Free Agent Frenzy Watch List

Free Agent Frenzy Watch List

Free Agent Frenzy Watch List

With Free Agent Frenzy set to open the checkbooks will be ablaze with action around the NHL. There will be different approaches taken by different teams as competitors will be looking for a player to push them to the next level, Cup contenders will want to fill that last missing piece and even some of the league’s bottom feeders will be actively looking to reshape their rosters.

The 2014 free agent class lacks premier names but certainly contains fair quality across the board. Here are a handful of names at each position that will be worth tracking starting today at noon.

Goalie

Ryan Miller: Miller cost himself some serious money with a substandard playoff performance in St. Louis. He’s a systems goaltender through and through and it seemed as if he was out of his depth behind St. Louis’ roster. While he’s searching for a contender, the shallow market may leave him without many options. He’d thrive on a club where he’d see steady action each night while still being supported by a strong cast of forwards and defensemen. I don’t think he’ll be on the market long before making his choice.

Jonas Hiller: Hiller looks as if he’ll have a few options available to him on the open market, but like Miller, he’s still going to be picking from a pared down pool of suitors. Hiller’s play was once flirting with world class status before a depreciation led him out of Anaheim. While he isn’t the world beater that shutdown the Sharks and frustrated the Red Wings in the mid-2000s, he’s still a very capable goaltender who will get a fair look.

Ilya Bryzgalov: Bryz has been on a carousel the last few seasons and perhaps this summer will allow him to finally get off. He wasn’t spectacular in Edmonton or Minnesota last year, but he found a bit more stability than he had in Philadelphia, which is certainly a major improvement. I doubt that he would be in line to snag a starting job in free agency, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team looking for a quality backup who can handle upwards of 30 games give him a ring.

Justin Peters: Peters has toiled in the Carolina system for what seems like an eternity. He was stuck behind Cam Ward during his better seasons and never found a way to stick in the NHL permanently. Anton Khudobin’s arrival pushed him further down the depth chart and now he finally has a chance to look elsewhere. The thin market will make things tricky, but a team like Philadelphia or even the Lightning, who are looking for a quality backup, could give him a chance for a full year in the NHL.

Martin Brodeur: Retirement seems like the better option for Brodeur at this point as his play has taken a sharp nosedive in recent seasons. He says he wants to backup on a contending team and see somewhere in the 25 games neighborhood. I don’t seem many contenders seeing Brodeur as a viable option to carry that much weight during the year, I wonder what type of interest he gets once free agency opens this afternoon.

Defensemen

Matt Niskanen: The cream of the defensive crop seems to have a very similar feel in terms of playing style. Matt Niskanen appears to be the one player set to get the biggest payday after a very impressive run with the Penguins and talks of a long term, big money deal have been circulating for a few days now. Niskanen is a quality puck mover who will most certainly receive far more money than he’s likely worth, but his play last year justifies the asking price.

Christian Ehrhoff: A late entrant after being bought out on Sunday, Ehrhoff sported one of the league’s better possession metrics despite playing on the league’s worst team. He still has plenty of miles left and can contribute in all situations with big minutes. Don’t be surprised to see him cash in handsomely.

Anton Stralman: In almost the exact same boat as Matt Niskanen, Stralman is likely going to receive a major payday after providing the Rangers with high-quality second pair minutes during their Cup run. Interestingly, his Corsi percentage remained consistent when he was away from Marc Staal while Staal’s percentage plummeted if he was away from Stralman.

Dan Boyle: His age plays a factor here but his skillset is still highly sought after. He’s still a phenomenal puck moving defenseman who will instantly upgrade any powerplay he’s a part of. I’m interested to see what kind of money he gets if a bidding war breaks out for his services. It’s been reported that he’s expecting to get a two-year deal, so if a team is really desperate, they could break the bank on a short term deal to lock up his services.

Brooks Orpik: Every team wants a rugged stay-at-home defender and while Orpik has put on quite a few miles over his career, he’s going to be looked at as a quality asset by a number of teams. Now that he has a Cup ring, I wonder if he is desperately seeking a team on the verge of a championship or if he’s content with cashing in on one more solid contract moving forward.

