Ahhh, the dog-days of summer, the mid-way point of the off-season, with training camps a little over a month away.
Thankfully, this summer's been more interesting than last year's, where the dearth of real hockey news set me off on angry, scotch-fueled tirades against the state of the game. This year, there's been much more to keep me occupied and away from pondering the immediate future of the game.
The UFA market, for one thing, has been far more interesting than in previous summers. Usually, the big deals happen within the first ten days, then everything dies down as those UFAs considered less worthy wait for teams to come shopping for "spare parts".
But with teams showing concerns about possible payroll caps or luxury taxes in the next CBA , more Group II free agents were cast aside and tossed into the UFA pool, thus swelling the depth.
Hey, it took almost a month before Ray Whitney, a decent scoring forward, found himself a new team, and nearly three weeks before Sergei Fedorov, a legitimate superstar, ended up signing with another team, one that most never seriously expected to be a player in the UFA market prior to July 1.
And there's still some good talent left out there that can probably be had for cheaper contracts than they had last season. Guys like Joe Nieuwendyk, Adam Oates, Dmitry Yushkevich and more could be had for affordable prices for one or two years.
And who foresaw Paul Kariya high-tailing it to Colorado for a paltry $1.2 million because his former club, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, opted not to qualify him at the ridiculous price of $10 million? Of course, if Kariya hadn't buggered off, the Ducks couldn't have signed Fedorov.
But don't worry about poor Paul. I have a feeling he'll get his $10 million contract back after the upcoming season is complete. Kariya will become an unrestricted free agent, and while there probably won't be much of a market for he and other marquee name UFA stars next summer because of concerns over the new CBA, I think he'll find what he's looking for with his current new club, the Avalanche.
The Avs current star, Peter Forsberg, made noises over the past year about packing in his NHL career and high-tailing it back to Sweden. He only signed on with the Avs for one more year, which is giving rise to speculation he'll call it a wrap after this upcoming season.
If that happens, why, looky-looky, GM Pierre Lacroix already has himself a replacement for the same amount of money Forsberg made.
Far-fetched? Perhaps, but you've gotta admit, it's a damn good possibility.
And while on the topic of the Avs, does anyone really believe they'll stick with David Aebischer and prospect Phillipe Sauve as their goaltending duo next season?
Sure, Lacroix will probably start the season with them. And who knows, maybe Aebischer is capable of stepping up and becoming a quality NHL starting goaltender, although his performances against weak opposition over the past two seasons indicate otherwise.
But if Aebischer and the untested Sauve are found lacking a month into the season, Lacroix will go shopping for an experienced starter.
I've been musing about this for weeks, but who's to say he won't land Curtis Joseph from Detroit?
Now I know, a lot of you will say there's no way this'll happen, given the rivalry between the Avs and Detroit Red Wings, but hear me out.
The Avs won't deal directly to land CuJo, but rather, they may try to swing a three-way deal with another club as the go-between. That way, the Wings save face (or at least, that'll be the perception they'll put in the press), the Avs get a quality starter, and the third team gets, say, Alex Tanguay or whoever Lacroix feels is expendable.
Then again, perhaps the Avs don't have to go the trade route to land Joseph.
The Wings face a sticky situation called the waiver draft, set for the end of September. Each team can only protect two goaltenders, and the Wings, with CuJo, Dominik Hasek and Manny Legace, have three.
They want to move CuJo but want some value in return. They're obviously protecting Hasek, but they cannot protect Joseph if he's still awaiting a trade at that point and leave Legace exposed, since the latter is the designated backup.
So the Wings might be forced to take a deep breath and place Joseph on the waiver draft and hope no one claims him.
With two years remaining on a contract paying him $16 million, that's a good possibility. But the Avs could afford Joseph's salary, and if Lacroix sees a chance to scoop him up without having to part with other players, he may act.
That would screw the Wings hopes of getting something decent in return for Joseph unless they're already prepared for that eventuality.
After all, they recently signed Whitney and are believed shopping for another top-six forward. They could sign someone like Joe Nieuwendyk or Adam Oates. If they do that, they'll have filled their needs and may not be overly concerned about losing Joseph for nothing via the waiver draft.
That's what happened the last time they had this situation, when they had Hasek, Legace and Chris Osgood. The NY Islanders plucked Ozzy off the waiver draft, and while the Wings were criticized for losing him for nothing, it certainly didn't hurt their season as they went on to win the Cup eight months later.
Ahhhh, summer intrigue! Ya gotta love it!
And speaking of the Wings, I recently read a report in the Detroit News regarding Steve Yzerman re-signing with the Red Wings for $6 million plus bonuses that could bring him up to $8 million.
Seems the columnist was rather miffed at the Wings for not re-signing their captain at his previous salary of $8 mil per season. The columnist believes Yzerman is fully deserving of $8 million, citing his 21 years of service to the team. He accused the Red Wings of being cheap and treating Yzerman shabbily.
Hey, no one questions what Yzerman means to the Red Wings. Next to Gordie Howe, he's the greatest player to ever wear the spoked wing.
But I'd say that offering Stevie Y a one-year deal for $6 million is more than fair. In fact, even without bonuses, it's a damn good offer.
Yzerman's been a great player and a great captain, but he's at the stage of his career where he's no longer worth $8 million per season. He's coming off reconstructive knee surgery and is pushing 40. Yes, he's a terrific leader and two-way player, but the guy's on the downside of his career and will probably retire after this season. The fact he got a contract that will pay him three-quarters of what he made last season, just for showing up and punching the clock, is more than fair.
In fact, he's lucky he got that much. The NY Rangers, for years the poster child team for overspending, re-signed long-time Blueshirt Brian Leetch for less than he made in previous years, and probably won't be re-signing their captain, Mark Messier, to a big contract.
Messier is considered the greatest team captain of the modern NHL era, greater than even Yzerman, yet I'm willing to wager if the Rangers do re-sign "the Moose", it won't add up to half of Yzerman's base salary.
Paying a player past his prime top dollar for sentimental reasons is not smart business.
