things can work out. While most of the attention goes to the players who are signed early to big money and long term contracts, there are still some impact players to be had as the offseason slides from August into September.
Of course, some UFAs are still floating on the market for a good reason. Here’s a look at some of the key names out there and what might lie ahead for each:
There are whispers that his role as an NHLPA mouthpiece during the lockout has led to the blackballing of the 32-year-old defenseman. Take a look at where Chris Campoli’s principled stand landed him and you can see that there just might be something to those rumors. The bigger issue, though, is more likely what Hainsey brings to the table—and judging by the line of Jets fans who were willing to drive him to the airport when his last contract expired, that isn’t much. Hainsey has size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds), but he’s not particularly physical and his reputation as an offensive-minded blueliner hasn’t stood up to scrutiny during the past four seasons. His mobility isn’t good, either. He’s well respected by players around the league, though, and that might make him a viable depth option for a team that needs a third-pairing veteran capable of chipping in on the second power play unit. If the financial risk is as limited as some suggest, it’s a good bet that a needy team will break ranks and pick Hainsey up . . . but he’ll probably have to wait until September for that to happen.
Boyes hoped that by signing a one-year, $1 million deal with the Islanders last summer, he’d prove that he still had plenty to offer as a 30-year-old winger in the NHL. Honestly, he did his part, scoring 35 points in 48 games while riding shotgun with John Tavares and Matt Moulson. Boyes was an effective playmaker with the extra man, useful on the PK, and he carried his weight five-on-five. So what’s a guy gotta do to make everyone forget how he edged toward oblivion in previous stints with the Blues and Sabres? With Boyes, now 31, it seems to be a matter of finding the right fit. He has to play in the top six to be effective and most teams are looking now to fill out the bottom end of their lineups. That doesn’t mean an opportunity won’t pop up—injuries happen, and GMs occasionally come to a sudden, blinding realization that their top end isn’t as good as they hoped—so he would be well advised to keep himself in playing shape. But like Hainsey, Boyes had better settle in for another month or so of waiting by the phone.
There were plenty of people who watched him regularly with the Stars and believed that the Dallas captain’s tank was empty back in 2011-12. Two years down the line, Morrow, 34, hasn’t gotten any quicker. There’s no questioning his desire, but as the playoffs proved—the Stars traded him to the Penguins in March—his legs aren’t there anymore, a problem that will only become more acute as more teams move to the roving-pack-of-junkyard-dogs model for their fourth lines. Maybe a team that’s leaning heavily on kids, like the Panthers or the Oilers, will decide that Morrow’s leadership is worth the small price it would take to sign him now. That said, those teams already have their own vets who skate like human traffic cones, so the market might not be there. This might be the end of the line.
He may be the only guy who Morrow could actually beat in a race, but Whitney’s an experienced defenseman who is still relatively young (30) and he has the pedigree of a former No. 5 draft pick. Someone will give him a shot—I’m betting on Florida, the Hurricanes or the Lightning (because GM Steve Yzerman has seen the value that can be had in a blueline reclamation project)—but that chance probably won’t come until training camps get underway and teams get a better sense of what kind of shape their D corps is in.
The big Swede is slow, too, but he doesn’t need to be fleet of foot to do what he does best: clear the crease. Murray, 33, won’t get the $2.5 million he took home under his last deal, but some team—the Canucks, maybe?—could get its money’s worth out of a $1.5 million investment for a year or two. Look for him to sign before camps begin.
Yes, there are questions about his defensive game, but no one doubts that the center can juice an offense, especially after a strong showing in the postseason that saw him score nine points in 14 games. The only thing holding Brunner down is his price tag. He is said to be looking for something in the neighborhood of $3.5 million over three to four years. That’s a hefty demand for a 27-year-old player with one NHL season under his belt and who scored just twice over the final 25 games of the regular-season schedule while playing primarily with Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg. Is it worth the risk for an offensively challenged team like Dallas, the Panthers or the Predators to commit to such a deal? Probably not, which means Brunner either needs to realign his expectations . . . or brush up on his yodeling.
An inflated sense of worth is all that’s keeping him from getting a new deal . . . at least in the opinion of one NHL GM. “He was trying to cash in on getting the buyout and double dipping,” the GM told Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun. “And once everybody who wanted a center signed them, there was no place for him to get the kind of deal he wanted.” That’s probably true, to an extent. You can’t blame Grabovski for wanting to double-dip—after all, he signed the first contract in good faith—and the next team doesn’t have an inherent right to get him at a discount simply because he’s got a load of cash coming to him. So as misguided as the GM’s indignation might be, it’s fair to say that it’s a factor. But the bigger issue for Grabovski, 29, is whether there’s a team out there that shares his belief that he can center a second line. The past few seasons with the Maple Leafs exposed his weakness as a playmaker, and after scoring nine goals in 2013 there are questions about his ability to finish . . . and no one can miss his minus-10 rating in seven playoff games last spring. Grabovski isn’t as bad as that number suggests, but it reinforces questions of where he fits, and what a team thinks that role is worth. If an NHL team does bite, I’m betting it’ll be Vancouver.
He’s going back to Europe. Probably fewer bears in the woods over there.
Despite the bout of late-night silliness on Sunday that suggested he was on the verge of signing with the Bruins, Theodore, 36, is still on the market, where his 2012-13 numbers (3.29 GAA, .893 save percentage) suggests he’ll stay. Unless, of course, the NHL decides to go the street hockey route and switches out pucks for tennis balls.