JULY 2004 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

 

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IS THE TROUGH EMPTY?

Well, here we are in the early days of the unrestricted free agent (UFA) market, traditionally a time when eligible NHL players get to shop their services to the highest bidder. They usually tend to make a huge pile of money as a handful of big market teams get into bidding wars to land their rights.

In years past, most of the best UFAs would've been snapped up by now, usually by free-spenders in New York, Detroit, Toronto, Dallas, St. Louis, Washington and Philadelphia, but this year it's quite apparent the marketplace has changed.

It's not from lack of depth in this year's talent pool, which some say was the reason last year's UFA market was lethargic.This summer, there is plenty of "A list" talent to pick and choose from.

Looking for a scoring winger? Glen Murray, Paul Kariya, Ziggy Palffy, Mark Recchi, Alex Kovalev, Teemu Selanne, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan and Peter Bondra are up for grabs.

Perhaps grit is what you're seeking? Mike Ricci is available. How about some offensive help at centre? Alexei Zhamnov, Vincent Damphousse, Michael Nylander and Petr Nedved are available.

Looking more for a good two-way centre? Craig Conroy and Brian Rolston can be had. Prefer a face-off specialist? Yanic Perreault and Travis Green could fill that need.

Perhaps a defenceman is more to your taste?The depth isn't as plentiful as it is with the forwards, but there are plenty of decent veteran talent to be had in Dan McGillis, Sean O'Donnell, Alexei Zhitnik, Sean Hill, Mathieu Schneider, Richard Matvichuk, Chris Chelios and Vladimir Malakhov.

The only knock on the talent available in this year's market is the lack of quality goaltending depth, with only Dominik Hasek and Kevin Weekes as the standouts. Still, these two should catch the eye of any club seeking an upgrade between the pipes.

Yes, there's something for everyone in this year's UFA market. So why have there been so few signings in the first four days?

Why is the only news of note the fact that "B list" talent like Jaroslav Modry, Matthew Barnaby, Curtis Brown and Ian Laperriere found new clubs between during the opening two days?

Why has the biggest UFA signing thus far been Mike Knuble going to the Philadelphia Flyers?

Don't blame it on Canada Day and the Fourth of July long weekend. That's never stopped general managers and player agents from wheeling and dealing throughout the early summer festive season. Remember, in years past, most of the biggest signings were made in the first week of the UFA market.

The reason, of course, is uncertainty over what the future may hold in the outcome of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

We all got a foretaste of that last summer, when it took days, sometimes weeks, before the more notable UFAs were signed up with new teams. Back then, the countdown toward the expiration of the current CBA was still over a year away. Now, it's little more than two months away. Just over seventy days.

And with the clock ticking, there's concern out there amongst the teams as to what the outcome of that new CBA will be, whether it's hammered out by September 15th of this year, or sometime next year, or in 2006.

With all the talk of the teams wanting salary controls, including a cap as low as $31 million or as high as $40 million, few of them are really that keen to start tossing big dollars around in the UFA market as they did in the past.

That's not to suggest there won't be any major UFA signings this summer. With all that talent available, it's foolhardy to believe that most of them won't be signed to new contracts by summer's end.

But those clubs who are usually the big players at this time of year likely won't make as big a splash as they've done in the past.

The Capitals spent a painful 2003-04 season dumping almost all of their expensive talent. They're not willing to get back into acquiring pricey veterans again.

The Rangers also dumped a lot of heavily-salaried talent last season. Unlike the Caps, they will probably look to bolster their depth by bringing in two or possibly three free agents, but don't expect them to chase most of the big offensive names or spend wildly as they've done in the past.

After seven years of missing the playoffs despite often carrying the highest payroll in the NHL, the Blueshirts may finally be heading toward a long-awaited, much-needed, affordable rebuilding plan.

The Stars are still trying to rid themselves of Bill Guerin's salary and might also attempt another stab at buying out Pierre Turgeon's contract. They've made it clear they're not going to be major players this summer.

The Blues are also determined to cut salary and want to ice a younger team for next season. They are thin at centre, however, so they'll likely bring in one or two centres, but again, they're not going to overpay for the privilege.

The Maple Leafs just tied up a big chunk of their payroll in re-signing aging veterans Ed Belfour, Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk. They might try to make a major play for one of the top UFA forwards, but they'll probably play it cool and wait for the market value of those forwards to be determined.

The Avs appear more intent on bolstering their checking lines if their signing of Laperriere and Antti Laaksonen is any indication.

