Friday, September 15, 2006

Insanity On The Island: How NOT To Run Your Team

Greetings friends, no this is not a post about everyone's favorite TV castaways, there's only island crazy enough to have a man named Mad Mike and that's Long Island, or as the residents call it, Longisland (that's one word for you out of towners). It seems that some owners will go pretty far to get what they want. Case in point, Mr. Bob Clarke did just that when producing the first offer sheet of the 21st century to Ryan Kesler, attempting to steal him away from the Canucks for unnecessarily large $1.9 million, more than double what the Canucks were going to pay him if signed. Naturally GM Dave Nonis had no choice but to match the offer begrudgingly, ticking off many GMs who wouldn't want to pay a 10 goal scorer that much money. It's the danger of precedents that set people off, arbitrators, GMs, and agents look to other contracts to say why a certain player should garner so much. It's a big deal because it's one of the things that caused the lockout in the first place. Time will tell if the CBA can stand up to this nonsense once again.

But enough about the Flyers, Clarke's damage was minimal compared what Islanders owner Charles Wang just did to his fan base. Wang personally negotiated a deal with #1 goalie Rick Dipietro, the 2000 #1 pick, the first goalie to ever that high, for a 15 year, $67.5 million contract. I'll repeat that, 15 years, $67.5 million. The longest contract in NHL history, 2nd longest in all of the major sports. To say that such a move is bold, brash, and completely idiotic is to be cruel to such adjectives. Wang made it known that GM Garth Snow (some of the most hilarious words ever uttered) was not really involved in this, but that he made the negotiations. Wow, really, no kidding. Wang, give it up, we all know you're in control and Snow is nothing more than a puppet. Some suggest GM by committee, I suggest GM, President, Owner, and future Coach Charles Wang. A 15 year contract means that he'll be an Islander to 2022, to 40 years old, getting paid $4.5 million every year, a contract that can only be broken if he retires due to injury. Before this, Alexei Yashin with his 10 year contract on the island was the most untradeable player in the league, but Dipietro is now unthinkable. Yes in truth Dipietro is and will be a better player than Yashin is, because as good as Yashin could be, he just doesn't care anymore and doesn't have to; then again that's the danger of the 15 year contract, does Rick have enough drive to care after he may never have to sign another contract in his life at such a young age. He's an Islander for life because as unnamed GMs stated, no one will touch that contract and if Rick fails, Wang won't be able to trade him. Of course this was icing on the cake for the Isles.

Back when Mad Mike Milbury was the GM, things were terrible too, not quite THIS bad, but bad enough. When Milbury elected to take Dipietro #1 in the draft, there was a reason. They had a #1 goalie prospect in the name of Roberto Luongo, taken #3 in his draft. But Mad Mike got tired of Luongo for some reason, and sent him packing to Florida. The trade was Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. Today that would be considered highway robbery by the Panthers and it still holds up now. While trading Roberto was foolish, Jokinen certainly had been a disappointment thus far, failing to reach his #4 overall status in both LA and Long Island. Parrish was becoming a fan favorite in Florida while Kvasha hadn't shown too much. In the end, Luongo left for Vancouver while proving to be a strong top goalie talent and Keenan turned Jokinen into the captain he is today. So now, the Isles have neither player they received in the deal and the Panthers have Jokinen, Bertuzzi, Auld, and Allen; to say it's one sided is understatement, even if it was just Jokinen for Parrish and Kvasha. But that was Mike, this is Charles and he makes Mad Mike look tame by comparison. After hiring Neil Smith as the new GM, he was fired 40 days later to make way for Garth Snow, the then backup goalie of the Islanders. Smith in his short time acquired Mike Sillinger, Chris Simon, Tom Poti, and Brendan Witt for the team and while none of them are serious impact players, aside from Poti they were fairly worthy additions to the team. But with the Dipietro signing, firing Neil for Snow, and even signing the incredibly underachieving Viktor Kozlov, Wang may have already outdone the damage that Milbury had crafted, and that's saying a lot.

But with all that, I'd like to tip my hat slightly to the Blackhawk organization. I know it sounds strange, since they are easily the worst run franchise in the league...that was until Wang showed his power. Now they're 2nd to worst and that's gotta be good for something. I will credit them for finally making a bold but not entirely stupid move in ridding themselves of Mark Bell and Kyle Calder. Mind you, both were pretty darn good players for the Hawks, but the return of having Martin Havlat could mean so much more while Smolinski, not a fave in Ottawa, could help them as well down the middle (considering I'll be surprised to see a healthy all season Tuomo Ruutu). Havlat gives them a potential superstar, if he can stay healthy, that they haven't had in a while. Their defense is very promising, both Seabrook and Barker (who unfortunately got injured recently) show light at the end of the tunnel along with other young defensemen. However, the team will continue to live and die by Khabibulin, the most highly paid goalie in the league outside of Luongo failed miserably last season, although not half as bad as his now backup Patrick Lalime did in St. Louis. In a stroke of luck for once for the Hawks, Lalime is out for 2-3 months, this is a good thing because 3rd stringer Sebastion Caron is in my books better than Lalime, especially if he pulled out wins for the Penguins. The Hawks may finally be on the rise, of course then again, they still don't broadcast their home games on TV due to cheap management that wants the entire city of Chicago to come out to the games. Of course, if they were broadcast, would anyone be watching? I guess it depends who you'd rather see lose, the Blackhawks or the Cubs.

