With Jarome Iginla plugging along at a 26 goal pace and the Flames staring at a $7 million bullet merely to retain his rights, the debate over the Olympic hero's future in Calgary is probably only beginning.
Like it or not.
In a season where everything has gone right and only a spate of ill-timed injuries seems to threaten Calgary's bid at ending a seven year playoff drought, it's somewhat ill-bred to disturb this happy scene with a discussion of something as unseemly as dollars and cents.
Yet it always comes back to the pay cheque, the mid-summer deadline approaching ... that 26 goal pace, a pace that is precisely half that which garnered him that $7 million deal only two years ago.
Not only is this about whether or not the Flames will retain Iginla's rights - or renegotiate a lower number with him - but also whether or not Calgary could even trade him for anything more than a modest return, perhaps a return similar to that which Philadelphia surrendered to secure Mike Comrie only yesterday.
Take the emotion out of the situation and certain facts begin to emerge.
There's a definite obligation to retain Iginla's rights, a $7 million qualifying offer due on June 30th of 2004. If the obligation isn't met, or a re-negotiation of a longer deal rendered impossible, the player is lost for nothing.
That seems to be a compelling argument to make the qualifying offer ... yet the obligation of $7 million appears to be excessive given his current production and given the threat of a limited budget in the future.
Handicapping the debate further, the impending CBA negotiations seem to be steering remorselessly towards "cost certainty," probably a salary cap and probably settled in the area of $35 million, the number rumoured for two years now.
Worse, the more you use $7 million as an anchor to keep his rights next summer, versus what you feel Iginla's real worth is, say $4.5 million per season, the lower his theoretical market value (trade) becomes.
As well, it's generally conceded a ton of teams out of the playoff picture or figuring they have no chance, will be trying to dump contracts at the March trade deadline, glutting the market more than usual as they prepare for a post 2004 CBA.
And after that, some 80% of players next summer will be without contracts, either RFA's or UFA's.
Looking even further ahead, in the land of "cost certainty," it's not out of line to assume the tradeoff will be a lower age for UFA status, meaning younger players might be coming to the UFA market with no other cost to acquire than money.
More glut, more choices, if you're thinking ahead.
And GM Darryl Sutter most certainly is.
In the short term, those few teams going for a Stanley Cup this season will probably find a better monetary risk than Iginla from the excess supply sure to become available by March.
Or those teams going for the brass ring will undervalue Iginla in terms of assets they might want to surrender given the monetary risk they would be accepting and the probability they also wouldn't qualify him to retain his rights.
Again ... it comes back to the $7 million.
WHY would any team trade for Iginla, knowing they would NOT qualify him at $7 million and therefore knowing they would only have his services for a few months? At least with Comrie the Flyers understand they can hold his rights for a long time at a limited cost in terms of a qualifying offer. That is not the case with Iginla.
In that light, WHAT value would any team be willing to surrender to acquire a player they would only have the services of for a few months, effectively a rental player?
Does that leave the Flames in the unthinkable position that Iginla might be worth little more than prospects and draft picks, not dissimilar to the return for Comrie? In fact, not dissimilar to the return for Theo Fleury, an impending UFA, which is almost what Iginla's situation looks like in spite of the differences in free agency status.
From Iginla's point of view, all of the above must leave a raising of hairs on the back of the neck, a creepy feeling that events may be spiraling to a place he can't control lest he consider a longer term deal with the Flames at a substantially lower rate of pay.
If they offer him one.
We know that Darryl Sutter has been his usual dour firmness in assessing Iginla to date, saying the uber-forward is the most talented individual he has ever coached, saying that Iginla, unlike past years, has been more conscious of team goals this year than he was in his 52 goal campaign but also saying Iginla is paid to "finish" or score goals which he obviously hasn't been with the regularity this team needs.
Does Iginla try to work something out now or take his chances in the free-for-all sure to develop in the summer of 2004?
