Hockey's best and worst 2008-'09

It's never easy finding the no-name players who can blossom into future stars, but it's the future of the NHL, so plan your strategy accordingly.

Pulling surprise players out of the ether has always been the signature of a good general manager. Or a lucky one. Either way, the NHL’s salary cap rules make finding those rough gems more important than ever. Anyone can pick an Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. Finding an Alexandre Burrows is much harder.

Alexandre who? He plays left wing for the Vancouver Canucks and earned 51 points this season on a paltry salary of US$525,000. That makes the 28-year-old Quebec native one of the league’s top players for the money, according to Canadian Business Online’s third annual ranking of the NHL’s most and least valuable players. Indeed, excluding Chicago Blackhawk Kris Versteeg, who is still on his rookie contract, Burrows is the forward who gives the most for the least pay.

Playing with the talented Sedin twins helped Burrows pick up points, but he also brought some grit and toughness to that line, and his rugged play earned him 150 minutes in the sin bin. He even picked up a US$2,500 fine for punching Edmonton Oilers tough guy Zach Stortini from the bench during a late-season game.

Good thing Burrows signed a US$8-million contract extension through 2012 in March. His new deal nearly quadruples his current salary. Even that sum may seem cheap considering the average salary in the NHL this year was around US$2 million, but Burrows was undrafted and spent time in hockey havens such as Baton Rouge, La., and Greenville, S.C., before latching on with the Canucks during the 2005-’06 season. Since then he’s improved every season and merited a mention in last year’s ranking of value players.

Finding veteran players such as Burrows, Calgary Flames right-winger David Moss and Detroit Red Wings centre Johan Franzen is what often separates the good teams from the bad. In the old days, teams could just stock up high-priced free agents and stay competitive. That can’t be done now. Most of the teams that made the playoffs this year have one or two star players who take up to a sixth of the US$56.7-million salary cap. Guys such as Burrows, who used to be role players relegated to spot duty, now find themselves on the top two lines and playing key roles in their team’s success — or lack thereof.

Calgary’s David Moss presents a similar situation. To be sure, there were better right-wingers than him — guys such as David Krejci and Anze Kopitar at cheaper salaries — but they are all under the yoke of their rookie deals. In 79 games with Calgary this season, Moss had 20 goals, a career high, and 38 points, also a career high. As a result, his salary is getting a nice little bump next year because of a three-year, US$4.9-million deal he signed in April. That’s double the US$575,000 that the 27-year-old made this year.

And we have to salute Mark Recchi, who was a trade-deadline pick-up by the Boston Bruins. Why this winger isn’t in more demand is a mystery. All this 41-year-old does is score and he comes cheap because of his age. There aren’t many players in the league who put up 23 goals and 61 points for a US$1.5-million salary.

Want someone a little flashier with a little more upside? Try Detroit’s Johan Franzen, who inked an 11-year, US$43.5-million deal in April. The deal for the “Mule” is the second-longest contract in team history, indicating the kind of faith the Wings have in him. In the regular season Franzen scored 34 goals to go along with 25 helpers, both career highs. And he only made US$1.15 million this year.

Where do the stars rank? Pretty far down the list. Alexander Ovechkin is No. 237 when it comes to salary per point; Sidney Crosby is No. 245. And in terms of salary per minute of ice time, Ovechkin is No. 293, two spots ahead of Crosby, right near the bottom of the ranking. That doesn’t make them less important players. After all, every team needs a star, if only to attract fans, but fans actually like teams that win even more.

On the blue line it’s nice to find a scoring touch, but two other metrics that rate highly are ice time and plus/minus. Neither Nashville Predator Greg Zanon nor Pittsburgh Penguin Rob Scuderi are going to set up their own red light district — they had five goals combined this season — but both are dependable defencemen who rack up about 20 minutes per game in ice time and are solidly on the plus side. Zanon is also the league’s third-best shot blocker, while Scuderi is in the top 15.

Ironically, both defencemen were selected in round five of the entry draft — Zanon in 2000; Scuderi in 1998 — and both have paid their dues in the minors. You probably wouldn’t start your defence corps with either, but they more than capably fill in behind the top couple of spots.

Another key to success — and this has been constant throughout hockey history — is a good goalie. And if he doesn’t cost much, well, all the better. Arguably, the goalie who provided the most for the least was Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins. The 35-year-old American has bounced around since graduating from the University of Vermont in 1997, including stops in the ECHL, IHL, AHL and a stint in Finland. This year he played in 54 games, winning 36 of them, while making US$1.1 million.

Better still, his goals-against-average of 2.10 and save percentage of 0.933 were the best in the league, making him a candidate for the Vezina Trophy. He also nabbed the William M. Jennings Trophy, which goes to the team with the lowest goals against. Just before the season ended Thomas inked a new four-year, US$20-million deal, so he’ll be almost 40 if he ends up signing a contract after that.

On the flip-side, a goalie who stumbles can doom a team. Take the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending-by-committee approach. Starter Vesa Toskala’s poor season can be chalked up to injury, but he’s never proven himself a top-notch starter in the NHL so the jury is still out on whether he can justify his US$4 million pay. Behind him in 2007-’08 was Scott Clemmensen, but he was tossed overboard this year in favour of aging retread Curtis Joseph. All Clemmensen did was sparkle in New Jersey when Martin Brodeur was felled by a bad elbow. In 40 games Clemmensen let in only 94 goals for an excellent 2.39 goals-against-average. That’s solid value at US$500,000.

As for Joseph, he made US$200,000 more than Clemmensen to play in parts of 21 games and his stats were some of the worst around. At least he had company. Teammate Martin Gerber was another goalie bust at US$3.7 million, split between the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs. Perhaps the Leafs should consider signing Clemmensen as their starter next year?

The Leafs couldn’t do worse. CBO’s Fan Value Index — which factors in Team Marketing’s Fan Cost Index, on-ice performance and total payroll — puts Toronto’s finest in first. First for gouging fans, that is. In exchange for paying the highest tab to attend a game, Leaf fans are treated to a poor product. No wonder there are so many empty seats at the games.

Your best bang for the buck? The San Jose Sharks, who led the league in points and charged a reasonable amount to attend a game. Among Canadian teams, the Canucks and the Flames provided the best value. (For more on the Fan Value Index see ” Hockey gold: The Fan Value Index.”)