See you at the red line.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Year Of The Defenseman

You've heard the phrase "defense wins championships" and of course in hockey hot goaltending. It's old phrase, you can tell, because last year in the birth of the new NHL as they love to call it, offense was king. I can recall many a game early on that ended 7-6, quite the offensive thriller. But if the rules and regulations allowed for great offense to make the game more interesting and popular, then why did everyone this offseason hunt defenseman like they were rarer than gold? The best explanation I can offer is this: teams were desperately looking for a way to counter that offensive juggernaut. We saw teams like Minnesota who prided on their defensive ways miss the playoffs and the powerful Hurricanes strong on offense won it all. What was Minnesota's response? Sure they acquired some new defensemen like Kim Jonsson to help them out, but they ran for offensive minded players like Pavol Demitra and Mark Parrish. So it still begs the question, if even Jacques Lemaire is willing to admit you need a better offense, then what's with all the D?

It was first evident on day one, the signing of Ed Jovanovski. The Florida Panthers were believed to be strong in the hunt, that guys like Bertuzzi, Allen and Auld having come over from Vancouver could persuade Jovo to return to his roots. But it wasn't loyalty or friendship that won him over. When the Coyotes decided to be on his doorstep at 12:01pm of Free Agency and offered the veteran $6.5 million a season, that was all it took. Ok so they also sweet talked the team and demonstrated how much he meaned to them but of course he did, Phoenix would do anything for a #1 defenseman like Jovo and so they did. So what's wrong with that? Is it wrong for a man to get the most out of his job? No, and he had no real loyalties to show to another team while certainly the Canucks were never going to afford him this year. But $6.5 million? It's the reason former GM Mike Keenan backed out of his and many subsequent #1 defenseman. Zdeno Chara is another excellent case. Easily the most prolific D on the market this year, Ottawa could not afford to keep both him and Redden on the team due to league parity (aka the salary cap). Chara eventually knew he wouldn't be returning so left the Senators to go as far as...the same exact division. The Boston Bruins, in a surprising move made the first attempt to rebuild their franchise after the devastating Thornton trade. Former Assistant GM to Ottawa Peter Chiarelli made his way over to Boston and with him came Chara for a whopping $7 million a season. Money on the level of Norris and future Hall of Famer Niklas Lidstrom, Chara commanded it after his continuous successful seasons and oh yeah, a 6'9" frame that dwarfs anyone else in the league. I've seen Zdeno up close in practice, and yes he really is that big even compared to the other players. Boston wasn't doing a typical rebuild though, this just before they signed center Marc Savard and with all the money thrown around, it seems teams are willing to spend more to get back to glory.

Some teams however, didn't make the right choices. Pavel Kubina is not a bad defenseman by any stretch, but if you think he's worth $5 million a season, then you're in Maple Leafs management. But seriously, John Ferguson, Jr. paid far too much while spending again on the far more useless Hal Gill. That was only the beginning though. The St. Louis threw $4 million per at Jay McKee, who while very useful for Buffalo and a good defenseman in his own right, won't even be the #1 on that team. In fact for a team that was the worst in the league, the Blues have one of the more promising defenses now in the league, with Brewer, Backman, Jackman, and now McKee leading the top 4 it's a wonder that the Blues really required the services of McKee but at that price, Jay wasn't going to flinch even for the Blues. The Lightning did not escape unscathed either, while not necessarily overpaying, the signing of Luke Richardson can only be considered foolish, much like Keenan's previous year signing of Karpovtsev, both are useless players in my mind. They did manage to snag Filip Kuba, a poor man's Pavel Kubina if you can call him that, so it will be interesting to see what their D can do, not that Marc Denis isn't used to a lesser defensive lineup.

Overpaying has become the name of the game, and in a league where overspending caused inevitable full year lockout, it's a dangerous game to play. However, the catch is that the GM's overspending will come out of the pockets of the NHLPA's members to compensate the revenue sharing. Ironically, the NHLPA is still paying for its mistakes after it already didn't want a salary cap. The owners will win out in the end because they are after all in control. Who do you blame for the overspending, the owners or the players? Don't blame either because the salary cap and revenue sharing will rebalance and take care of such problems, assuming that both are working properly. And in the NHL, as the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes taught us so well, don't ever assume anything.

