WAIVER WOES

 

With teams already at the quarter mark of the 2005-06 NHL schedule, we’re beginning to get a sense as to what teams are making it, which teams are on the bubble, and which teams just aren’t going anywhere – fast.

Thanks to the new salary cap system implemented by the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement, a team, whether they’re on the bubble or not, is very limited as to what options it can go with.  Is a marquee player not performing up to expectations?  Send them down to the minors or trade them, right?

Wrong.  If only it were that easy.

In the old NHL, this was something which could be done with relative ease, but in the new NHL, there are some things a general manager must consider before making a move to shake up a roster.

A player making more than $75,000 on his current contract has to clear waivers before even being called up from the minor leagues, AHL or otherwise.  An active player who has played more than three full NHL seasons, has to clear waivers before being sent down.

So what’s a team to do?  Everybody’s got their eye on the waiver wire, so you can’t sneak one under the radar anymore, as teams are finding out.  Then again, judging from some of the names who have been put on waivers of late, there aren’t many teams willing to pay the kind of money these players are making, and clearly nobody wants to take out another team’s garbage.  Not only that, a team who does claim a player on waivers only has to pay the player half of the salary, with the old team on the hook for the other half, but here’s the kicker – it counts towards the cap!

With Edmonton picking up Krys Kolanos or Anaheim with Todd Marchant, none of this seems to have been an issue, but these have been the exceptions rather than the norm.  The bottom line is if a team is prepared to send a player down, they had better be prepared to lose him yet still pay him!

Even if a player does clear waivers, there’s still the whole salary cap issue.  A team can’t just trade a player to dump a salary anymore unless you have a willing buyer who can fit that player into their existing salary structure.  The resulting trade is usually a blockbuster, of which we’ve already seen a couple go down – more to come. 

As for fitting players into a salary structure, most every team is finding out if you shuffle a rookie between the minors and the NHL it actually saves the team money.  The Ottawa Senators made it clear very early into training camp they were only going with 20 players in order to give them an opportunity to make a deal down the road if one is even needed.  In the early going the Sens had Brandon Bochenski and Patrick Eaves both up with the big club, only to get sent down once Mike Fisher and Vaclav Varada returned from injuries.  They still have a problem any team would love to have on defense – who do you play every night?  The Senators roster carries veterans Wade Redden, Chris Phillips along with Zdeno Chara, Brian Pothier and Anton Volchenkov.  Rookie Andrej Meszaros has been anything but, so he has played every game, yet another rookie Christoph Schubert has been rotating spots with Pothier and Phillips.  One would think Schubert should be in the minors, but then he’d have to clear waivers.  Given Ottawa’s record in the early going, nobody is complaining.

Something else to consider is injuries don’t count as long as a player misses more than 10 games, not to mention a team can also use the emergency recall tactic, so long as it’s only used to replace an injured player.  Using the Ottawa example, with Martin Havlat now out with an extended period of time with a shoulder injury, his salary won’t count towards the cap, which ultimately means Bochenski may be back in Ottawa for awhile.

Toronto and Philadelphia seem to be two teams who are taking full advantage of shuffling between the AHL and the NHL, but only because their minor affiliates play across the street, literally.  The Maple Leafs have recalled and sent Carlo Coliacovo down to the Marlies so many times he’s likely to have played almost two full seasons by the time the year is out.  Ditto for R.J. Umberger in Philly.

Then you have Vancouver, who seem to have become masters at shuffling the deck.  Their AHL affiliate is halfway across the country in Winnipeg Manitoba.  At this stage I’ve lost count of how many times Josh Green has been called up only to be sent right back down.  This apparently doesn’t save any money in plane tickets, but apparently helps balance the salary budget.  I’ll leave this one to the accountants who get paid more than I do to figure out all the numbers, because for the life of me I’m failing to understand how you can build team chemistry with a rookie if all you do is shuffle him back and forth.

Brian Burke is taking a different approach, but then again, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ minor league affiliate is all the way back on the eastern coast in Portland Maine.  "I don't think that does much for player morale, frankly," Burke said. “It's very difficult to get an athlete's entire commitment and the passion you need to play this game doing things like that.”  You think?

