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If there's one thing that's been financially worthwhile to NHL players over the past dozen years, it's unrestricted free agency.

In most cases, players get to sign with teams for hefty raises, or can use the threat of impending UFA status to leverage a more lucrative contract with their current clubs.

Sometimes teams may regret paying so much to an unrestricted free agent if that player doesn't perform as well as hoped, but usually these deals will work out for both player and team.

In the event it doesn't work out for the team, the player almost always enjoys the benefits from a lengthy contract signed as a UFA.

Yet there are times when testing the unrestricted free agent market isn't a good idea, where it can actually do more harm than good to a player's value and throw his NHL playing career into jeopardy.

Carolina Hurricanes winger Anson Carter is a perfect example of when free agency can hurt, rather than help, a player.

In 2005-06, Carter signed with the Vancouver Canucks following the lockout to a one-year, $1.65 million contract.

Placed on a line with the Sedin twins, Carter would lead the club in goalscoring with a personal best 33 goals. His presence also seemingly improved the performance of the Sedins, who reached personal bests in goals, assists and points.

Carter was eligible for UFA status again in the summer of 2006, and the Canucks hoped to retain him, but Carter and his agent are believed to have sought a long-term contract worth nearly double his 2005-06 salary.

Canucks GM Dave Nonis was squeezed for cap space following his acquisition and re-signing of goaltender Roberto Luongo and offered up less than Carter sought.

Carter opted to test the market, but throughout the summer was probably surprised to find little interest in his services, or at least little interest in terms of his rumoured asking price.

If there'd been a perception that Carter's performance was the real reason for the Sedins improvement in 2005-06, it evidently wasn't shared around the league by rival NHL GMs.

It was rumoured the Canucks were still willing to bring back Carter as late as August, but that Carter and his agent still stubbornly held out for a better deal elsewhere, possibly with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Finally, in September 2006, two days before the start of training camp, Carter signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets to a one-year, $2.5 million contract.

Carter got his raise, albeit less that he was rumoured to have sought.

As the 2006-07 season unfolded, Carter failed to even come close to matching the numbers he posted in Vancouver. Eventually, his ice time with the Jackets was reduced, and the club finally peddled him to the Carolina Hurricanes, a team which sought some scoring depth down the stretch.

If the Hurricanes believed Carter would regain his scoring touch with them, they were in for a disappointment. In only six games, Carter was held scoreless and ultimately became a healthy scratch.

Carter will be eligible for UFA status again this summer, and in all likelihood he won't be re-signed by the Hurricanes.

He'll also find less interest in his services this summer than he did a year ago. His poor performance this season has the potential to threaten his future employment in the league.

It's still possible Carter could get signed by an NHL team, but it'll be for considerably less than what he earned this season; in fact, it could be for far less than what he earned with the Canucks.

Maybe he'll be fortunate enough to land with a team where he'll have the same chemistry with his new linemates as he had with the Sedins, but at this stage in his career, that could be a long shot. Carter turns 33 in June, and the perception will likely be that he's now past his prime and of no use to anyone as a first or second line player.

He's never been known for his defensive game, and that could further hurt his value if he tries to shop himself as a checking line forward.

All of this perhaps could've been avoided if Carter had accepted the Canucks offer. He would've begun this season again with the Sedins, and its quite possible that the chemistry he had with them a year ago could've carried over into this season.

Maybe Carter was blinded by his pride or his ego. Maybe his agent pushed him to take more than he was obviously worth.

Regardless, Carter did more potential harm to his NHL career by jumping into last summer's UFA pool than good.


Recent reports in the Arizona Republic suggest the ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes intend to review the job performances of the club's front office once this season is over.

That's led to speculation that changes could be in the offing this summer for the Coyotes, to which more than a few of their fans will likely welcome.

The Coyotes have been a mess over the past several seasons. Since the 2000-01 season, the team has only been to the playoffs once. This season, they're once again poised to miss the post-season.

