Seriously, this is draining me of my will to live. Exactly how much is a fan expected to put up with? First we lose the Stanley Cup, and not four days later our best player flips us the bird (or, uh, has his agent flip us the bird) and demands to get out. I've ended relationships for far less than this.
But, you know, we have to pick up the pieces and move on. As Pierre McGuire notes, we will get something substantive in return for Pronger, so there's no need to panic. But what substantive thing will that be?
Like Cosh, I don't like the idea of the first-overall pick, mostly because I don't really see a player on St. Louis' roster that could come with that pick to make the three-four years of development neccessary worth it (also, there isn't one defenceman selected first overall since he was drafted that I would consider taking over Pronger, and probably another four-six players I either definitely wouldn't take or would be hesitant about). I think, too, given the run we had, and the players that will be returning, we shouldn't think too hard about rebuilding, and get something for now.
What that is, though, is tough. For starters, when we lose Pronger, we're not only losing our number one, we're losing a guy who bumped everyone he played with up a couple of notches on the depth chart (see the before-and-after performances of Bergeron, Spacek and Smith). How many defencemen (or players) are there in the league that do that? Secondly, we obviously need to make a conscious decision about which way we want our team to go, and trade accordingly. Obviously, we could just try and build the team we had last year, which would involve trading Pronger for a top-flight defenceman, and maybe something else. But, uh, who?
On the surface, we're at least partially in luck this year, because there are a relative bevy of number-one or number-two calibre defencemen who have become free agents this year. Obviously your top picks are people like Lidstrom, Chara, Redden, Jovanovski and Zidlicky, in roughly that order, but good second choices include Kim Johnsson (good but coming off injury), Pavel Kubina (struggled a bit at the beginning of the year, but settled down), Danny Markov, Jay McKee, Aaron Ward, Frantisek Kabrle and Hal Gill--two of those guys could roughly equal one Pronger, and as both Carolina and Buffalo showed us, having six relatively equal defenceman can work quite effectively (oh, obviously, we should attempt to sign both Spacek and Tarnstrom full out now). The problem with that, of course, is that we haven't exactly been able to attract free agents, and, wouldn't you know it, both of our all-star pick-ups from last year evidently hate the city (unless the playoffs have changed Peca's mind). Maybe a maxed-out contract could change someone's mind, but, uh, yeah, we're certainly not in a position to count on free agents.
So that leaves trades. Barring someone else signing one of those guys I mentioned and flipping them for Pronger (obviously unlikely), the list of possibilities at D isn't spectacular. Looking down the list of top-scoring defencemen, I'm not sure who you want. Zubov is great but 36, ditto Rob Blake (though considerably less great). I flat out don't trust Sergei Gonchar after his minus parade in Pittsburgh, and neither McCabe or Kaberle is all that sound defensively. Niedermayer and Phaneuf both look good, but our odds of acquiring them are basically zero (though the irony in sending Pronger to Calgary would be kind of delicious, albeit terrifying). Rounding out the top 20-ish, there's Schneider (meh, though if he was packaged with one of Detroit's skilled forwards, sure), Dan Boyle (sure, but Tampa is spending $20mil on 3 players, so I doubt they add another 6mil+ contract, though maybe they'd deal one of those forwards), Kimmo Timonen, John-Michael Liles (no), Brian Rafalski (meh), Paul Mara (meh), Jay Bouwmeester (sure, but is Florida dealing it's two best players in one week, or at least offseason?) and Joni Pitkanen (again, okay with a skill forward, like Umberger or Carter or Nedved; or a goalie).
Going another way--that is, the way where we try to build a different kind of team--the list of forwards or goaltenders we could potentially acquire is obviously quite vast, though I think that we'll probably lean towards dealing him to an Eastern team (Central at best), if only for his sake (the Atlantic division doesn't come back to Edmonton for another three years). Rick Nash was mentioned in the comments, maybe Atlanta is willing to drop Hossa/Kovalchuk for Pronger, there were (quiet) rumours of Martin Brodeur coming to Edmonton last year, maybe Toronto takes a look at their blueline and offers Alex Steen and a goalie or something, maybe Buffalo decides they have enough good young forwards to let go of Afinogenov and someone else.
In terms of straight-up value, there's obviously precious few players we should be willing to take, compounded by the fact that most teams that have these players probably won't just trade for the hell of it (besides Pittsburgh and Washington, who obviously aren't trading their all-stars, most teams with top-calibre players did pretty well this year, save perhaps Atlanta).
For what it's worth, the more I think about it, the more I like a place like Philly. Their D core was kind of rough last year, and could be losing Johnsson, Therien and Desjardins. They're in the Atlantic, so we don't have to see Pronger again for a while, and they have enough to offer us to make it worthwhile--say Pitkanen, one of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter or RJ Umberger and Robert Esche for Pronger and Winchester. Then maybe we can take a run at some free agent defenceman, say offer Kubina more than cap-conscious Tampa is willing to pay, and our top six is Pitkanen-Spacek, Staios-Kubina and Tarnstrom-Bergeron, with Matt Greene and Dan Syvret coming in from time to time. Esche protects against Roloson not resigning, and offers a reliable potential starter even if he does. Our core forwards are then a rookie squad, with everyone below, what, 26 (Stoll, Horcoff, Hemsky, Torres, Philly guy, Schremp, Pouliot, maybe JF Jacques)? Oh, and we probably still have a decent amount of cap space left, because between Pronger and Peca alone, we're waving goodbye to $10.5mil, and while some people are getting raises, they probably don't equal that much money.
Having said that, though, I think you give it a little bit of time and try to sign one of those other top-calibre defencemen in the first week or two of free agency; if that works, you're in the position of dealing Pronger for whatever the hell you want, probably a really good winger. I will admit that, at this point, I have as much faith in that actually working as I do in my Japanese fighting fish replacating cold fusion, but hey, let me dream.
And actually, I guess even if the Oilers are an abusive relationship I just can't leave, at the very least I still get to participate in idle speculation about trades and free agents, which really is about half the fun of hockey for me anyway. Maybe good players always wanting to leave our city isn't such a bad thing after all.
UPDATE: According to Spector, Bob McKenzie says the Rangers and Leafs are very interested in Pronger. Looking over their rosters, I don't know what we'd want. With Raycroft, maybe the Leafs part ways with Aubin or Tellqvist, but is either really a bonafide number one? I guess they could throw together a package of Kaberle and a few of their kids (Steen, Stajan, Wellwood), but that doesn't particularly appeal to me. New York is even more baffling, unless we're talking Jagr. I sincerely doubt they'd deal him or Lundqvist (unless they think Al Montoya is ready?), and beyond that, who's worth Pronger, even in pairs? Two of Prucha, Sykora, Kasparitis, Rucchin, Nylander, Malik or Straka? Barring the signing of one of those number one guys I mentioned earlier, I don't see any of that happening, if only because most of those guys are 34+.
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