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The Opening Faceoff: Looking for do-overs

by Shawn P. Roarke

A young cowboy named Billy Joe grew restless on the farm
A boy filled with wonder lust who really meant no harm
He changed his clothes and shined his boots
And combed his dark hair down
And his mother cried as he walked out
Don't take your guns to town son
Leave your guns at home Bill
Don't take your guns to town
He laughed and kissed his mom
And said your Billy Joe's a man
I can shoot as quick and straight as anybody can
But I wouldn't shoot without a cause
I'd gun nobody down
But she cried again as he rode away
Don't take your guns to town son
Leave your guns at home Bill
Don't take your guns to town
He sang a song as on he rode
His guns hung at his hips
He rode into a cattle town
A smile upon his lips
He stopped and walked into a bar
And laid his money down
But his mother's words echoed again
Don't take your guns to town son
Leave your guns at home Bill
Don't take your guns to town
Don’t Take Your Guns to Town, Johnny Cash

Most of us know just how Johnny Cash’s epic song of youthful arrogance turns out. Bill gets full of himself upon arriving in town, challenges a man to a fight and is shot dead. As he lies dying on the floor of the local saloon, he mumbles his mom’s last words – “Don’t take your guns to town son, leave your guns at home, Bill.”

The dominant lesson here is obvious: Listen to your mom! But Don’t take Your Guns to Town also is a cautionary tale about the decisions we all must make on a daily basis and the impact those decisions can have. So how does this little life lesson apply to hockey? Read on, my friends.

Opening Faceoff

In pro hockey, one of the toughest decisions a player will face during his career is the decision on where he will play the game once he is unconditionally granted that life-altering decision through achieving free agency.

Everyone celebrates the benefits of free agency – the freedom of movement for the player, the right to choose a workplace of his liking and, of course, the opportunity often presented to earn a sizable raise in pay. But there are negatives. Players, if they choose to switch organizations, must start anew and deal with the distractions of working in a new city, the issues surrounding the relocating of family and the always difficult challenge of meshing with a new set of teammates.

Sometimes, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Take Jeff Hamilton as an example. The 30-year-old was wooed heavily by Carolina before deciding to leave Chicago and join the Hurricanes. In Carolina, he has been given an expanded role and is en route to a career season.

Sometimes, the positive and negatives cancel each other out and the player does not feel much of a change on or off the ice. Paul Kariya moved from Nashville to St. Louis this summer, but has not missed a beat on the ice or in the community.

Sometimes, though, the negatives far outweigh the perceived positives of free agency, leaving a player in a far worse hockey situation than the one the one he left behind at the arrival of free agency on his doorstep.

And it is that last situation that CTN looks at in this week’s Opening Faceoff, presenting 10 players that probably have thought more than once that perhaps the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.

Now, CTN would not be so presumptuous to suggest that these players are not happy – on the whole – with their new situations. Rather, CTN is just pointing out here some players that have not transitioned as smoothly as expected from their former team to their new employer.

Fortunately, for both these players and their new teams, the season still is young and time remains to find the key to on-ice success. Here’s hoping each one finds the balance between the positives and negatives of free agency that must be achieved in order to find ultimate success.

David Aebischer, Montreal -- Sure, the situation wasn’t good in Montreal last year. Aebischer had to share time with Cristobal Huet, who was a better bet for the No. 1 job going forward. Plus, stud goalie Carey Price was waiting impatiently in the wings. Aebischer rightly understood that his role was going to be limited with the Canadiens. So, he happily signed with the goalie-starved Phoenix Coyotes, believing he had a better-than-even chance to assume the No. 1 job. But that proved not to be the case. Aebischer did not lay claim to the top job and made just one appearance before being sent to the minors. Earlier this week he was loaned to Lugano in his native Switzerland. The holder of a very respectable 106-74-12-5 record, as well as a 2.52 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in seven NHL seasons, Aebischer is out of the NHL less than six months removed from free agency.

Jason Blake, Toronto --
It’s hard to put Blake on this list because of the unfortunate off-the-ice turn his life has taken after being diagnosed with a form of leukemia earlier this season. CTN did not include other injured free agents on this list, like Sheldon Souray and Mathieu Schneider, because CTN believes injury can strike anywhere, at anytime. But Blake has not missed much time because of the illness and made a point of saying that it would not affect his game. Something, though, clearly has affected Blake’s usually abrasive, hard-charging game. A fan favorite on Long Island, Blake scored 40 goals and was the emotional spark for that over-achieving club. This year, he has two goals and is on pace for just seven. Not exactly what Toronto bargained for when it ponied up big money to make Blake the centerpiece of their summer shopping spree.

Chris Drury
Chris Drury, New York Rangers -- The secret to Chris Drury’s success always has been the unerring accuracy of his shot. Unlike a lot of centers, Drury never has shied away from shooting the puck. He could be a shoot-first, ask-questions-later kind of player because he was deadly when he decided to pull the trigger. His career shooting percentage entering this season after more than 600 NHL games was close to 13 percent. His worst season, percentage-wise, was 2001-02, when he converted just 8.90 percent of his career-high 236 shots. Last season, he clicked on 18.59 percent of his shots in potting a career-best 37 goals. This year? Drury has just five goals on 80 shots for a paltry 6.25 shooting percentage. How bad is it? Drury is on pace for a career-best 273 shots, but at the current pace, that would result in a career-low 17 goals.