Even the defending Stanley Cup champs in Tampa Bay are in on the act, but both general manager Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella often wonder why they bothered to recall Nick Tarnasky and Evgeny Artyukhin for a game, only to send them down, only to recall them again.  “By doing that to them, they never really fit into the room,” Feaster said, “because they're not with the guys here that we want them to be with, they're not practising with them, or with our coaches here, and so we talked about the fact we need to be judicious in how we do that. It really is a two-edge sword.  I understand fully why teams do it, we were doing it ourselves, but then we found ourselves questioning what's best for the player's development. It's something you wrestle with.”

For Dave Nonis in Vancouver, making these up and down moves are made out of necessity.  “You have to manage your cap dollars effectively”.  Is that right?

So while the hockey product on the ice has been better than ever of late, managing the sport off the ice has become a virtual nightmare for all involved, but as most would agree, necessary.  I personally am not convinced, but I don’t make the rules.

As such, trades have become as commonplace as the dodo bird, but when they happen, whoa!  In the span of two weeks Sergei Fedorov has been traded from Anaheim to Columbus, a trade I’m still trying to figure out, as the Blue Jackets are still struggling to find their way in the new NHL.

Arguably the biggest trade of the year happened this past week, as Boston’s former star player Joe Thornton was shipped to San Jose for three players: Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau and Brad Stuart.  Can you say shake it up?

HERE, THERE & EVERYWHERE

You know you’re watching “The New NHL” when:

-         There are more odd man rushes in two minutes than there used to be in two games.

-         The New Jersey Devils turn over the puck more in two periods of play than they used to in two months.

-         Tie Domi, Chris Simon, Chris Neil, & Georges Laraque all see more ice time on special teams than at any other point of any given game.

-         The Nashville Predators start the season 8-0, only to lose their first game of the season to, of all teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

-         The fans at the Bell Centre in Montreal have stopped booing their team.

-         The Ottawa Senators lose their first game of the season to Carolina

-         The Pittsburgh Penguins actually improve their roster but still can’t win a game (apparently some things never change).

-         Sidney Crosby draws more penalties in one game than Wayne Gretzky would in a week.

-         The Detroit Red Wings start the season 9-1, without Steve Yzerman in the lineup.

-         The New York Rangers lead their division.

-         More penalties are called in one game than used to be called in a week.

-         The Atlanta Thrashers have more goons on their team than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

-         Brett Hull retires.

-         Peter Nedved scores more on one skate than on two.

-         More fans show up at a Chicago Blackhawks game than a Chicago White Sox playoff game.

-         Joe Thornton and Sergei Fedorov both get traded in an attempt to actually build a team mentality in a dressing room.

While we’re on the topic of the Thornton trade, the early going aside, can somebody please tell me how Boston is not the bottoms up winner?  They acquire three fairly decent players who had an impact right away, and they save $1.5 million a year!  Thornton had a good game against Buffalo in his San Jose debut, but Marco Sturm and Brad Stuart paid immediate dividends for Boston as they did what no team has been able to do all year – shut out the Ottawa Senators.  Personally, I like what Boston got back for what they gave up.  If you go by what the online polls are saying, many fans out there won’t agree with me, but the proof will be in the pudding come playoff time – assuming either team makes it - too early to tell.

In more trade news, exactly 48 hours after Kristian Huselius cleared waivers, Florida was able to convince Calgary to pick him up.  Going to Florida is defenseman Steve Montador and prospect centre Dustin Johner.  In other news, Vancouver has acquired another minor league goalie as they get Maxime Ouellet from Washington for a fifth round draft pick.  If Ouellet even reaches half his potential the Canucks may found a diamond in the rough.

Wayne Gretzky’s scoring streak record start with the Los Angeles Kings is safe.  Dany Heatley had scored in 22 straight games, just one shy of the 23 game streak set by Gretz back in 1988.  Ironically enough, had Heatley been able to keep the streak going, he would have broken the record against, you guessed it, Los Angeles.  Heatley scored twice in Ottawa’s 5-1 win vs the Kings.  We can either blame the Thornton trade or just give Boston the credit they deserve for a gutsy effort after what has clearly been a very challenging month for them, both on and off the ice.

While we’re still talking about Heatley, far be it from me to criticize multi billion dollar corporations and their executive marketing decisions, but does Upper Deck along with the McDonald’s corporation mean to tell me they couldn’t acquire a picture of him in an Ottawa Senators uniform?  The current edition of the Golden Arch’s hockey cards collection has Heatley still sporting the Atlanta Thrashers blue.  I’m guessing I along with all consumers are simply supposed to be “lovin’ it”?  Well, not this hockey fan.  Good thing for me I’m not huge on cards, but I’m sure the die hard collectors are blowing chunks of Big Mac over this one.

