PATRICK ROY RETIRES.
By now, the full weight of the knowledge of Patrick Roy's retirement has sunk in and most of the accolades from the media, fans and the two teams he played for have been showered down upon him.
There is no doubt Roy's left the game on his own terms. His career credentials are certainly Hall of Fame material. As the NHL's website tells us, he "holds the NHL record for most 30-plus win seasons. Holds NHL career playoff records for most games played by a goaltender and most wins. Won the Stanley Cup four times, twice with Montreal and twice with Colorado. Led NHL in save percentage in four seasons. Won Conn Smythe Trophy (1986, 1993 and 2001). Won Vezina Trophy three times. Played in eight NHL All-Star games. Won William M. Jennings Trophy five times. He also holds the record for most playoff shutouts with 23."
Roy also had the good sense to leave while still among the elite players in the game, and among the top five goaltenders, as witnessed by his 2002-03 stats (63 GP, 35 W, 15 L, 13 T, 2.18 GAA, .920 SP and 5 shutouts.
Indeed, it's admirable that Roy went out before his skills eroded. More players could learn from that example (hello there, Mark Messier and Doug Gilmour!). There's nothing sadder in pro sports than an athlete who hangs on too long, vainly hoping for one more year of glory, refusing to admit that their best days are behind them. Thankfully, Roy spared himself and his fans that painful spectacle.
In the wake of his departure, Roy leaves some questions behind, which are bound to be fodder for future press speculations and bar room debates.
Topping the list, who replaces him as the Avs starter? GM Pierre Lacroix says he's going to give backup David Aebischer and prospect Phillippe Sauve a chance to step up, but most rumourmongers in the media aren't buying that. They believe Lacroix will either attempt to sign an unrestricted free agent like Felix Potvin or Chris Osgood, or trade for Sean Burke or Olaf Kolzig.
Possible, but unlikely. Lacroix will probably start with his kids and, as one reporter put it, bide his time and see how the season unfolds. Since, as Lacroix put it at Roy's retirement press conference, one doesn't replace a player of Roy's stature, that's probably the best way to go.
Next comes the inevitable comparisons of Roy to other great goaltenders of the past. Specifically, is he the greatest goaltender of all time?
Many will point to his stats and his unprecedented three Smythe trophies and his stature as "the greatest money goalie in the game" as proof that he is. However, it's unfair to place him amidst netminders like Sawchuk and Plante, who played in different eras, with different equipment and a different level of competition.
Suffice to say, Roy is the greatest goaltender of his generation, perhaps of the entire post-1967 expansion era.
Yes, Dominik Hasek won the Hart twice, something Roy never did, and won more Vezinas. But it's in the playoffs where it all counts, and Roy did accomplished far more in that time than Hasek did.
There are those claiming Roy "developed" the butterfly style of goaltending. They're wrong. Hall-of-Famer Glenn Hall developed the style, as did another Hall-of-Famer, Tony Esposito.
The correct statement here is Roy's style influenced a generation of Quebec goaltenders, from Martin Brodeur to Jose Theodore to JS Giguere, who grew up idolizing Roy during his days as a Montreal Canadien. That's perhaps his greatest legacy.
Much is also made of Roy's attitude as a player, that he was cocky, arrogant, confident, obnoxious, determined and demanding.
He was all of those things, and that, as much as his attention to his physical conditioning and developing his skills, was what made him great.
Roy genuinely believed he was the best. His body language said it. His attitude said it. His spontaneous actions said it. He feared no shooter, be it Gretzky or Lemieux or Hull or Messier or any of the great players he faced in his day.
Sometimes, it also worked against him. There are rumours of his butting heads with teammates during his latter years as a Hab, of a swollen ego creating tension with players like Kirk Muller, Mathieu Schneider and Guy Carbonneau.
His now-infamous outburst on the Canadiens bench during a nationally televised blowout against the Detroit Red Wings that led to his trade was the direct result of Roy's pride and ego.
His willingness to wander and overplay the puck is another direct result of that cockiness. His showboating glove saves were another example, particularly the infamous "Statue of Liberty" pose that cost him and the Avalanche dearly in last year's Conference Finals against Detroit. His dust-ups with Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood was his competitiveness run amok.
But ultimately, the side-effects of his pride, confidence and ego were out-weighed by the harvest of success he reaped over eighteen seasons.