Then again, some will argue that it wasn't smart business to cut loose the younger Fedorov, still in his prime, and using the money that could've been spent on giving him a raise on an aging, hobbled captain who's contemplating retirement.
Either the Wings were the bad guys for not appreciating Fedorov's true value to the team, or Fedorov was a greedy, selfish, lazy putz who wasn't worth what the Wings originally offered him.Talk about a split amongst Wings fans! Most of what I've read has been right down the middle on this one.
So, was Fedorov just plain stupid when he spurned two offers from the Wings for long-term deals that would've paid him $10 mil per season? Did he misread the market and have to settle for the Mighty Ducks lesser offer?
Or, as he insists, it wasn't the money that was important, but rather, the opportunity to step out of Yzerman's shadow and become a true leader? The chance to play for a team where he wouldn't have to share the spotlight?
Wings fans will be debating this for a while yet!
But at least the Red Wings were proactive and signed players to make them better. In the self-proclaimed "centre of the hockey universe" known as Toronto, the Maple Leafs made news for what they didn't do.
They claimed they couldn't afford to sign Derian Hatcher and watched him go to Detroit. They've been engaged in a slow waltz of futility with defenceman Robert Svehla, who keeps hemming and hawing about retiring but doesn't want to sign retirement papers, and then they lost Glen Wesley to his former club, the Carolina Hurricanes, because they wouldn't come up $750K for one season.
Chalk this up to uncertainty in the front office, where the Leafs are making a glacial move toward hiring a new general manager. Applicants will have to be screened by new owner Richard Peddie, MLSE VP Ken Dryden and former GM and current head coach, Pat Quinn.
Peddie and Dryden believe a new GM will be in place before training camp, but Quinn hints he might still be performing the GM duties when the new season begins.
Meanwhile, their arch-rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, in the span of six weeks, hired a guy most Leafs fans (and Dryden) coveted in former Dallas Stars GM Bob Gainey to take over as their general manager. Former Habs GM Andre Savard willingly stepped down to become Gainey's assistant and happily went back to doing what he does best, evaluating, drafting and developing young talent. Finally, they hired former scout and GM Pierre Gauthier as head scout.
All three men have impeccable pedigrees. All three helped to build champions (Dallas and Colorado) or rising teams (Anaheim and Ottawa).
While the Leafs dithered, the Canadiens have in weeks put together one of the best front office teams in the league.
Meaning that, within five years, the laughingstock Canadiens will become Cup contenders, while the Leafs - perennial Cup contenders for the past four years - fall into mediocrity. Based on what Montreal's done this summer, we can expect to see those roles reversed by 2007-08 at the outside.
Count on it.
So who will be considered "Canada's Team" in the interim?
That's easy, the Ottawa Senators, with the Vancouver Canucks taking over the Sens traditional role as bridesmaids.
The Sens, thanks to their new owner, now have the cash to keep their club together, and are doing just that, as their recent re-signing of blueline anchor Wade Redden indicates.
Indeed, given the depth of experienced players in their prime and rising young talent coming into their own, plus the valuable experience of this past spring's playoff run, the Senators appear poised to become Cup champions.
Out west, the Canucks are getting there, but they're still a couple of key players short that would put them over the top. And of course, there are questions about the goaltending of Dan Cloutier.
The Edmonton Oilers are still a good young team, but haven't they always been since 1997? Sadly, they cannot afford to keep their teams together to allow them to grow into a serious contender. Unless things change in the next CBA, they'll always be an exciting young team that cannot afford to grow together and always gets bounced in the first round.
The Calgary Flames have gone seven years now since their last playoff appearance. This year could finally be the year they break that jinx, as new GM/head coach Daryl Sutter is rebuilding the club into a bigger, tougher team, and made some good moves in that regard.
But they'll only go as far as their goaltending, and if Roman Turek fails to improve next season, the only thing "Large" about him will be the size of Sutter's bootprint on his ass as he flies out the door!
As for the aforementioned Habs, their front office may be superb, but their team is not. While they do have some key components in Jose Theodore, Andrei Markov, Saku Koivu and Richard Zednik, they remain physically a small club with too many veterans passed their prime and too many youngsters yet to reach theirs. Unless Theodore returns to his Vezina-Hart winning form of a year ago, they'll be dead meat again.
Gainey and company will rebuild the struggling Canadiens, and have some promising youngsters already in their system. However, Habs fans, it's going to take at least another season or two before your club shows serious improvement.
And as I noted earlier, the Leafs front office problems are going to come back to haunt them. Too often GM Pat Quinn has dealt away decent young talent for expensive veterans who fail to step up when needed. They're going in the wrong direction now, getting older rather than younger, and that's going to cost them within the next five years.
Indeed, for the first time since 1999, the Leafs can no longer be taken seriously as Cup contenders. Their early exit this past spring is a sign of things to come.
So Canadian hockey fans, it appears the best hope for bringing the Cup back to Canada lies with the Senators.
Leafs fans and Hockey Night In Canada won't like it, but it's the truth.
The hockey world remains in mourning just days after former US Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks was killed in a motor vehicle accident on August 11th.
Accolades and condolences have appeared throughout the North American media, leaving no doubt how respected and loved Brooks was for his contributions to American hockey.
Make no mistake, Brooks was instrumental in increasing the popularity of hockey in the United States.
It wasn't because of his own university and Olympic hockey playing career. It wasn't due to the three national titles he won coaching the University of Minnesota's hockey team.
It wasn't because of his professional coaching career, which was average at best. And it wasn't for coaching Team USA to a silver medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
It wasn't for his involvement in player development at both the university and professional levels.
These achievements are noteworthy for the most part and played small roles in improving the quality of hockey in the United States
But it was the Miracle on Ice that had the greatest impact on American hockey.
It was a Hollywood story come to life, and it's all because of Brooks's coaching.
Long before the accident that took his life, the players on that 1980 squad sang Brooks's praises, correctly pointing out it was his coaching and motivation that inspired them to pull off one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
He was a tough but fair coach, a taskmaster with a keen eye for talent. A motivator who succeeded in convincing these kids that not only did they belong in that famous matchup with the elite Soviet squat, but that they could beat them, that the Soviet squad was ripe for the picking. He made them believe that they could do the seemingly impossible.