As good as the Ottawa Senators have been, I don’t think anyone expected to see them run up the scores the way they have, particularly during their 10-4 drubbing of Buffalo on November 2.  Martin Havlat and Daniel Alfredsson’s four goal performance in the same game is a feat only equaled twice before in NHL history.  Randy McKay and John Madden each had four goals in New Jersey's 9-0 win over Pittsburgh on Oct. 29, 2000. Prior to McKay and Madden, the last teammates to score four goals apiece were brothers Odie and Sprague Cleghorn, who did it for Montreal in a 10-6 win over the Hamilton Tigers on Jan. 14, 1922.  Suffice it to say, the Sens are off to their best start ever, having only lost 4 games in their first 24, and haven’t lost two in a row all season, unless you count the first two Carolina games.  It may still be early, but it doesn’t look like too many teams are going to be able to stop them, least of all their provincial rivals from you know where.

A quick look at the standings and you will get an idea as to what parity in the new NHL means.  With two or three teams looking to run away with the lead, the middle of the pack teams all seem to trade wins and losses.  As of this writing, the Eastern Conference looked like this: Ottawa in first with 40 points, the NY Rangers in second with 37 points, Carolina in third with 34 points, and the rest of the conference 4th thru 8th all had 33 points.  Beyond 8th, teams have a little catching up to do with New Jersey the next best team with 26 points.  Then in the Western Conference, Detroit leads with 38 points, Dallas is all of a sudden in second with 35 points, and Vancouver somehow manages to hold on at third with 34 points.  The Northeast Division is very tight, so I hope for the Canucks’ sake they don’t get too comfortable on top, as the rest of the division is getting better.  Nashville seems to be one of the only teams outside of the top three in the West ready to challenge for the division lead, as again the rest of the conference thru 8th has 33 points, but look out, because Calgary and Edmonton are both turning on the jets of late.  I get the sense it will become very difficult for a team on the outside looking in to catch up unless they go on a streak and one of the other “middle of the pack” teams starts losing.  The stretch run is going to be very interesting.

Maybe one of these days Sean Avery will listen to me.  He still seems to find it necessary to live his NHL life on the edge as an agitator.  Perhaps it’s his job to get under the skin of his competition night in and night out – I can respect him for that.  What I don’t respect is his uncanny ability to turtle and not back up his mouth with his fists.  One might argue protecting yourself against Brian McGrattan may have been a wise decision, but to me it’s downright cowardly.  If you’re going to live on the edge, be prepared to meet adversity and stare it straight in the face.  You know, good old time hockey?  No?  Oh well, at least I tried.  In any event, Avery or no Avery there seems to be a bit of a heated rivalry brewing between Los Angeles and Ottawa in recent years, even though they don’t meet very often.  Perhaps the Kings still remember the Sean Hill goal scored from 150 feet way back when Ottawa wasn’t a very good team?

Everybody knows of Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, but when it comes time for them to choose the finalists for the Calder trophy, quite a few names come to mind outside of the big two.  You have Colorado’s Marek Svatos, the top scorer after Crosby and Ovechkin, Edmonton’s Mike Morrison who has helped solve the Oilers’ goaltending woes, Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf, one of the league’s up and coming young defensemen, Ottawa’s Andrej Meszaros, a star defenseman in the WHL last year and a plus 20 rating which is among the best in the league, and Toronto’s Alex Steen, a consistent forward playing in the proverbial centre of the hockey universe (or so they think).  It will be interesting to follow the rookie race and see if Ovechkin and Crosby can remain among the finalists when all is said and done.

So far there are two great candidates for goal of the year – Ottawa’s Jason Spezza against Montreal’s Jose Theodore in overtime.  Spezza dipsy-doodled his way around Sheldon Souray and made one of his signature high risk dangling plays which found its way to the back of the net.  The other candidate is NY Rangers’ Marek Malik with his between the legs shootout goal against Washington’s Olaf Kolzig.  The goal ended 15 rounds of shooters, thus far an NHL record.  The goal resembled an attempt by one of the Toronto Maple Leafs in an early season game which never materialized.  For the life of me I can’t remember if the player was Matt Stajan or Carlo Coliacovo.

