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Charlton's NHL: Here We Go Again

Rick Charlton

December 21st, 2001

Not again.

A little over a year ago in not so different circumstances Flames GM Craig Button was confronted with a recalcitrant skilled forward with a trade demand.

Take a look back ... Charlton: Bure Balks 12-11-00

At the time, the Flames were dropping faster than an out of control Russian submarine, glowing red and finally white before disintegrating in a horrific 8-0 home ice implosion at the hands of an apologetic Shark team.

Coach Don Hay, accused of being a milquetoast to that point, finally figured out in a belated effort at self-preservation, that it was either Val Bure or him and put the unhappy winger in the press box. Two games later Bure's agent blew into town and demanded, through the media, that his client be traded.

What followed thereafter - Bure defiantly stating he would continue to play "his game" and Button taking a full six months to finally accede to the trade request - will be studied in critical detail by students of organizational behaviour the same way naval freshmen pour over Admiral "Wild Bill" Halsey's decisions at Leyte Gulf.

The unfortunate end result was a Flames team torn by internal strife and people yanking at both ends of the proverbial cord, a fifth straight year out of the playoffs, a coach fired in his first year, season ticket sales plummeting and a GM admitting to "mistakes" that he vowed he wouldn't repeat.

And now Marc Savard has made public via TSNMAX his request to be traded.

The Flames, although still firmly in control of a playoff spot after a magnificent start, are also flying like a lead balloon at the moment, two tepid if not puzzling performances in a row raising alarm bells.

Savard, like Bure, has felt the need to pressure Button by taking his demand public although the acrimony between himself and coach Greg Gilbert, as was the case with Bure/Hay, is hardly a secret.

It would be easy to assume the chemistry in the Flames dressing room is also under stress. The Flames, more than most, need to emphasize a team concept, an all-for-one and one for all approach, to have even a remote chance for success. Savard, although acting in a far classier manner than Bure, has essentially said he is incapable of playing the team game espoused by Gilbert.

In effect, Savard feels he must play "his game" just as Bure felt a year ago.

In today's NHL, however, there may be little place for free-lancers, certainly not in a Canadian small market.

Interestingly, the Dean McAmmond, Craig Conroy and Jarome Iginla combination has been one of the more creatively dazzling trios in the NHL this season. And all three are well on the right side of the plus column; showing attention to defence isn't a crime.

It's been the unsuspected performance of Conroy that has allowed Gilbert to come to Savard with demands for two-way accountability, not an unreasonable request. And certainly not a revelation either for this team or any other.

Find a coach who can keep everyone happy in his dressing room and I'll find you a recipe for world peace. There will always be grumbles.

But when a top four forward, a person counted on to provide offence, falters and then starts taking his dissatisfaction public, the light switch has to go on over Button's head, particularly after he quickly reviews the debacle of last season when he decided to permit a cancer to hang around.

The NHL roster freeze is now in effect, meaning Button has plenty of time to review his options and, if so inclined, stir up some interest. After tonight, the Flames don't play again until Wednesday.

Unlike Bure, at the tail end of a 47 game drought without a goal under two coaches and having as much trade value as a picture of myself, Savard will actually attract some interest. While his attention span for defensive detail may be questioned, Savard has more than a little moxie, tremendous skill and, best of all, a relatively cheap contract that still has a ways to run.

Button has said all along that he has a game plan, one involving depth and size down centre ice, a strong defence and excellent goaltending. The most obvious weakness for the Flames is on wing where the team has an appalling lack of credible depth once you get by Iginla, the NHL's early points leader.

The GM's job is perhaps a little tougher given the disappointing performance to date of Rob Niedermayer. Had Niedermayer lived up to the expectations of the team to this point, Button's task would be relatively uncomplicated. Find a winger. But his thinking must also include the disturbing fact that Niedermayer may only be what we've seen so far, a better defensive forward than someone who should be counted on for points.

There is also the question of whether or not Craig Conroy can continue his wizard like performance between McAmmond and Iginla but that is probably less of a fluke than we might think. Conroy is making skilled plays with determination that aren't accidents by any means.

So a trade of one centre for another is also not out of the question.

Now that the fur has hit the fan with Savard, the only thing remaining will be speculation as to his destination, the timing and the ultimate result.

As is often the case in situations like this, the name game starts early and grows exponentially.

Paul Kariya continues to flounder in Anaheim and has no visible chemistry with Jeff Friesen. The Ducks could do worse than tossing Friesen at Calgary in exchange for Savard, a nifty guy who would love the opportunity of finding a gunner like Kariya. If nothing else it would create the illusion that Disney is at least trying to ice a competitive team. But I'll throw out the name of Mike LeClerc as well, although his foot speed isn't the best and might not match Button's criteria.

The grand prize of Vincent Lecavalier is hanging out there although Tampa GM Rick Dudley says the state of happiness of his prize forward is a dead issue. Don't believe it. But Dudley can't lose such a trade and therefore the draft of 2002 is the most likely place we'll see such a deal happen. Interestingly, Fredrik Modin, he of the large size and booming shot from the wing, is off to a less than inspiring start and may represent a worthwhile target for the Flames to investigate.

The Sharks are running out of patience with Patrick Marleau, a prize draft pick from 1997 but now in his fifth season and seemingly flat-lining in his development. Marleau might need a change of scenery as much as Savard does. But how does Savard fit in with the regimented Sharks might be the better question.

Others suggested by pundits in some combination or other, include Bates Battaglia, Martin Gelinas, Richard Zednik, Chris Gratton (a huge contract that never ends), Patrik Stefan, Scott Gomez, Brad Isbister (struggling and apparently out of favour), Oleg Kvasha, Radek Dvorak, Viktor Kozlov (the biggest waste of talent in the world according to Duane Sutter), Maxim Afinogenov (a dream), Vyacheslav Kozlov and Andrei Nikolishin.

Gary Roberts would be wonderful but should you be giving up a 24 year-old for a 35 year-old? Probably not. And that probably eliminates the persistent Joe Nieuwendyk rumour as well.

This will be a trade for immediate benefit, skilled help at forward, rather than futures. It will probably involve the baggage of one team in exchange for the same from the other side although we would hope something more creative might be accomplished.

There is one alternative, however.

Do nothing.

Let Savard stew in his own juices. Remove him from the room and give him a cozy seat in the press box for a while. Remind him he's a professional with a contract to honour, no matter the location. Not every player who demands to be traded gets his way.

But then, that was tried last year with less than stellar results, keeping a player who steadfastly stuck to "his game" and ended up with 27 goals but was also a minus 21.

A distraction.

Button has something of value that wants to be moved. Other GM's will be looking to throw him an anchor in exchange but that's just part of the business. There are other GM's out there in far more desperate circumstances for once than he is.

Savard wants to go.

This time, the player will probably get his wish.

THE LAST TIME A FLAMES PLAYER DEMANDED A TRADE THROUGH THE MEDIA he earned an automatic pass to the press box. It will be interesting to see if Savard plays in Colorado tonight.

WATCHING BBC NEWS FROM LONDON VIA SATELITE LATE LAST NIGHT I was startled to actually see some NHL highlights. And you won't need two guesses to figure out which game was being highlighted. It was the fight-filled brouhaha between LA and Ottawa. That should be no surprise because it's usually the fight tape which makes the airwaves in places you wouldn't normally see hockey on display. The incongruity here is that the NHL has been trying to curb the more disturbing aspects of fighting largely because television says it can't sell murder and mayhem. Strange indeed.



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