The Flyers have announced they won't bid for any UFA players until after the next CBA is in place, then went out and signed Knuble and forward Turner Stevenson. Oh, that Bobby Clarke, teasing the media with his lies again whilst pursuing his weakness for oversized forwards. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

What is notable, however, is Clarke didn't spend a fortune to bring in Knuble and Stevenson. It cost him far less to spring for those two than it would've cost him to retain Alexei Zhamnov and Mark Recchi.

The Wings may very well take a plunge or two, but thus far they seem more intent on re-signing Chelios and Shanahan to less money than they made last season. If they're trying to re-sign those two for less, don't expect them to go all hog-wild in this summer's market.

So if most of the big market clubs take themselves out of the running, what other clubs are there that could get involved?

Ironically, the very small-market cities which in previous UFA markets were unable to out-bid their big-market peers and were left to fight for the scraps that remained could be poised to make some of this summer's biggest signings.

Without the big market teams to toss the big bucks around, it's quite possible that this year's UFA players could be had for more affordable prices than what they might've garnered in years past.

This year, teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Atlanta Thrashers, and Florida Panthers could be the major players, based on the fact they've respectively got less than $10 million currently committed to players on their payroll. That frees up significant room in their budget to go after talent that was previously unaffordable to them.

Even stingy clubs like the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins have pared their payroll down so much, they can now comfortably afford to do what they've previously denied themselves: go shopping for quality UFA players at bargain prices.

But just because these teams have room on their payrolls to afford some top UFA talent, don't expect them to emulate the previously free-spending ways of their big-market cousins. They'll sign some of these guys, but they'll do it at their price.

Indeed, don't be surprised if some of this year's UFAs find the marketplace lacking and try to re-sign with their former clubs.

The players probably aren't going to like this. For many of them, this is their first crack at the UFA market. They've seen what their peers of equal or lesser talent got in the past and are probably hoping for a big payday.

Instead, if few teams get actively involved in pursuing the big name UFA players, or if those players refuse to lower their asking prices, the market could stagnate. It then becomes a genuine possibility that a lot of these players could end up nervously waiting weeks before they get an offer to their liking.

Should that happen, the players and their agents will complain about the teams deliberately keeping free agent salaries low this summer. But if they do think of complaining, they should remind themselves of their earlier disparaging comments they made toward the owners.

After all, it's been the players and the agents holding the owners to blame for the escalating cost of salaries, claiming they're the ones who set the market value and therefore should become more fiscally responsible.

They're correct, of course, but to then take the owners to task this summer if UFA salaries stay low would smack of hypocrisy and certainly wouldn't make the players look good in the court of public opinion.

Of course, having said that, some of the owners might give in to temptation and do what they've always done in the past: start snapping up the best UFAs as quickly as they can.

That would play right into the players hands, for once again it would highlight that, despite the owners bluster about cost certainty and salary controls, they really can't control their greed.

Right now, everyone is at the stage of waiting to see which major free agents get signed first, and for how much. Once those first signings take place, we'll get a better gauge on what could happen over the course of the summer.

The upcoming days should tell the tale, but I suspect the players who are bellying up to the UFA trough in hopes of gorging themselves on a big, fat contract could find it empty.

A DIFFERENT UFA MARKET.

Moving into the second week of the 2004 Unrestricted Free Agent market, there was finally some notable player movement, as Dominik Hasek, Mark Recchi, Craig Conroy, Mike Knuble, and Brian Rolston signed with new clubs last week.

What's interesting about their signings is how much they recieved. Rather than the huge raises for players of their calibre as we've seen in the past, these players either signed for modest raises (Knuble and Conroy) or took pay cuts (Recchi, Hasek and Rolston).

It can be argued that Recchi took a cut in salary because of his age and desire to finish his career with the lowly Pittsburgh Penguins, whom he helped win a Stanley Cup back in 1991. It's interesting to note, however, that at 36 Recchi posted a 75-point season last year, which in previous UFA markets would've entitled him to a raise from the $5 million he made last season, or at the very least, the same salary. Instead, he took a three-year deal worth $9 million with the Penguins.

The age argument comes more into play for Hasek, whose comeback attempt last season was thwarted by a season-ending groin injury that required surgery to repair. "The Dominator" signed a bonus laden deal with the Sens which, if he hits all bonuses, including helping the Senators win the Stanley Cup, could pay him $4 million US. That's down substantially, however, from the $8 mil he earned in 2001-02 and the $6 million he was set to earn last season before he gave most of it back to the Wings.