The Mike Danton saga continues, as his father Steve Jefferson now faces charges of criminal harassment.  The charge involves an alleged 22 calls Jefferson made over three days to Danton’s agent David Frost.  The story was revealed on CBC’s “The Fifth Estate”.  You’ll recall Danton is currently serving 7 ½ years for trying to hire a hit man to kill Frost, a sentence he is still trying to get transferred to Canada in the hopes of obtaining early parole.

I must say “a great job” and “well done” to the medical staff involved in the Jiri Fischer incident in Detroit on November 21 to avoid what could have been a fatal situation.  Fischer, who has a closely monitored heart abnormality, collapsed on the Red Wings’ bench after taking a shift with just over seven minutes left in the first period of the game against Nashville.  He was immediately given CPR and revived with a defibrillator.  It was later determined Fischer suffered a seizure and went into cardiac arrest.  At this point it’s unknown what caused the seizure, let alone if or when Fischer will resume his career, but it was a relief to hear the news he’s alive and well.  The game itself and all other games on this evening just seemed to take a back seat.  The NHL has rescheduled the game for January 23 in Detroit, which was when they would have met Nashville on the road.  Apparently the NHL will uphold Nashville’s 1-0 lead but will play the entire game over from the beginning.  Puckin’ Around wishes Fischer a speedy recovery and hopes he is able to play again.

I’ll tell you what, when Dick Pound speaks he really puts his foot in his mouth, doesn’t he?  If in fact “one third of all NHL players” use performance enhancing drugs, why hasn’t anybody been caught yet?  He refers to the NHL’s new drug policy as “a joke” and suggests it’s too lax?  Excuse me?  Can somebody please send Mr. Pound a copy of the new collective bargaining agreement so next time he decides to open his mouth he actually says something of substance – or maybe give him the link to Puckin’ Around so he can read my breakdown of how the policy works?  I don’t think random drug tests are a laughing matter.  Apparently, some have already taken place.  If Mr. Pound’s allegations are correct, don’t you think we would have heard something by now, like maybe a suspension or two?  By the way, Mr. Pound, how many NHL players failed drug tests at the last Olympics or World Championships?  Since you don’t seem to know the facts, I’ll tell you how many – zero.

As I close the book on another chapter of this ongoing series, I’d like to set the record straight on something.  I do this because I like to talk about the game of hockey, mostly at the professional level, with the odd venture into minor league levels of the sport (especially last year).  However, unlike another now well known blogger out there who shall remain nameless, I do this without the support of almost 50 of the biggest names in the business, and without “reliable sources” or “people who I cannot name”.  This blogger I talk about has managed to create a “buzz” in the hockey world in a very short period of time and does it exclusively as from what I gather is now his primary source of income and seems to devote a good portion of his time to try and dig up some of the juiciest rumors this side of the Atlantic Ocean.  He managed to gather a following of fans at a time when a voice was needed most, and more often than not is able to make sense of what goes on behind the scenes in hockey.  These sources he speaks of could be players, agents, NHL executives, but to this day nobody knows for sure.  To this I say all the power to him, he shares mine and countless fans’ love of what is in my humble opinion the greatest sport ever.  But then to even suggest to me as a few random e-mailers have that I should try and back up what I say with facts or “reliable sources” and to even compare me to this individual is absolutely ridiculous.  For starters, I’ve been doing this for almost five years now, and I don’t report rumors (sometimes I may start them but that’s a different story!).  I report on what has happened as reported through the media or on T.V., with of course my own little spin on it.  I do it strictly on my own, and quite frankly I do work another job for a living – so for me hockey is just a way to pass the time.  So to those of you who want the rumors, go and read the blog.  For those of you who enjoy reading my take on the hockey world, I say thanks for your support and keep on reading because there will always be more to come.  Please note I mean no disrespect towards anyone, but I ask that the comparisons stop here, because quite frankly there is no comparison.

I will most likely be back with something to say before the holidays, maybe sooner if the whole Ted Saskin/NHLPA controversy blows up in everybody’s face.  As for now, nobody seems to really know just what is going on, so for the time being, neither do I.  Just in case I don’t post anything before the holidays pass, have a great one and don’t forget - Hockey tickets make great Christmas gifts!

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