Charlton's NHL:
Fiscal Sanity?

Rick Charlton
July 4th, 2002

Laugh at them or shake your fist all you want, but the New York Rangers are a better team today than they were last week.

Nine million for the toughest checking centre alive may seem like a colossal joke - and it is really - but when you've got the dough to waste and you're still making a profit at the end of the day then who can quibble with driving a fatal stake through the heart of your arch-rival, the New Jersey Devils, and probably stealing their playoff spot to boot.

To the New York Rangers, Holik has been a priceless acquisition.

And did we forget about the ridiculous contract offered up for Darius Kasparitus, spiritually connected to another rival, the Islanders, but now a Ranger and therefore not bound for Long Island next winter?

Consider it another dagger to the gut of yet another division rival and still the Rangers will make money next year.

Don't forget that when you condemn them.

The system that passes for NHL economics, considered broken down by most, works quite well for the likes of the Rangers, Red Wings or Dallas. It works because the Rangers will make money even with a $65 million payroll and Mike Richter and Mark Messier yet to sign.

There seems to be a minor problem of perception in this regard, that the roadway to labour Armageddon in 2004, littered with the corpses of franchises teetering on the brink of collapse, should give these larger markets cause to hold their fire.

Why would they?

We expect the Rangers to hide their wallet, to lose willingly without remembering we are asking the impossible, like acting surprised when Refrigerator Perry dives head first into a vat of roiling chocolate at a Hershey factory.

In a controlled environment, the beast will do what comes naturally.

The endless capacity of the Rangers to spend, spend, spend and still satisfy the purest capitalist by generating a profit at the end of the day is not something I can logically criticize.

Up to now the Rangers have actually used the system to their disadvantage, their almost comical approach to team building making them an easy target for loud guffaws. In fact, the Rangers have been the fiscal joke of the NHL for so long it's hard to remember what it was like to actually offer a compliment to the 1994 Stanley Cup champs.

They are the team everyone loves to hate. The team everyone needs to laugh at. Such is the fate of the big boy on the block, feared and loathed at the same time.

The last few years Glen Sather has given plenty of fodder to his critics, signing a lengthy list of offensively gifted players in a vain attempt at recreating the 1984 Edmonton Oilers but instead finding himself stuck with a bloated, one-dimensional soft excuse of a team.

If the goal was to create an exciting product then Sather succeeded in spades. A typical game involving the Rangers the last two years generated more goals scored than that of any other club in the league, in fact, two years ago yielding numbers rivaling the highest scoring point in NHL history, the early 1980's.

The problem, of course, was that many of those goals ended up in the Rangers net and the losing extended to five straight years without a post-season.

Very funny. And we laughed a lot.

But the biggest wallet in the NHL continued to hover in the background. And this off-season Sather appears to be acquiescing to the obvious, that the game has changed dramatically since the 1980's and grit is needed now more than ever.

So Sather paid the highest price imaginable for the grittiest two-way centre in the NHL. And he paid an above-board price for one of its nastiest defencemen as well. They could always spend their way out of trouble. And now they probably have.

Today, with all of his critics squealing in outraged panic, Sather can finally say he has a better team than he did last week and most probably, he has also put that team into a playoff spot by denying their services to two key opponents.

If the end justifies the means, then Sather is having a very good summer.

As for the rest of the NHL, that's another matter. With labour hell looming in the Fall of 2004 the wealthiest owners continue on with business as usual, offering five and six year deals with tens of millions of dollars at stake.

The Oilers have no contracts lasting past 2004. The Flames only a couple.

The small fry are obviously anticipating a different future than the Rangers and Wings. But that's hardly a bulletin.

This has never really been about players versus owners. We've said in this space all along that the real war will come down to large market owners and small market owners fighting over the deciding votes of the medium sized markets.

Yes, the Rangers are enjoying a great summer but like all things done in New York the short-term gain may well give way to long-term pain.

Their circle of friends among the ownership group shrinks with every bloated contract they hand out, so much so that now you can put even more chips down on small markets like Calgary carrying the day in 2004.

