JULY 2003 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

 

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KARIYA'S KISS-OFF.

I doubt there's ever been a bigger one-finger salute to a former team like the one Paul Kariya levelled at the Anaheim Mighty Ducks during this summer's UFA market.

For those of you who may have missed it, the Mighty Ducks stunned the hockey world when they opted not to give Kariya, their captain and a Group II free agent, a qualifying offer to retain his rights, citing the $10 million he made last season being simply too expensive to continue to absorb.

Ducks management hoped to get Kariya to re-sign a lesser, one-year contract worth up around $6 million US, and were even rumoured to have thrown in " a sweetener", as one reporter called it: sign for less money, so we can afford to bring your former linemate and good buddy Teemu Selanne back.

It's doubtful there was much truth to that last part, but there was no doubt about Kariya's subsequent reaction.

After initially saying he wouldn't give the Ducks a chance to match any offers for him as an unrestricted free agent, Kariya's agent suggested it might still be possible for the Ducks to bring his client back to Anaheim.

Then came July 3.

To the shock of all, the Colorado Avalanche announced they had signed Kariya AND Selanne to one-year deals. Selanne's was worth $5.6 million, down slightly from the $6.5 million he was thought to be seeking as a UFA, but it was Kariya's contract that attracted the most attention.

The former Ducks captain, the one-time $10 million per season man, signed a one-year deal with the Avs for a paltry $1.2 million US.

That published amount was so low that many took it to be a typo or a misprint. But no, that was the actual deal: $1.2 million US.

No bonus clauses. No incentives for games played, goals scored, total points or winning the Stanley Cup.

Just $1.2 million. Less than the league average.

During the press conference announcing the signings, the question on everyone's mind was, why did Kariya do this? Why did he spurn $6 million US for one season from the Ducks to sign with Colorado for less money than what the average third-line checking forward makes?

Kariya, smiling the self-satisfied grin of someone who had just told his former employer to get stuffed, explained that it was "not about the money".

No, no, with a barely contained smirk, Kariya insisted it was all about the opportunity to play with his good buddy Teemu again, and the chance for both of them to play on a Stanley Cup champion. He went on to explain that, by signing this deal, he would become an unrestricted free agent again next summer.

It's a wonder Kariya's nose didn't grow like a certain Disney character!

This was not just about money, but also about a bruised ego.

It wasn't that long ago, in fact, only a year ago, when Kariya squelched suggestions of seeking a trade from a moribund Mighty Ducks team. He stated he wanted to be like Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, who toughed it out through lean early years with the Wings before leading them on to Cup glory.

Many applauded Kariya for his wish to emulate Yzerman, but in hindsight, the simple reason for his desire to remain a Mighty Duck probably had to do with the guaranteed $10 million he'd get by staying in Anaheim, and the fact that probably no other club would take that fat salary off the Ducks hands by ponying up the hefty asking price in players, picks or prospects.

Fast forward to the spring of 2003. The Mighty Ducks stage an improbable run for the Stanley Cup, upsetting powerhouses like Detroit and Dallas, shutting down an upstart club from Minnesota, and scaring the hell out of seasoned post-season pros from New Jersey before coming up short in seven amazing games in the Finals.

As notable as the Ducks play was, highlighted by the goaltending heroics of JS Giguere, the coaching of Mike Babcock, and the emergence of otherwise unknown Ducks, the production - or rather, the lack of it - by Kariya was getting just as much attention.

Kariya was increasingly singled out as the playoffs progressed for his lack of offensive contributions. He'd had two or three big games, but he wasn't popping the points on a consistent basis as expected of a player of his skills and hefty paycheque.

To his credit, he faced the media, never shied away from the tough questions, and cited the team game eschewed by Babcock as part of the reason for his average offensive output. His point production didn't matter, he said, as long as his all-round game was helping the Ducks.

Fair enough, he was buying into the team concept, just as Yzerman had done under Scotty Bowman in Detroit years ago.

There was also talk Kariya may have been playing hurt, which was never fully substantiated, but to give him the benefit of the doubt, could've also contributed to his somewhat sub-par post-season.

Indeed, if the Ducks had done the impossible and won the Cup, most of the criticism levelled at Kariya would've subsided if he, rather than Scott Stevens, was the one league commissioner Gary Bettman handed the Stanley Cup to at the end of Game Seven.

But when the playoffs ended and the Ducks came up short, the questions began to abound.

Was Kariya worth the $10 million US the Ducks were paying him? And was it worth it for Anaheim to offer him that much, if not more, as a Group II free agent next season?

Compounding the issue over Kariya's salary was the fact the Ducks had a limited payroll. Disney, who owns the Ducks and has been shopping them for the past two years, has put tight controls on their budget.

With several notable players, including Gigeure and Peter Sykora eligible for raises, it was going to make it even more difficult for the Ducks to make that kind of offer to their captain.

