Charlton's NHL: Threaten With Intent

"It amazes me to this day that once I stood in the ranks of journalists who, in the most furious words they could summon, indicted a capitalist for being motivated by a passion for greater profits." - Roger Kahn, baseball beat writer and author of "The Boys of Summer," reflecting later in life of his mellowed feelings for the move of his beloved Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.

Rick Charlton
April 2nd, 2002

It all looks so good on paper.

The right to match in Canadian dollars which makes the cost of a raid so prohibitive.

There is the oh-so-obvious glut in supply of premium unrestricted right wingers this summer, which is likely to siphon off top-end predatory interest.

And, in the words of Calgary General Manager Craig Button, "How can we afford not to sign him?"

The "him" of course, is the Flame's Jarome Iginla, poised to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading point getter, the probable winner as well of the Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL's leading goal-scorer and, to cap it all off, the grand prize of all, the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

But there is something missing, an absolutely critical element in Calgary's defence of its right to keep Iginla a Flame.

Theory only stands a chance if there is a will behind it.

And there is some doubt these days if that will is there.

The key behind rebuffing a raid on Iginla's rights is the belief on the predatory side that Flames ownership would match any attempt to steal him away, aided by a clause in the Canadian Assistance Program allowing them to match a hostile act in Canadian dollars.

If it's one thing NHL owners may have had drilled into their heads these last eight years it's that even the likelihood of a team matching an offer sheet is usually enough to ensure that such an offer is never made.

The only thing the New York Rangers accomplished with their ill-advised attempt to acquire the services of Joe Sakic four seasons ago was the establishment of a new $7 million barrier for top end players - a barrier that had been $3.5 million only a few years prior. Within months of the Ranger offer, other top end guys, like Mats Sundin, were also demanding the new level.

Sign a RFA to an offer sheet and not only do you NOT get the player but you've driven up the cost of business for everyone, including yourself.

Offer sheets for restricted free agents therefore rarely happen and only once has such a raid been successful. Philadelphia signed Chris Gratton in the summer of 1997 but the Flyers and Tampa eventually settled on a trade, although NHL President Gary Bettman ensured the Flyers draft picks which might have gone to Tampa were sufficiently "tainted" to prevent the Flyers from trying it again later in the same summer.

All the ducks seem to be lining up in Calgary's favour this summer. Except for a lack of any stated intent by someone representing ownership - someone higher than Button - that they would match an offer sheet.

In fact, recent comments by Flames president Ken King on the state of the financial picture in Calgary have been casting doubt on that intent. And with it, the bluff may have been blown.

A threat is no threat at all if you have no intention of carrying it through.

"We'll see," and "We'll evaluate at the time . . . " just doesn't cut it, particularly if you're telling the world your ownership group is already squeamish about a $6.75 million CDN operating loss when a guy like Ted Leonisis in Washington is out there unblinkingly running up deficits of $25 million U.S.

If you want to discourage a raid you need to let the other side know you mean it.

Sending out gold leafed invitations - or even hesitating - is a good way to get yourself ambushed.

It is, of course, easy to spend other people's money. Like Roger Kahn in the quote above, you won't find me indicting a capitalist who fails to generate even greater losses so I might enjoy a better hockey team from the comfort of my living room.

But I will point out, as I have in prior columns - that Iginla has handed Calgary ownership both an opportunity and a headache. A franchise player they have been trying to develop for years, and a golden boy at that, yet a pricey one who could kill this franchise deader than a doornail should he escape this summer.

That Calgary ownership has the dough to match any attempt to take Iginla should not be in doubt.

We have yet to hear if they have the will to follow through. And that was the same invitation the Flyers had when they began their move on Tampa's Gratton. And Colorado, with their finances tight at the time, had also made it known their intent was in doubt regarding Sakic

Along with the very truthful intonations - some would say veiled threats - that Houston and Portland await, King also needs to make a statement that Iginla will be staying.

Start the bluff or face the reality.

ALTHOUGH THIS IS THE FIRST GRADE "A" SEASON of consequence for young Iginla it could also be an historic one for the post-Original Six NHL. Since the league began expanding in 1967-68, rising from six teams to 12 in a single season, then 21 and finally 30 by the year 2000, there has never been a player to win the points championship with more goals than assists. Bobby Hull of Chicago in 1965-66 was the last NHL scoring champion to have more goals than assists. Hull registered 54 goals that year to go along with 43 helpers for 97 points in 65 games. Phil Esposito came close in the post-expansion era, with 76 goals and 76 assists in 1970-71 and again the following year when he posted 66 goals and 67 assists. But Iginla, should he continue his trend these last seven games, will be the first in post-expansion history and the first in 37 years to accomplish the feat. Interestingly, a scoring champion with more goals than assists was actually quite common at one time and, perhaps not so coincidentally, is one more indicator that the NHL is returning, permanently I would say, to the common place scoring totals of the pre-expansion era. Nine times in 17 years between 1950-51 and 1966-67 the Art Ross Trophy winner was also the leading goal getter in the NHL. Gordie Howe did it four times. Bobby Hull did it twice. So did Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion. And Jean Believeau, generally considered more of a passer than a scorer, also turned the trick. But expansion - and perhaps dilution - changed all that. As scoring totals ballooned through the 1970's and 1980's, it became common for the Art Ross Trophy winner to amass gigantic assist totals. Wayne Gretzky, with 163 assists in 1985-86, was the climax of that trend, assists playing a key role in determining a scoring champion throughout the period. Until Iginla this year. As NHL scoring totals plummet to more normal historic levels, it will probably become increasingly predictable that the Art Ross champion and the Maurice Richard Trophy will be going to one and the same person yet again. Iginla will be the first. But he won't be the last.

