The annual phony war, agents and unsigned restricted free agents versus management, is upon us, time running out for all sides as training camps loom on the immediate horizon.
Alexei Zhitnik, Jason Allison, Tom Poti, Marian Hossa, Val Bure, Felix Potvin and Daniel Alfredsson are among the key restricted free agents likely to miss the start of training camps next week.
While this is a very simple stuff - the player wants more money than the team is willing to pay - both sides inevitably, with time running short, enter a zone where public and media pressure become weapons in their cause, all parties drawn like moths to a flame to the same old tricks.
Some agents tend to handle these disputes more aggressively than others but inevitably, the longer the conflict goes on, the more likely the situation moves from the boardroom into the public domain.
Witness the straight-ahead stance of Zhitnik, represented by agent Serge Levin.
"We're looking for $4 million. It's very simple and very logical," Levin told the Buffalo News last week. When asked if it mattered to him that his price would make Zhitnik the highest paid Sabre, Levin responded, "Who cares?"
The team cares because it likes to have its best player as its highest paid player, then slot everyone else below that number. The formula has worked with great success in New Jersey, although not without turbulence and a few casualties. It worked a great many years in Boston - although with limited on-ice success - where Ray Bourque continually accepted contracts many felt were below market, thereby capping the earning power of guys like Cam Neely. It's a principle the Flames would like to enforce as well – we'll be calling it the Jarome Iginla cap when all is said and done.
The exception of course is trading for a player who might be making more than your unofficial cap - a GM can always say he didn't sign the guy when others enter his office seeking the same thing.
It's a dangerous game for a GM to play. Motivated by competitive pressures to have his team fully signed and ready to go on day one, he also has to be aware that in many cases he has only so much money to go around, and more importantly, a concession to one player becomes a concession everyone wants.
Remember that old college line you and your buddies had when you went out for a night on the town? "If one gets lucky, we all get lucky." Well, it applies to hockey as well.
Many observers felt the Flames damaged themselves last year when key components Marc Savard and Derek Morris missed time because of contract disputes. Then again, Button might argue, as Darcy Regier would argue regarding the yearlong holdout of Mike Peca, that Savard and Morris refused to play when a legitimate offer was sitting in front of them.
Using the media to whip up public pressure is considered a time-honoured tactic, although a gullible public inevitably and inexplicably fails to link the inflated demands of their favourite player to higher ticket prices.
Typically a player is "insulted" by an offer or states the team is trying to make an example of him. A few years ago in Phoenix, Rick Tocchett was more blunt, saying the Coyotes better come up with the cash or trade him to someone who would match his demands.
Another favourite weapon of choice is comparing one player with another.
"I don't believe Hamrlik is a better player than Alex - never, ever," said Levin, who feels Zhitnik is one of the top 20 defencemen in the NHL. "If they want to trade him for Hamrlik, I think the New York Islanders would be very happy to take this trade."
Levin feels the Sabres, after dealing with the Peca issue, won't have the stomach for another protracted holdout.
"I'm happy that Peca signed," Levin said. "He held out one year and he gets the money. I don't believe the management of the Buffalo Sabres is ready to lose Alex Zhitnik for one year."
Yeah, it's started all right.
I HAD A DREAM . . . . . that a dedicated and committed Val Bure, a pure team guy, showed up in Flames colours last year ready to kick butt, then proceeded to score 35 in guiding the team to the playoffs. That's when I woke up laughing. For if Bure had done all of that he wouldn't be trying to extort $3 million per year out of the Florida Panthers - it would $4 million or more from the Calgary Flames. In going 49 games without an even strength goal under two coaches and generally pouting his way through an entire campaign on the perimeter, Bure cost himself more than the respect of his peers. There's actually a measurable monetary cost.