Forward

Paul Stastny: Consider Stastny the consensus crown jewel of this year’s free agent crop. That may be an indictment of the overall class, but shouldn’t be a condemnation of his talents. In fact, playing a complimentary role to such talents as Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon last year probably did more for him than anything else. He’s going to get a healthy payday and provide a team with solid play in a number two center role.

Dave Bolland: Bolland might be the most curious member of this class simply because of his contract demands. He’s a terrific center who can provide quality depth in a second or third line role. I’m not sure he’s worth $5 million, however. I’d expect a team looking to take a step forward would be willing to throw that type of money at him but I think that they’ll ultimately be disappointed in the investment.

Milan Michalek: The exodus out of Ottawa continues as Michalek is set to hit the open market. He’s a consistent goal scorer who would likely thrive playing a complimentary role on a competing team. He still has plenty of miles left on his tires and could almost serve in a similar role to what Marian Gaborik did for the Kings in this year’s playoffs. That might be too specific of a role to find, especially with teams out there looking to snag a first line scorer.

Brad Richards: A buyout casualty, his name hasn’t been overly active since the Rangers exercised their right to terminate his contract. It’s surprising because he has the ability to be a quality contributor for any number of teams. He can still play on the power play and in a top-six role for all 30 teams. If he ends up getting picked up at a discount, I suspect there will be a very happy coach an GM out there.

Thoams Vanek: Vanek, like his former Buffalo teammate Ryan Miller, didn’t do himself too many favors with his play in the postseason. He was phenomenal with the Islanders and carried his play to Montreal to close the regular season. However, he was quiet in the playoffs and could have possibly cost himself a long-term deal. All bets have him heading to Minnesota and I’d suspect that’s where he lines up, even if it’s at a lower rate than originally expected.

CCM Retro Flex pads

CCM Retro Flex pads

CCM Retro Flex pads

After a lengthy vacation from the crease, CCM returned last year with a new entry into the goaltending market. The Extreme Flex pads not only represented CCM’s first official entry into the goaltending world again but it also brought about a pad with some impressive new features.

CCM developed a pad with a soft, flexible boot that allows the pad to sit a bit lower than it’s stiffer Reebok cousins. While the rest of the pad shares many of the same traits as the Reebok pads, the flexible boot and softer face (complete with knee rolls) provides a much more traditional pad than the P4 or current XLT is.

Upon first release, the pad offered a different option for goalies who weren’t as fond of Reebok pads while still providing the option to wear equipment produced by the legendary Lefevre design team. The marriage of Lefevre and Reebok/CCM pads doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon, but this and the former Reebok Larceny remain as the only pads constructed by Reebok or CCM in recent years with a different take than the flat faced look that helps to define Reebok.

CCM took things a step further this past year as they provided a new design option for EFlex users. The RetroFlex pad has the same construction as the original EFlex but with a basic, vertical stitch graphics package. The only color options on the pad, outside of the face of the shin, will be the knee rolls, outer roll and the darts between the knee rolls.

Jonathan Bernier wore the RetroFlex all season and looked particularly good in his vintage colored RetroFlex pads at this year’s winter classic.

Outside of the aesthetic differences between the EFlex and the RetroFlex, there are no other changes between the two. They’re both inspired by more flexible products in the boot while still utilizing the modern core design that can be found in pads like the Reebok XLT and others.

If you find yourself stuck deciding between the EFlex or the RetroFlex, it’s likely a simple decision between a true retro look over a slightly more contemporary graphic on the face of the pad. While I prefer the EFlex simply due to the design options available, the RetroFlex is a beautiful pad. Especially for those netminders who prefer a classic look.

Skip the painter with Bauer’s NME artwork

Skip the painter with Bauer’s NME artwork

Skip the painter with Bauer’s NME artwork

There’s no easy way to keep up with goalie mask art. If you or your child change teams regularly, a brand new paint job can look out of place after just one season of use. Not to mention, many artists charge an arm and a leg for paintjobs and if you choose the wrong one, you’re more than likely going to lose the factory warranty on your mask. Luckily, Bauer has thought of a solution to this conundrum.