Kariya must have known this. He must have known the bind GM Bryan Murray found himself in. If Murray re-signed his captain to a big contract, he risked losing depth elsewhere in his roster.

The Ducks had come so far so quickly, Murray didn't want to risk his team becoming another "one-year wonder", like the Panthers, Capitals and Hurricanes before them. Murray had to keep as much of the team together as possible in hopes of further attempts at Lord Stanley's mug in the near future.

Buoyed by the sight of most NHL clubs attempting to pare down payroll by unsuccessfully shopping other big-name players with hefty salaries, Murray made the decision. If Kariya wouldn't agree to sign on for less money, he'd allow him to become a UFA, and gamble that no one would come close to offering what the Ducks were.

Indeed, Murray seemed hopeful after announcing his decision of continued negotiations with Kariya. Murray didn't want to lose Kariya, but he had a bottom line to work with, and he hoped his captain would see that, understand that, and possibly return for less.

And let's face it, what Murray was asking Kariya to take wasn't chump change, nor was it an insulting offer.

Since signing his big fat contract way back in the 1997-98 season, for which he staged a prolonged holdout to obtain, Kariya had been anything but a player worth $10 mil per season.

His numbers steadily dropped, from 86 points to 67 to 57 prior to last season. Granted, injuries to both himself and teammates contributed to the decline in production, but still, these were hardly the numbers worthy of $10 million per season.

His numbers did improve significantly this past season, 81 points in 82 games, but the questions still remained. Was Kariya worth $10 milllion per season with numbers like that, even in today's offensively deficient game?

For $10 million per season, one expected Kariya to play like a Mario Lemieux or a Wayne Gretzky or a Mark Messier or a Steve Yzerman in their prime. Someone who would play like the best damn player in the game, not someone who occasionally does well enough to crack the top twenty scorers.

For that kind of coin, you expect a leader who can carry a team to post-season glory. Not someone who posted average numbers and only had two notable playoff games during the Ducks remarkable post-season run this past spring.

Factor in the tight payroll, and the number of Ducks teammates due for significant raises, and the need to make a reduced offer to Kariya becomes more paramount.

And there was one more thing to consider. Prior to this past season, the Ducks have been a terrible hockey team, mired near the basement of the Western Conference standings, and faced with slumping attendence as a result. All this while Kariya was their marquee player.

Now, having marched to the Finals, with Kariya more noticeable for his lack of post-season production, the fans were back in droves. That had to also factor in Murray's decision.

Kariya knew this. He had to know this. And he had to know of Murray's desire to keep as much of the team together as possible. And he had to know that there were more than a few folks out there questioning his hefty salary.

He had a real opportunity here to prove himself as more than just another overpaid hockey player. He had a chance to prove to be the type of leader he claimed he could be . He had a chance to put his money where his mouth was.

If Kariya honestly wanted to stay with Anaheim, if he wanted to emulate Yzerman and help make the Mighty Ducks a champion, if he was a true man of character, he would've done the right thing.

He would've taken the lesser deal from the Ducks.

Impossible, you say?

So was the notion of the Dallas Stars being unable to re-sign Derian Hatcher. So was the notion of the Detroit Red Wings kissing Sergei Fedorov goodbye. So was the notion of big-market teams with deep pockets trying to rid themselves of the high-salaried players they happily shelled out big bucks for a year or two ago, like the Flyers with LeClair, the Capitals with Jagr and the Stars with Turgeon and Guerin.

And so was the notion of a marquee talent restricted free agent like Kariya not getting a qualifying offer.

If Kariya had truly believed in the Mighty Ducks, as he professed to a year ago, he wouldn't have so petulantly spurned them. If Kariya truly believed the Ducks could return to the Cup finals again in the near future, he wouldn't have done run off to Colorado.

But his ego was bruised. Murray was daring to suggest he wasn't worth it, and worse, he was suggesting there were other players on the club who had earned raises who needed them just as much, perhaps more in some cases, than Kariya did. Murray was daring to put the team ahead of it's overpaid marquee player.

Kariya sounded like Curtis Joseph in 2002 and Jeremy Roenick in 2001. For those players, it was not about money either, but the chance to win a Stanley Cup.

Neither Cujo or JR have a Cup ring yet, and just because Kariya's run off to join a supposedly better team in Denver doesn't mean he's got an automatic shot at getting one, either.

Remember, the Avs were considered one of the favourites to win the Cup this past spring too, until one of the youngest, lowest paid teams in the NHL upset them in seven games and made them look ordinary in the process.

The Avs had the greatest clutch goalie in the modern era in Patrick Roy manning the pipes then, too. With Roy now retired, they're lacking the most important ingredient in winning the Stanley Cup: proven, quality goaltending.

Colorado can load up on all the firepower they want, but if they can't find that quality goalie, they simply won't win the Cup.

