Over the weekend I was watching the NHL Network when the names of some of the remaining unrestricted free agents scrolled across the screen. One leaped out at me: Greg de Vries.
It was hard to understand why the Thrashers let him go in the first place, although I'm sure the fact that he made $2.75 million last season was a big part of it. De Vries has size and some offensive upside (former coach Bob Hartley once referred to him as his "secret weapon" for the shootouts even though that little experiment didn't last long) but most of all he's probably one of the top character guys the franchise has ever had.
From my modest view of things, the Thrashers' roster could use an infusion of leadership. Ilya Kovalchuk is the team's captain and he was lauded for his work as captain after receiving the "C" last season. No doubt, Kovalchuk has the respect of every player in that room, but going forward it remains to be seen over the long haul if he will continue to do all of the things that a captain needs to do, especially standing up after a tough loss, taking responsibility and saying all of the right things.
That has not always been Kovalchuk's strong suit, as youth and hot-headedness have caused him at difficult times either to ditch the media -- most often, to the credit of the team's public relations staff, he would be dragged back to talk long after he had showered and calmed down -- or he would say some intemperate things. (See MacTavish, Craig; Crosby, Sidney.)
And unless he signs a new contract some time by the end of December, Thrashers media availability sessions will become a circus concerning Kovalchuk's status, as they were in 2008 with Marian Hossa, as the trading deadline approaches.
For Kovalchuk, such circumstances could be far from an ideal, just in terms of team leadership implications alone, to put it mildly.
Having been out of the room on a daily basis for a little more than two years now, I cannot personally attest to the leadership qualities of every player on the roster. However, if I had to name the team's veteran leaders/character players who play key roles (especially with the loss of Garnet Exelby) I'd say they are Slava Kozlov, who can be media shy himself at times, Colby Armstrong, Marty Reasoner, Ron Hainsey and Johan Hedberg, who, as a back-up goaltender, is hardly in much of a position to lead. (I'm not saying that Eric Boulton, Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn aren't good character players -- to the contrary, they are -- but defensemen log significantly more minutes than third- and fourth-liners and play a more integral role.)
That seems a little thin to my liking, especially on the backline where Hainsey appears to be the only player in a position to lead. Maybe Pavel Kubina will be a great leader, but I'm not quite sure that's his reputation or skill set.
Now let's take a look at what you get in de Vries, who, despite his age, hasn't played fewer than 71 games in a season over the last four and twice played a full 82 in his two seasons in Atlanta. At the end of the 2007-08 season, de Vries played with a broken rib. Notably, he scored the game-winning goal over St. Louis in the second-to-last game of the season as Nashville earned the Western Conference's final playoff berth by only three points.
That's character and it's leading by example. What's more, de Vries is a calming influence, always saying the right things at difficult times. He is one of those players who helps to build team unity, as he did in Atlanta by being one of the ring leaders of team paintball games.
There's also the small matter of his having played in 111 playoff games in 10 different seasons, winning the Stanley Cup in 2001 with Colorado.
Yes, he will be 37 during the season, but who would you rather have as a third-pair defenseman, deVo or Joel Kwiatkowski, who will be 33 in March and whom the Thrashers thought they had signed until they learned that Kwiatkowski already had inked a deal to return to Russia?
For the record, de Vries is plus-23 in 878 NHL games while Kwiatkowski is minus-27 in 282 career games, albeit having played on mostly dreadful teams.
At this stage of his career, de Vries probably is not looking for a huge contract, but he likely would not play for the NHL minimum ($525,000) either. The question is whether Thrashers general manager Don Waddell has the budget for perhaps $1 million for de Vries and whether de Vries would want to return.
Last year the Thrashers were keen on having defenseman Mathieu Schneider to help in the tutelage of budding star Zach Bogosian and, by all accounts, the experiment went well. In that sense, money for de Vries would go to that same good, mentoring cause and would accomplish the same goal -- along with having a more than competent player at a key position.