Not only did it catapult Team USA to upset the Soviets enroute to the Gold Medal, but it inspired thousands of American kids to take up the sport, particularly in parts of the United States where hockey was more a curiousity than a passion.
And let's not forget the emotional lift it gave a country struggling through a low point during the Cold War, the effects of which are still fondly remembered .
The repercussions of the upset victory over the powerful Soviet hockey squad, one of the greatest teams ever assembled in hockey history, in the 1980 Winter Olympics by an upstart team of college kids on American hockey is still being felt today.
Top NHL professionals like Jeremy Roenick, John LeClair, Bill Guerin and Brian Rolston all point to that accomplishment as the motivating factor that set them upon the path to professional hockey.
Yes, Wayne Gretzky's trade to Los Angeles in 1988 paved the way to opening up the game via expansion in the 1990's.
But without the inspirational Miracle on Ice, even that may not have been possible.
It was the greatest career achievement of Herb Brooks. But it's the fair-reaching impact of that achievement upon American hockey, and indeed, in American folklore, that stands as his legacy.
For that, he will never be forgotten.
If you wish to read more about Herb Brooks and the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team, I highly recommend the book, "One Goal", by John Power and Arthur C. Kaminsky. I reviewed the book in January 2000. I'm not sure if it's still in print, but a copy should be available through your public library. I was unable to find this book available via the internet.
For the past two years, the impending negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in September, 2004, have been a growing worry of the fans and the press.
During that time, we've been reading a lot of pessimistic forecasts regarding a potential "labour war" in the fall of 2004 that could lead to either a players strike or an owners lockout of the players, which would effectively shut down the National Hockey League.
Unlike the 1992 players strike, which threatened the post-season that year, or the 1994-95 lockout which cost the league half the season, there's speculation that this time an entire season could be lost. Possibly two.
We've read of Bob Goodenow, head of the NHLPA, warning the players to prepare themselves for a layoff that could last up to two years. We've heard of the owners and the players associations building "war chests" in preparation for a long seige of bitter negotiations.
In short, NHL fans have been warned to expect Armageddon, a league shutdown so severe, it would have serious repercussions on the future of the league and many of its teams and players.
There's been good reason to believe this storm is brewing. Most veteran players, when questioned on the subject of the NHLPA accepting a salary cap, are strongly opposed to it.
Under no circumstances, they say, will they accept a salary cap. It's the owners, not them, who willingly pay out those huge salaries. Take up that issue with the owners, they say.
Meanwhile, many of the owners and their front office lackies were saying the players had to bear some responsibility for their salaries rising out of control and agree to a cap. Furthermore, any suggestion of revenue sharing - a la the National Football League - was dismissed as unworkable for the NHL. The willingness of big market clubs to share profits with their struggling small market cousins was simply not there.
Since 1999, I've posted several articles on this topic, bemoaning the unwillingness of the owners and players to attempt to reach some common ground to sort out the glaring problems killing the league, and decried the greedy short-sightedness of the mindset of both sides. I honestly believed Armaggedon was coming for the National Hockey League.
Until this summer.
With an unwillingness on the part of all but two teams to engage in the usual spending frenzies that is unrestricted free agent, and the desire of many of these clubs to dump the salaries of some marquee players, I believe we're seeing the first signs that a prolonged league shutdown may not occur after all.
To borrow a catchphrase of Bill Nye the Science Guy, "consider the following"...
First, we're seeing a phenomenon never before witnessed in the NHL: the majority of teams attempting to dump salaries at the same time.
Since the last Collective Bargaining Agreement was hammered out in 1995, most team payrolls increased together. Yet this summer, for the first time, the majority of clubs are either maintaining the bottom line, or looking to dump salaries.
And a lot of these salary dumps don't involve marginal players.
Marquee names, like the Flyers John LeClair, the Stars Bill Guerin and the Capitals Jaromir Jagr, have been actively shopped. The fact these players were all signed to their major contracts within the past two years makes this situation all the more intriguing.
Yes, the case can be made the reason the Flyers are attempting to dump LeClair is due to back problems robbing him of the ability to be the dominant forward he once was, and yes, the Stars were shopping Guerin's salary in hopes of freeing up money in an unsuccessful attempt to re-sign Derian Hatcher. The fact remains, however, that these two teams, who once wallowed in free-spending excess, were no longer comfortable carrying these salaries.
And the salary dumping doesn't stop there. The Phoenix Coyotes shed Teppo Numminen, while the Anaheim Mighty Ducks shocked the hockey world by not offering Paul Kariya a qualifying offer, thus making him an unrestricted free agent who waddled off to Colorado in a huff. The San Jose Sharks watched Teemu Selanne walk away, and dealt off Owen Nolan before the trade deadline, yet did nothing to bring in players of equal value to replace them.
This could well be the start of a continuing trend from now until September 2004. As that time approaches, we could see even more salary dumping occur.
The next clue is the slowness of this summer's unrestricted free agent market.
Granted, this summer's pool was not as deep as in previous years, but still, there was plenty of top-flight talent available.
Usually within the first week of the UFA market, the top talent is snapped up by mainly big-market clubs, leaving the remaining minnows to be picked over by the small-and-mid market clubs.
Yet the only UFAs of note who were signed in the first week were Derian Hatcher,Jeff Hackett, Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya.
After that, things slowed to a crawl.
It took three weeks before Sergei Fedorov, considered the jewel of this year's UFA market, to find a new home. It took Ray Whitney, a decent, affordable scoring forward, a month to get a contract signed.
As the summer stretched into August, quality free agents such as Magnus Arvedson, Joe Nieuwendyk, Adam Oates, Cliff Ronning, Ken Klee, Oleg Tverdovsky and Dmitry Yushkevich remain unsigned.
It's not because their salary demands are too high.
Since 2000, the number of teams who could afford to dip into the UFA pool on a regular basis has dropped dramatically, from 10 teams in 2000 to just three teams in 2003. One of them, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, weren't known for being major players in the UFA market before this summer.
