by Colin Donohue
So the NBA and NHL free agency periods have begun and (mostly) ended, and I’ve been sitting idly by, watching, enjoying (for the most part), following and most definitely not offering any of my astute, necessary and groundbreaking commentary. Well, I’m back from trips to New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., with some quick hitter commentary about some of the BIGGER stories of the respective offseasons. Justin and I will keep tracking both leagues, but we’ll soon be turning our respective attentions to the NFL, which is seeing many teams open their training camps this week. More on American football later.
NHL FREE AGENCY
5. Penguins lose Gonchar, gain Martin, Michalek: For weeks leading up to the July 1 free-agent frenzy, much attention was focused on the Pittsburgh Penguins attempts to resign defenseman Sergei Gonchar to a short-term deal. The Penguins are woefully short on offensive talent on their blueline without Gonchar, so keeping him around was important. But the 36-year-old wanted more than the two years the Pens were willing to offer, so he ended up walking and signing with the Ottawa Senators. Pittsburgh didn’t say quiet for long, scooping up coveted D-man Paul Martin and the underrated Zybnek Michalek. The Pens will miss Gonchar’s presence on the power play (sorry, Kris Letang is not the answer) despite having Martin. Neither he nor Michalek are going to provide the same scoring punch. But those two do give the Pens solid depth at the backline, as they’ll be among a group that also includes Letang, Brooks Orpik and Alex Goligoski.
4. Hamhuis to Canucks, Volchenkov to Devils: This post-Stanley Cup season was all about defensemen. Gonchar, Martin and Michalek were all targets of several teams. But so were Dan Hamhuis and Anton Volchenkov. The former was being shopped aggressively at the trade deadline in season. He stayed put, but hit it big in free agency, inking a deal with the Vancouver Canucks that could make defenseman Kevin Bieksa expendable. Hamhuis was arguably the most coveted of D-men on the market and arguably the most solid available. Volchenkov became a more noticeable player following Russia’s failed pursuit of gold at the Olympics, and he signed with the Devils. He’s a non-scoring defensemen who’s adept at blocking pucks and staying in shooting lanes. He has decent size and a good intelligence, but he won’t wow anyone with his ability to skate or move the puck.
3. Chicago’s post-Stanley Cup purge: Chicago’s Blackhawks won this year’s Stanley Cup with a fantastic mix of solid veterans, skilled youngsters, tight defense, grittiness, finesse and timely goaltending. But we all knew that this HAD to be their year because they were pressed up tightly against the cap. They got the job done, then they had to implode the roster. They became, in essence, the NHL’s version of the Florida Marlins. So out the door went Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and Brett Sopel. And they’re probably not quite done yet. Byfuglien and Versteeg are probably the two biggest loses, especially considering their play in the postseason. They’re losing some grittiness, but they still have loads of talent in the forward ranks and an improving goalie in net.
2. Shallow forward market: As mentioned, the year was big on defensemen, but it was short on adequate forwards. There simply weren’t a lot of guys on the market who could make significant impacts for teams. Matthew Lombardi and Ray Whitney were among the best. There were and are some solid players out there, like Eric Belanger, Saku Koivu, Vinny Prospal, Mike Modano and Paul Kariya. But no one was going to give a team 30 goals or 80 points. Except for …
1. Ilya Kovalchuk: Kovalchuk has been bringing the drama this offseason. The Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders and KHL were all in the hunt for his services. This is a guy who can give a team 50 goals and 20 PP markers. But the number of teams trying to secure his services, as you can see, was thin. The Islanders made a play, but they never really had a shot. The Kings absolutely should’ve locked him up but have had trouble reaching common ground. Then the Devils finally signed him to a 17-year, $102 million contract. The NHL voided the deal because of its front-loaded structure that allowed the annual cap hit to reach just $7 million. So now, Kovalchuk is a free agent again. The Devils are still the favorites to retain the services of the player they traded for midseason last year, but the saga simply continues.
NBA FREE AGENCY
2. There are several stories to tell here, but why bother? Because …
1. LeBron James and the SuperFriends of Miami Thrice are bucking tradition (and competitiveness) in Miami: I despise LeBron James, and I guess his decision to flee Cleveland (Can you blame him, really, though? It’s Cleveland.) makes me dislike him even more. Look, he’s a free agent. He can go where he wants and play for whomever he wants. That’s his right and his prerogative. But c’mon? You’re going to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Really? What’s happened to the NBA? It used to be about the competitive spirit and energy of its stars. The fun is in watching big-time athletes play AGAINST each other in the pursuit of something special. This Miami Heat team is bad for the league, quite frankly. And it also shows me, at least, that these three apparently don’t value fierce competition. LeBron could’ve made something happen in Cleveland. I’ve heard people say that owner Dan Gilbert never surrounded him with a team. Sure he did. The Cavs have won more than 60 games twice, finished atop the Eastern Conference and even made a trip to the NBA Finals. It’s not like LeBron was peddling his wares for some squad that was struggling to get to 50 wins. The team couldn’t win in the postseason consistently, mostly because of bad matchups and because of LeBron himself, who did have a tendency to disappear for a stretch or at the end of games. I’ve always said the dude is all about himself. He seems to lack focus when he’s not in the game or when things aren’t going his way. Mentally, he still has a ways to go. That’s why his sprint from Cleveland to Miami isn’t all that surprising. He doesn’t want to be the guy who others rely on to win games, so he figured he’d go to a team where he’s flanked by Wade and Bosh. Yes, it’s his choice. But he lost a real opportunity to be a great player.
1b. Dan Gilbert’s open letter to Cavs fans: Hi-larious. Over the top? Yes. Delusional? Yes. Accurate? In some spots, yes. Bitter? Yes. Honest? Yes. And supremely fantastic? Yes. I loved the letter. Gilbert made some bold statements, including one that asserts the Cavs will win a championship before the Heat. That’s doubtful. He also said LeBron quit in the playoffs. I agree to a point. He also took some fair shots at LeBron’s personality. But I enjoyed the letter because it was refreshingly honest (if also a tad hyperbolic and melodramatic). It’s good for a laugh, particularly if you’re in the anti-LeBron camp, as I am.
1a. The Decision: The hour-long program dedicated to LeBron announcing his decision was the most overwrought, awful, ridiculous, self-indulgent piece of garbage I have ever seen on television. This was LeBron at his absolute worst. It was all about—shocker—HIM. He loves himself, and he used this as an opportunity to grow his personal brand. The interview by Jim Gray was pointless, cheesy and stupid. LeBron James has achieved absolutely NOTHING in his professional basketball career. He’s not even the best player in the league. That title still goes to the five-time champion Kobe Bryant. Yet ESPN got in bed with LeBron and his cronies and coughed up 60 minutes of programming time so that the so-called “King” could tell everyone where he would be playing next year. Putrid is one word that comes to mind. And LeBron didn’t even have the decency to call up Gilbert and the Cavs and let them know beforehand that he wasn’t coming back. Classless. But what else have we come to expect from the egomaniac.
Justin and I will be back with some NFL predictions and commentary. And be sure to join us every week on the blog so you can pick games against us during the entire season.