Knuble, who made $800K last season with Boston, got a significant bump to $2 million per season to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers, more than double what he made last year. However, if this UFA market were as frenzied as that of two years ago, Knuble might have seen a raise of $3 million plus.

Rolston and Conroy are considered amongst the better two-way forwards in the game. Conroy is a former Selke nominee whose leadership, playmaking and penalty killing skills were important to the Calgary Flames playoff run. Rolston is one of the most dangerous penaltykillers in the game because of his lethal ability to pop shorthanded goals.

Conroy, who made $2.2 million and Rolston, who made $3.175 million last season, should've received significant raises as unrestricted free agents. In summers past, they would've snapped up within the first two or three days of the UFA market to salaries up to the $5 million per season mark.

Instead, Conroy got a bump of $900K to sign with the LA Kings, while Rolston took a minor pay cut of $3 mil per season to sign with the Minnesota Wild.

There's an obvious trend taking place here, one that we first saw in last summer's UFA market, that being the unwillingness of teams, particularly those in the large markets, to engage in wild bidding for the top UFA players.

As per last summer, the owners appear to be controlling their spending habits, which has thus far determined the market value for UFA players this summer could be modest.

The owners, especially those in the large markets, set the market value of UFA players, and from 1996 to 2002, that value soared. But with the end of the current CBA scarcely two months away and with uncertainty over what the outcome of a new one will be, the owners are now engaging in frugal bidding, thus determining a lower going rate for the UFA players than in previous years.

League Commissioner Gary Bettman says the owners want to tie players salaries to revenues when he speaks of "cost certainty", and it appears they're getting the jump on things before the September 15th end date of the current CBA.

The players and their agents have said in the past, and at times a little snidely, that the owners, not the players, have to take responsibility for the salaries.

Since the summer of 2003 it certainly appears that the owners have finally, albeit belatedly, got the message, probably to the union's chagrin. That would explain why, approaching mid-July, a prime "marquee" UFA has yet to be signed.

In the past, players of the calibre of Ziggy Palffy, Paul Kariya, Brett Hull, Glen Murray, Alexei Zhamnov, Mathieu Schneider, Petr Nedved, Michael Nylander, and Peter Bondra would've received huge contract offers.

But thus far this summer, they remain unsigned. Their agents claim they've held preliminary talks with teams, but have yet to get offers of real substance.

The reason is quite simple: the owners are waiting for their asking prices to drop before making contract offers to those players.

It's quite a change from the heady days of the not-too-distant past when hefty offers in the $5 million to $10 million range were almost routinely made to the top name UFA players.

The players union justifiably took the owners to task for their reckless spendings, but now they may regret doing so. This newfound fiscal responsibility could well signal what the future may hold for UFA players under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The owners actions since last summer is how they should've conducted their business between 1996 and 2002. The players still would've been well and fairly compensated, without the wild spending that made a mockery of the UFA process, limited that market to a handful of rich clubs at the expense of the remainder of the league, and helped create a situation where supposedly 20 of the thirty NHL teams are losing money.

But those owners and their respective front offices couldn't control themselves, and it's now taken the possibility of some form of salary controls in the next CBA, rather than a collective common sense by the owners, that is driving this year's market.

With Bettman seeking a magic figure for payrolls of $31 million (which seems unreasonable and which could be adjusted to somewhere around $40 million), teams who sit at the high end of the payroll scale are now cutting salaries and seem reluctant to get too involved in the UFA market.

Only the Philadelphia Flyers took the plunge by signing Knuble and Turner Stevenson, but that was after cutting loose the hefty salaries of Recchi, Zhamnov and Malakhov. Compared to what those three pulled down last season, and what it would've cost to retain them, Knuble and Stevenson are bargains.

We're now seeing teams at the lower end of the payroll scale, who've committed less than $15 million thus far to their rosters for next season, able to sign some key UFA players at bargain prices and still have room to re-sign their RFA players.

Instead of having a summer where most of the top UFA players are signed within the first ten days, we could have one where it takes weeks, possibly even into September, before all of them are signed up.

We're now left with many questions. How long will the owners wait for the asking prices of this summer's top UFA players to drop? Which team will make the first move? Which player could be signed first, and how much will he actually get? Could that signing spark a frenzy of others? Will it be the teams who traditionally didn't partake in the UFA spending frenzies who snap up most of the name players, or will one or more of the big market teams jump into the mix?

One thing's for certain, it's guaranteed to make this summer an interesting one for NHL fans.

HEATLEY AND DANTON.

The past week didn't end well for two NHL players.