And when those teams signed name players, in most cases it was for much less than many believed they'd receive in the UFA market. Of the major signings this summer, only Derian Hatcher got a significant raise, and even that wasn't considered outrageous.
Meanwhile, the other clubs - Dallas, Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis, Toronto and Washington - have either passed on making major signings, or made small ones.
One reason is because their payrolls are finally stretched to the limit. The willingness to spend, spend, spend simply isn't there anymore, particularly when most of those high-spending teams were getting bested in the playoffs by clubs with lower payrolls and fewer star players.
But I believe there's another reason for the unwillingness to spend this summer.
Since the end of the 2002-03 season, there's a growing perception in the hockey press that, rather than try to impose a hard salary cap on the players, the owners will instead turn to a payroll cap.
Some suggest this cap will be set at $32 million US. It's possible, but I believe it'll ultimately be set at $40 million US to allow teams currently carrying untradeable player salaries some "wiggle room" until those contracts expire.
There's also talk that, rather than teams being forced to dump players they cannot afford to keep under the cap, that some sort of luxury tax will be imposed. A team who spends, say, $10 million above the cap would have to pay a certain percentage to the league, who would then disperse that money among the smaller market teams, thus enabling those teams to better compete in signing UFAs or to help them re-sign their restricted free agents.
Finally, there is media speculation the owners could consider lowering the age limit for unrestricted free agency from 31 to 27.
As for the supposedly hardline stance toward a salary cap, there's been little, if any, talk about that.
This may be wishful thinking on my part, but the owners may be genuinely reconsidering the "eyeball-to-eyeball" confrontation with the players that many believed could shut down the National Hockey League.
The owners have been shortsighted in the past. Indeed, they misjudged the players resolve during the 1992 strike and the 1995 lockout. Both times, they blinked, because they simply couldn't afford to lose the playoffs and the regular season.
In the next round of labour talks, the players hold the whip hand regarding their salaries. Their previous victories over the owners has bolstered their confidence, and their swelled bank accounts thanks to the exponential rise in their salaries since 1995 means they can more easily weather a prolonged work stoppage than the owners can.
After all, the owners have much more at stake to lose in terms of money than the players. There are arena employees to consider, merchandise and concessions to sell, broadcasting rights at stake, taxes to be paid.
While most of the players, meanwhile, can either spend the time relaxing on the millions they've stored up in their bank accounts and financial portfolios, or barnstorm Europe and Asia like Wayne Gretzky and his buddies did during the 1995 lockout to stay in playing shape and make a little cash on the side.
Thus, the unexpected moves we've seen since the spring could indicate the owners want to avoid a third, possibly more devastating war with the players.
Instead, they could be considering settling the issue amongst themselves by instituting the aforementioned payroll cap and luxury tax.
Rather than employing the no-win scenario of trying to force the players to heel with a hard salary cap, the owners may abandon that issue without a fight.
In other words, they'll be telling the players, "look, you can demand whatever you want as free agents, for that is your right and we're not going to take that away from you. However, we now have payroll restrictions in place, meaning most of you probably won't get what you're asking for."
So players can continue to seek "market value" salaries of $5-$10 million per season, but the willingness to pay them because of a league-wide payroll cap would mean most won't get those amounts, and instead, would have to consider coming down in price.
That's why the possibility of lowering the UFA age from 31 to 27 probably won't be a hot issue among the small market clubs, who traditionally cannot afford to retain players who are eligible for UFA status.
And it could certainly benefit those clubs who currently have low payrolls. While most of their big market peers would, for the first few years under the new CBA, be unable to scoop up most of the marquee talent at their expense because of their already high payrolls, teams with payrolls sitting around $25 million or less could reap the benefits of a UFA market filled with younger, cheaper talent just hitting their prime.
The players would love to see that limit lowered to 27, but with a payroll cap and possibly a luxury tax to boot, most of them won't get the big riches their older peers used to get.
Realistically, this is probably the only way the NHL can avoid a prolonged shutdown. The players, for right or wrong, will be unyielding when it comes to suggesting a cap on their salaries.
Risking the health of the league in general, and the future of their clubs in particularly, is not smart, long-range option for the owners.
Imposing controls on themselves, rather than on the players, and ensuring those controls are enforced so no one can circumvent them or bend them to their advantage is perhaps the only viable solution the owners have if they wish to avoid a financially damaging shutdown.
Perhaps it's only wishful thinking on my part. Maybe nothing will come of these suggestions and the owners and players will engage in a high-stakes shutdown that'll further damage the credibility of the National Hockey League, leading to contraction and financial damage that will take years to repair.
But with what we've witnessed in recent months, perhaps the owners have peered into the abyss and are reeling back from what they've seen. For the first time, there may be some fiscal sanity coming to the National Hockey League.
Maybe, just maybe, we're seeing the first steps in avoiding a league shutdown.
We can only hope.
The summer of 2003 has been far more interesting for hockey fans than previous summers.
From teams attempting to dump high-salaried stars, to unexpected free agent signings, to a surprising number of decent UFA talent still unsigned, to seemingly endless speculation on the future destination of Detroit Red Wings goaltender Curtis Joseph, there was no shortage of topics for hockey fans to follow and discuss.
However, as the number of signings dried up, as teams like the Rangers, Stars and Capitals found no takers for their overpaid "name" talent, and with nothing further going on with "CuJo", the news in recent days has grown stale and dull.
Which, of course, means some folks are turning to flights of fancy to fill the void of real hockey news.
Like the NY Post's Larry Brooks recent rumour that Anaheim Mighty Ducks goaltender and playoff hero, JS Giguere, was demanding an eye-popping $7 million per season in his contract negotiations with the team.
To cut Brooks a break, there might be something to his speculation. But one has to believe that, if the story of "Giggy's" demand is true, it would appear in the Anaheim/LA media, right?
After all, the contract talks of last year's prime Group II free agents, Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Montreal's Jose Theodore, were the major topics of speculation throughout the summer, with scarcely a week going by without some mention of the status of their contract talks.
So why have we heard nothing about Giguere, other than a brief note about his wedding a month ago?