Bauer’s NME3 and NME5 goal masks comes with a number of stock designs that feature a wide range of colors, patters and artwork that provides a custom look that will match a number of team’s uniforms.

These designs range from vintage inspired looks right up to designs that mimic the graphics on Bauer’s equipment line – the Reactor, for example. While the colors available are somewhat limited, most of the designs are generic enough that they will match nearly every team’s uniforms. For example, the flame graphic features a red graphic flame against a basic black background. Whether you’re playing for a team with Blackhawks, Devils or even Red Wings uniforms, you won’t run into any issues.

The center racing stripe and vintage jersey stripe graphics play the best in terms of design, but the more creative designs like the Reactor or USA graphics offer a more unique take on the practice.

Taking advantage of what Bauer offers at the junior or youth models of the NME 5 and NME 3 gives you a chance to pick up a mask with unique artwork (as opposed to the basic white or black) without needing to break the bank on a custom paint job.

Padded hockey shirts offer comfort and protection

Padded hockey shirts offer comfort and protection

Padded hockey shirts offer comfort and protection

Every player is a little different in their gear preferences. Some players like loose, free flowing equipment while others prefer to play with gear that fits tight to their body. Some players prefer the feel and protection of a slightly bulkier set up while others want to use equipment that is more minimalistic.

In the past this meant that you were either left buying the biggest, heaviest equipment in the store (if you preferred more protection) or stuck altering your gear on your own (if you prefer the minimal approach). Now, however, there are products available that offer players both options in a single package.

Padded hockey shirts have been on the market for a few years now and provide a quality, base layer product with additional padding placed in strategic locations. The product isn’t designed to serve as a standalone piece of equipment like shoulder pads do, but many players – particularly in adult leagues – have found they offer a similar level of protection without being as cumbersome as traditional shoulder pads. Ultimately, these don’t provide the same protection as a shoulder pad unit as most shirts don’t have shoulder caps, which are vital to the protective qualities of the unit.

Reebok does offer a product that combines the best of both worlds, however. The Reebok KFS Hybrid Core shoulder pad is a combination shoulder pad and padded shirt unit. It comes with a pared down shoulder pad unit with a floating sternum protector and KFS hybrid shoulder caps. It fits perfectly with the PS Core padded shirt to offer the same fit and feel of a full shoulder pad unit but with the freedom of motion offered with a padded shirt.

Reebok’s traditional padded shirt covers all the areas that your shoulder pads typically would except it is all contained in a single base layer shirt. It’s flexible, breathable fabric that is wildy popular in roller hockey and non-contact adult leagues.

Goalies can also benefit from using a padded hockey shirt. In fact, both CCM and Reebok offer padded goalie shirts that are specifically tailored to beef up the protection offered by a chest protector. A traditional padded shirt offers similar protection in the chest and biceps, but the goalie shirts have even more protection around the neck and along the clavicle. CCM’s product, in particular targets very specific areas where some chest protector units have slightly less padding; specifically on the upper bicep and underarm.

An added benefit of wearing a padded shirt under your chest protector is the height you will gain. While the overall boost may be under an inch, the shirt will literally puff your chest up and out thanks to the added padding along the shoulder.

When it comes to the goaltender specific shirts, the CCM padded goalie shirt appears to be superior simply based on the placement of their padding. The clavicle, sternum and biceps all get a boost along with additional padding for the underarms. However, the Reebok padded goalie shirt adds some additional padding around the neck line, giving a very vital area protection from sticks and skates. While it certainly doesn’t serve as a neck guard replacement, it’s better than nothing in such an important spot.

There are a number of padded hockey shirts at Great Skate and whether you’re looking for some extra protection or simply trying to find a safe alternative to shoulder pads, give each of these units a look as there are plenty of options to choose from.