Eventually there will be other goalies who will break some of his records. But none will match his personality or his influence on Quebec goaltenders. Roy was unique, and we'll never see another like him again.
Every time Gary Bettman opens his mouth to address the state of the National Hockey League, I hear a man who is either in denial, or simply doesn't want to let his true feelings known to the public.
In his latest address, Bettman claimed he wasn't entirely sold on research showing hockey fans want more scoring in the league. He accused critics of having "axes to grind", rejected the notion that changes may be needed to improve the game, and shrugged off the drop of both attendence and television ratings. Indeed, Bettman claimed attendence was up this season, as well as pointing out how much merchandising and corporate sponserships have increased.
To cut Bettman a break, he's probably thinking that it wouldn't be wise to publicly admit his league has problems and is having difficulty addressing them.
After all, the numerous attempts to improve the game in recent years (the crease rule, moving the nets further out from the end boards, installing the "hurry-up" faceoffs) are indicative that he's acknowledging problems exist, as does the almost annual "crackdowns on obstruction".
Bettman's hands are also tied by what Damien Cox of the Toronto Star calls "traditionalists" in the league hierarchy who are resistant to change, or those who want change but cannot agree on what type to implement.
Still, Bettman's yearly "don't worry be happy" statements are taken less seriously as each season goes by.
The game has not improved during his tenure. Scoring remains down. Crackdowns on obstruction never last and each proclamation of them are a running joke. More players are grumbling over the deterioration of the game.
Season ticket sales may be up, but a lot of those who buy them are staying home. And cutting the number of broadcasts on American television is not a smart move to avoid "overselling the product", but indicative that the American sporting audience is losing interest with professional hockey in it's current form.
Ultimately, Bettman must shoulder the blame. As the league commissioner, responsibility for the state of the game rests with him. If he's unable to bring about the changes that are obviously required to improve the quality of the product, then he's little more than a figurehead to the real power running the league, the owners, or as they like to call themselves, the NHL Board of Governors.
Given all the problems that face the National Hockey League related to it's on-ice product, is there any wonder there is so much pessimism about next fall's negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement?
But if that's too much negativity for hockey fans to absorb, then by all means, line up to drink Bettman's Kool-aid. However, given that the game's real critics, it's fans, are staying away and switching off, those willing to buy into the Commissioner's sunny speeches are getting fewer in number.
- In a series filled with twists and surprises, the New Jersey Devils used their experience and home ice advantage to eliminate a plucky Anaheim Mighty Ducks team in seven games.
The final game turned out to be almost a carbon copy of the first two games of this series, where the Devils dominated the Ducks from the start of the first period, which carried on through the rest of the game.
Give the Ducks credit, they did put forth a better effort in this match than they did in those aforementioned opening two, but they were no match for the Devils strong physical play and tight team defence.
When the Devils gained a 2-0 lead midway through the second, a feeling of inevitiability crept in. Try as hard as they could, Anaheim simply couldn't muster enough firepower to get back into the game. Jeff Friesen's goal late in the third was icing on the Devils victory cake.
- To almost no one's surprise, Anaheim netminder JS Giguere was named the Conn Smythe trophy winner as playoff MVP. There was a feeling by some in the media that the winner should've been a member of the Devils, but let's face facts: without Giguere, the Mighty Ducks don't even get past the first round, let alone to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals.
It was the coming out party of a new superstar goaltender, one who should become one of the most dominant in the league in the coming years.
A few critics darkly sniped about Giguere's equipment being too large, thus giving him an unfair advantage. True, but his equipment does meet NHL standards. For that matter, so does Martin Brodeur's, and if you look at pictures of him when he first broke into the NHL, he's either put on a lot of muscle mass, or his equipment, like all of today's goalies, is out-sized.
The equipment debate holds merit, but if playing goal in today's NHL playoffs were all about equipment, anybody could do it. Giguere and Brodeur have tremendous skills and are highly conditioned athletes. Put simply, they're two of the best in the business right now.
- Giguere became only the fifth player since the Smythe trophy was first awarded back in 1965 to win it as a member of the losing team. The others were Detroit's Roger Crozier in 1966, St. Louis' Glenn Hall in 1968, Philadelphia's Reggie Leach in 1976 and Ron Hextall in 1987.
- Giguere was applauded by his opponents upon announcement he'd won the Smythe, which was truly a classy move by the Devils players. He also received applause from many of the Devils fans, although there were many boos heard when the announcement was made.