BASEBALL OWNERS OWE $3.5 BILLION U.S. on guaranteed contracts to 229 players over the next five years regardless of economic health. Fortunately, I have a calculator that can accommodate all those zeros. That's $15,283,842.79 PER player. No matter which side of the argument you fall on - owners or players - there is an underlying truth in the words of baseball union head Donald Fehr and hockey union leader Bob Goodenow when they gleefully state the obvious. Owners wouldn't sign on the dotted line if they couldn't afford to pay. You would think anyway.

IT MAY BE TOO EARLY TO DETERMINE the eventual losers of this still young free agent season but the Devils and Leafs certainly stand out in the early going. Replacing Curtis Joseph with Ed Belfour, in obvious decline, means the Leafs are probably due for a step backwards from their surprising three round playoff run of last year. They probably won't be as fortunate to have all the major contenders leap out of the way in the first round next year even though they figure to be healthier. Bottom line though is that weaker goaltending probably doesn't bode well. As to the Devils, they represent a classic case of a superb organization which drafted well, traded well, built a near dynasty but now sees itself facing the inevitable crumbling caused by aging key personnel, losing others for monetary reasons and a wilting of the prospect pipeline through earlier trades to prop up weaknesses. Hey, it happens.

"OFFER SHEETS DON'T WORK. The assumption was that if you go after a team that's financially vulnerable, then they won't match the offer sheet. In fact, what's been shown is that any team that's vulnerable wants least to show its vulnerability by failing to match the offer sheet. The plain fact of it is, offer sheets will get matched - so why bother?" - Leafs President Ken Dryden answering a suggestion from a Toronto newspaper reporter that Toronto should have gone after Montreal's NHL MVP Jose Theodore instead of signing unrestricted free agent Ed Belfour.

THE SPLATTERING OF ROB NIEDERMAYER'S name all over the acquisition of Martin Gelinas a few days ago caused a few eyebrows to soar given it signals the probability that Marc Savard's time with the Flames is probably coming to an end. This fits with Button's stated image of speed, speed and more speed throughout his lineup but particularly among his key players. With Dean McAmmond, Craig Conroy and Jarome Iginla on the first line and Gelinas, Niedermayer and Chuck Kobasew on the second line the Flames should be able to field one of the quickest outfits in the NHL. The risk, of course, is that Niedermayer flat-lines as he did last season, dragging Kobasew and Gelinas down into his own private hell and probably the team with them. From a coaching perspective, however, it would be hard to believe the Flames have any confidence Savard has the speed, size or defensive awareness to provide a viable alternative to Niedermayer. We noted in this column last season that a good part of Iginla's breakout success came about when he was forced to elevate his game to the same speed played by Conroy. In short, Savard, his centre the previous year, was holding him back. Conversely, as the season wore on it became equally apparent that Savard lacked the foot-speed to keep up with many of his teammates and if that's the case it's not far fetched to imagine he would probably flounder between rockets like Gelinas and Kobasew as well. In addition, advancing Niedermayer up the depth chart bolsters the size of the first two lines, which would be noticeably small with only Conroy and Iginla over six feet in height. None of this makes Savard a bad NHL player, just a poor fitting piece of the puzzle in Calgary. But Niedermayer is anything but a certainty himself. We would add, therefore, that Button probably isn't done tinkering, that the trade market is now the next logical step. Would it be a surprise if Button seeks a backup plan to the Niedermayer experiment while Savard moves on to a happier destination?

THE ACQUISITION OF GELINAS FITS THE BUTTON pattern of adding players in the 27-31 age group, guys who have been around the block but are still young enough to maintain a high level of play. The Flames also appear to have moved away from their predilection of adding cheaper 35 to 37 year-olds and hoping they still have a year or two left. In Calgary at least, we've seen the older generation were actually poor leaders mostly because they couldn't play to the levels of their reputations. In that, Gelinas is a good fit. Grant Fuhr wasn't.

MISSING FROM BUTTON'S MACHINATIONS TO DATE is the requisite tough guy. Since Flames players went to management last year and indicated they needed some knuckles on staff we would assume the same requirement needs to be met again before training camp with Craig Berube now an unrestricted free agent. As noted above there are likely still trades yet to happen and it could be the need for protection will be met that way.

HOPEFULLY WE'RE NOT GOING TO TAKE PRACTICE against each other too seriously." - Darius Kasparitus speaking about new teammate Eric Lindros, whom Kasparitus flattened on more than one occasion. Lindros phoned Kasparitus to convince him to sign in New York.