But no one can blame the Avs for landing the former Mighty Ducks. They were available and willing to take less money to play together in Denver, so kudos to Pierre Lacroix for taking one more big shot at the Cup before the current CBA expires and a new era unfolds after September 2004.

Put frankly, this was never about Kariya wanting to make the Mighty Ducks a better team. This was never about emulating Yzerman. This was never about putting team interests ahead of personal ones. This was all about money and ego.

Yes, he may be thrilled about playing for Selanne, and yes, he may indeed be playing for a potential Cup contender in Colorado. He'll happily take Lacroix's chump change and pad his resume on a star-studded roster to go after bigger coin next summer.

But in taking that $1.2 million, he was essentially telling the Mighty Ducks to kiss his ass.

Perhaps Kariya discovered that patterning himself after Steve Yzerman took a lot more work, effort and responsibility that he believed. Maybe he feels he's not cut out to be the leader. Maybe he'll feel much better racking up points on a roster where he doesn't have to be the standout.

But it certainly doesn't say much about his character.

My recent "Soapbox" article, where I took Paul Kariya to task for bolting the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for the Colorado Avalanche, has evoked strong feelings amongst my readers, both for and against my opinion. The best of these currently appear in my "Fans Speak Out" section.

I can respect the opinions of most of those who didn't agree with me. While I stand by the statements I made in my original article, I feel compelled to reply to some of the points raised by my readers.

Most of you who disagreed with my commentary did concur with my belief that Kariya didn't deserve to be paid $10 million US for next season. However, those folks still believed the Ducks disrespected Kariya by not making him a qualifying offer, as well as their insistence that their captain accept less money.

Sorry, folks, but that opinion is contradictory. Either Kariya is worth $10 million or more, which is what the Ducks would've had to make as a qualifying offer, or he's not. If he's not worth it, as many of you believe, then the Ducks were right in not making that qualifying offer to Kariya. It's either one or the other, you can't have it both ways.

There was also the suggestion Kariya "led" the Ducks to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals.

Kariya may have been the captain, but he was little more than a passenger on a wild ride that wouldn't have been possible without the outstanding goaltending of JS Giguere and the coaching of Mike Babcock. It certainly didn't hurt that several key Ducks players, such as Carney, Ozolinsh, Rucchin, Sauer and LeClerc stepped up their games when it counted most.

If Kariya had carried his team the way Maurice Richard carried the 1950's Canadiens, the way Bobby Orr carried the 1970's Bruins, the way Wayne Gretzky carried the 1980's Oilers and Mario Lemieux carried the 1990's Penguins, it would be a different story. However, the Ducks captain had three, count 'em, three notable games throughout the Ducks mighty playoff run. That hardly qualifies as playoff leadership.

Some suggested Kariya wearied of playing for a lousy Ducks team for all those years. If the Ducks had finished near the bottom of the league standings again this season, this argument might've held merit. But they didn't, and as more than one reader noted, the Ducks were the second best team in the Western Conference in the second half of last season, as well as staging that amazing playoff run. Interestingly enough, Kariya's scoring dropped off during that time.

There is the claim Kariya was never surrounded by top notch talent the way peers like Steve Yzerman was in Detroit, Wayne Gretzky was in Edmonton and Mario Lemieux was for most of his years with the Penguins. Furthermore, the claim was made that those players would find it just as difficult to post up great numbers without strong supporting casts.

While it is true those players were fortunate enough to have management in place to surround them with a strong supporting cast, it wasn't always the case. Look at Yzerman's, Gretzky's and Lemieux's early years with those respective clubs. They too had plumbers playing on their lines back then, yet they were still capable of posting up terrific statistics. Indeed, those numbers were certainly worthy of $10 million per season, compared to what Kariya generated, both with and without Selanne.

But the argument falls apart further when one considers the moves made by Bryan Murray a year ago, when he brought in Petr Sykora and Adam Oates, specifically with the intent of playing on Kariya's line. Once again, Kariya had quality linemates and his number did improve, although they certainly weren't worth $10 million per season.

More than one critic of my piece feels that I've missed the point, that Kariya left because he wants to play more exciting hockey in Colorado, rather than the plodding defensive trapping system of the Ducks.

Hey, I'm certainly no fan of the Ducks style of play, but give 'em credit, it worked for 'em in the 2003 playoffs.

Kariya may well find that "exciting hockey" he's been missing in Colorado…until the Avs reach the playoffs. There, he'll find those long-time Avs, like Sakic and Forsberg and Hejduk, tightening up their defensive game along with their teammates. Why? Because, like it or not, that plodding, grinding defensive style is essential for even the most talented teams to win the Cup, something the Avs understand only too well.

Kariya and Selanne will find their offensive opportunities will once again dry up in the post-season. So much for "playing more exciting hockey", when he and his Finnish buddy will be facing that tight-checking trapping style they abhor, as well as being forced into playing it themselves if they want a shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

Another reader called me naïve for suggesting Kariya accept a pay cut to help rebuild the Ducks.