Must've been coming from those fans who spent most of the season and the playoffs disguised as empty seats...
- Let's hear it for the professionalism of Devils netminder Martin Brodeur.
Going through the painful and at time embarrassing distraction of a messy and highly publicized divorce, Brodeur bore down throughout the season and the playoffs, giving perhaps the best performance of his entire career.
It's not easy to focus on your job when your marriage is crumbling. Believe me, I speak from personal experience. Regardless of the reasons for Brodeur's marital woes, which is no one's business but his, it takes true professionalism to focus on the task at hand and not allow your personal problems to affect your job.
Well done, Marty. Here's hoping you can crown this Cup-winning season by finally getting the recognition you deserve as one of the league's best goalies by winning your first Vezina trophy!
- For those of you who tuned out of this series after the first two games, you missed one heckuva run the rest of the way.
Granted, Games One and Two were dull as dishwater and had many folks opting to watch anything else than the Devils dull plod to a four-game sweep, but the remainder of the games were much more entertaining and provided memorable moments.
Like Giguere challenging his teammates behind closed doors and in the media to step up and play better.
Or Brodeur losing the handle of his goalstick, and watching helplessly as a Sandis Ozolinsh floater struck his wayward stick and slithered through his pads and into the net in Game Three, which tied the game and set up the winning goal in overtime.
Or Steve "Stumpy" Thomas scoring in overtime in Game Four to even the series at two games apiece.
Or these two normally defensive teams uncharacteristically engaging in two offensive barn-burners in Games Five and Six.
Or Mighty Ducks captain Paul Kariya, the subject of much abuse from the press for his lack of presence, shaking off a thunderous Scott Stevens check to score the much needed insurance goal in Game Six for his club that forced Game Seven back in New Jersey.
Or Brodeur, atoning for his ocassional inconsistency in the Finals to post up a shutout win in Game Seven, his seventh of the playoffs, breaking the single season playoff shutout record set last season by Dominik Hasek.
Or Ken Daneyko and Michael Rupp of New Jersey, one an aging veteran playing perhaps his final game, the other a youngster just starting his career, making significant contributions in Game Seven to help the Devils win the Cup.
The dullest Cup finals in history?
Not by a long shot!
- Pop quiz! Which 40-year-old would you rather have captaining your team: Scott Stevens or Mark Messier?
I vote for Stevens. Messier had his glory years as a leader in his late-twenties and early thirties, but Stevens is like a fine wine: he just gets better with age.
- How do the Devils do it? Their general manager is a martinet, their head coaching position is of the revolving-door kind, they've moved some notable players throughout the years who didn't buy into their playing style or miserly contract ways, and every couple of years they appear on the verge of falling apart.
Yet, every few years, the Devils franchise magically rights itself, comes on strong when they're not considered Cup favourites and boom! They're hoisting the Stanley Cup.
How do they do it?
It's the core of leadership within it's ranks.
For all the turmoil that sometimes afflicts them, the leadership core of Stevens, Brodeur, Ken Daneyko and Scott Neidermayer has been there since this club first made serious noise of Cup contention back in 1994.
They've given their teammates stability and experience, as well as inspiration. All the great teams of the past have had it. So do the New Jersey Devils.
And with players like John Madden, Jamie Langenbrunner and Jeff Friesen looking like heir apparents, the flame of leadership should burn brightly on this club for years to come.
- Oh, by the way, the Devils aren't a dynasty. Winning three Cups in nine years makes them a very good team and a perennial championship favourite, but it doesn't make them a dynasty.
What it makes them is the only team to come out of the Eastern Conference since 1995 to have a realistic, consistent shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
- Regardless of who you cheered for in this series, you had to feel a little sorry for Steve Thomas and Adam Oates of the Mighty Ducks.
They've been in the league 19 and 16 years respectively, and never won a Stanley Cup. To have come so close and not win, knowing full well this may have been the last chances to win it, must be heartbreaking.
- For those of you keeping score, the totals Cups in the Niedermayer household is: Scott - 3, Rob - 0.
- So will the Mighty Ducks return to the Finals next season?
Too early to tell, obviously. They're very well coached, have a tremendous goaltender and a good mix of experienced talent and promising youth on their roster.
But there have been other Cup finalists who boasted the same resumes, only to fall flat and never recover the magic that bolstered them into the Finals.