Questionable decisions have been made by management in recent seasons, which could be used against current GM Michael Barnett, along with Senior VP of Hockey Operations Cliff Fletcher, and possibly some of the scouting staff.

Barnett, former agent to current Coyotes head coach and part-owner Wayne Gretzky, has not done a particularly good job in the role since he was hired back in August 2001.

His draft record has been terrible, with only one player - defenceman Matt Jones - now playing regularly with the Coyotes.

Prospect and 2007 World Junior Hockey star Peter Mueller looks promising and could become a star for the Coyotes, but still, the 'Yotes draft record under Barnett has been as lousy as it was under his predecessor.

One of the Coyotes few home-grown talents, Daniel Briere, was foolishly dealt away to the Buffalo Sabres by Barnett for Chris Gratton in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to make the playoffs in 2003.

Briere has since gone on to stardom with the Sabres. Gratton now plugs away with the Florida Panthers.

To be fair, Barnett has made some good acquisitions over the years, notably goalie Mikael Tellqvist and defencemen Keith Ballard and Derek Morris. Still, there's no getting over the Briere trade, which is often ranked among the worst in NHL history.

Barnett tried to bolster his club's depth with free agent signings last summer. The affordable ones, like Owen Nolan and Yanic Perreault, worked out well, but the expensive signing of injury-prone defenceman Ed Jovanovski did not. Should injuries continue to hamper Jovanovski's future, it could prove costly both to the Coyotes on the ice and on their payroll for years.

As for Nolan and Perreault, it remains to be seen if the former will re-sign with the Coyotes, whilst the latter was dealt away to the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline, and could attract considerable attention as a UFA this summer.

It would also probably be worthwhile for a coaching change too, to bring in an experienced coaching staff that might have a better chance at motivating this club, particularly the younger players on the Coyotes roster.

That, however, would mean Gretzky stepping down as coach, since nobody's going to fire him given his role as part-owner of the club. Gretzky insists he's not going anywhere, but he might be doing more harm than good for this club with his obstinance.

It's true that injuries took its toll on the Coyotes this season, and that at one point during mid-season they'd battled back into the playoff race. Still, for a frachise that has missed the playoffs five out of the last six seasons, that's cold comfort to their now long-suffering fans, and isn't enough to generate more interest in the team or help to sell hockey in Arizona.

Thus, if a housecleaning is coming in Phoenix, it'll have to be at the management as well as the scouting levels. Those are the two key areas where the Coyotes have been lacking, the two areas most important to team building.

Barnett said in a recent interview that there are positives to be seen in terms of the club's veteran leadership and its youth.

However, the same things were said about the Coyotes earlier in the decade by Barnett and Gretzky after they took over in the summer of 2001. Yet here they are, still struggling along, still rebuilding, still no closer to that rosy future.

If a change isn't coming this summer, it could come before the end of next season if there's been no real improvement.


If NHLPA Executive Director Ted Saskin were an Oingo Boingo fan, I'll bet this tune was running through his head after the PA put him on an extended leave of absence last week:



With the NHLPA having placed its executive director, Ted Saskin, on a paid leave of absence whilst attempting to figure out the cheapest way to permanently replace him, a couple of intriguing issues have reared up which could have potentially serious long term consequences for both the players and their agents.

First, and perhaps most serious, is that apparently most of today's NHL'ers have very little interest in the inner workings of their own association.

From Tim Wharnsby of the Globe & Mail:

"Some went to the annual summer meetings in the years leading up to the 2004-05 lockout for the free laptop computer or a chance to play a good golf course. Others doodled the hour away when Goodenow addressed teams in his fall tour to prepare the players for the labour problems ahead."

According to Wharnsby, perhaps the most popular person in the NHLPA is the one who runs the gift shop, where the players go to get their hands on free PA merchandise.

Furthermore, unlike in years past, it seems many of today's NHL superstars simply aren't interested in association business, declining the opportunity to represent their teammates as "player reps" at PA meetings.

James Mirtle accuses the majority of PA members of apathy, a view I concur with.

