- Craig Custance
Editor's note: This column posted prior to Paul Stastny agreeing to a four-year, $28 million deal with the Blues.
It’s the one day a year teams that can close the gap on the NHL’s best without giving up an asset outside of cap space. The prices today at the start of free agency are going to be inflated -- and GMs are going to be a little uneasy about it -- but that’s how it goes when parity rules and there’s a gap to erase between the best and those trying to catch them.
There’s no better example of this than the battle to fortify the center position in the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Kings are set, with four high-end centers, anchored by Anze Kopitar. The Anaheim Ducks took care of their business early with the Ryan Kesler trade. The Chicago Blackhawks have an advantage simply because they have Jonathan Toews.
That leaves teams in the middle such as the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild figuring out the best ways to counterattack these powerhouses down the middle.
Today becomes a critical day in that effort, with Paul Stastny in the middle of it.
Stastny is the best center available, the only one on the free agent market who can be in the same conversation as some of these other elite Olympians. Where he ends up could help shift the power of the West.
His agent, Matt Keator, has said he’ll give the Avalanche the opportunity to match any offers out there, and Stastny loves playing in Colorado, so they still have that edge. If it’s not them, the Blues are the other leaders. Chicago is a wild card if GM Stan Bowman decides he’s willing to make the space for him.
That puts pressure on the other Western Conference teams to find a way to keep pace with the contenders at center.
“I can’t control that part,” said Stars GM Jim Nill, who is on the prowl for a center. “Of course, you have to keep up with them. Maybe our 'keeping up' is our kids getting better. We can’t speed up our process. That’s when we get in trouble. If I try to speed this up... that’s where you get in trouble.”
The Wild may close the gap, not by entering the arms race at center, but by strengthening the team around incumbents Mikko Koivu, Granlund and Haula. They have cap space, would like to add help on defense and for the right price (and term) will be in on Thomas Vanek.
The complication with the Wild is that they have restricted free agent contract negotiations coming over the course of the next couple years with Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Haula, Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and others. With Zach Parise and Ryan Suter already locked in long term, Fletcher will be trying to lure players without a big appetite to match some of the term other teams will offer.
“Our fear is going out too far with too many players, without knowing what the young guys are going to cost us,” Fletcher said. “What exactly is the role? Last year by the end of the playoffs, we had Niederreiter and Coyle on the second line. We had Pominville and Parise on another line. If you’re fitting someone in, how does that change our lines? There’s a lot into this.”
In Winnipeg, they made a bid for Stastny, but according to colleague Pierre LeBrun, didn’t find themselves on the pared-down final list.
Like the others, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is leaning on drafting and developing, but he’s also open to being creative to find other ways to fill their need at center.
“You’re looking at free agency, a lot of times those things aren’t necessarily there for everybody. Someone might get the couple players that are there. You look at it from a trade perspective,” Cheveldayoff said. “Sometimes you end up staring at it. It’s something you’re consciously trying to do, but there are only opportunities maybe to do it at different times. Nothing is ever final. You’re always looking.”
The Stastny domino is a key one, but there are a lot of other moving parts as free agency gets rolling at noon ET today:
• Vanek was offered some monster contracts from Buffalo and the Islanders, but has been insistent since day one that he’s going to test the market. While the preference is always to go long-term for the player, that won’t be a deal-breaker for him today. If there’s a fit on a team Vanek is comfortable with, he’s willing to go shorter on the term of the deal.