Will the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim join other-rans like the 1993 Los Angeles Kings, 1994 Vancouver Canucks, 1996 Florida Panthers, 1997 Philadelphia Flyers, 1998 Washington Capitals, 1999 Buffalo Sabres and the 2002 Carolina Hurricanes on the ash-heap of Cup finals history?
Or are they poised to become an emerging force in the Western Conference?
The answer will be known starting next season...
- Finally, one last quiz: will Pat Burns survive longer than Jacques Lemaire or Larry Robinson as the Devils bench boss?
Remember, both also won Cups with the Devils, yet Lemaire was allowed to resign rather than be fired in 1998, three years after winning the Cup, and Robinson was fired less than two years after guiding the Devils to their second championship.
Here's hoping the three-time Adams winner and first-time Cup winner can stick around longer than those notable predecessors.
When Anaheim goaltender JS Giguere was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP following the New Jersey Devils seven-game defeat of his club in the Stanley Cup finals, the consensus was he was most deserving of the award in a losing effort.
After all, Giguere had been outstanding in this year's playoffs, and his efforts were the primary reason his upstart Mighty Ducks made it's improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals.
But there were a few voices who disagreed with Giguere's well-deserved accolade. Larry Brooks of the New York Post and Don Cherry of CBC-TV's Hockey Night In Canada believed Devils netminder Martin Brodeur was more deserving.
Both claimed Brodeur's performance in the 2003 post-season was every bit as impressive as Giguere's, even suggesting the Smythe should be awarded to the member of the winning team, since that player did more in helping his team achieve championship glory than a player who came up short in the Finals.
They also raised the notion the voters for this year's Smythe made up their minds before the Finals that Giguere was more deserving, based on his performance in the first three rounds that on his play in the Finals. Brooks and Cherry also noted Giguere's play in the Finals was not as strong as it had been in the previous rounds, and pointed out Brodeur's seven shutouts, which broke the previous record of six set last spring by Detroit's Dominik Hasek.
Valid points, but not convincing as a basis for suggesting Brodeur, not Giguere, was more deserving of the Smythe.
Yes, Brodeur was the bedrock upon which his club's Cup run was based, and yes, he had a very strong playoff, perhaps his best ever.
But while Giguere faced down the two top teams in the Western Conference in Detroit and Dallas, as well as shut down a plucky fellow underdog Minnesota Wild club that had knocked off the vaunted Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks, Brodeur's opposition scarcely measured up by comparison.
Brodeur faced an over-matched Boston Bruins club in the first round, and wasn't over-worked by a promising but inexperienced Tampa Bay Lightning team. Only the Ottawa Senators offered up the type of opposition comparable to anything Giguere faced.
Giguere faced far more work in the first three rounds than Brodeur. His Ducks were often out-shot and out-played in the first two rounds against the defending champions Red Wings and the powerhouse Stars. Only "Giggy's" efforts kept the underdog Ducks in those games, giving them the chance to win and bolstering their confidence.
As far as broken playoff goaltending records, how about Giguere breaking Patrick Roy's overtime shutout record? Throughout the 2003 playoffs, Giguere was not scored upon in overtime. He'll have ample opportunity to build on that post-season overtime shutout record.
And let's face facts here, neither Brodeur or Giguere brought their "A" games to the Finals. Brodeur was shaky in Game Three, which included the memorable blunder goal that contributed to turning the series from a potential four-game sweep into a seven-game war. And let's not forget his weakness high to the glove side, of which he gave up a overtime winner for Anaheim in Game Three, and saw Paul Kariya rise from the canvass in Game Six to give the Ducks insurance.
The intent of the Conn Smythe trophy is to single out the most valuable player in the post-season. If that player happens to be on the club that loses out in the Stanley Cup finals, so what? If that player's performance was the main reason for his team getting to the Finals, even if they should lose the Cup, it's still worthy of commemoration.
Let's not forget that Giguere is only the fifth player from the losing Finalist team to win the Smythe since it was first awarded in 1965. In every other case, a player from the winning side has won the award. To be singled out as playoff MVP when your club comes up short in the Cup finals is a notable achievement.
Without him, this year's playoffs would've taken on a whole different dimension. The Ducks would've been roadkill against Detroit, and we'd probably seen either the Wings or Dallas Stars battling the Devils this spring.