Why?

Several notable Ottawa Senators, in particular team captain Daniel Alfredsson, deferred part of his salary to allow his GM to bring in the players that could add quality depth to the club in preparation for a prolonged playoff run. Surely Kariya, if he believed in the Ducks franchise as he claimed, would've seen the sense of taking a pay cut if it would bring in the type of offensive talent he'd be comfortable playing with, like Selanne, thus making the Ducks a better team.

Finally, there's the suggestion that this move by the Ducks will cripple them at the box office. That, without their marquee name, the Ducks will struggle to keep their fans.

Nonsense!

Winning, not Kariya, brought the fans back to the Arrowhead Pond. Attendance had slumped for several years prior to last season, and that was with the "marquee name" of Kariya on the roster.

Put simply, the Ducks won more games, they attracted more fan interest, which only increased as they staged their remarkable playoff run.

Winning, not the presence of a marquee name, puts butts in seats. If it were all about Kariya, the Ducks wouldn't have slumped at the gate prior to last season. If it were all about marquee names, the NY Rangers would be staging annual Cup parades down Broadway.

If Kariya had been mistreated by the Ducks front office in the seasons leading up to this summer, I could understand his decision. If the Ducks were still on a fast-track to nowheresville, I could condone his desire to move on. If Kariya hadn't stated a year ago that he was determined to remain in Anaheim and build it into a champion, it would probably be easier to take. But that simply wasn't the case.

Kariya left because the Ducks actually decided to put the team ahead of him. He didn't like it and left in a snit, using his $1.2 million contract next season and his hopes of getting his big fat contract back next summer as a UFA as his one-fingered parting shot.

The Ducks, and their fans, deserved better.

CUJO ON THE MOVE AGAIN?

When Dominik Hasek recently confirmed his decision to come out of retirement and return for another season with the Detroit Red Wings, you could hear the sound of the clock ticking down on Curtis Joseph's continued tenure with the club.

And somewhere, hidden away in the wilds of Ontario, Cujo is considering his options whilst fuming, and for good reason.

After all, he signed a three-year deal for big bucks with the Wings last summer after the Dominator's departure to the Czech Republic and what many believed was retirement. The Wings needed a replacement and believed in Cujo enough to give him the same money as they paid Hasek. It was the Wings way of saying, "we believe in you, Cujo, you're our main man in goal".

I wonder how he feels a year later, with the Wings front office practically falling over themselves to accommodate Hasek, who apparently discovered retirement can be a bore, so much so it can lead to getting expelled from an inline hockey league for attempting to re-arrange his opponent's features with a stick.

But I digress.

This situation puts me in mind of a very bad soap opera.

It's like when you break up with your long-time love because they've decided to pursue their life's dream far away from home. It hurts to let them go, but you understand and don't wanna stand in their way. You'll always carry a torch for them, but you finally admit to yourself it was never meant to be. You decide to get on with your life, and lo and behold, you find someone else and try to make a life with them. But out of the blue, your old flame returns and wants to get back with you, and now you've got to choose between your old love and your new one.

Yes, it's Detroit's version of As the World Turns, with Hasek as the former love and Joseph as the new one, with Ken Holland in the starring role of the poor dumb sap who has to choose between them!

Get the feeling Cujo's feeling jilted and hurt now that the Wings have opted for their first love?

Stay tuned. This is bound to get uglier before it gets settled...

GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT?

That's the way some in the press are treating Montreal Canadiens netminder Jose Theodore, following the news his father and four half-brothers were arrested last month and charged with loansharking and uttering death threats.

Theodore has since become the subject of media speculation as to just how much of his family's nefarious activities he was aware of. A five year old photo of Theodore posing with members of Quebec's chapter of the Hell's Angels was splashed on the front page of a Quebec police tabloid, adding further fuel to the rumours.

While the police stated Theodore himself wasn't a suspect, a bank account and a safety deposit box, jointly helt by the goalie and his father, were seized by the police, while police "sources" hinted of information they had yet to make public.

Naturally, this cast further media suspicion on Theodore, and even led to suggestions the Canadiens would trade the goalie, believing his family's problems would be too much of a distraction and would hurt his on-ice performance.

If there's one thing I've learned about some folks invovled in the hockey media, it's that they've never seen a juicy story yet that they didn't like to sensationalize.

Here's the facts as they stand:

- To date, the police maintain Theodore isn't a suspect in this case.

- Just because Theodore shared a safety deposit box and a bank account with his father doesn't mean he knew where his dad was getting his money from.

- It's unknown if Theodore knew he was posing with members of the Hell's Angels during that golf tournament five years ago. If he did, the worst thing he's guilty of is bad judgement, which might harm his reputation a little, but doesn't make him a criminal. And there's been no further evidence - photographic or otherwise - to suggest Theodore's had a long-standing association with the Angels.