Why is it that most player reps aren't the game's superstars? Probably because today's superstars aren't concerned about player pension funds or disability insurance or anything else the PA could do in their benefit.

How many times do we hear an already well-paid superstar eligible for unrestricted free agent status proclaim that it's the opportunity to set up he and his family for life?

The top players earn so much that they don't have to worry about the PA assisting them once they're retired from the game, because they've taken care of themselves.

That leaves the rank and file - the third and fourth liners, the fifth and sixth defencemen, and the backup goalies - to look out for themselves. Thus, it shouldn't be surprising they're taking on the roles of player reps and showing more interest in the PA.

While by the standards of the average hockey fan, even those players are well-paid, they still have to ensure that the association exists, with plans and programmes in place, to look after them should they require assistance after their playing days are finished.

Even so, it appears most prefer to have their agents deal with such messy business.

Throughout the lockout I believed the current NHLPA membership was far more informed and interested in the business of hockey than their predecessors.

It seems I was mistaken in that belief.

The danger here for those apathetic players is they've set themselves up to be taken advantage of, just as they were during the dark days of the PA when Alan Eagleson ran the show.

It doesn't appear as though the players were hard done by from Saskin's tenure as Executive Director, but the fact he was alledgedly spying on their private e-mails suggests he was taking advantage of their trust.

The players apathy was certainly on full display over Saskin's hiring, which led to Trent Klatt, Chris Chelios and a small group of other players raising concerns over how it violated the PA charter. Their efforts met with a collective yawn from the hockey community.

They'll need to start paying more attention in the coming days as the PA figures out how to buy out Saskin and then go on the search for a replacement.

Chelios and company are rightfully drawing praise for their dogged determination in toppling Saskin, but will they use their new-found power to the benefit of the players and the association, or to serve their own interests?

The players must ensure that the opportunity isn't created for someone, be they fellow player, agent or serving or former PA member to step in and exploit this situation.

Another issue in the wake of Saskin's fall is the possibility that some player agents could also be in trouble. As Al Strachan of reported:

" There are those who want a full investigation into the action of agents during the lockout. There is suspicion that some agents negotiated directly with the NHL, then convinced their clients to accept a deal that was to their liking. If those allegations prove true, those agents could be decertified — and it could reach some of the big names in the business."

If player agents did negotiate directly with the league and then swayed their clients' opinion during the lockout, that would be a major bombshell.

But why would those agents do this? Because they weren't getting paid during the lockout, and once the 2004-05 season was cancelled, feared that the longer the lockout went, the less likely they'd get a CBA that would work to their benefit.

As Strachan writes:

'Even though they had given Goodenow a mandate to stay out "as long as it takes," some high-profile players, swayed by their agents who were without income, lost their fervor for the struggle.'

As things turned out, this current CBA isn't as bad for the players as so many in the media have proclaimed it to be. That's due to Saskin's negotiations with the league, but also likely supported by the agents, who wished to ensure that, if their clients were to accept a cap, they would get the best deal under the circumstances, which would also ensure a good deal for the agents.

Still, if there were agents who as Strachan alleges negotiated directly with the league and then convinced their clients to reject Bob Goodenow's hard line stance, that's another breach of trust. At that point, the agent put his interests over those of his clients.

Sure, it's all fine and good if the agent's self-interests benefit the player, but it also leaves the player wide open for exploitation.

It remains to be seen if there will be more heads rolling within the NHLPA, but if apathetic players aren't interested in managing their own affairs and leave themselves open to exploitation by some of the people supposedly working on their behalf, it doesn't bode well for the PA's future.

Why should any of this matter to hockey fans?

It matters because whoever the PA ultimately brings in to replace Saskin will be determining the direction of future labour negotiations between the PA and the league.

If they hire a more militant director, it could set the stage for the current CBA to be scrapped in two years, when the PA could exercise its option to reopen labour negotiations with the league.