Giguere earned the Smythe and fully deserved it.
That was the burning question as the 2003 draft weekend passed without a major trade in sight.
It wasn't the type of weekend many fans, or reporters in particular, had anticipated.
In the days leading up to the draft, hockey fans were bombarded by an endless stream of trade rumours, almost all of them involving high-salaried "name" veterans.
Teams were looking to cut their payrolls, we were breathlessly told, because no teams wanted to carry a hefty payroll past 2004, when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement would expire. The next CBA is supposed to bring tighter controls on the kind of money players would seek, and the type of payrolls teams would have. Especially free-spending, team-pocketed clubs, who'd face the possibility of payroll caps or luxury taxes.
The list of names involved in the rumours were a "who's-who?" of some top flight talent.
We were told the Washington Capitals were working closely with the NY Rangers on a deal that would ship Jaromir Jagr to Broadway, possibly in exchange for either Eric Lindros or Pavel Bure and Group II free agent Anson Carter.
Phoenix Coyotes netminder Sean Burke was "all but certain" to become a Boston Bruin, while Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin was supposedly pursued by the Colorado Avalanche and the Philadelphia Flyers.
Speaking of the Flyers, they're shopping John LeClair and there was talk he, too, could be wearing a different jersey by the end of the draft weekend. And, oh yeah, if they couldn't land Khabibulin, they were supposedly trying to pry Martin Biron out of Buffalo.
The NY Islanders, meanwhile, were reportedly desperate to dump team captain Michael Peca and were believed working on a deal with the St. Louis Blues to swap him for Group II free agent winger Pavol Demitra.
Indeed, a lot of attention was focussed on Isles GM Mike Milbury. After all, the draft weekend is one of the two times of the year (the March trade deadline being the other) when he swings his biggest deals. Even this humble scribe anticipated some sort of wheeling and dealing by the man known as "Mad Mike".
And as the first day of the draft weekend dawned, our appetites for trades were whetted by news the Bruins shipped Josef Stumpel back to the LA Kings, and the Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes swapped defencemen Danny Markov and David Tanabe. It certainly appeared as though major moves were in store.
The first tip-off, however, that things might not go as hungry trade-watchers hoped was the swap of picks between the Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
As everyone knew, the Panthers had the first overall pick and were shopping it for a package of two players to help their roster now, plus another first rounder.
Wild speculations had the Flyers offering Simon Gagne or Justin Williams, blueline prospect Jeff Woywitka, and the 11th overall pick. The Avalanche were supposedly offering Alex Tanguay, Martin Skoula and Vaclav Nedorost. The Dallas Stars were said to be offering up Richard Matvichuk and Jason Arnott for the first overall plus a young, promising forward.
Several other clubs were also believed to be very interested. Excitement was high as the hours ticked down to the commencement of the draft.
So when it was announced the Panthers accepted a package of a third line checker in Mikael Samuelsson and the third overall pick, the reaction could best be described as bewilderment.
If anyone dared suggest, in the days leading up to the draft, in the press, a message board, or a chatroom, that this deal could be made, the heat of the scathing abuse heaped upon those individuals would be so intense it would burn out monitors around the world.
The first reaction was "huh?", followed by "what was Dudley thinking?"
But several minutes of contemplation brought about the reality that, no, Dudley hadn't taken leave of his senses. Merely, this was the best deal he could get. Even if he came down in price from one impact player plus a pick, obviously nobody else was willing to bite.
Still, after the ripple of this deal played itself out, we sat transfixed as each team was called in the first round to make their selections.
After all, there were many clubs believed ready to swing deals involving their first round picks. Surely we'd see some of that hot action we were told to expect?
But as team after team proceeded to the podium, it became obvious that those anticipating major moves on draft day would be disappointed. One by one, the teams believed most likely to deal - first Buffalo, then San Jose, then Philadelphia, followed by the NY Rangers, then the Kings, then the NY Islanders, then Washington, Boston and Vancouver - trudged to the podium to make their selections.
The only movements of note was New Jersey swapping picks with Edmonton to move up, and the LA Kings calling a time out on the 27th pick, when it appeared they may be talking over a deal with the Montreal Canadiens, which ultimately didn't happen.
As the draft progressed beyond the first round, and throughout the weekend, the only deals of note involved relatively average players, the highlight of which was the Blues shipping winger Cory Stillman to the Lightning.