Radek Dvorak, Florida --
“Devo” broke into the League with Florida in 1995-96 as part of the best team in Florida’s history. In his rookie year, he enjoyed a run to the Stanley Cup Final and scored 69 goals in 4-1/2 years before moving on to the New York Rangers. Dvorak was excited to return to sunny Sunrise this season, returning to a place of many good memories. But things have not worked out as planned. In 25 games, Dvorak has just one goal and five points – numbers almost beyond comprehension for a player as talented as Dvorak. But the numbers do not lie: Dvorak is on pace for a three-goal, 17-point season.

Scott Gomez, New York Rangers --
It wasn’t the greener grass on the other side of the fence as much as it was the green grass on the other side of the river – the Hudson River – for Gomez. He broke in with the New Jersey Devils and played in the shadow of the Rangers for seven years, despite the fact that his team was far more successful. So Gomez decided he would give the bright lights of Broadway a try. So far, though, they have been blinding. Unlike struggling teammate Drury, who is trying – unsuccessfully – to shoot his way out of a slump, Gomez is far too reticent to shoot and has become a pass-first, shoot-almost-never option. At his current rate, he will struggle to top 200 shots this season and top the 13-goal mark. He had 33 goals two years ago.

Scott Hannan, Colorado -- The Avalanche signed Hannan to shore up their defense. At the time, who could argue with that thinking? Hannan was a stud for the San Jose Sharks over the previous six years and was just 28. In his NHL career, he had never been a minus player at the end of a season, and he also found a way to chip in with the odd important point now and again. This year? Hannan is minus-13 after 22 appearances, and if things don’t change for the better, is on pace to finish with an unsightly minus-48 mark. His offense also has tailed off, just not as dramatically. For the past four seasons, he had averaged five goals and 22 points. This year, he has no goals and four assists, which means he will certainly have to get hot if he wants to top 20 points for the fifth straight season.

Scott Hartnell
Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia -- This one gets a little confusing as Hartnell didn’t have complete say in the matter. He was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1, but Nashville traded his rights to Philadelphia, who then put on the full-court press to get Hartnell under contract before July 1. Hartnell quickly was won over and joined the rebuilding effort already in full swing in the “City of Brotherly Love.” But while the 2007-08 Flyers are exceeding everyone’s expectations, Hartnell has been an unmitigated flop so far on Broad Street. He struggled mightily his rookie year, but has been a double-digit scorer in each of the past five, topping out at 25 two seasons ago. This year, he has three goals in 23 games. More tellingly, he has just eight points. He’s on pace to finish with a mere 28 points, a total that has been unthinkable since Hartnell followed a 16-point rookie season with a 41-point sophomore campaign back in 2001-02.

Dustin Penner, Edmonton --
The summer’s most-talked about signing has yet to find his groove in the city of champions. Edmonton’s signing of Penner to an offer sheet nearly set off an international incident and is the foundation of a feud that still percolates between the Oilers and the Anaheim Ducks, Penner’s former team. Penner has not had a bad season by an stretch, on pace to finish with 38 points – just seven off the career-high he posted last year with the Ducks in his sophomore season. But Penner is not scoring goals like Edmonton believed he would when they lavished an extravagant five-year offer sheet on him. Penner has just four goals this year, after scoring 29 last year, and has not shown the consistent desire to drive the net like he did in Anaheim. He also is struggling to adapt to his newfound status as a star after fitting quietly into the background – on and off the ice – with the Ducks.

Yanic Perreault, Chicago -- Since breaking into the League in 1994-95, Perreault never has scored fewer than 16 goals. In fact, he has seven 20-goal seasons on his very accomplished resume. But the veteran center’s scoring touch has deserted him since arriving in the Windy City as a free agent this season. He has just three goals, on pace for 11, on a young and rapidly improving Chicago team. He is also on pace to finish as a minus-18, which would be the worst plus-minus number of his entire NHL career. Fortunately, he still can win faceoffs. He has taken 191 of them this season, winning 126, for a 66-percent success rate, the best on the club.

Darryl Sydor, Pittsburgh -- For years, Sydor has been the prototypical defenseman – solid in his own end and dangerous in the offensive end. He also is a proven winner, claiming Stanley Cups with Tampa Bay and Dallas. So it is little wonder the Penguins jumped at the opportunity to sign a proven veteran leader for their young team. Things have not worked out as well as expected, though. Sydor’s offensive game has all but disappeared. He has one point this season despite sharing roster space with some of the most talented offensive players in the League. He is also on the way to a minus-30 campaign, which is shocking for a player that is plus-16 for a career that began all the way back in 1991-92.

The Opening Faceoff | The Breakaway | The Penalty Box


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