As I noted in my Sunday Soapbox, I doubt many of the players have the stomach for another lengthy labour war, particularly coming so soon after the last one. I believe it's in the best interests of the league and the PA to negotiate a mutually beneficial CBA without resulting to work stoppages to achieve it.

But if the players are as apathetic to the inner workings of the association that represents them, or even ignorant of what some of the people who directly represents their interest are doing, the possibility for another contentious and lengthy labour war exists.

And that's why it should matter to hockey fans. It won't, of course, as most hockey fans simply aren't interested in the business of hockey.

At least their apathy is understandable. That of the players certainly is not.


Brad Delp, lead singer of Boston, recently passed away. Their debut album was one of the biggest sellers in rock history, and it seemed that all my friends had this album back in 1976. Boston was among the first groups I enjoyed in my introduction to rock way back then, and even though I believe my taste in music has broadened over the years, I've always had a soft spot for that album (although not for the fashions of the day. In a word: yuck!). Whenever I hear "More Than A Feeling", I always flashback to the summer and fall of '76. I had an unrequited crush on a classmate named Marianne that year, so whenever I hear the line, "I see my Marianne walkin' away", I'm still reminded of her.



In my previous Soapbox I stated that I wasn't going to weigh in too deeply on the controversy swirling about NHLPA Executive Director Ted Saskin, but recent events has pushed his story to the forefront of hockey news, thus I'm compelled to add my two cents.

In addition to the internal investigation launched into the circumstances of Saskin's hiring and questions about the dispersal of certain PA revenues came news last week that the PA had been "inappropriately accessing" player e-mails.

The NHLPA's executive board will be holding a conference call on March 11th to discuss Saskin's future, and there's rampant speculation he could be out of a job soon afterward.

James Mirtle has more on the subject here and here.

The fallout from the conference call could be one of the following:

1. Saskin retains his job, but the internal investigation grinds on, keeps the PA's uncivil civil war in the headlines, still leaving him facing an uncertain future.

2. Saskin is fired and prepares to launch an unfair dismissal lawsuit against the PA, which runs the risk of airing more of the PA's dirty laundry in public for weeks or months.

3. Saskin is fired and the PA grudgingly pays him a sweetheart severance package akin to the one used to buy the silence of his predecessor, Bob Goodenow.

4. Saskin resigns after realizing he cannot count on the support of the majority of the PA membership, maybe with a reduced serverence package (perhaps a year's salary).

If one of the final three scenarios unfold after Sunday or if the aforementioned investigation should eventually force Saskin from office, the most obvious question is who'll replace him.

It's been suggested by some pundits that the NHL owners are chortling with glee over the PA's continued strife, hoping this further weakens the association thus laying the groundwork for more concessions from the players during the next round of labour negotiations.

But if I were an NHL owner, I'd be more concerned over the possibility of Saskin's replacement.

When the NHLPA dumped Alan Eagleson in 1992 and hired Goodenow, the owners didn't take him seriously. The result was a players strike prior to the 1992 playoffs and a half-season lockout in 1994-95, both of which benefitted the players, and a season-killing lockout in 2004-05.

The owners emerged from the second lockout with a pyrrhic victory. They'd achieved "cost certainty" in a salary cap and a rollback on players salaries and saw Goodenow fired as the PA's executive director. However, the new CBA may be more beneficial to the players than expected, plus the second lockout may have done irreparable harm to the league's image in the American sports market.

Saskin was perceived as more of a compromiser than his predecessor. That was evident in the current CBA, which Saskin and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly were believed primarily responsible for bringing to life.

The PA did, among other things, concede to a salary cap, a one-year 25% rollback in their wages, escrow and a tighter cap on entry level salaries, but in turn they also received a lowered eligibility age for free agency, a cap "floor" to ensure teams would spend competitively, and the retention of their arbitration rights.

Moreover, the cap they were saddled with was tied to revenue fluctuations, which has proven profitable thus far, as the cap his risen from $39 million in 2005-06 to an anticipated $47.5 million for 2007-08. Escrow thus far hasn't become the major clawback from their salaries as anticipated by most expects.