The most shocking news was Islanders Milbury breaking with several years of tradition by not swinging any deals during the draft weekend.
Hardly the heady stuff we were led to believe would occur.
Which led to the question I was asked following the weekend, which of course is the title for this week's article.
Even I was caught off guard by the low return the Panthers got for the first overall pick, and the inactivity of Mike Milbury.
So what happened to all the supposed deals?
A few were undoubtedly planted by general managers to keep the press occupied. Most, sadly, came from some reporters who's track records in this regard can be considered spotty at best.
Sure, there are teams looking to dump some high-salaried talent this summer.
The Flyers are trying to move LeClair. There is nothing from the Capitals to confirm they're moving Jagr, but they haven't exactly charged out to deny it either. The Coyotes are listening to offers for Burke. The Isles are considering which players they may move during the off-season to bring in a badly-needed scoring winger for Alexei Yashin. The Stars would love to rid themselves of Pierre Turgeon's hefty salary.
There are also some rumours that simply don't wash. The Stars rumoured desire to slash $15 million US was denied by management over a month ago. Even if it were true, they're not going to trade Mike Modano.
Lightning GM Jay Feaster has spent the past three months denying rumours he's shipping out Khabibulin, but that hasn't stopped the more notorious rumourmongers in the press from claiming otherwise. They've nothing to substantiate it except assumptions Khabibulin is still pissed off over his benching in Game Five of the Devils-Lightning series, drawing vague comparisons to Patrick Roy's final game for the Canadiens which forced his trade to the Avs. I could understand it if Feaster had the reputation of a Bob Clarke (say one thing, do another), but he hasn't displayed those tendencies.
Those clubs that are shopping big monied talent aren't finding any takers because nobody wants to take on their big salaries.
This isn't rocket science.
Two or three years ago, guys like Jagr and LeClair would be prized commodities for teams looking to build themselves up from also-rans into legitimate contenders. No longer.
Many teams are concerned about the rules of the salary game changing after 2004. They simply don't want to put themselves on the hook for all or part of a player's big, long-term salary. And let's not forget, some of these guys are carrying additional baggage, such as age and an injury history.
Thus, we're seeing a nice bit of irony here. Teams that paid out huge sums of money for big-name players now find themselves trying to dump those same players.
Of course, it would help if most NHL general managers and owners weren't so damn short-sighted all the time. But the big-spenders bought into the premise that by spending a lot on big-name talent, they'd make their money back and then some when those players led them to the Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately, that hasn't happened, and now, with the fallout from the next CBA expected to hit these clubs in their wallets, they're saddled with players they were so willing to overpay to keep only a couple of years ago.
We'll be hearing a lot more of the names of these high-salaried stars throughout the summer. The usual rumourmongers will regale us with the usual specuations, and we hockey fans will follow them and discuss them and debate the validity of them.
Just don't expect a lot of those players to be going anywhere this summer.
Although the next round of collective bargaining between the NHL and it's players isn't due to begin until September 2004, the anticipation over potential changes in the ways and amounts that teams pay their players is already being felt.
For weeks leading up to the June 2003 entry draft, there were rumours that certain teams were considering shedding the salaries of expensive talent on their rosters.
Usually at this time of year, it's small market clubs that are the subject of such speculations, but this spring, there was a noticeable difference. Instead of small market clubs shopping players they consider too expensive to retain, it was the big market clubs in Dallas, Philadelphia, New York and Washington.
By the June draft weekend, hockey fans were bombarded by speculations of major trades about to go down. John LeClair was being shopped by the Flyers. The Capitals and Rangers were believed discussing a deal that would send Jaromir Jagr to New York. Bill Guerin, signed only a year earlier to a huge free agent contract by the Stars, was now rumoured to be available as Dallas management desperately tried to find ways to free up room in their payroll to re-sign impending UFA defenceman Derian Hatcher.
There was also talk of small and mid-market clubs, like Phoenix, Tampa Bay and the NY Islanders, trying to move some pricey talents. The Coyotes were entertaining offers for goalie Sean Burke, the Lightning were believed ready to ship out goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and the Isles supposedly were tempting the St. Louis Blues into dealing Group II free agent winger Pavol Demitra by offering up either Michael Peca or Roman Hamrlik, depending on which source you got your hockey news from.
Big deals were anticipated as the first day of the draft weekend dawned. Hockey fans and media held their breath in anticipation.