Because hockey's not followed as passionately in Anaheim? A valid point, but remember, the Mighty Ducks, like the underdog Anaheim Angels of MLB, were the toast of the town just two months ago, their amazing playoff run gulping up gallons of ink in the local press.
The non-qualification of team captain Paul Kariya and his subsequent departure to Colorado was big news, or at least, it was big enough to merit coverage on the respective websites of the Orange County Register and the LA Times.
The subsequent signing of Sergei Fedorov generated just as much attention as Kariya's departure three weeks prior.
But checking out those websites the day following the Post story on Giguere, there was news about tough guy Kevin Sawyer battling the effects of post-concussion syndrome, plus the re-signing of defenceman Niclas Havelid.
But nothing about Giguere.
Leaving one to wonder about the validity of Brooks's source.
Meanwhile, in Montreal, a major rumour that kicked around for nearly three weeks (as of this writing) was that of the Canadiens and the Colorado Avalanche "agreeing in principle" to a major deal that would ship embattled goaltender Jose Theodore and whipping-boy blueliner Patrice Brisebois to the Avs. In return, the Habs would land forward Alex Tanguay, defenceman Derek Morris...and the rights to Patrick Roy.
The basis for the rumour was two-fold: the Habs desire to move out Theodore lest the legal troubles of his family distract him, and the desire of Patrick Roy to enshrine his legacy by retiring a Habs, which would in turn see his number 33 retired next to Jacques Plante's, and the possibility of then moving into a front office job.
There were obviously too many holes in this "deal" for it to ever see legitimacy.
The Canadiens were sticking by Theodore, even rejecting feelers from the Avs and a few other teams, according to the Montreal Gazette. Indeed, Habs president Pierre Boivin reiterated the club's stance in a recent interview with reporters.
Also, there is no way Pierre Lacroix would deal a potential Norris-contender in Morris for an overpaid underachiever like "Breeze-by".
But the suggestion Roy's ego was so huge that he was worried about his "legacy" is laughable.
He cannot come out of retirement for next season without all thirty NHL teams agreeing. That's not a symbolic stand that has no meaning, as one fan suggested to me. It's hard fact.
Roy does have a big ego, but it's hard to believe he's worried about his place in Habs history, or that he even cares if the Canadiens retire his number one day. After all, many Canadiens greats (Moore, Cournoyer, Dryden, Robinson and Gainey) have never been so honoured themselves, yet they don't seem to lose sleep over it.
Perhaps Roy's number will be retire one day, but at this point in his life, with age, ailing hips, and a growing family to worry about, the last thing on his mind is a number retirement ceremony in Montreal.
And why would the Canadiens offer him the assistant GM job? That role is already filled by the very capable Andre Savard, whom new GM Bob Gainey has already come to trust as his invaluable right hand man. Why dump an experienced front office guy, who was perhaps the main architect in building the Ottawa Senators in the 1990s, to bring in a neophyte?
Sorry, but that's not Gainey's way. The only front office role available to Roy is as a scout, and as one of my readers noted in a recent "Fans Speak Out" article, it's doubtful Roy would be happy shlepping around Quebec in search of young talent.
But it's amazing how many Canadiens fans, on message boards and chat sites, were actually buying into this rumour.
Then again, the dual fear that Theodore may be distracted by his family's problems and might be only a "one year wonder", plus the desire to rid themselves of the inept Brisebois, provided the basis for those who, to coin the phrase off the alien poster in Fox Mulder's office, "want to believe".
And as an aside, it's interesting to note that those message boards which overwhelmingly sang Theodore's praises a year ago are now overwhelmingly screaming, "trade him, he's a one-year wonder, go with Garon and sign Potvin to tutor him, for God's sake, trade Jose now for a scoring forward before it's too late!"
And fans think the media in Montreal are vicious!
Perhaps Theodore is the second coming of Jim Carey, a footnote in hockey history for one great season. But if he rebounds to his Vezina-Hart form this season, the boards will be filled with glowing praises like "oh, we knew all along he'd come back to form, what a great goalie, our future is secure, blah, blah, blah...."
Habs fans: the most two-faced in the NHL. But I digress...
The desire to want to believe even grabbed a few Canucks fans,who felt GM Brian Burke was planning a "big trade". According to Hockeytraderumors.com, speculation had the Canucks about to acquire either Shane Doan from Phoenix, Anson Carter from the Rangers, or Mark Parrish from the Islanders, with either Brent Sopel or Matt Cooke as potential trade bait.
No offence to Sopel or Cooke, but it's obviously wishful thinking to believe either of those guys as the centrepiece of a package deal will bring in Doan or Carter. At least the speculation of landing Parrish has some merit, as the Isles are believed shopping him, but his stock has taken a dive following his sub-par performance last season.
But there were some Canucks fans who actually believed Doan or Carter could be have for such a low return in a package swap. And from what I could tell of their writings on several message boards, these folks seem intelligent enough not to buy into this type of thing.
Is it desperation on their part? The knowledge that their team is only one or two key players away from Cup contention stoking imaginations? Or is it simply the lack of news about their club that's fuelled these speculations?
Or perhaps a little bit of both?
Then there's the one from the St. Paul Pioneer Press suggesting the Detroit Red Wings could send a huge offer sheet to Minnesota Wild star Marian Gaborik.
Supposedly "Gabby" is seeking a multi-year deal worth $6 million while the Wild are countering with $4 mil per season.
Contract speculation aside, it's ludicrous to suggest the Wings will go pillaging another club's restricted free agents.
We heard this type of nonsense a year ago, when Iginla and Theodore were haggling out their contracts. The Rangers were going to make a one-year, $15 million US offer to "Iggy", an offer the Flames couldn't match. The Maple Leafs, prior to signing Eddie Belfour, were supposedly going to pitch big bucks to Theodore.
Ultimately, nothing came of these rumours, because there was nothing to them in the first place.
Since the Carolina Hurricanes sent an offer sheet to then-Red Wings forward Sergei Fedorov in 1998, which the Wings quickly matched, no club has sent offer sheets to another team's RFAs. It's like an unwritten rule now.
Don't expect that rule to be broken with Gaborik, especially when the Wings are still trying to move Joseph and his remaining $16 million US.