Atlanta Thrashers star forward Dany Heatley was indicted on Friday on five charges, including vehicular homicide, related to the horrifying car crash last September that killed Heatley's friend and teammate Dan Snyder, who was a passenger in the vehicle Heatley was driving.

On the same day, St. Louis Blues forward Mike Danton pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit murder for hire. Danton arranged the plot with a young female fan, believed to be targetting his controversial agent, David Frost, only to be turned in by the would-be hitman, who was in fact a police informant.

If convicted, Heatley faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and up to $5000.00 in fines. Danton, who'll be sentenced October 22nd, faces up to ten years in prison and fines up to $250,000.00.

It's unlikely both players will receive the maximum punishment for these crimes.

In Heatley's case, the death of Snyder was a horrible accident, one that the victim's family absolved him of. Yes, Heatley was driving far too fast for road conditions which constitutes reckless driving, but he obviously never intended to hurt Snyder or anyone else.

As I noted in an article on the subject last fall, Heatley should be punished for his carelessness, but not to the extent where he should be incarcerated thus jeopardizing his career.

Danton, however, is another matter. He intended to have a person killed and to cover it up by getting other people to arrange and commit the crime.

It's believed that the apparent intended victim, Frost, has a Svengali-like control over Danton's career and his life, which may have driven the young player to plot Frost's murder.

Obviously the young man is troubled and in need of some form of help. Still, unless he's found to be mentally incompetent, he deserves to be punished for his actions.

As both players prepare for the outcome of their respective trials, it's important to remember there are three significant differences between the cases.

First, for whatever reason, Danton wanted to kill somebody, while Heatley never meant to kill or harm anyone.

Second, Danton is clearly haunted by personal demons that drove him to his decision, although in the end, thankfully, his scheme was thwarted and his intended victim will live to see another day. Hopefully he'll receive the mental help he so obviously needs and may one day become a better functioning member of society.

Heatley, on the other hand, will bear the personal guilt for having accidentally killed his friend for the rest of his life. He never meant to kill Snyder, but while he has the support of both his and Snyder's family, his team, the league and it's union and many hockey fans, it'll never fully lift the burden of Snyder's tragic death from his shoulders.

Finally, in Danton's case, his NHL hockey career is likely over, while Heatley will get a chance to continue his.

Some may argue over who's more to blame for their actions and who deserves the most severe punishment, but the bottom line is these three key differences will determine the extent of the respective punishment meted out to both players and the direction their lives take after this.

I expect Danton will probably get at least two years in prison while Heatley won't see a day of jail time, although he'll likely lose his license for a significant period, as well as pay close to the maximum fine and l undoubtedly serve a lengthy period of community service.

These two cases serve as reminders that, for all the admiration we hockey fans may put upon NHL players, they're also human beings who live real lives.

And sometimes those lives experience dramatic, unexpected twists of fate.

A WORD OF THANKS.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thanks those of you who voted for my site in an online survey of the top hockey websites conducted by the respected Andrew's Dallas Stars Page. Spector's Hockey was ranked fourth overall, ahead of noted media sites like Slam! Hockey and The Hockey News, and was the top-rated fan site in the survey. I'm honoured to have my site recognized, and on behalf of myself and my contributing writers, my thanks!

MID-SUMMER MUSINGS.

- Good piece recently by Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette where he takes the Hockey Hall of Fame to task for continually snubbing Russian stars of the past.

I've asked the same question in this space a few times over the last five years: why does the HHOF constantly pass over Russian stars like Vladimir Kharlomov, Boris Mikhailov and Alexander Yakushev?

Those players were among the very best in international competition in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, and were instrumental in opening North American eyes to how talented European players were.

As Molinari points out, the Hockey Hall of Fame isn't supposed to be just an NHL Hall of Fame, but also one that recognizes true greatness on the international stage.

To date, only one player from the Russian glory teams of the 1970s, goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, has been honoured by the HHOF.

It's time the Hall's selection committee started broadening their horizons to include the very best European talent of the past thirty years.

- Was Craig Conroy's signing a four year deal with the LA Kings worth $3.15 million per season a "salary bonanza"?

That's the accusation I've read in a couple of papers recently, but quite frankly, I'm not buying that.

Yes, you can look at his regular season stats and wonder why a guy who scored only 8 goals and 47 points last season is getting paid that much money.

The fact he missed significant time due to injury last season, and his playoff contributions during the Flames run to the Finals, must be taken into account.

