NHL GONE NUTS

 

I had planned to put together a nice spread talking about how every team did over the season and playoffs, but whatís been happening since the NHL Draft leading up until now is much more intriguing.  After all, by now we all know Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup, and the other 29 teams have to basically figure out where they went wrong.  Calgary of course will be first in line trying to beat the Lightning at their own game (although they arenít doing themselves any favors letting key players sign elsewhere).  So at the risk of sounding redundant and boring, Iíll save the report cards for the next time we actually have hockey to watch, whenever that may be.  I promise.

In the meantime, turn off the lights, lock the doors and throw away the keys, the NHL has officially gone crazy, or at the very least, a handful of teams have anyway.

Have I missed something here, or did the NHL powers that be not send a memo to every team requesting they all act responsibly when the free agent flea market opened for business?  This is what reputable NHL sources would have you believe.  Yet, a handful of teams, not necessarily the usual suspects either, have opened up their wallets, big time.  If the NHL wants to make a case of cost uncertainty or make people believe there are teams with financial troubles, they sure havenít fooled me.

Case in point, the former Stanley Cup Champions from New Jersey, in an effort to keep a key member of their nucleus, John Madden, threw a whopping $4 million at him to retain his rights.  This is a team who said no to Bobby Holik just three years ago, allowing him to run as fast as he could to one of the teamís most hated rivals, the New York Rangers.  At the time, Lou Lamoriello called his team ďthe best bang for your buckĒ.  What happened?  Now it appears to be sign your players, whatever the cost, so you donít lose out to another team willing to pay big bucks.

Now Iím not trying to suggest New Jersey canít afford the money, but there are teams throwing cash around who just a few months ago said they didnít have it.

Take Pittsburgh for instance.  The latest story coming from there has the team trying to get permission from the state of Pennsylvania to build a casino in Pittsburgh where 100% of all proceeds will go towards building a much needed new arena to replace the old and obsolete Mellon Arena.  Over the past couple of years the team has sent every one of their high priced assets to other teams in an effort to save salary money.  Mario Lemieux, the teamís co-owner, has even gone so far as to hint the Penguins may not last in Pittsburgh beyond the next collective bargaining agreement.  Yet, this week the team signed former Penguin Mark Recchi to a $9 million deal spread over three years, the third year being an option year (my guess is provided thereís still a team in Pittsburgh).  It was no secret Philadelphia wasnít going to sign him, after having already commited to keeping Keith Primeau in a Flyers jersey for the next several years.

Then you have Chicago, who in recent years have said no to signing high priced free agents.  Not this time.  They signed Matthew Barnaby for $5.25 million over three years, and Curtis Brown for $6.8 million over four years.

Probably the biggest deal of them all so far comes from the proverbial centre of the hockey universe, Toronto.  They couldnít agree to terms with their goalie Ed Belfour on a new deal, waiting literally until the last minute to announce they had signed him to a two year deal worth a reported $22 million!  This makes Belfour the highest paid goalie in the NHL instantly, higher than Martin Brodeur who has won three Stanley Cups, and more than any other member of the Leafs, and even more than any other NHL player (he's tied with Jaromir Jagr, who also makes $11 million per year).

If I'd ask you to list the top five players in the NHL right now, at any position, would Jagr or Belfour be your first choice, or in the top five at all?  Truthfully now!  This is what's wrong with the NHL! 

To add more puck insanity to the deal, apparently a good portion of it will be used to option a third year or a buyout should the Leafs management decide after two years they no longer want Eddie The Eagle on their roster.

Toronto didnít stop there, signing two of their top forwards, Joe Nieuwendyk ($3 million) and Gary Roberts ($3.75 million).  Both deals are for one year.  This should keep the Leaf fans quiet for now, but they wonít be too happy about what public enemy #1, a.k.a. the Ottawa Senators have done.

Dominik Hasek signs in Ottawa for $2 million per season, with a potential of turning it into $5 million should Ottawa win the Stanley Cup, a bonus theyíll gladly pay if it means beating their provincial rivals from the aforementioned city.  After the Senators lost out a fourth straight time to the Leafs this past postseason, team owner Eugene Melnyk wrote a letter to all fans and posted it in every Ottawa newspaper, the gist of the letter saying he hates losing and heíll do whatever it takes to bring a winner home, going on further to state heíll be damned if heíll let the Senators go on as long as the Leafs had without winning a championship.  Ouch!  Now he seems to be putting his money where his mouth is, leaving general manager John Muckler to do all the dirty work, sending Radek Bonk and Patrick Lalime packing, and bringing in Hasek.  Itís almost unfathomable to think there might not even be a season, but then again, whenever there is, they still have to play the games.

Speaking of Bonk, Ottawa wasnít interested in putting forth a $3.5 million qualifying offer as he never really lived up to his potential, so thinking they were doing some good, they shipped him off to Los Angeles for a draft pick.  L.A. then sent him to another one of the Senatorsí divisional rivals, the Montreal Canadiens.  Along with Bonk went a very good backup goaltender in Cristobal Huet, and going the other way was an up and coming starter in Mathieu Garon, who would most likely not see the playing time he deserves behind Jose Theodore.  Now hereís the kicker.  The Habs immediately offered the aforementioned qualifier of $3.5 million Ė this for nothing more than what will be at best a third or fourth line centre!  Maybe Iíve missed something here, but arenít these the same Habs who just last year reported a loss of $30 million?  And arenít these the same Habs who didnít want anything to do with Alexei Kovalev, Darren Langdon or Stephane Quintal with their similar price tags?  It just doesnít make any sense.