FOR THOSE WHO SOMETIMES HAVE TO BE SAVED FROM THEMSELVES comes the saga of today's ten year $87.5 million guaranteed contract for Alexei Yashin. Mike Milbury must be the greatest salesman in history - and very clearly in the wrong profession - if he can convince Isles owner Charles Wang that Yashin is a good risk on a "time" level never before seen in NHL history. Fortunately, there are smart people out there who spend their entire waking hours measuring nothing but risk, those people working for the insurance companies which are being asked to cover the prospective Yashin deal. This deal was delayed so the people who measure risk could figure out how high they would need to jack their insurance premiums, wisely feeling that this entire deal is loopy to begin with and fraught with peril. And remember folks, measuring risk is what they do for a living. Meanwhile, Milbury still thinks it's a good idea. And Wang is going along with it. All we can do is close our eyes and shake our heads.
'THE LAST THING WE WANT IS FOR THIS GUY TO BECOME A PROBLEM." Famous last words from Milbury on Yashin.
DON'T BE WORRIED ABOUT MICHAEL BARNETT selling pencils after leaving a lucrative career as an agent for the GM job in Phoenix. The usual practice - and probably the primary reason for the delay in his taking over in Phoenix - when leaving a business of this type is to sell your client list to your successor, contrary to popular thought that Barnett is just walking off and wiping his hands. A normal price might be one year's worth of income or, in the case of Barnett, about $2 million, paid in installments which might be stretched out over three years and made conditional on client retention through that time. The transition isn't done instantly, a successful handoff usually taking three to six months. The man in question, J.P. Barry, has been involved in numerous deals with Barnett since early in the year, suggesting Barnett has been positioning himself to leave for quite some time. In any case, I would be hugely surprised if Barnett simply folded up his desk one day and walked out, waving goodbye to the staff. It's more complicated than that. And more lucrative than that. It's also a dirty little secret that you wouldn't advertise to your clients. Not many of them would appreciate the fact they were sold like cattle. Strangely, the probability of that type of arrangement happening makes Barnett's reason for leaving his practice all the more believable - he simply wanted a new challenge. I'll take him for his word.
"I TOOK 48 HOURS AND DECIDED, here's what I need to do. Then in the first 12 months, I traded 18 of the 24 guys in the team picture. And some of those were former clients of mine. But we won the Cup." - Pierre Lacroix of Colorado, talking about his first year as a GM after leaving a career as an agent.
THE FLAMES WILL RANK AT OR NEAR THE BOTTOM of the NHL this year in televised games. While Flame fans stew with a mere 32 games televised in 2001-2002, non-traditional markets like Carolina will have far more exposure. Hurricane fans will see their team 41 times, Atlanta fans will see the Thrashers 62 times, Florida will have an astonishing 75 games broadcast and Tampa, with the second worst team in the league, will have between 50 to 65 games televised, details yet to be finalized. Columbus in turn will have 65 games on the air and Phoenix should duplicate the 68 they had last year. In Canada, the Senators, with the addition of a 10 game local TV contract this year, managed to vault themselves up to 49 games on the air. If this were about on-ice performance more than a few of the above franchises would have disappeared from TV screens long ago. As a side note, the Flames were one of 12 teams last year without a local TV contract, a predicament they might duplicate again this year. Then again, the problem is not necessarily the lack of a local contract - the Oilers gave up A Channel this year - it's that network TV doesn't want them either.
A WORD TO ALL YOU POOLIES OUT THERE - Philadelphia resident giant Keith Primeau, all 6'5" and 230 pounds of him, calls newcomer Jiri Dopita, whom Primeau has faced internationally, "the strongest man I've ever played against."
"AT THE END OF THE DAY, we took the arc of the ice from Minneapolis (Excel Energy Center), the suites from Columbus (Nationwide Arena), the ceiling from Dallas (American Airlines Arena), wall architecture from Philadelphia (First Union Center), the concourse from Denver (Pepsi Center), and the ingress and egress from Los Angeles (Staples Center). And all stirred together, we think we are building the best arena that's ever been built." -Coyote owner Steve Ellman talking of the new $180 million Phoenix arena where construction has been delayed but a 2003-2004 opening is still predicted.
THE THRASHERS EXPECT TO HAVE BETWEEN 8,000 and 9,000 season tickets come opening night, down 25% from their first year.