Considering what he would've made had this year's market been the same as the freespending ones of 2001 and 2002, I'd say the Kings got him for a relative bargain.

Last season, he made $2.2 million with the Flames. If the league wasn't threatened by a potential shutdown this fall, I'll bet he would've made double that as one of the usual big market suspects would've happily opened their vaults to him.

The fact he barely received a $1 million salary raise per season is indicative just how much the uncertainty over the next CBA is impacting this summer's UFA market.

- Dumbest move by a UFA this summer? Ziggy Palffy's passing on a three-year, $19.5 million deal with the LA Kings to test the UFA market.

Yes, it was for marginally less money than what he made last season, but it still likely would've been among the most expensive salaries dished out this summer.

I doubt Palffy will find a team willing to pony up as much, or more, than the $7 million he made last season. The Kings have meanwhile yanked their offer from the table and are now looking elsewhere to boost their first line.

Several years ago, when Palffy was staging a holdout with the NY Islanders, GM Mike Milbury mocked Palffy's agent, Paul Kraus, with this memorable line: "It's too bad he lives in the city. He's depriving some small village of a pretty good idiot."

Looks like Milbury may have been spot on with that one!

- Why do I have a feeling of foreboding that the Ottawa Senators will regret pinning their goaltending hopes on an aging Dominik Hasek?

Ottawa Sun columnist Chris Stevenson recently pointed out all the negative aspects of this signing shortly after it occurred: Hasek's age (he turns 40 in January), his history of groin injuries, the fact he'll be three years removed from his Stanley Cup winning playoff run of 2002 by next spring, and the fact there weren't many clubs banging down Hasek's door with offers when the Senators approached him.

Stevenson said this signing would've been great if this were 1997. I think it would've been great if it had happened in 2001.

But it's not '97 or '01, and I've got a feeling this will come back to haunt GM John Muckler.

- Speaking of Muckler, I'm still puzzled as to why he threw a four year, $10 million contract to a seemingly perennial 20-goal, 45 point, thirty-something forward like Bryan Smolinski last summer, yet at the same time he low-balled rising star Martin Havlat to a one-year, $1.6 million contract, when he could've had him signed to a long term deal worth over $2 million per season.

You can bet Havlat won't be content with $1.6 million for next season after posting career-best totals this year. You can also bet he'll want more than a one-year contract, too.

Havlat's numbers keep improving and at 23 he's yet to hit his prime. Smolinksi, meanwhile, is a 32 year old forward whose best season was 8 years ago and whose numbers over the past three years, regular season and post-season, don't match up with Havlat's.

Yep, it's a head-scratcher all right. Maybe Muckler isn't the management genius Sens fans think he is?

-Speaking of aging, Toronto Maple Leafs fans aren't gonna like me writing this, but here it is: your team's almost fanatical devotion to older players is going to catch up with them next season. The cracks were already there in the Leafs foundation last season, when they struggled against swifter, younger teams.

Yes, they beat the Senators in this year's playoffs but that's due to that club's obvious inferiority complex it feels toward their interprovincial rival. Most of their rivals aren't psychologically intimidated by the Leafs.

John Ferguson Jr had a golden opportunity to start the rebuilding plan this season but instead sunk good money into players who are past their "best-before" date.

I understood the need to re-sign Belfour, given the lack of quality goaltending in this summer's UFA pool, but even Ferguson's rival GMs shook their heads at what he forked out to retain "the Eagle", Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk.

- Is it me or are the teams in New York state being unusually quiet this off-season?

The Rangers, who have given us so much fodder for trade and free agent news and speculation in previous summers, have been very quiet, with the only signficant news being their decision to remove the word "interim" in front of head coach Tom Renney's position, and their re-signing defenceman Karel Rachunek.

The Islanders have been even quieter, with the most significant news to date being the possibility former Isles great Bryan Trottier might sign on as an assistant coach.

The Sabres made a bit of news recently by re-signing Mike Grier, but that's about as significant as it's been this summer.

The relative silence out of Buffalo isn't that surprising, considering the Sabres are still righting their ship after foundering on the rocks of bankruptcy over a year ago.

But the lack of movement by the Isles and especially the Rangers is, well, almost unnerving.

OK, so the Islanders haven't made any earth-shattering moves since the summer of 2001, but in those that followed we were at least treated to speculation that GM Mike Milbury was trying to swing a major deal.

As for the Rangers, well, it almost doesn't feel like summer without their usual rash of UFA signings or big-name trade acquisitions.

Could it be that common sense and a devotion to a true rebuilding program have finally taken root in the Big Apple?