Nichols: NHL action heating up

June 23, 2010, 6:30 AM

We’re quickly closing in on the NHL entry draft this weekend, followed by the opening of free agency on July 1st. GMs across the league have been working with their staffs to identify team needs and make a game plan moving forward, which means the coming days have the potential to be packed with action for execs and fans alike. Both players and draft picks will be on the move as teams look to fill everything from active roster to organizational depth holes.

We’ve already seen some really interesting storylines unfold in the last 24 hours alone; including Nathan Horton’s trade to Boston, Tomas Plekanec’s new contract, Evgeni Nabokov’s dismissal and Scott Niedermayer’s retirement.

On Thursday, barring something huge pre-empting it, we’ll roll the Nabokov scenario (the Sharks have said buh-bye to the pending UFA) into a blog on the goaltending situation across the league. We looked at a team-by-team breakdown of starters and back-ups recently, but tomorrow will be a broader examination of what’s facing GMs looking to fill a netminding need.

All of this, actually, is taking place as I wind down a working vacation of sorts that has seen me in various North American locales. Today, should you be in the area, I’ll be cruising the roads in Yellowstone National Park. If you notice a guy wandering around mumbling “Taylor or Tyler?” you’ll know it’s me.

HORTON HUNGRY FOR FRESH START
Anyway, let’s begin with the Horton deal. He and Gregory Campbell went to Boston in exchange for Dennis Wideman, the 15th overall pick Friday and a third round pick next summer.

If you own Horton in a keeper league of any format, you should be smiling since his move to Boston definitely has the potential to benefit his stats. Poolies (and fans in general too, for that matter) should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that every deal is going to suddenly magically result in increased production for the players involved, but logically there are some pretty good reasons to think Horton’s career can take an upward path from here.

For starters, it now really doesn’t matter on which line the former third overall pick (2003) plays. Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci represent a significant upgrade over the pivots in Florida. As things stand today, Horton and a healthy Milan Lucic could flank Savard on a potentially lethal first line though. For a Boston team that really needed to add more offence to the line-up, this deal is a good one. Between Horton and either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, the Bruins are on their way to helping to put more goals past opposing netminders next season.

If you squint your eyes, you can see Tuukka Rask off in the distance doing his happy dance with visions of an occasional two-goal lead.

Horton, who wanted out of Florida, is hungry to improve and he now has a full off-season to focus on accomplishing that goal with his new team.

“I want to be more physical and just all around be a better player,” Horton said via a conference call. “I think I have more to give. I’ll be working pretty hard this summer. I want to come in the best shape. I think I’m just excited for a change. It’s going to be great. I think it’s going to work out good.”

He had 20-37-57 in 65 GP last season and really seemed to be turning the proverbial corner had it not been for his injury, but he should be a strong bet to record his second career 30-goal campaign in ’10-11 and he could approach the point-per-game mark. If he indeed intends to play more physically and if his overall drive can really go to the next level, we could also see his PIM totals rise with another 200+ SOG campaign. We may finally see him develop into a true power forward threat in fantasy circles. He has three years remaining on his $4M per year contract hit, which may turn out to be pretty reasonable if you happen to find yourself in a pool with an NHL-like salary cap.

“I’m not saying anything bad about the organization, but there have been five coaches in the time I’ve been there,” Horton told The Miami Herald of his time in Florida. “Now, I’m going to a stable, historic organization. I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I think it’ll be good. As a player, the best part of hockey is the playoffs. When you don’t make them for seven years or whatever, that’s too long. It can’t happen. [In Boston], that doesn’t happen. It’s exciting for me to come and be a part of it.”

WIDEMAN’S REBOUND
Wideman’s value is likely close to a wash with the move. His ’10-11 season was always going to be more about improving his game, rather than a focus on what would be around him. He’ll be looking to rebound from a subpar campaign (6-24-30) and he can use his puck-moving skills to both eat big minutes for the Panthers and also help the power play. A pairing with Bryan McCabe on PP1 could be coming, depending on what else happens with the team as new GM Dale Tallon puts his stamp on it. Wideman has two more years left on his current contract with a cap hit of under $4M.