And while on the topic of Joseph and the Wings, how about a report attributed to ESPN's Barry Melrose saying he could see the Wings, Blues and Capitals swinging a deal that would send Joseph to St. Louis, Doug Weight to Washington and Jaromir Jagr to Detroit.
Glad you can see it, Barry. I can't...
I've written several articles for Foxsports on this topic, as well as my comments on my trade rumours page substantiating my skepticism.
But I've had more than a few fans write me still wanting to know why I am so skeptical.
Yes, the Blues need better goaltending. But ask yourself this question: if the Blues really were offering Doug Weight straight up for Curtis Joseph, don't you think this deal would've been done weeks ago?
The Blues have committed to two goalies, Chris Osgood and Brent Johnson. They'll have to move one of them to make room for Joseph.
Unfortunately, their respective trade value is squat right now, and it's a risky proposition to assume that value would rise as the season progressed.
Ah, but I'm forgetting waivers, where the Blues could easily dump one of them, preferrably "Ozzy", as one of my critics suggested.
Guess again, buckaroo!
Osgood still had some value two years ago, the last time he hit the waiver draft. That value has dropped since then. If the Blues would have trouble trading him, waiving him won't be any easier. His value and salary work against him.
But let's not forget the more critical factor, that being, the Blues are thin at centre.
As more than one columnist has pointed out, the Blues get creamed in the faceoff circle every time. Their best centre is Weight, and dumping him to shore up their goaltending merely creates another problem. Opening one hole to plug another doesn't stop the boat from sinking.
I might be proven wrong about this, but I doubt it.
If the Blues had passed on Pavol Demitra's salary arbitration award and used the money to sign two centres, I might've believed they were prepping for the "Weight for CuJo" deal.
Instead, they opted to keep Demitra, and are no closer to moving Weight for Joseph or anyone else right now.
All of which is leading me to indulge in my own flight of fancy, that sometime early in the new season, CuJo might end up in Colorado with somebody else as the third party, possibly another club other than the much-yakked about Rangers, Blues or Capitals.
Could it happen? Well, the only teams out there who could use an experience netminder are the Canucks, Islanders, Bruins, the afore-mentioned Blues and the Avs.
Canucks GM Brian Burke is adamant he's not replacing Dan Cloutier, and besides, he couldn't afford Joseph's salary even if the Wings ate a portion of it.
Ditto the Islanders, who'll take their chances with perennial backup Garth Snow holding the fort while hopefully Rick DiPietro makes his long-awaited emergence as the next big thing in goal.
GM Mike O'Connell's interest aside, the Bruins would also balk at CuJo's salary, and they're not on his supposed list of preferred destinations that he'd waive his clause for. Unless the Wings take a huge bite out of Joseph's salary, or Jeremy Jacobs has suddenly decided to go on a spending spree in the final year of the current CBA, or Cujo decides Boston is just the place for him to retire in, he isn't going to play there.
I've already mentioned in detail why I doubt Joseph returns to St. Louis.
The NY Rangers aren't in consideration because I don't believe Glen Sather wants Joseph, especially when he's got a guy in Mike Dunham who loves playing for the Rangers, and a decent backup in the recently-acquired Jussi Markkanen, while the promising Dan Blackburn returns to the farm club for the seasoning he needs.
And let's not forget Mike Richter, who could split the duties with Dunham if he's made a full recovery from post-concussion symptoms. Even if he doesn't, the Rangers goaltending appears to be in good shape going into next season.
That leaves only one team that could use Joseph, and could also afford his salary, and that's the Avs.
Sure, Pierre Lacroix says he'll go with David Aebischer and prospect Phillipe Sauve, and who knows, maybe this tandem is ready for the big time. But I doubt it. Aebischer hasn't exactly set the world on fire backing up Patrick Roy, and it's unlikely Sauve will be ready for NHL competition at this point in his young career.
And let's not forget, it was acknowledged by the Montreal Gazette (usually a reliable source for rumours) that the Avs did contact the Habs about Theodore's availability around the time a five-year-old photo of the goalie posing with several Hell's Angels made the front page of Le Journal de Montreal.
The inquiry was rebuffed by Habs management, but it would mean that Lacroix, ever the savvy GM, is keeping his antenna up.
It'll probably take a few weeks into the new season to settle this issue, but I wouldn't be shocked if CuJo ends up in Denver.
Yes, that's just my flight of fancy, but ya gotta admit, mine makes a helluva lot more sense than the rest!
Almost lost in the hype of Curtis Josephs ankle surgery this past week were some dire warnings concerning three different clubs and the state of the NHL
First, there was Montreal Canadiens president Pierre Boivin, who claimed the mid-term future of his club was in jeopardy if the present status quo regarding player salaries was maintained.
Next came rumblings out of New York that Puck Holdings might consider shopping the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils.
This was spurred by comments made by former Devils owner, Dr. John McMullen, who claimed YankeeNets hadnt made good on money still owed him by Puck Holdings for his sale of the team to them three years ago. McMullen even hinted the Devils faced bankruptcy if they couldnt make good on what was owed him.
Devils GM, CEO and team president Lou Lamoriello denied this, stating on Friday that Puck Holdings had made good on the $50 million owed McMullen.
Still, there are now rumours of the Devils not only being sold, but perhaps relocated now that plans to build a new arena in Newark appear to be dead.
Finally, we had comments from Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who claimed a salary cap would definitely be on the table in the next round of collective bargaining with the players.
Jacobs also defended his club from accusations it was more interested in making money than icing a winner, noting that his teams payroll was in line with that of the defending champion Devils, but that the New Jersey franchise obviously better managed their money.
Jacobs comments were significant in that he rarely grants interviews or has much to do with Boston hockey fans and media..
So how much stock should we put into these warnings? Is there substantiation to them or just a bunch of hot air?
In the case of the Canadiens, its simply acknowledging the fact that they wont be able to continue having payrolls among the upper half of the league if there are no salary controls put into place.