"IT IS THE OVERALL REDUCTION IN THE LEVEL OF TALENT at the NHL level, and down here. There just aren't as many good players playing with other good players. It's not coaching, it's not rules, it's not the trap -- it's the dilution of talent. You just have to look at the Olympics to see what happens when you have a lot of great players on the ice at the same time." - Hartford Wolfpack coach John Paddock commenting on an AHL scoring title that might be settled by the lowest total points in 50 years. Scoring at two consecutive Olympics, among the top six teams in games played against each other, the greatest concentration of talent possible, was actually been lower than an average NHL game. For the second straight Olympics. But Paddock's view is a common one.

"I'M NOT THE EXPERT. GLEN'S THE EXPERT. But this is New York and New York wants winners. And it's the No. 1 city in the world so it's kind of got a reason to think it should have winners, because it can support it and it does, the fan base does. And we're doing the same thing." - Cablevision President Jim Dolan, the man who writes the cheques that Glen Sather's spends, speaking to the New York Daily News. Dolan predicts the Rangers will be active in the free agent market this summer for one reason. Because Sather says so. "If Glen says what we need to do is rebuild the team, then what we do is rebuild the team. If Glen says we can get the team where we want it to be by bringing in Bure or doing free agency, then that's what we do."

CTV SPORTSNET IS DOING SWIMMINGLY AFTER AN early rough patch, no thanks to the Flames. Sportsnet's original business strategy of concentrating on developing costly regional programming has seen it cutting in dramatically on TSN's national audience, according to research from the Toronto Star. Oiler telecasts have jumped from an original 86,000 in 1998-99 to a 105,000 average this season. Senators are up from 34,000 to 59,000 per game while the Canucks have leaped from 134,000 to 208,000. The Flames, in fact, are the only team to see their numbers shrink, from 74,000 in 1998-99 to 68,000 this year.

AS MARK MESSIER CONTEMPLATES RETURNING FROM INJURY for at least one of the Rangers remaining five games, and pondering potential retirement over the summer, it occurs to this correspondent that a rather insignificant and ignoble end to the New York season might also be an historic one as well. Messier, you see, is the last remaining active player of World Hockey Association vintage and his retirement would close that wacky era forever. Messier began his career as a raw 17 year-old with the Indianapolis Racers and Cincinnati Stingers - yes, picture that, one of the great money players of all time toiling in obscurity in Indianapolis and Cincinnati of all places. Without the WHA it is quite possible there would have never been an Edmonton Oiler NHL franchise. And without the Oilers, it is not much of an extrapolation to suppose there may never have been the competitive drive or vision in Calgary to move the floundering Atlanta franchise to this city. For that matter, would the Colorado Avalanche be in Denver right now with two Stanley Cups on their mantle? But the WHA also loosened the genie of salary inflation as well, with Bobby Hull receiving an incredible $1 million dollars to bolt the Hawks for the Winnipeg Jets, lending instant credibility to the WHA. And the first millionaires who didn't deserve even the paper they signed were also created, fellows like Derek Sanderson who signed a $2.5 million offer to leave the Bruins for the Philadelphia Blazers before accepting a buyout only eight games into the season. Then there were the teams which left town in the middle of their inaugural campaigns, the memorable Michigan Stags who became the Baltimore Blades and the Denver Spurs who ended up as the Ottawa Civics. When Messier goes . . . . . . the colourful WHA will finally be laid to rest.

A BETWEEN WHISTLES AIR CANADA PROMOTION AT THE SADDLEDOME Saturday night had an urbane male and female locked in mortal combat on the Jumbotron, vying for an opportunity to win a trip to Spain. In a monumental battle of wits, a question flashed across the giant screen hovering over centre ice. "Which of these names is a player of Spanish extraction playing in the NHL? 1) Juan Valdez, 2) Scott Gomez or 3) Antonio Banderas." Naturally, the male selected option one, drawing guffaws from coffee lovers everywhere. I too was about to start booing when it occurred to me that both my father and uncle would have answered the same way. Ouch. Not everyone is a hockey fan.