In other words, Saskin was no jellyfish willingly giving the owners what they wanted. Rather, he dealt in "quid pro quo", giving up something to gain something else.

Saskin was seen as someone whom the league could negotiate with, unlike his predecessor who was peceived as arrogant and stubborn, a tough nut to crack.

It's been suggested that the dissidents responsible for launching the internal investigation into Saskin's hiring might try to restore Bob Goodenow as PA executive director.

That's never been stated as their intent, but if it were, don't expect it to have much support within the PA ranks. His fate was sealed when the majority of the players lost the stomach to continue the fight after the 2004-05 season was officially cancelled.

It's a safe bet that more than a few player agents are likely jockeying for position to take over the role. If one of the more militant agents replace Saskin, the league could be facing a much tougher negotiator next time around.

It's also possible the PA could look outside the hockey world, hoping to bring in someone with fresh ideas, savvy negotiating skills and strong leadership qualities.

That might actually be scarier to the league and the owners than having to face one of the former player agents. The NHL is conservative by nature, has been for decades. It's slow to change and usually doesn't welcome outsiders willingly into their midst.

Whoever Saskin's potential successor is, they'll have quite a lot to deal with in the coming months and years.

First, they'll have to heal the rift amongst the players, gaining not only their trust and support but also that of their agents, and uniting them into a stronger association.

They'll also have to decide if the current CBA is working well enough for the players.

As the Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek recently observed:

"Under terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, the NHL players' association has the right to terminate the agreement after four years. Technically, it is a six-year agreement, in place until Sept. 15, 2011 — and there are provisions to extend it indefinitely, if it's working for both sides. That's the good news. The bad news is if the players want out, they can get out by September, 2009, simply by delivering a written notice of termination to the NHL at least 120 days prior to that date."

That'll mean gauging the morale of the PA membership to determine if it's up for another potential work stoppage, as well as determing if it can successfully go toe-to-toe once again with a league buoyed by its "victory" in 2005.

That individual will have perhaps a tougher route to navigate than their predecessors in future negotiations with the league, requiring all their negotiating savvy to get the best deal possible for the players without jeopardizing their position by appearing to have given up too much.

As Duhatschek observes:

"With their union in tatters, probably the smartest thing for the players to do would be to play out the current deal; get their house in order; and then aggressively try to grow revenues in a real and tangible manner (rather than this year's artificial spike, caused by ticket-price increases).

I'm guessing the players will vote to keep the current deal in place beyond 2009. The current CBA is working out far better than predicted for them , and as long as the cap keeps rising, so too will their salaries.

They'll also likely have to get involved with the player executive in reviewing the PA's charter, particularly in regards to the hiring and firing measures of those in charge.

These are also things that Saskin will have to deal with if he can somehow retain his job.


-MORE DIRT FOR THE NHLPA. Things seem to be getting worse for embattled NHLPA Executive Director Ted Saskin.

He's facing an internal investigation brought about by a small but apparently growing number of dissidents within the ranks of the PA regarding the firing of his predecessor, the details of his hiring and questions about his part in negotiations for the current CBA.

Now comes a report police are investigating whether the PA interfered with player e-mails.

" For the past two weeks, police have been looking into allegations Saskin and Ken Kim, the union's senior director of business, ordered technical support staff at the union to access player e-mail accounts hosted by the union, and whether such an action would be illegal, four sources familiar with the investigation told the newspaper (Toronto Star).

The Globe & Mail was all over this story on Tuesday, as well as the other challenges Saskin is facing to his leadership.

Questions and complaints from within the PA ranks have been dogging Saskin for almost two years now. Until recently, Saskin had thwarted attempts for his deposal by dissident players.

But with an internal investigation underway (one that Saskin reportedly tried to prevent) combined with the police investigation, he's certainly feeling the heat.