But they failed to materialize.
For the first time, many of the big market clubs acknowledged that significant change in the way they've conducted business with their players over the past eight years is coming. And that change will have potential consequences if they're still carrying large payrolls beyond 2004.
Let's face facts, if those aforementioned big name players were available three years ago in the 2000 draft weekend, you can bet most of them would've been wearing different team sweaters by the time that weekend was over.
As recently as last year, most of the big market teams had no problem throwing big bucks at high-priced talent, be it via unrestricted free agency, or through trades with their poorer small-market cousins.
That was before the notion of payroll caps or luxury taxes had the possibility of becoming reality.
Now, we're seeing most teams, most notably the big market ones, since they're the biggest spenders, acknowledging the awareness that carrying players with expensive, long term deals into a future where payrolls could be fixed in the $45 million range has the potential to harm their rosters, rather than help them.
After all, if you're carrying one player who's making $8 million per season, that's approximately one-fifth of your player payroll eaten up in a league where the cap could be, say, $40 million US.
Thus the big run-on now by teams to rid themselves of some pricey talent.
And most of these moves aren't unsubstantiated rumours or wild speculation.
LeClair IS being shopped. The Stars DID consider moving Guerin. There HAS been talk between the Rangers and Capitals about Jagr, although it probably won't get much further than the talking stage.
This move to cut salary isn't simply limited to just dumping expensive players. In some cases, it's being done to keep the payroll within a workable limit, whilst retaining the club's best players.
Hence the Stars attempts to rid themselves of Pierre Turgeon, the considerations toward shopping Guerin, and speculation of moving defenceman Richard Matvichuk. All of which was geared toward freeing up money to retain Derian Hatcher, without boosting the payroll above $66 million for next season.
Thus the reason the Blues traded Tyson Nash and Cory Stillman for draft picks, and of the rumours they were offering Keith Tkachuk around the league. They need to make the funds available to re-sign Pavol Demitra, either through their own negotiations or to comply with the big raise he stands to get via salary arbitration if the Blues and Demitra fail to agree to a contract on their own.
This new leaning toward fiscal belt-tightening will also have an impact upon this summer's unrestricted free agent market.
Since the late-1990s, the UFA market has typically been a feeding frenzy, as mostly big-market clubs engaged in bidding wars for the best free agent talent available. More often than not, all this succeeded in doing was driving up player salaries to the point where smaller market clubs couldn't compete, and rarely brought those high rollers the championships they craved, the Detroit Red Wings of 2001-02 aside.
But it appears that the UFA market of 2003 could be a quiet one.
Hatcher, perhaps the most desirable defenceman in this summer's pool, will find the bidding for his services won't be as frenzied as it would've been if he'd been eligible for UFA status a year ago.
That's not to suggest teams won't bid for him. The Detroit Red Wings will certainly have interest if they lose Sergei Fedorov to free agency. Ditto the New York Rangers if longtime blueliner stalwart Brian Leetch rejects their contract offers, and the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs will have more than a passing interest.
But it's debatable if the Flyers and Leafs can afford Hatcher, while the Blues won't be involved at all.
It certainly says a lot about how big market clubs are concerned about what the next CBA will bring, when a club like the Dallas Stars, who could afford to re-sign Hatcher, are balking at giving him a five year deal. Obviously, they don't want to be saddled with a player earning $7 million-plus per season, whose contract could be a millstone around their necks if a payroll cap or luxury tax goes into effect after 2004.
As for Fedorov, the fact the Wings were willing to pay him $10 mil per season over four or five years shows they could afford to keep him at what they consider a reasonable and fair price, but the talented centre is simply demanding too much.
However, there is only one team that is believed able to afford the speculated $12 mil per season he's seeking, and that's the NY Rangers.
If this were the summer of 2002, everyone and their dog would be agreeing that Fedorov was Broadway bound. But that's simply not the case in 2003.
The Rangers, with the highest payroll in the league, know that after next season, they'll be free of two pricey contract, those of Pavel Bure ($10 mil) and Eric Lindros ($3 million base, $9 million if he hits all his bonuses). While they'd still have a big payroll, it would be less than what they're paying out now. And if they lose Brian Leetch's $9 million but gain Derian Hatcher's $7 million, which could happen, they're still $2 million to the good.
