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.

Great Skate OT Challenge

OT challenge

Picking OT goal scorers has become one of the best games to play amongst friends in recent years. The prevalence of the practice has expanded to countless online contests, many of which are run through Twitter.

Now you have the opportunity to win a $10 e-gift card to Great Skate by participating in our own OT Challenge.

The Great Skate OT Challenge will run for the rest of the playoffs and will be done exclusively via the Great Skate Twitter account @greatskate. The rules are simple and not unlike many other OT guessing games out there.

First, you must follow the Great Skate Twitter account and be sure to retweet the game instructions that were sent out yesterday. Second, make your picks by tagging them with #GreatSkateOTChallenge. You should pick one player per team. If you guess the right play you’ll be entered into a drawing to win the $10 gift card.

Keep your eyes on the scores of all the remaining playoff games as each one will give you the opportunity to win gift cards that could go towards you next new equipment purchase. 

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.

Words of advice on goal mask artwork

Words of advice on goal mask artwork

Words of advice on goal mask artwork

A perfectly painted goal mask is the single coolest source of expression in hockey. A painted mask can showcase team pride or provide personal insights. There are a host of mask painters around the world who span from do-it-yourself painters right up to world-renowned artists who are on the speed dial for multiple NHL goalies.

However, getting a mask painted isn’t as simple as the one or two-week turnaround that NHL goaltenders enjoy when they change teams or create new mask art. It is a somewhat lengthy process that should be properly researched before steps are taken to put paint to helmet.

First off, many masks are difficult to paint while others simply shouldn’t be painted at all. Most high-impact plastic molded masks aren’t properly rated to receive paint and even if you’re able to put paint on the mask, any warranties and certifications that accompany the mask will likely be voided.

Most manufacturers higher level masks are designed to take paint and maintain their structural integrity after. Proper research to determine which masks can and cannot take paint should be done prior to making any final decisions. In addition, many companies require painters to be properly certified to paint particular masks. For example, there are specific Bauer-approved painters who have the proper certifications or approvals to paint those masks. These certifications indicate that the artist knows how to properly prepare and paint the mask so the structural integrity isn’t compromised by the process.

If you have any concerns about the quality of the mask you’re thinking about painting or you’re unsure that the painter you were planning on using is properly certified to do the work, there are other avenues to take.

Most companies are now releasing masks with decorative decals already applied so the masks have some color to them right out of the box. Many of Bauer’s junior models feature these decal sets. There is also the option of finding a custom decal shop that could potentially create a high durability decal or sticker set for a helmet that would still have custom artwork but wouldn’t compromise the helmet itself.

This isn’t all doom and gloom, either. Going the decal route is probably the safest route to take in terms of adding custom decoration to a mask. However, if you know that your mask can take paint and you’ve found an artist to do the work, go nuts! Getting my mask painted in college was a very fun experience. It took a couple weeks for the work to be done and I couldn’t have been happier with the results.

My advice for anyone who is going to take this step is to stay involved with the artist. Even if you only have a general idea that you want to let them run with, be clear with what you’re looking for. This ensures you will be happy with the final product for years to come.

CCM going back to Tacks

CCM going back to Tacks

CCM going back to Tacks

The return is coming. CCM will be reintroducing the world to the Tacks line in the coming months as the manufacturer brings a new skate line to complement the RBZ line that burst onto the scene last year.

Already being used in the NHL, Nathan MacKinnon made the unofficial news official when he posted a picture of his new skates to his Instagram account earlier in the season. While MacKinnon’s picture simply added fuel to an already burning fire of rumors and whispers about the skates, the official unveiling of the line won’t come until July ‘14.

The Tacks, on the surface look like a combination of the RBZ and Bauer TotalOne in the aesthetics department. It’s a sleek skate with bright yellow graphics that pop off a basic black boot. The design of the boot has plenty of surface similarities to it’s cousin, the RBZ. Adding in a Speedblade 4.0 holder and Hyperglide blade provides even more similarity between the two skates. Additionally, you can deduce that the Tacks will share the aggressive stance and turning radius that the RBZ boasts.

The comparison to the TotalOne is simply drawn from the yellow trim on a black base. However, the Tacks will utilize a stiff carbon boot construction designed to add straight-line explosiveness. Two features, the AttackFrame and T6 Pro Core will combine to add stiffness and high-end performance for the wearer specifically for explosive acceleration.

Exactly where the skates will fall on the fit scale is an unknown as many specific details about the new line are still under lockdown. Understandably so as CCM is bringing back perhaps the most storied and celebrated skate ever and introducing new technology that will put it on the same level as the most popular skates in stores today.