If he isn't worth $7 million, either here in Calgary or anywhere else, if he isn't tradeable for more than prospects or draft picks, the going rate for rental players, and if he's determined to test the open market, then it might end up the Flames continue to carry the risk into the summer, banking on him helping the team gain its first playoff spot in seven years, then using the $7 million freed up to search among the vast quantity available for a select few players to help them out in ensuing campaigns.
Hard to believe.
"I'M BLOWN AWAY BY PEOPLE WHO WANT TO LOSE 5-4. It doesn't work. Anyone who thinks we're a boring team or a trapping team, they don't understand or don't watch. There are 25 variations of the trap that 26 teams are playing. The key in it all is goals-against. That goes back to quality chances against, which goes back to the number of quality chances against. If you limit the quality chances against and your goaltending holds up, you're better." - Flames coach Darryl Sutter, speaking in the Calgary SUN.
"HIS MAIN AREA OF DISCIPLINE ... WAS BEHIND OUR BLUELINE. He was in total control of the team when we didn't have the puck. Once we got it over the blueline, he was no longer in control. You were. And if you did what he wanted, knew what to do behind your own blueline, then you were always in the hockey game. I just think it was the greatest system to play under because you weren't under any pressure to score goals. He put pressure on you to keep the puck out of your own net." - Howie Meeker, NHL rookie of the year in 1947, speaking of legendary Leaf coach Hap Day in Dick Irvin's "Behind The Bench." Comments like that make you wonder if things have really changed in hockey as dramatically as some would claim. The problem with analyzing the game today is many tend to believe the NHL started in 1975 or 1980 when there is a wealth of history and experience that came before those dates. Have the basic concepts of what goes into winning really changed that much? Meeker's observations of Day, when compared to Sutter in the previous paragraph, would suggest they haven't.
"HE USED TO WRITE LETTERS TO PLAYERS WIVES, telling them to leave their husbands alone, quit bugging them so they could concentrate on hockey. At playoff time especially, he'd write the wives and explain we were coming to the most important part of the season and he didn't want them messing around with the guys. He'd say he didn't want the players worrying about anything at home, cutting the lawn, taking out the trash, anything like that. And he'd word it so that it was clear he didn't want them doing anything physical with their husbands, like, no (sex). And our wives would get so pissed off at him. He was funny that way. He was a real piece of work". - Former Flyer goalie Bobby Taylor, describing the handiwork of former coach Fred "The Fog" Shero in Irvin's book, "Behind The Bench." Makes the handiwork of former Washington coach Bruce Cassidy, fired this week after comments on "focussing" which included references to problems at home, somewhat minor in comparison. Times have changed.
"HIS HOCKEY ACUMEN IS PATHETIC" Former Leaf Assistant GM Bill Watters on Glen Sather, GM of the New York Rangers.
"FEEL FOR THE FANS? NO. I DON'T. Do you think the guys weren't trying? What are we saying? Our guys aren't playing their hearts out? That's their right. They buy the tickets, and that's their right to do that.'' - Brian Sutter after his Hawks were booed after yet another loss in Chicago, where attendance has fallen off the table. "I kind of laugh. The fans were booing in the third period because we couldn't get anything going. It was like the other team didn't exist. Obviously if we don't give it up, the outcome of the game is different. But we knew we were ending up three games in four nights. And it took every ounce of energy from everybody we had to get the point.''
''I'D PROBABLY (STINK) REALLY BAD. I enjoy between 30 and 40 shots. You cut it down to 20, that's something you've got to get used to. It's a different tempo. You've got to stay more focused.'' - Florida netminder Roberto Luongo, wallowing under the porous Florida defence but still showing a sparkling .930 save percentage. Luongo is almost certainly among the leading candidates who will play net for Team Canada in next summer's World Cup, yet the powerful Canadian team is quite likely going to be fairly efficient in limiting opportunities through the course of the tournament. Martin Brodeur will be quite accustomed to the mental pace of limited excitement. Would the shift be as easy for Luongo? He'll probably get the chance to find out.