- As for speculation the Habs would shop Theodore because of this scandal, the Canadiens front office to a man have voiced their support of Theodore, dismissing the rumours.

And let's look at the trade suggestions realistically. If the Habs jumped to trade Theodore because of this, and he goes on to play well in another city and is never involved in his family's problems, they'd look like kneejerk fools. If Theodore is indeed tangled up in his family's alleged crimes, what NHL team would take him off the Habs hands then?

And don't forget, if he was under investigation by the police, do you really believe he'll be allowed to leave the province?

Those are the facts as they stand. Theodore has not been charged with anything, apparently isn't under investigation, and isn't going to be traded.

Meanwhile, Theodore is practicing at the Martin Lapointe Arena, in preparation for next season.

I really wish that those sensationalists in the press would spare us their speculations, and just stick to the facts. If new evidence comes to light that leads to Theodore being arrested, that's a different matter.

But until then, stick to the facts and stop wallowing in the tabloid gutter!

A TRAGEDY IN TURKEY.

Some things just cannot be made light of, and the death of NY Rangers forward Roman Lyashenko is one of those cases.

Holidaying in Turkey with his mother and sister, Lyashenko apparently hung himself with a belt in his hotel room. He was only 24 years old.

Hopefully in the coming weeks we'll learn more of what drove this young man, who had made it to the NHL and was living the dream that so many of us aspired toward but ultimately could never achieve, to take his own life.

Lyashenko apparently had everything to live for, but I suspect whatever personal demons drove him to suicide may have been his inability to fulfill his enormous promise in the NHL.

The young Russian forward broke in with the Dallas Stars in the 1999-2000 season and made a promising first impression with his two-way play, particularly during the Stars playoff run. His skating and puckhandling skills were compared to those of Alexei Yashin.

But Lyashenko struggled to build on that promise. He was up and down in the Stars system until traded to the NY Rangers, where he spent most of his time with their AHL affiliate. A restricted free agent, it was believed Lyashenko was planning on returning to play in Russia next season if he didn't get a one-way contract with the Rangers.

Whatever the real reasons that drove this young man to his death, it only further illuminates the fact that those who are good enough to actually make it to the National Hockey League are still just young men, with faults and frailities and sometimes, problems that have the potential to overwhelm them.

MID-JULY NEWS AND NOTES.

-FEDOROV SIGNS WITH ANAHEIM: It certainly wasn't looking good for Sergei Fedorov and his agent, Pat Brisson, a few days ago.

Indeed, it only a few weeks ago that agent Pat Brisson told the world his client, forward Sergei Fedorov, wouldn't be returning to the Detroit Red Wings after contract talks between the club and the player broke down, resulting in Fedorov opting for unrestricted free agency.

Fedorov and Brisson both believed they could do better on the UFA market, where the talented Russian was believed seeking a multi-year deal worth around $12 mil per season.

To be fair to these two, had this been the free-spending summers of 2001 and 2002, Fedorov might've received just what he was seeking had he been eligible for UFA status back then.

But this is the summer of 2003, where big-money contracts for big-name free agents are tough to find, as NHL teams tighten their belts and prepare to shed salaries in anticipation of a major labour war between the league and it's players, to commence in September 2004 when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires.

Thus, two weeks into the UFA market, Fedorov and Brisson found that, while a handful of clubs were interested, most weren't up to paying out Fedorov's hefty asking price.

The only team remaining that could come close appeared to be the Detroit Red Wings, Fedorov's old team.

Over two weeks into the UFA market and Fedorov - tagged the most desirable player in the market - still unsigned, it was a possibility he could return to his former club after all.

Brisson, who was talking tough back in early July, now suggested "the door is still open" for talks between his client and his former club. And it's believed the Wings still had that four year, $32 million US offer on the table.

The Fedorov camp misjudged the market, made disparaging remarks about the Wings on their way out the door, and now, with no one else interested and growing desperate, they appeared ready to come crawling back to the Wings.

I had this image of GM Ken Holland making Brisson crawl through a "supplicant's door"(shaped like a doggy door) into Holland's office, like Mr. Burns did to Homer Simpson after the latter quit to work in a bowling alley in a classic episode of "The Simpsons". It would be funnier if Fedorov had to do this, but he's apparently hanging out in Europe and leaving the negotiations to Brisson.

But then! From out of nowhere came the announcement on July 19th that Fedorov signed a five-year, $40 million US contract with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

Bryan Murray, GM of the Ducks, threw a lot of folks off the scent (as any GM worth his salt would do) by earlier acknowledging his interest in Fedorov, whom he coached in Detroit back in the early 1990's, but stating he couldn't afford Fedorov's asking price nor could he match the offers the Red Wings made, including the four year, $32 million offer.