I've opted not to weigh into this too deeply as to whether or not the review into his hiring and the police investgation will lead to his downfall, preferring to withhold my opinion until all the facts are in.

But I have to concur with James Mirtle's take on this. It's not looking good for Saskin's chances to beat back these latest challenges, as each answer seems to raise more, troubling questions.

I would also suggest that if the NHL owners are happy about the continuing turmoil at the NHLPA that it's likely in their best long-term interest to hope that Saskin is exonerated and stays on as the PA honcho.

It's believed Saskin is more willing to negotiate with the league than his predecessor, and if he's deposed, the owners could find themselves facing a much tougher cat representing the players.

Perhaps not Bob Goodenow, but maybe someone of the same nature, or perhaps, someone along the lines of a Marvin Miller, less abrasive than Goodenow but just as clever.

- PENGUINS OWNERSHIP THREATENS TO MOVE...AGAIN. Stop me if you've heard this one: The ownership of the Pittsburgh Penguins are threatening to relocate at season's end if the city of Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania build them a new arena.

Yep, it's happening again.

Do we believe that it could happen? I have no doubt that Mario Lemieux and company are dead serious about pulling up stakes and moving to that renowned hockey hotbed of Kansas City, where they'll have a big shiny new building, although probably not the same number of knowledgeable, passionate fans as they've had in Pittsburgh.

But then again, this could be yet another spate of cage-rattling by the Penguins to squeeze the city and state into more concessions.

So they could move, but they might not.

Unless the city and state finally announce they've washed their hands of the Penguins and wish them bon voyage on their sojourn west, it's probably still too early to suggest the Penguins are moving.

But, if the Pens are to remain in Steeltown, an agreement must be reached soon. The NHL season is almost over, season tickets for next season must be sold, there'll likely be some advertising deals to be renewed or initiated, and most importantly, the NHL schedule for next season will need to be drawn up.

Tick, tock...tick, tock.

- FORBES GM RANKINGS QUESTIONABLE. The respected business magazine Forbes recently published a listing of the 100 top general managers in North American professional sports.

As summarized by Paul Kukla, the listing had two measuring sticks:

"First, there’s the performance (regular season winning percentage and postseason wins) during the GM’s tenure versus the performance of his predecessor. Second, there’s the GM’s relative (to the league median) payroll compared with his predecessor’s relative payroll."

Forbes suggested their list would raise some eyebrows, and boy, they weren't kidding.

I'm not about to question the placement of general managers from the NFL, NBA or MLB, but I definitely have to question their placement of some of the NHL's top general managers.

I respect Tampa Bay's Jay Feaster, but why does he get ranked above New Jersey's Lou Lamoriello (the best GM in the NHL)? If the basis of comparison was last season, Lamoriello's Devils certainly have it over Feaster's Lightning.

And how does Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell get ranked higher than Detroit's Ken Holland, Carolina's Jim Rutherford, Nashville's David Poile, Anaheim's Brian Burke, Buffalo's Darcy Regier, Montreal's Bob Gainey, Edmonton's Kevin Lowe, Calgary's Darryl Sutter and Minnesota's Doug Risebrough?

Pierre Lacroix is ranked 14th, Dave Taylor 18th, and Bob Clarke 27th? They're not even employed as general managers anymore!

If they were, Lacroix and Clarke should rank higher than Forbes' placement, despite their club's poor performances this season. Taylor would rank much lower.

Moreover, I don't think ranking a long-time NHL general manager's relative (to the league median) payroll compared with his predecessor’s relative payroll is a good basis for comparison.

If you've got general managers who've been in the job for more than 10 years, their predecessor's relative payroll would be substantially lower. That doesn't mean their predecessor was better because he could do more with less, but because all NHL payrolls over ten years ago were substantially lower than they are today.

And from a hockey standpoint, some of these are just plain weird.

Does anyone honestly believe Feaster's a better GM than Lamoriello? Again, no offence to Feaster, but I think even he'd be willing to concede that point.