CCM Resistance helmet preview

CCM Resistance helmet preview

CCM Resistance helmet preview

More and more attention and focus in equipment design is being devoted to protecting against rotational impact from hits and collisions. The CCM Resistance helmet has been constructed to add protection against linear and rotational impacts.

CCM has made a few aesthetic changes to the Vector shell that became so wildly popular across the NHL over the past number of years along with adding vital pieces of protection to the liner. These changes and alterations were driven by the desire of CCM to create one of the most protective hockey helmets on the market.

Teaming up with the University of Ottawa, CCM made sure the new features and technology protected the most vital areas of a player’s head by placing the addition padding in strategic locations around the shell and liner.

The R.E.D. System is what sets the Resistance apart from the other helmets that CCM has released in recent years as in brings a whole new level of protection into play. In addition to the traditional foam liner you can find in any high-end helmet, CCM has added two new layers of protection that are specifically combined to reduce rotational impact.

The R.E.D. system combines a series of liquid filled bladders with EEP molded shock absorbers called Impact Pods that aid in reducing linear impacts. Both work in a similar method of absorbing the impact and motion of a player’s head when taking impact during a game. The R.E.D. liquid bladders work to slow any rotation of the head while the Impact Pods expand and retract with direct collisions.

The Resistance joins Bauer’s RE-AKT helmet as two of the most protective helmets that specifically target rotational and linear impacts with specific targeted areas for increased protection.

Bauer reigns supreme at the Stanley Cup Final

Bauer reigns supreme at the Stanley Cup Final

Bauer reigns supreme at the Stanley Cup Final

Bauer reigns supreme at the Stanley Cup Final as the equipment giant can claim it is getting the most usage in each major gear category at the Final.

The only close category is sticks, which is the only category in which Bauer doesn’t hold over 50% of the usage. Their 42% share still towers over the next closest manufacturer (Easton) who slots in at 17%. It shouldn’t be too surprising to see the stick category as the most diverse in terms of usage as every manufacturer offers a number of similar, elite products. In fact, Bauer’s dominance in the category is based on their three different lines as opposed to one singular product as is seen by the overwhelming number of players wearing Vapor skates.

One other category that isn’t illustrated above is goaltender equipment. With David LeNeveu currently serving as the Ragners’ backup, there is a 50-50 split between Vaughn and Bauer users. If and when Cam Talbot returns, Vaughn will hold the majority (Quick and Jones) with Bauer and Reebok each having one goaltender wearing their equipment.

To further break down the goaltending category, Lundqvist and Talbot each wear Bauer helmets, Jones wears Pro’s Choice and Quick uses Sportmask.

These are always fun graphics to look at just to see the vast diversity of equipment used by each player. Try to figure out who is wearing what over the rest of the series so you can line up individuals with the graphic above.

Bauer APX 2 protective line

Bauer APX 2 protective line

Bauer APX 2 protective line

The info on Bauer’s follow up to their incredibly popular APX protective line is out as the APX2 protective equipment will be in stores this spring.

Bauer’s tapered fit line has added a pair of fascinating features across the board – not just to the pro models – that are designed to reduce weight and increase the performance of each piece of the line. The  APX 2 shoulder pads, elbow pads and shin guards all still feature Free Flex sections that target key areas that require additional flexibility and range of motion. For example, the Free Flex knee cap and liner extension at the bottom of the APX 2 shin pad provides an added range of motion in the knee and at the ankle for a more comfortable, natural skating stride.

Similar areas on the shoulder and elbow pads utilize a similar strategy while the APX 2 pants have specific panels with special stretch fabrics designed to lighten and increase the player’s range of motion.

Where things get interesting are inside the gear itself. In a way, it appears that Bauer is starting to pull some of the traits that made the OD1N line so groundbreaking in terms of weight. Overall, Bauer has worked to shed over 25% of the weight from their previous line. That savings, calculated over the course of an entire game equates to massive savings for the player. Think of it as lifting a total of 1000 pounds in 60 minutes of play and then taking 250 pounds off that total thanks to your equipment.