And Murray may have been sincere about this. But his signing of Vaclav Prospal was taken as further proof the Ducks GM was moving away from Fedorov.

One has to wonder, then, if the news of Fedorov's interest in returning to Detroit was genuine, or if it were planted in the press by Brisson to prod Murray into signing his client.

If it were the latter, it may be a brilliant move.

Murray wanted Fedorov on his team, and as one of my readers pointed out on July 18th, he had the money available to sign the talented centre to a long-term deal at $8 mil per season.

In assessing this deal, I noted that essentially, this is the same deal as the latter (worth $8 mil per season), only for one more year. Give Murray credit, he went out and got a player who may be older than Paul Kariya, but one that could be argued was more deserving of $10 mil per season than the former Ducks captain, and he got him for less than what he paid for Kariya last season.

Still, if I'm the Ducks, I wouldn't get too comfy about Fedorov sticking around for a long time. He can bail at any time after the first two years of that deal are finished. If the Ducks fail to build on their suprisingly strong performance last season, Fedorov may decide the grass isn't so greener after all.

Regardless, Fedorov got his wish and is finally "liberated" from the Red Wings "gulag".

But as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.

Now he'll be the undisputed star forward on a young club with lots of promise that is seeking to benefit from his skills, experience, and yes, leadership.

If he has those "off-nights" again, he'll find the pressure to perform there will be far more than what he experienced in Detroit. In Motown, he had to share the spotlight. In Anaheim, it'll be fixed upon him.

And let's not forget, Fedorov could've re-signed with the Wings for $10 mil per season, more than he got from the Ducks, if greed hadn't clouded his judgement.

Sure, his supporters will drag out that tired chestnut about Fedorov being distracted when the original offer of five-year, $50 million was made. After all, he was going through a messy divorce with no-talent tennis hearthrob Anna Kournikova, and was in the process of firing his previous agents.

But that argument ignores the fact the Wings had that offer on the table from December 2002, to April 2003. Plenty of time for Fedorov to get over his personal issues and consider the Wings more than generous offer.

Even that four year, $40 million US offer would've been sweet, even if it were for one less season.

There is a suggestion that Fedorov wanted out of Detroit so badly he was willing to take less money to play elsewhere.

Except, of course, only one club actually ponied up what Feds and company would consider to be "less money".

Personally, I think Fedorov and Brisson got stupid because greed clouded their judgement. He had a chance to make $10 mil per season from the only team willing to pay him that much, a team he'd played with for 13 years and won championships with, a team that many consider a legitimate contender again next season.

Proving once again Fedorov is a very talented player, but by no means the swiftest bunny in the woods!

-LEAFS FANS PROTEST CLUB'S LACK OF FREE AGENT SIGNINGS.

About 25 Maple Leafs fans staged a protest outside the Air Canada Centre recently to protest their club's apparent unwillingness this summer to sign big-name free agents to help their club.

Yeah, that's really gonna have the Leafs braintrust shaking in their boots!

Not that this small band of protestors aren't a little justified in being upset.

From 1999 to 2002, the Maple Leafs were just a couple of key players away from being a serious Cup contender. But GM Pat Quinn was unable to land those players necessary to make the difference. And this summer, it appears less likely he'll be able to change that trend.

The key area where the Leafs have been lacking for years is the blueline, and they've been unable to land big-name guys who were available like Rob Blake and Derian Hatcher who could make the difference.

Leafs fans should be frustrated, but let's look at the real reason why Quinn doesn't have the money to bring in that backline help.

If Quinn hadn't dealt away good players like Dmitri Yushkevich and Danny Markov, in favour of headaches like Robert Svehla, Robert Reichel and Mikael Renberg, they'd not only still have two capable defencemen giving them much-needed blueline depth, but they would've also had the money available to take a run at a guy like Hatcher.

But Quinn tied up those valuable dollars in Svehla, Reichel and Renberg, not to mention Jonas Hoglund, and now, quite frankly, he doesn't have enough cash to bring in that top-notch two-way blueliner the Leafs have been lacking.

There's a fear growing amongst knowledgeable Leafs fans that their club best shot at winning a Cup is fading fast as the core players currently on their roster ages.

It's a fear that well justified. The Leafs go into the coming season still good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to go all the way. And there is criticism that there isn't enough quality talent on the farm capable of stepping up and filling the gaps when those aging core players are cast aside.

Protesting to bring in more free agents, however, isn't going to improve those chances. Hatcher is a Red Wing, Glen Wesley - spurned by the Leafs - signed for $750K more to return to Carolina, Svehla is playing coy on retirement plans and Greg de Vries is a Rangers. The remaining crop of UFA defencemen aren't much better than those presently on the Leafs roster. And Quinn probably doesn't want to talk to Yushkevich's agent, Marc Gandler, since he was the reason Quinn ditched him a year ago.