As I write this, apparently Mike Ricci has signed with Phoenix, Brian Rolston with Minnesota, and Joe Thornton has agreed to a tentative deal with H.C. Davos of Switzerland, should the NHL not drop the puck.  The Stanley Cup finalists from Calgary have secured their backup goalie Roman Turek, but couldnít keep Craig Conroy from signing in Los Angeles, and still have their top goalie Mikka Kiprusoff to deal with.  A well known commentator for the Flames recently polled 25-30 people and asked them if Conroy was worth $3 million a year, and all but one said no, but had this to say: "He is if some dumb owner is willing to pay it ... and they will".  I guess this means what it means with reference to the Kings.

Why all the movement with all the uncertainty?  My thought is two reasons.  One, teams donít want to lose their most valued assets when they do play again, and two, players not given a qualifying offer donít want to be left out of work.  For many general managers, itís simply business as usual, they need to have their team ready to go in October, whether they play or not.

There could also be an ulterior motive at work here, as the revamped World Hockey Association is getting set to return to the ice with or without the NHL to compete with, and word on the street is the teams will be looking to entice more than a few familiar names.  For those who think it wonít happen, think back to the WHAís original stint, when players like Bobby Hull, the leagueís commissioner, and Gordie Howe both signed for less money than their NHL teams were offering at the time.  The result was what Hull believes is a more exciting brand of hockey.  "It's going to be a gun and shoot style of hockey," Hull said of the league's style of play.  "We're also going to get the goaltender's equipment down so that a guy can see a bit of webbing when he comes in on the net."  Hull maintains they aren't trying to lure big names to the league, but also says they will be welcome with open arms.  Whether or not it will be a more exciting product to watch remains to be seen, but in my opinion will be better than no hockey at all.  So far I like what Iím hearing, as efforts will be made to let the stars show their stuff, but I canít help but notice the logo for the new Halifax Icebreakers franchise bears a striking resemblance to the old New York Islanders ďfish sticksĒ logo.  Thereís also word ďthe next oneĒ, 17 year old Sidney Crosby could be drafted 1st overall when the league holds their entry draft next week.  So far there are five teams in Dallas, Quebec City, Halifax, Orlando and Detroit who have confirmed their interest in playing, with the potential for two more teams in Toronto and Hamilton.  You can be sure Iíll have more on this as we hear about it.

Wayne Gretzky had an interesting take on the whole free agency/collective bargaining issue in a recent radio interview.  He went so far as to suggest the idea of players not being able to sign more than three year terms.  Rookies and newer players would be restricted to three years, and veterans limited to two.  Obviously, with a system in place such as this, the NHL and NHLPA would have to get rid of qualifying offers and restricted free agency.  This way, it would force players to perform every year, and since the market would have over 150 free agents at least every year, players would look for security more than pay dirt, thus they would sign on to at least have a spot, not hold out for fear of losing their spots.  It makes a lot of sense.  Just think of Martin Havlat, Marian Gaborik and Mike Comrie last year.  If they were up against a whole bunch of players, they may not have held out as long as they did.  Personally, I think he has something there, and the NHL and NHLPA should consider it as part of what Gary Bettman calls ďthe next financial systemĒ.

Speaking of Bettman, where is he?  Why has he not chimed in on this yet?  I mean, I figure every trade or signing has to be officially registered with the NHL, and if Bettman himself doesnít like the terms of a deal, couldnít he himself veto it?  Why did the NHL go to all the trouble to report financial uncertainty, yet they are continuing to allow the madness we are witnessing?  Too many unanswered questions, and weíre already in July.  Note to Mr. Bettman, October is three months away, how about a public address about what is happening behind closed doors, because we havenít heard from you since the Stanley Cup finals.  Itís time to stop contradicting yourself. 

Contrary to popular belief, I really donít like to pick on any one person, but the NHL commissioner has just got to go if he doesnít see the NHL through to what he calls a ďsound economic systemĒ.  Bettman has been bragging all season the NHL is $300 million in the red.  Any other commissioner of any sports league would try to hide that fact, let alone be fired for such results!  The state of the NHL is a direct reflection of his ability to run it.

Yet, the teams around him just simply donít seem to care, they seem to have the money to secure their assets, and theyíre not afraid to use it.  Letís just hope the owners, players and player union can all get their act together so we can watch what really matters, the games themselves.

So where do we go from here?  September 15 is coming fast and furious, and still the players union and NHL are no closer to a new CBA than they were two years ago.  Many players are preparing for the worst, a possible shutdown of the league for a season or more, something which many of the so called experts say could ultimately kill the greatest hockey showcase on earth.  I remain cautiously optimistic, but this optimism is wearing thinner by the day.  Barring a last minute miracle like in baseball a few years back, all indications are there will be a lockout for at least a portion, if not all of next season.  Letís hope Iím wrong.

Take care everyone and enjoy the rest of the summer, and fear not, because even if we donít have an NHL season, there will still be lots to talk about, most importantly, the World Cup of Hockey towards the end of August.  For more hockey commentary, stay tuned right here and be sure and keep this very website in your favorites folder.

 

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