One way Bauer has done this is with Aerolite foam. Bauer has developed a new way to layer the foam in areas like the shoulder cap, chest and back panels on the shoulder pads in a way that not only increases overall protection but also limiting the total weight of the pads themselves. The APX 2 shoulder pads see the most extensive use of the Aerolite padding due to their general construction, but this is something see in vital areas on the shin and elbow guards.

Where the entire line benefits is the new 37.5 liner. This is a space age technology that wicks moisture but then uses body heat to evaporate the moisture away. The name is derived from the ideal humidity level and temperature for the body (37.5 degrees celsius).

The trick behind 37.5 is to not only pull moisture away from a player’s skin and out of their equipment, but to use the body heat generated in the game to evaporate that moisture. Therefore, the harder you skate and the more you sweat, the better that 37.5 liner works. When working at its peak, 37.5 works five times better than traditional performance liners and material.

Bauer’s APX 2 line isn’t their only product that utilized 37.5. It can also be found in Bauer base layer apparel as well.

Bauer APX2 gloves preview

Bauer APX2 gloves preview

Bauer APX2 hockey gloves preview

Bauer’s APX line has been adopted by countless professionals and elite players around the world since its first introduction. Bauer responded to the popularity by taking feedback on the equipment, retooling certain aspects and releasing new and improved versions under the name APX2 in 2014.

Among the pieces of equipment that has undergone change is the APX2 glove. The APX2 still features the tapered fit and slots in alongside the anatomically designed Supreme and traditionally designed Nexus equipment lines. The APX2 features a streamlined new look and colorway breakdown compared to last year’s model. It also features a number of technical advances that shouldn’t be ignored.

Bauer managed to shed upward of 30% of the weight off the APX2 to make it that much lighter than it’s predecessor and direct competitors. Additionally, Bauer has introduced the Quattro+ Palm system that’s designed to help wick moisture away. The new palms are full of tech and also feature matching team colors to a number of the gloves. This is an interesting choice given the widespread popularity of the typical beige color seen on most gloves. When I think of colored palms, Claude Giroux immediately springs to mind from late last season when he was trying out orange palmed gloves. I thought he looked silly and the concept definitely has the ability to look odd, especially if the palm sharply contrasts the glove itself.

Bauer also added Proron XRD foam to the back of the hand to increase protection from pucks and sticks. It’s an addition that brings Bauer’s favorite new feature into their glove line. It seems like a wise choice considering adding the material to their helmets and other protective lines has been nothing but a boon for the company.

The Bauer APX2 gloves will be on the shelves soon and will make for a great addition to your bag heading into next season.

Junior Hockey trips

phenom named Connor McDavid

Otters boast another highly marketable feature in the form of a 17 year-old phenom named Connor McDavid.

There are 60 teams across the three leagues that make up the CHL. There are 16 more teams that make up the USHL and between the two leagues, they span across Canada and into 13 American states. Depending on where you live, you’re probably a lot closer to a major junior team than you think.

From Great Skate’s driveway you could make it to St. Catharines to see the Ice Dogs in 30 minutes or less. The Erie Otters are just about 90 minutes door-to-door while many of the OHL’s other clubs aren’t  much further away.

I was able to make three separate road trips to see junior hockey played this season, making two trips to Erie and another to St. Catharines.

The trip to see the Ice Dogs was particularly interesting as Niagara was playing their final season at Jack Gatecliff arena, which was originally built in 1938. The Ice Dogs will be moving to a new, state-of-the-art arena for the 2014-15 season and having the opportunity to see one of junior hockey’s last great barns was a special treat.

The intrigue of seeing a game played at the junior level is multifaceted. Young players, competing not only for their team’s success but their own futures adds to the narrative on a nightly basis. Each team has at least one established draft prospect who is often playing at another level as compared to his teammates and opponents. The fans a passionate and informed and the atmosphere is different than many professional games you may have seen.

Jack Gatecliff Arena has a small ice surface with no more than 10 rows of seating in the stands. Standing room fans pack in the tiny concourses and the low rafters and press box overhangs add to the intimate atmosphere. Only a handful of these smaller, “old school” buildings are left as more and more teams are moving into shiny, modern buildings with better amenities and a more professional set up.