How about trades? Well, unless the Leafs are willing to part with more prospects or possibly Tomas Kaberle and Nik Antropov in some sort of package deal, they aren't going to land that blueline stud they've been lacking for years.

Bringing in more scoring forwards won't help, either. The Leafs have no trouble putting the puck in the net, ranking consistently among the top ten scoring teams in the NHL since the '98-99 season. They'll probably pop more goals again this season with forwards like Mats Sundin, Alexander Mogilny, Owen Nolan, a healthy Gary Roberts and a promising Antropov on their roster.

Between the now-departed Curtis Joseph and current starter Ed Belfour, their goaltending has been in good shape over the past four years.

It's their blueline corps, however, that's been their achilles heel for years, and remains so. Whenever the Leafs have gone to battle against clubs with a strong defensive game, they've come out on the short end every time.

Sure, Leafs fans are getting frustrated, but the tiny turnout to protest the perceived lack of effort by Quinn and company to improve the club illustrates the fact the frustrations of the majority will be voiced on either sports talks shows, internet message boards or in the ACC during the Leafs home games.

McNALL ON THE BOOK TRAIL: Once upon a time, Bruce McNall was one of the most important men in the NHL. Having made millions as a coin collector, he branched out into the entertainment field, buying the LA Kings in 1988.

From there, McNall did two noteworthy things that changed the course of the National Hockey League.

He managed to bring Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in NHL history, to the Los Angeles Kings. And he was instrumental in bringing in Gary Bettman as NHL commissioner.

The league hasn't been the same since.

With Gretzky in Tinseltown introducing hockey to southern sports fans, McNall began to gain serious influence among the NHL governors. He was one of the driving forces for league expansion, in hopes of "growing the game" in the US market. Bettman, the new commissioner, was every bit as determined as McNall to see the expansion plans through. After years of stodgy thinking, McNall was seemingly like breath of fresh air blowing through the NHL front office hierarchy.

And then it all came crashing down.

McNall lost millions, was forced into bankruptcy, sold the Kings in 1994 for 72 percent of their value, and ultimately went to prison for defrauding investors and apparently still owes the US government millions of dollars.

As for McNall's part in remaking the NHL, the vaunted expansion into other US markets failed to grow the game, and indeed has led to diluting the talent pool. Commissioner Bettman and the league owners have toyed with ways to improve the game, but continue to lack real ideas or a desire to effect real change for the good of the game.

Now, Mr. McNall is out of prison and making the rounds publicizing a book about his life and fast times and what led to his downfall.

I'm not about to defend McNall's actions. After all, he's a convicted felon who has done jail time for his crimes. There's bound to be a voyeuristic interest in what led McNall to his ignominous fate that'll generate interest in his book.

Some in the NHL press are being quite harsh on McNall, and I can understand why, given the perception that the man is living in his own reality, as one columnist suggested, and the fact the unpopular Bettman remains commissioner of a bloated, boring pro sports league that McNall helped to create.

But recalling those heady days when McNall made it seem that anything was possible, I'll give him credit for one thing.

As far as the National Hockey League was concerned, McNall was at least willing to try to improve professional hockey.

Ultimately, like everything else he touched, it blew up in his face. But as I noted earlier, the man at least opened up some eyes amongst the league ownership at the time to new possibilities.

Better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all.

It's unfair, however, to attempt to pin sole blame for the state of the league.

His former peers, the NHL owners, and Bettman, the commissioner he helped bring in, bear the majority of the blame because they're perpetuating the problems, rather than solving them.

As for McNall's book...well, let's just say I'll wait until the movie comes out!

STARS AND CAPITALS FREE-SPENDING PAST NOW HAUNTS THEM.

Two of the more noteworthy stories for those following this summer's UFA market is the determination of two formerly free-spending teams, the Dallas Stars and Washington Capitals, to shed some of their high payroll.

In the weeks leading up to the July 1 deadline for unrestricted free agency, the Stars were desperately trying to make room in their payroll to re-sign their captain and best defenceman, Derian Hatcher, before he became an UFA.

They tried to ditch the salary of underachieving centre Pierre Turgeon, whom they signed as an unrestricted free agent to a hefty salary during the summer of 2001. When no takers could be found, they upped the ante by shopping their 2002 UFA crown jewel signee, winger Bill Guerin. Although Guerin certainly has more value than Turgeon, the Stars were unable to find a trade partner willing to take the remainder of Guerin's whopping salary off their hands.

In the end, the Stars were simply unable to free up the cash they needed to keep Hatcher, and watched helplessly as he signed on with Western Conference rival Detroit Red Wings.

Meanwhile,in the weeks leading up to the June draft weekend, the Washington Capitals were believed willing to part with forward Jaromir Jagr, whom they brought to Washington with much fanfare two years ago. Because of Jagr's significant $55 million salary,It was believed only one team, the NY Rangers, were interested, but talks fell through because the Caps were unwilling to absorb more of his contract.