And no offence to Waddell, but I'll bet even he's surprised that Forbes ranked him considerably higher that Holland, Rutherford, Burke, Regier et al.

- BEWARE OF RUSSIAN PAPERS SEEKING INTERVIEWS. The trails and tribulations of this year's version of the struggling Montreal Canadiens have been headline news for the Montreal media.

Hot on the heels of their quest to make GM Bob Gainey their whipping boy for the team's problems this season came a report of Habs forward Alexei Kovalev supposedly criticizing coach Guy Carbonneau and several of his Francophone teammates to a Russian sports tabloid.

This isn't the first time a European NHL star has supposedly expressed unhappiness over his NHL team to a European sports tabloid and probably won't be the last.

Kovalev denied the report, although Montreal's La Presse, which first reported the story, stood by the validity of the source.

Was it possible Kovalev slammed his teammates to a Russian tabloid? Sure, it's possible, and he'd have the easy out by proclaiming his comments were lost in translation.

But it would also be very stupid of him, or any other European NHL star, to air his team's dirty laundry to a hometown paper and assume it wouldn't make waves back in North America. Kovalev's been in the NHL for over 13 years and he's never struck me as being a stupid man, particularly when it comes to dealing with the press either back home in Russia or here in North America.

Regardless of whether or not Kovalev made those comments, there can be no denying that something is very wrong with the Canadiens, and has been since Christmas, so naturally the media and the fans are trying to understand why.

It could be that the Habs just aren't as good as they seemed in the first half of the season. It could be that the quality of their goaltending, penalty killing, and team defence has dropped dramatically. It could be that they've struggled at five-on-five situations all season. It could be that it's a combination of all these.

Or it could be that the team isn't a team behind closed doors.

If the Habs rally and make the playoffs, this'll likely be forgotten, but if they don't, this will only add more fuel to the fire, which will keep the Montreal media buzzing throughout the summer.


OK, folks, this has nothing to do with hockey, but just for a little change of pace, I thought I'd share this with you.

I'm not a country music fan, even though I grew up surrounded by it. There's only so much Charley Pride, Tom T. Hall and Red Sovine that a kid can stand!

That being said, however, there were a few tunes that I did love. And while I know the banjo gets forever linked with the inbreeders from Deliverance, I'm a sucker for banjo tunes. I recently stumbled across the following video of Earl Scruggs, Steve Martin (Yes, the wild and crazy guy himself, who is one mean banjo picker), Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Joe Walsh, Paul Schaefer and others reeling off a wicked rendition of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on The David Letterman Show. Enjoy!



The sight of the Montreal Canadiens struggling yet again has left some disgruntled Habs fans raising questions about Bob Gainey's ability to manage the team.

In a recent post on my blog defending Gainey's moves as the Habs GM (Go. Read. Join the debate), the inability to sign a talented unrestricted free agent (UFA) player was mentioned by one of the detractors.

The lack of UFAs stampeding to sign with Les Canadiens hasn't been unique to Gainey's tenure as the team's general manager. Since unrestricted free agency as we know it was introduced into the NHL following the 1994-95 lockout, the Canadiens have not landed a single player that could be considered a marquee UFA talent.

There were various reasons for this, which I'll touch on shortly. In recent years, however, it certainly hasn't been for lack of trying on Gainey's part.

Last summer, for example, he is believed to have had serious interest in Patrik Elias, and made a multi-year offer to Brendan Shanahan, who took instead a one-year contract for roughly the same money to sign with the NY Rangers.

Perhaps the biggest "name" UFA player to sign with the Canadiens over the past dozen years was Sergei Samsonov in 2006. Habs fans were thrilled at that signing, but Samsonov's subsequent poor performance has many of those same fans now wishing Gainey had just saved his money.

No one can say for certain if Gainey will come up short in future UFA markets, but the team's inability to attract the top players is indeed puzzling.

"Who wouldn't want to play for the Montreal Canadiens, the most storied franchise in NHL history?", ask legions of Canadiens fans (of which I am one).