See you at the red line.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

From Russia, With Scorn

The summer's biggest hockey battle has not been over free agents, the ownership of the Penguins, or even which story has been the most embarassing (that one goes to Garth Snow as the new GM of the Islanders). Harken back to 1980, that legendary USA team that defeated the Russians which you might have caught at your local theater or video store, it was a time of unrest and the United States fought the Russians the best way they could, with a hockey puck. Flash forward 26 years later and things have changed quite a bit, now the battle is fought with legal loopholes and scathing remarks. It's been a trying time particularly for the Metallurg team in Russia, who happened to have the original rights to one Evgeni Malkin, drafted #2 overall in this year's 2006 NHL Entry Draft. He' s a powerful center with amazing promise who would only be second to Sidney Crosby on the Penguins. Things aren't so simple it seems, as Malkin and the Pens would love to be doing business together, but Metallurg wouldn't have it. So Malkin made what's become a popular trend all of a sudden, he gave his club 2 weeks notice that he was outta there. Yes a legal loophole in Russian law allows any worker there do that and after such time, they can be on their merry way. Turns out that Malkin wound up fleeing Eurasia entirely and wound up in...Los Angeles. It's a wonder he ever made it out of there alive, L.A., not Europe. If you think Russia is tough, try LAX. But the feeling is that Malkin wanted out and there's little Metallurg can do about it, especially now that Malkin signed a contract with the Penguins. But why?

Here's why, the IIHF Transfer Agreement. A little document that lets the NHL transfer players to their league from European counterparts and compensates those teams accordingly. Russia refused to sign it, the only country that backed out of it, so now the NHL may have no reason to covet any Russian laws or claims because there is no recognized agreement between them. What makes it all the stranger is that Alexei Mikhnov and a funny named kid called Taratukhin managed to get themselves over to Alberta, Canada with so much as a 2 weeks notice and have had zero backlash from Metallurg. In fact they are essentially free to go as they please and each has signed with their respective clubs in Edmonton and Calgary. So why all the fuss over Malkin? He's a stud center and the other two, while good in their own right, aren't nearly as important to Metallurg as Malkin is, and I wonder if the Alberta boys don't question their worth now. After all, Malkin is a great talent, but I'm sure they're glad to be in the NHL considering their Russian team isn't even going to fight for them. How does this story end? As far as I see it, Malkin having signed with Pittsburgh, is going to walk straight into Mellon Arena and not look back. Russia's hockey federation will have no real precedent or ability to enforce their laws here, especially with such a loophole, and won't be compensated for as much as they desire. Malkin's a Penguin and it's time to get used to that.

But the story doesn't get simpler from there. It only gets weirder, and by weird, I mean the one and only Nikolai Zherdev. He's a top wing prospect for the Columbus Blue Jackets, or at least he was until he rejected his contract offers from GM Doug Maclean and signed with a Russian team. Zherdev was drafted by Columbus while playing in Russia, but as then as it is now, Maclean had to fight and spend around $600,000 just to get him out of there. Zherdev had a pretty nice season last year, a bit of a puck hog and certainly and ego to match, but even without the injured Nash he excelled by the end of the season. Now he's seeking more than Maclean is willing to dish out, and as a second year player, it's hard to believe he could command several million dollars. But by bolting back to Russia, it makes things harder in the relationship between him and Maclean. It's insulting in fact, and now Zherdev has only until Oct 6th to sign a contract or he'll be wasting away in the real winter and Columbus will be down a huge talent. The same problem holds true for GM Jay Feaster in Tampa Bay, where second year talent Evgeny Artyukhin ran roughshod back to Russia rather than be a Lightning again. My personal hatred for the Lightning aside, Feaster was furious and has a right to be. They worked hard on having him on the team but as Feaster put it, "He spat in my/our face". I can see why he would with that club's attitude sometimes, but leaving the Lightning for Russia? That's a little more harsh than they deserve. Almost. See you at the red line.

Pre-Game Warmup

Welcome all ye hockey fans, another season dawns upon and I cannot wait. This blog is dedicated to the futility and insanity of hockey, the NHL, its players, fans, management, teams, arenas, and all that goes with it. I take a look inside some of the bigger stories making news in hockey, then rip them to shreds or praise them for not blaming the CBA. If you're not familiar enough with hockey, I'll do my best to bring some people along, but for those that really know the game, I hope to put my pompous opinion upon someone's failing eyes. Let me be most frank by saying I am at heart a Florida Panthers fan, and I know, most would find it hard to believe they exist, but they do much like the endangered species the team was named after. I won't get into my own team right now, but I will tell you they are my favorite and most well known. However as an avid viewer of the Center Ice Package and player of Fantasy Hockey, I vow to explore the depths of the league and its players outside my own team. It is with this statement that I welcome you to High And Mighty Sticking, because unlike the Ducks, we're keeping the Mighty. See you at the red line.