Acknowledging that Jagr's salary was a millstone they'd be unable to shed, the Capitals instead turned to shopping centre Robert Lang, like Jagr a former Penguins whom the Caps brought in with much fanfare. In Lang's case, it was as an unrestricted free agent in July 2002, signed on for a hefty $5 million-plus per season.

Put simply, the Stars and Capitals are victims of their spendthrift ways.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis wanted to take his club from being a playoff also-ran and turn it into a legitimate power in the Eastern Conference. To do this, he felt he needed a superstar. Enter Jagr, who was coming to the end of his tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins and interested in moving on for bigger bucks.

At the time, this deal was praised. The Caps got one of the premiere talents in the NHL for a return that could be considered a pittance, and it was believed Jagr would be rejuvenated by this deal, which in turn would make him that missing piece capable of turning the Capitals into perennial Cup contenders.

But Leonsis and the rest of the Capitals braintrust went overboard on Jagr's salary. Signing him to a seven year deal worth $77 million was a staggering amount of money. It could've been understandable if Jagr were an unrestricted free agent and the Caps were trying to outbid a rival for the talent Czech forward, but he was their property after they obtained him from Pittsburgh. He wasn't going anywhere, so essentially it was akin to bidding against themselves.

Sure, there was a desire to lock up Jagr long term, but ultimately it saddled them with a contract they would'nt be able to shed if Jagr were unable to improve the Capitals as hoped.

Signing Lang was supposed to help improve the situation. The Caps had missed the playoffs after a full season with Jagr in the lineup as he was hobbled by injury. Bringing in Lang would supposedly give Jagr a centre he could play with, given they were former teammates in Pittsburgh. That they didn't play on the same line that often during their time as Penguins didn't seem to enter into the equation.

And what did the Capitals get for the Jagr-Lang combination?

They finished sixth overall in the Eastern Conference, and were upset in the first round by an younger, cheaper Tampa Bay Lightning squad, who had also beat out the Caps for the division title in 2003.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, the Stars were engaged in the type of free-spending orgies one usually associated with the NY Rangers.

In 2001, the usually fiscally responsible GM, Bob Gainey, plunked down big money contracts to a fading Pierre Turgeon, an over-rated Donald Audette, and the washed-up Valeri Kamensky and Jyrki Lumme.

The results were disastrous. By mid-season, Gainey stepped down as GM, and all but Turgeon were either traded or bought out as the Stars missed the playoffs.

Team owner Tom Hicks and new GM Doug Armstrong were determined to put their club not only back on track, but into Cup contention again.

Thus, in the summer of 2002, they engaged in a spending frenzy that eclisped their efforts the previous summer, snapping up Guerin, Scott Young, Ulf Dahlen,and Phillipe Boucher. Of these, the eye-popper was Guerin, signed on for five years, $40 million.

And the efforts seemed to bear fruit. The Stars rebounded strongly in 2002-03, finishing first overall in the Western Conference and second only to the Ottawa Senators as the top regular season club.

But after defeating the Edmonton Oilers in the first round, the Stars, like the Capitals in the East, were shocked by a younger, cheaper club, in this case, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.Thanks primarily to the goaltending of JS Giguere, the upstart Ducks bounced the heavily favoured Stars in six games.

For the Stars, however, the fallout they suffered from this was worse than what the Capitals faced. Their free-spending not only cost them Hatcher, but also Daryl Sydor, dealt off in a three-way trade to Columbus. The ultimate return was Teppo Numminen, which ordinarily would be considered a good return, but the catch here is it's only for one year, after which Numminen becomes an unrestricted free agent. And let's face it, Numminen is no replacement for the hard-hitting, two-way skills of Hatcher.

The Stars and Capitals gambled by taking on those huge contracts. They hoped these pricey players would push their club over the top and into the Stanley Cup finals. They hoped the additional revenue brought in by prolonged playoff runs would bring in the necessary cash to retain other players on the roster before they hit free agent status.

But the gamble failed, and now both clubs are stuck with long-term salaries they cannot move. Worse, they suffered humiliating early playoff exits at the hands of teams with half the payroll, teams that iced younger, faster, hungrier players that exposed the weaknesses and complacencies of their highly-paid rosters.

And the problems don't end there. The contracts of Jagr, Lang, Turgeon and Guerin carry forward beyond 2004. If the fallout of the next CBA is a payroll cap or luxury tax, the Stars and Capitals will be faced with either having to move other, less expensive players to stay within the cap, or face losing some of those players for nothing as free agents. Or, if there's a luxury tax they'll have to pay to league for going over the cap; the monies of which will be distributed to small-market clubs. How ironic, their money spent on helping other teams because of money they were paying out to certain players on their rosters.

It was short-sighted thinking that has come back to haunt them, and could continue to do so in the next few years.