This is a legitimate statement, for as popular as the Habs are (leading the league in attendence since 1998 and operating at 92% capacity this past season), they are finding it difficult to keep up with the rise in player salaries. Thats because their revenues are predominantly in Canadian funds, plus the fact they pay more municipal taxes than all the American-based teams combined.
That doesnt mean the Canadiens will fold or relocate. NHL headquarters will never allow that to happen to hockeys most storied franchise.
What it does mean, however, is the Habs could wind up like its poorer Canadian cousins in Edmonton and Calgary: barely able to afford to ice a competitive team.
Of course, critics will argue that the Habs havent done that in quite some time, but thats been the fault of mismanagement since their last Cup victory in 1993. Between their previous owner (Molsons) and current owner George Gillett, the Canadiens have had the money to spend. Its just been that theyve managed that money poorly in that time.
But even if new GM Bob Gainey can better manage the Habs payroll if the salary status quo is maintained, at some point the Canadiens will fall into the bottom half of the league payroll, which in turn would make it difficult to re-sign their free agents
Thus, most of the promising young talent currently in the Canadiens system, which some experts believe could catapult the club back into the top of the leagues standings in a few years, would ultimately be lost as the Canadiens would be forced to trade them away, being unable to afford to re-sign and retain them.
These are not scare tactics by Boivin. The low Canadian dollar and the high municipal taxes are two things the Canadiens cannot control. They can, however, have a say in getting salaries under control.
As for the Devils, the whisperings about the team being moved have yet to be substantiated. That being said, there is a feeling that the teams future in New Jersey is on thin ice, as suggested by a recent NY Post headline.
Despite all their success over the past ten years, the Devils continue to struggle to fill their aging Meadowlands arena, not just during the regular season, but throughout the playoffs, too.
A variety of reasons are given, from the location of the arena, to high ticket and concession prices, from struggling to find a niche in a saturated New York-area market, to the lack of funding and desire to build a new facility in Newark, to even the sometimes plodding defensive stylings of the team itself.
Whatever the reasons, and I suspect its a combination of all of the above, one is left to wonder how long their present situation can continue.
Even if player salaries are brought under control, and ticket prices can in turn be lowered, the question of whether or not the fans will turn out to support the franchise will remain in play so long as the other factors arent addressed.
Finally, the comments of the usually media-shy Jacobs gives pause to my suggestion that perhaps the owners are willing to give up the notion of a salary cap and pursue instead a payroll cap.
It was pointed out when Jacobs made his comments that hes part of a group of owners who want a salary cap on the table in the next CBA.
Unfortunately, the NHLPA is against the idea of a salary cap, believing the market should set the salaries.
If Jacobs and his fellow hardliners end up controlling the negotiations, a league shutdown is all but certain.
The notion of a cap on salaries is a good one, but the players will never go for it. For that, the owners have themselves to blame. Their hardline attempts at bringing the players to heel, and in turn screwing them out of their fair share, back in 1992 and 1995 created the feelings of mistrust amongst the players.
For all the times the owners cried poor, they all contributed to the escalation of salaries to their present levels, some more so than others.
Now theyre claiming theyre losing money, and in a lot of cases, those claims are accurate. But who can fault the players for all the money theyve been given since 1995?
It was the owners, particularly those in the larger markets, who set the bar higher with each passing season, thanks to free agency.
As long as the NHLPA refuses a cap to the salaries, the greater the likelihood of a crippling shutdown looms.
Of course, this could be so much hot air by Jacobs, except for the fact the man rarely speaks to the media. So when he says his fellow owners will seek a salary cap, the ears of the fans and media - and the players - naturally perk up.
Thats why I believe it would be a wiser course of action to concede the issue of a salary cap and turn instead to a leaguewide payroll cap. In that way, players can continue to seek whatever amount they choose, but the onus will be on the teams to determine if those salaries will fit comfortably into their league-restricted payrolls.
Thats not collusion, by the way. If the players simply refuse to budge, the league and the owners can set up a payroll cap in the interests of keeping the league going. That puts the onus then on the players to come to terms with the league.
If the players strike, they would suffer a serious backlash from the fans and media. Unlike the strike of 1992, where the owners and the league played dirty pool by unfairly painting the players as greedy and selfish, in this instance, the accusations would be justified.
No one has sympathy for millionaire pro athletes striking for more money and crying how hard done-by they are by ownership. Just ask pro baseball and basketball players about that!
The strike of 92 was justified. A strike in 04 wouldnt be. Thus, the players might have no choice but to give in to a payroll cap, or to instead concede to some form of salary cap.
As for Jacobs comments about his payroll not being as well-managed as the New Jersey Devils, thats not going to earn him much sympathy from the Bruins faithful.
For one thing, the defending Cup champs spent $51.2 million on payroll last season, ranking 8th overall in the league. The Bruins, on the other hand, spent $36.9 million, ranking 18th. The only thing in common with the two is both clubs rankings have an 8" in them.
What burns the asses of the Bruins faithful is the steady parade of top talent from the club since the 1998-99 season.
Compare the roster of the current Bruins to that of the one that was considered a Cup contender by hockey experts back in 1999.
That club had Byron Dafoe in net, who was coming off a Vezina-nominated performance. The blueline was manned by Raymond Bourque and Kyle McLaren. Up front, Jason Allison and Anson Carter helped generate offence along with rising young talents Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov.
Dafoe, Bourque, McLaren, Allison and Carter are all gone, and all but Bourque gone because of contract issues. And what they were seeking wasnt extravagent, certainly not in comparison to their peers.
Or check out the roster at the end of the 2000-01 season: Dafoe in goal, steady veteran Eric Weinrich on the blueline with McLaren, and forward lines consisting of Allison, Thornton, Samsonov, Brian Rolston and Bill Guerin.
All that remains now are Thornton, Samsonov and Rolston.
Thornton is signed to a long-term deal, but Samsonov isnt, and its possible he could stage a holdout. And we all know what ultimately happens to Bruins holdouts.
Rolston won his salary arbitration, but will soon, along with high-scoring winger Glen Murray (obtained in the trading of Jason Allison) be eligible for unrestricted free agency.
And we all know what happens to Bruins eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Granted, the Bruins may not have been able to retain all those players noted above. But if theyd put the effort into retaining most of them, the club probably wouldnt struggle so much on the ice in recent years.