Tallon told The Sun-Sentinel that Wideman will be a top-four defenceman for the Panthers; top two in some situations.

“He’ll get a lot of ice time. He’ll be in the 25-minute range and will be on the power play as well,” Tallon said. “He’s a pure passer, sees the ice extremely well and he’ll help the transition game extremely.”

Dennis Seidenberg had basically already replaced Wideman’s role with the Bruins, but also look for an increased presence from Johnny Boychuk. He opened some non-Boston-related eyes in the playoffs and keep in mind this is a guy who racked up 65 points with Providence a few years ago. The guy can play.

Czech Michael Frolik (21-22-43 in 82 GP), who had some productive spurts in ’09-10 and has interesting offensive upside, could stand to benefit from Horton’s departure with even more top six minutes.

PLEKANEC’S DEAL
27-year old centre Tomas Plekanec led his Montreal Canadiens in points this season (25-45-70 in 82 GP) and he cashed in with a new six-year, $30M deal with pending unrestricted free agency on the horizon July 1st. He isn’t a lethal offensive threat, but his skills up front are complemented by his defensive play and that counts for something. Make your own decision about whether his particular skill-set is worth $5M per year (meaning Montreal has nearly $12.4M per year in cap space tied up for two guys who averaged 65 points last year).

Regardless, Plekanec is still a pretty decent depth centre in standard league pools because he can chip in a few PIM and SOG in addition to the points. If he can average another 20 minutes of ice time per game in ’10-11 that’ll only help his chances of repeating this year’s numbers too. One positive note going forward is that the Czech centre seems to have developed his intellectual game as much as anything else, which may bode well for his future. The mental side of hockey is vastly underrated.

“I knew I had a bad year the previous year and I wanted to start strong and I had a good start,” he said on a conference call from his home in Kladno. “I knew I had to get stronger mentally and that’s what happened.”

He has taken advantage of his time with the Habs, who drafted him in the third round back in 2001.

“I spent eight years in the organization and I worked through the system,” he said. “Everything I’ve accomplished in my career, I fully deserve it.

“I’m kind of happy for myself that I fought through everything. And I was really fortunate with my health. I had no (serious) injuries.”

Fantasy leaguers will no doubt be hoping for another season spent mostly alongside sniper Michael Cammalleri.

NIEDERMAYER HANGS THEM UP
Sure-fire Hall of Fame defenceman Scott Niedermayer announced his retirement, which closes the final chapter of a pretty amazing career all-around.

In terms of how this is going to affect his Anaheim Ducks, there seems to be little doubt the impact could be noticeable. Teemu Selanne may decide to retire now and Saku Koivu might not want to re-up with the club sans Selanne and Niedermayer. Nothing is certain, but Niedermayer’s decision didn’t make it any easier for the Ducks to get the other two veterans back for ’10-11.

Lubomir Visnovsky will certainly take over the number one PP QB role. James Wisniewski, an RFA this summer, could get a bump in value for ’10-11 but it really depends on what GM Bob Murray does in the coming weeks in terms of bringing in another top-two defenceman. More help there would be beneficial to Visnovsky too. Wisniewski seems to be asking for more money than the Ducks believe he’s worth, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out now.

Luca Sbisa, the 19th overall pick from 2008, could make the jump to the NHL in the fall. It may be a little early to expect a significant offensive contribution from him, but long-term he should be a pretty good keeper. No matter what happens, at least the Ducks know they won’t have Nieds on the ice and they can move forward with Plan B.

“Obviously it changes the dynamic immensely without Scotty in the line-up,” Murray told the Orange County Register. “We’ll put a competitive team on the ice.”

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