But throwing Fedorov's $12 million into the mix throws that plan askew. They'd be carrying a much higher payroll into the fall of 2004, and could be in quite a bind if a payroll cap or luxury tax comes into being. The only way to avoid problems would be to request a "grandfather" clause built in, to give them time to rid themselves of some salary and lessen the impact of any penalties against them.
But the small and mid-market owners aren't likely to endorse that. After years of the Rangers being among the guilty parties in driving up salaries, it would delight the small and mid-market owners to put the screws to the Blueshirts. Their years of free-spending would come home to roost.
Thus, it's quite conceiveable that Fedorov could go through the summer without getting signed by anyone, with only his former club, the Red Wings, with an offer on the table, one that would would be significantly reduced from the five-year, $50 million US Fedorov so quickly rejected last fall.
Indeed, it could be a summer where the most desireable UFAs are those who are younger than the average age, like Todd Marchant of Edmonton and Vaclav Prospal of Tampa Bay and inexpensive, or those who would cost consideably less to sign than marquee talent like Fedorov and Hatcher. It could be the first summer in several years where the most active bidders could be small market clubs or teams with low payrolls , rather than the usual big-market high-rollers.
But how did these big market clubs get themselves into this situation?
The easy and obvious answer is greedy short-sightedness, and there probably is some truth to that. The way some clubs tossed money around in recent years, and shrugged it off as simply free enterprise, has certainly bolstered that opinion amongst many fans. Indeed, I was among that group that chalked it up solely to that.
There is a school of thought that has the big change toward fiscal belt-tightening being the success of low budget clubs in this spring's postseason. The argument goes that, because the Conference Finalists were clubs with payrolls under $40 million US, the big-market owners now want to follow the example of the Devils, Mighty Ducks, Wild and Senators.
Ah, if only that were the case. It would certainly make the NHL a much better, more competitive league.But as we've seen over the years, a lot of these owners and GMs aren't the most progressive minds in the business.
Indeed, amongst many hockey fans, this year's playoffs, where four clubs most doubted would make the Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup finals, was an anomaly. It was one of those "upset springs", like the 1986, 1991 and 1993 playoffs, where so-called "lesser clubs" upset the favourites to find themselves competing for the Stanley Cup.
If there were no labour negotiations looming after next season, the fallout of which could impact the payrolls of all teams, it is unlikely suggestions of big spenders slashing their payrolls and modeling themselves after the more frugal NHL teams would be taken seriously.
The big market teams that are now concerned about payroll are in this situation because they gambled, and in most cases, lost.
Teams like the Maple Leafs, Blues, Rangers, Flyers and Stars spent what they did on the players that they did because they honestly believed these methods would bring them the Stanley Cup. They hoped that the amount of money they were shelling out would be recouped by the extra revenue that a prolonged playoff run would produce, and by the boost to attendence icing a Cup champion would subsequently have to their coffers the following season.
But it hasn't worked out as planned.
The Leafs made two trips to the Conference finals in the past four years, but now they're claiming they may not be active in the UFA market this summer, and are looking at releasing some players in order to free up cash to re-sign key Group II free agents like Bryan McCabe. The Blues were the President's Trophy winner in 2000 and a Conference finalist in 2001, but they dealt off two players in hopes of being able to retain Pavol Demitra.
The Stars, who last won the Cup in 1999 and were Cup finalists the following year, spent a fortune over the previous two summers on players they believed would bring the Stanley Cup back to Dallas. Instead, they fell short, and are now faced with losing their best defenceman and team captain.
The Flyers, Conference Finalist in 2000, re-signed John LeClair to a huge contract and brought in Jeremy Roenick and Mark Recchi to bolster their Cup hopes, only to see them come to naught. And the Rangers failed efforts to buy a playoff team, let alone a Cup contender, have been well-documented on this site and many others.
They were indeed short-sighted, but it was the vision of a gambler.
Now, the rules are very likely to change, and in the words of Flyers GM Bob Clarke, "we're all scared now".
Well, not everyone is scared. The small-market clubs and their fans must be taking some delight in watching their rich cousins finding themselves saddled with expensive players that no one can afford to take off their hands.
It remains to be seen just how scared those clubs will be in the coming months. But one thing is clear.
Fiscal change is coming to the National Hockey League. In fact, it appears that change has begun long before the next CBA is hammered out.
It'll be interesting to see how much change takes place before September 2004.