And they probably wouldnt have trouble attracting fans to the derisively-named FleeceCenter.
It also strikes me funny that Jacobs would preach about money management, when rumour has it he was behind his teams signing free agent checking forward Martin Lapointe to a long-term deal worth over $5 mil per season.
If rumour is to be believed, during an owners meeting in early 2001, Jacobs took Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Illich to task for contributing to the rise of player salaries. Apparently a bitter argument broke out between the two, the fallout of which saw Jacobs contact his general manager, Mike OConnell, and instruct him to spend whatever was necessary to sign Lapointe away from the Red Wings.
If this story is true, then Jacobs is as much to blame for his teams payroll being poorly managed as his general manager is!
All in all, with threats of the minimizing of the leagues greatest team to a perennially also-ran, concerns of a defending Cup champion in financial trouble, and the hardline approach toward a salary cap expressed by an NHL owner who has significant influence amongst the rest of his peers, things arent looking very optimistic for the next round of collective bargaining!
The news from Pavel Bure's agent this past week was not heartening for fans of the Russian Rocket or NY Rangers supporters.
Bure, whose knee injuries and subsequent surgeries have been as well-documented as his scoring exploits, is still feeling pain in his surgically repaired right knee. He can skate, but has trouble pivoting.
For someone who relies on explosive skating speed as the basis for his offensive play, that could mean the kiss of death for Bure's career.
It's eerily similar to what ended the career of the great Bobby Orr.
Like Bure, Orr's style was based in no small part on his blazing speed. Like Bure, Orr never saw an opening - no matter how small or how minuscule the odds were of bursting through - he didn't like.
And like Bure, Orr's knees would bear the brunt of that breakneck style.
It cut short an amazing career of a trailblazing defenceman, regarded by many hockey followers as arguably the greatest hockey player of all time.
But should Bure's career be cut short because of his numerous knee injuries, it will be seen as promise unfulfilled.
Bure is without question one of the most breathtaking offensive players the game has ever seen. His combination of speed, stickhandling wizardry and pinpoint scoring made him a delight to watch, particularly in what is now called "the dead puck" era.
But as exciting as he was at his best, Bure was no Orr. He was no groundbreaker, no dominant force who could seize control of the game and make it his own.
That's a shame, for the talent to do so was certainly within him.
If his career is truly over, if retirement is the only option available to him, he'll leave the game with Hall of Fame credentials.
A two-time 60-goal scorer who also posted three 50-plus goalscoring seasons, Bure won the Calder trophy as Rookie of the Year in 1992 and the Rocket Richard trophy as the league's top goalscorer in 2000 and 2001.
In 702 games he potted 779 points. He was also no slouch in the post-season, netting 70 points in 64 playoff games.
He also helped to raise the profile of Russian players in the NHL, and provided fans with highlight reel goals that will be talked about for years.
But for all the noteable things he accomplished, Bure wasn't perfect.
He threatened not to play in the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals unless the Vancouver Canucks gave him a new contract. His holdout on the club in 1998-99 earned him nothing but scorn for the self-centered, petulant way he conducted himself. Indeed, when he suffered another knee injury only weeks after being dealt to the Florida Panthers, there was no small measure of joy amongst some Canucks fans who felt their former hero got what he deserved.
There was also gossip concerning his private life. While his rumored dalliance with Anna Kournikova while she was dating his former Red Army teammate Sergei Fedorov was the stuff of bad soap-opera, his association with a suspected Russian mob boss, as noted by a 1999 PBS documentary, certainly wasn't and raised questions about his character away from the game.
All of this, however, was long in Bure's past by the time he arrived in New York to play for the Rangers. At last, he was in a city he'd always wanted to play in and was looking forward to helping build the long-struggling Blueshirts back into a Cup contender.
Sadly, it doesn't seem as though Bure's wish will come to pass.
His agent says Bure will report to the Rangers training camp for a physical and then "take it from there". It's quite possible he may be forced to sit out the entire season and allow his damaged knees more time to heal, then return to the Rangers lineup next season if there isn't a lockout or strike.
The problem is, once you've had eight knee surgeries like Bure has, you're now in Bobby Orr country.
And we all know what happened to hockey's greatest defenceman when the number of knee surgeries got up that high.
When Bure battled back from his earlier knee injuries, much was made in the press of how new surgical techniques were allowing the Russian Rocket to bounce back so quickly, of how advanced knee surgeries were compared to back in Orr's day.
Unfortunately, that only applies if you're someone who has only suffered one or two knee injuries requiring surgery to repair.
When you've suffered eight of them, and you're a professional hockey player, there's a limit to how much today's surgical methods can keep you on the ice.
If Bure's career is truly over, one shouldn't feel sorry for him. For while it is a sad thing that his hockey career is over, he made more than enough money from it to live comfortably the rest of his life. Not to mention his name is golden in Russia, where it's believed he has influence with various important hockey and sports officials.
And let's not forget, in the North American hockey world, he could rake in a pretty penny from personal appearances, autograph sessions or anything else of a promotional nature with his name attached to it.
Still, for all that Bure accomplished in his NHL career, as I noted earlier, I'd still look back at it and wonder, "what if?"
What if Bure could've evolved into a more complete player? What if he took his game to the next level, that of a Gretzky or Lemieux? He certainly had the talent within him to do so, and he did have leadership qualities, as he demonstrated on the Russian Olympic hockey teams in 1998 and 2002.
Sure, he was a pure goalscorer, but somehow Bure always left me wanting more. Unlike Rocket Richard and Mike Bossy, former greats whom Bure has been compared to, he was never able to carry a team the way those two could.
Maybe he would've been more of a force if he'd played for better clubs. And those knee injuries certainly took their toll.
If Bure's knees simply won't allow him to play anymore, we'll never know what he may have fully achieved if he'd been healthier and playing on a deeper club.
But we do know that we won't get to see anymore of that individual offensive wizardry he was capable of, a style becoming more and more a rarity in today's NHL.
And for fans of exciting hockey, that's perhaps the saddest note of all.