FUNNIEST INTERVIEW OF THE SOON-TO-BE SEASON HAS TO GO TO the Chicago Tribune's Steve Rosenblum who recently found himself in the odd predicament of surfing cow dooey in the close confines of Brian Sutter's half ton near Sylvan Lake. 'It's about leadership with Sutter,' begins Rosenblum. 'No matter how old you are. It is so important that Sutter is back to not completing sentences. What's more, he's pounding his companion's leg to underscore the points he is trying to make as he drives along. You have to be tough to play for Sutter. Heck, you have to be tough just to talk to the guy. "Your leaders have to be your hardest workers," Sutter said, and there's a whack. "It's not just offensively"-whack-"but it's practice, it's away from the puck"-whack-"it's 2 a.m. in a bar with everybody else. You say, 'Hey, guys, let's go together.' "Being tough isn't fighting. It's matching the other team's work ethic." Whack. "The Blackhawks last year were an easy team to play against away from the puck, and going to the net on the power play." Whack. "It hurts, but you have to do it. Eric Daze has to do it more." Whack. "Tony Amonte has to do it more." Whack. "Alex Zhamnov has to do it more." Whack. "It feels good to hurt."
THE HOCKEY WORLD IS WATCHING WITH AMUSED AMAZEMENT as the Leafs figure out yet another clever way to avoid their manifest destiny. This time it begins with the simple, if unnecessary, gesture of giving uber-goalie Curtis Joseph a contract extension. As with Mats Sundin only a month earlier, the stated attempt is to lock up a key performer before he has a chance to test the greener pastures (Sutterism creeping in from the above story) of unrestricted free agency. Unfortunately, in grossly over-estimating the value of Sundin the month before, the Leafs find themselves in the precarious position of trying to offer market value for by far their most important performer, thus leaving Cujo apparently cross-eyed with rage and disbelief. Any observer with half a brain cell knows Joseph is far and away more important to Toronto than Sundin, a player averaging an under-whelming 76 points the last four seasons, yet the Leaf brain trust seem to be blind to that fact. Not that the local media hasn't jumped en masse onto the ship to remind them that Joseph, while brilliant, hasn't won a thing in his entire career. Money talks and this situation can always be saved on that one simple overriding principle. But what was once a cozy, loving and nurturing relationship is now lukewarm at best. Right now I would bet Joseph will be a UFA next summer unless the Leafs match Sundin's salary. And they probably will.
"I'M GETTING OLDER ON THE TEAM so it's one of those things where you have to step up and be a better leader. These guys are the best in the game and I'd like to pick some things up because that'll help out." - Calgary's Derek Morris at the Team Canada camp as quoted in today's SUN.
DETROIT GM KEN HOLLAND REVEALED LAST WEEK that several Wings reworked their own contracts so Detroit would have room to sign Brett Hull. In turn, the Wings payroll is now bumping up on $65 million, roughly two and a half times that of Calgary. "In late July, after the free-agent frenzy of the month's first 10 days, Brett was a $6 1/2-million US player coming off an 80-point season. I wasn't going to call Brett and insult him with an offer of what we could afford then and they were still in the mode of looking around. Brett saw what the marketplace looked like and what options he had. Others offered him more, but he wanted the chance to play with centres like Yzerman, Larionov and Fedorov."
HAWKS GM MIKE SMITH IS RAPIDLY wearing out his welcome in Chicago where he continues to defend laggard Boris Mironov while simultaneously taking swipes at his more useful players like star winger Tony Amonte. "It's getting sickening listening to fans pick on Boris. If the rest of you people think it's wise to keep faxing Boris e-mails, we're going to defend him. He's a Blackhawk. Get used to it,'' said Smith on a recent Internet chat. Amazingly, Smith then turned around and belittled his two best scorers, Amonte and Steve Sullivan. "Let's be honest. Amonte and Sullivan play on a team that hasn't made the playoffs. They're excellent players but neither one has a record of being the go-to guy on a team. And I don't know if there is a player you can build a team around. You need to build a team.'' Presumably without Amonte who is a UFA next summer. Meanwhile, the Hawks are at 5000 season tickets and sinking fast.
"THEY HAVE CURLING UP IN CANADA AND THEY CALL THAT A SPORT, SO WHY NOT?" -Michael Billingsley, a Houston based cyber-athlete, commenting on the elevation of tournament based computer gaming to professional status.