If you’re looking to track down some of the older, more intimate arenas that are left, Stadium Journey has documented the homes of all 20 teams with full reviews of each building.

The trip to St. Catharines was mainly motivated by the chance to see hockey in a building that had maintained for so long. It was also motivated by the fact that the Ice Dogs are the closest franchise to Buffalo and if there was any team I’d latch onto each season, their proximity would play a major role.

My two trips to Erie were similarly motivated (proximity) but the Otters boast another highly marketable feature in the form of a 17 year-old phenom named Connor McDavid.

As many hockey fans are already aware, McDavid is expected to be the crown jewel of next year’s NHL Entry Draft and he’s already dazzled in his first two years of junior hockey. Seats are increasingly hard to come by in Erie as the local fanbase is augmented by visitors from cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and more coming to see McDavid play. He’s worth the price of admission.

My first jaunt to the Erie Insurance Arena resulted in having to buy standing room only tickets for $17 each. The arena’s procedure for standing room landed us about seven rows behind the bench on the blueline, not a bad deal.

Instead of missing out on a seat the second time down, our group used the box office to buy tickets ahead of time in the section of our choice. We pad $16 to sit on the glass. Even without McDavid, the level of play far surpasses the price to get in the door at any arena, let along Erie.

What’s even better is that these trips are a piece of cake to plan. Many teams run cool promotional giveaways – we happened to be too late for the McDavid player posters they were giving away – and the tickets aren’t hard to come by if you buy them ahead of time. Another fun fact regarding those promotions, the player or players featured often sign autographs after the game to add to the unique souvenir.

You’re not going to be disappointed with your choice of a junior hockey road trip. The atmosphere is different than that of an NHL game, there’s rarely a bad seat in the house as the arenas are all right-sized for the crowd and the level of play is high. Maybe put together one or two for next season and grow from there.

MX3 Bauer Skates

MX3 Bauer Ice Hockey Skates

MX3 Bauer Skates

The newest alteration to Bauer’s Supreme line comes in the form of the TotalOne MX3.

Taking over the Supreme banner from the NXG skate, the new MX3 adds features that were originally unveiled with the APX2 line last year while also providing updates exclusive to the new line.

The MX3 features the TUUK Lightspeed Edge holder that features the trigger blade replacement system that came out on the APX2. Additionally, the MX3 also features Bauer’s revolutionary injected stability lace system. This is the square eyelet system that Bauer has developed to reduce or eliminate lace bite, allow the laces to glide through flat as opposed to twisting or catching and, finally, also providing for a better fit and forward flex for the skater. The square eyelets also remove the pesky round, metal eyelets of yesterday that could so easily rip out after excessive use.

Implementing the one-piece eyelet system was a no brainer for Bauer as they’ve taken such a committed approach to the anatomic design for the Supreme line. Further advances to the Curv composite upper design allows for the MX3 to provide a full 360-degree fit after the skate has been properly baked. This ensures a custom fit that’s an anatomically correct as possible.

Additional changes to the interior of the skate include a supple update to the HydraMax liner that’s already been a fan favorite from previous Supreme models.

Bauer has also developed a revolutionary new tongue system that allows a player to completely customize the shape and performance of their skate’s tongue. The 3Flex Tongue features Curv composite inserts that vary in stiffness depending on the type of flex you prefer. Much like a composite stick, the flex options are designed to act like a springboard as the player flexes forward and pushes off with each stride. Ultimately the goal is to provide a fully custom feel that allows the skate to spring backward as each stride is taken.

Another interesting feature is the features included in some of the lower models of the Supreme line. While only the MX3 offers the 3Flex tongue, HyrdaMax 2 liner and the Lightspeed Edge holder an number of features can be found on the 190, 180, 170 and 160. All four are capable of being fully baked, they each feature the Lightspeed Edge holder while the 190 and 180 also feature the Curv composite upper.

Overall the changes to the Supreme line are relatively minor compared to previous years. But the updates that were made provide an impressive upgrade to an already impressive line.