Lubomir Visnovsky set off alarm bells when his first comment on being traded by the Los Angeles Kings to the Edmonton Oilers was “I’m very disappointed.”
But the puck-rushing defenceman made clear that he was happy to go to a city where hockey is king and the team has a chance to make the playoffs.
He was just miffed at how the trade was handled by Kings general manager Dean Lombardi.
It started with a call on Sunday from his agent Neil Sheehy telling him he was traded to the Oilers, who were not among the six teams that had been discussed as possible destinations, including two unspecified Canadian clubs.
“No one called me from the L.A. organization,” Visnovsky said Monday on a conference call from his home in Slovakia. “The general manager from the Edmonton Oilers, Kevin Lowe, called me, but no one from L.A.
“Big surprise for me.”
Visnovsky, a strong power-play point man who comes with a big contract, was acquired for forward Jarret Stoll and defenceman Matt Greene as Lowe opted to make a big move before free agents hit the market on Tuesday.
The Oilers are still smarting from a blockbuster deal two years ago to land star defenceman Chris Pronger, who helped them reach the Stanley Cup final but then asked out of Edmonton for personal reasons after only one season. He was dealt to Anaheim. Then last summer, Lowe signed free agent blue-liner Sheldon Souray from Montreal, but struck out on other signings.
That led to bold offer sheets to restricted free agents Thomas Vanek, which Buffalo matched, and Dustin Penner, whom Anaheim let go to the Oilers. Rival GMs blasted Lowe for making the first offer sheets to restricted free agents in 10 years.
With the Visnovsky deal, the Oilers bypass the free agency process and pick up a hard-to-find puck-moving defenceman who can bolster their power play. The move has increased the likelihood that the Oilers will trade blue-liner Joni Pitkanen.
Next season, Visnovsky begins a US$28-million, five-year contract extension that will make him the Oilers’ highest-paid player.
Greene, a physical but low-scoring defenceman, earns $1.25 million next season while Stoll, who has struggled since suffering a concussion two seasons ago, is to become a restricted free agent.
The 31-year-old Visnovsky is also coming off a difficult season in which he dropped to eight goals and 41 points after consecutive seasons with 17 and 18 goals respectively.
He said the slump was partly due to being moved to the left point on the power play.
“I love to play on the right,” he said. “It’s easy for my one-timer. It’s my strong side.”
His main concern about the move involves his fiancee, who is expecting their first child.
“I told Kevin that for family, it’s a better life in L.A., but for hockey, it’s a better life in Edmonton,” he said, but quickly diffused fears that he may ask out after one season.
“It’s OK – she’s strong and she helps me,” he said. “If I’m happy, she’ll be happy.”
What he wants is to make the playoffs after five early summers in Los Angeles.
“I’m very happy to play for Edmonton,” he said. “In Canada, hockey is the No. 1 sport, just like in Slovakia.
“I love countries that love hockey. Edmonton has a big history, they won five Stanley Cups. They have great fans and one of the best ice (surfaces) in the league.”
Lombardi may not have called Visnovsky, but had nice things to say about the five-foot-10 defenceman after trading him.
“I think the world of this guy,” Lombardi said on his own conference call. “You’ve got the top guys like Lidstrom, Rafalski, Zubov, Pronger and Niedermayer and I think he’s right in that next layer.
“A quality person. Can’t say enough about him as a player. As far as his production, up there in Edmonton with the forwards they have and Souray, I think his production will rebound.”
Lombardi likes that the two players he got are younger and can grow along with a gifted core of youthful skaters that includes Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov, Jack Johnson and this year’s No. 2 overall draft pick Drew Doughty.
He feels Stoll can bounce back from a season in which he had only 14 goals and was minus-23 in Edmonton, well off his career-best 22 goals and 68 points in 2005-06. At his best, Stoll is a versatile skater who is strong in the corners and the face-off circles.
“This is a good player who can do a lot of good things for you – take faceoffs, kill penalties, play the point on the power play – but still the best thing I like in him is his competitiveness,” Lombardi said.
Greene has only one goal and 205 penalty minutes in 151 career NHL games but “the thing with him is that he really comes to play,” the Kings GM added.