One reader suggested the team may not be marketing itself properly. That may have been the case in the late-1990s, but certainly doesn't appear to be that way nowadays as Gainey's recent attempts to pursue UFA talent would suggest.

Money is obviously an issue. In the late 1990s, the team was either unable or unwilling to pay out the big bucks for top UFA talent. While the Habs certainly didn't struggle with payroll like Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa, the lower value of the Canadian dollar at that time certainly had an impact.

At the turn of this century, the Canadiens were sold to its current owner, George Gillet, and while he was willing to pay to retain almost all of the Habs best players, the club still didn't land any major UFA talent.

This could be explained away by claiming the Canadiens couldn't compete with free-spending rivals under the previous CBA.

Since the salary cap levelled the playing surface under the new CBA, the Canadiens have demonstrated a willingness to spend on UFA players, but two years into the new CBA, the Canadiens have, with the exception of Samsonov (considered a second-tier UFA star), failed to sign a free-agent impact player.

If money is perhaps no longer the significant stumbling block it once was, other factors may be at work here.

One is the tax hit for NHL players to live and work in Montreal. Canadiens players pay more taxes than their peers, which doesn't help to attract top unrestricted free agents.

Another is the Canadiens status as a rebuilding franchise. If the Habs were still a perennial Stanley Cup contender as they were throughout the glory days from 1944 to 1993, they'd probably be more enticing to UFA players.

Many UFAs want to sign where they can get the most money, but a good number of them also want to sign with teams they feel stand a good chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

Unfortunately for Les Canadiens, that hasn't been the case since 1995, and their uneven performance this season isn't likely to have the agents for this summer's top UFAs putting Gainey's cell number on speed dial.

Another deterrent is the fishbowl existence that comes with being a Canadien.

Sure, players in other major hockey towns face pressure from their fans, but nothing compares to the intense demands a Canadien faces every day.

Each season's version of the Habs are automatically held to comparison with the dynasties of the past. Expectations are high, and as the 1993 Cup championship fades a little more into history, the natives grow a little more impatient and demanding, stoked by a constantly critical local media.

Language is also an issue. For many English-speaking players, the notion of playing in a Francophone province isn't attractive. It's not bigotry, but rather the uncomfortable thought of having to learn a new language, of having to live and work in a culture that, in their eyes, is a foreign one, something they wouldn't encounter in any other NHL market.

Family matters also come into play on this as well. The player might be willing to come to Montreal, but if the wife and kids aren't keen about living in a city where they'd have to learn French, he will scratch the Habs off his list.

The French media are also very demanding when it comes to language. A perfect example occured during last spring's playoffs, when a Francophone reporter took Habs captain Saku Koivu to task last spring during a press conference over the status of his injured eye.

Koivu has been the heart and soul of the Canadiens for years, beloved by their fans, yet the fact he still hasn't fully mastered French was a more important issue for that reporter than the status of Koivu's injured eye. That didn't go unnoticed.

There's a misconception amongst some in the English media, and even some hockey fans, that Quebec-born players pine to play for Les Canadiens, and would sign with them if only the Habs would break out their chequebooks.

Sure, many Quebec-born NHL'ers probably grew up dreaming of playing for Les Canadiens, but once they become eligible for UFA status, they're just like everyone else; they want to sign for big bucks, preferably with a winner.

It's also interesting that we rarely, if ever, hear of Francophone UFA stars publicly stating their intent to play for the Canadiens. Sure, JP Dumont said last summer he'd love to play for the Habs, but by the time he was available (mid August) as a UFA after the Buffalo Sabres rejected his arbitration award, Gainey had already spent his available cap money on Samsonov and in re-signing other key Habs.

Dumont, however, has been a rarity. For all the chatter of Francophone stars supposedly dreaming of signing with the Habs, I can't recall many other than Dumont publicly stating that intent.

Perhaps the "hometown boys" don't consider the Montreal fishbowl, taxes and the thought of playing for a rebuilding team as attractive options.

All these circumstances present Gainey with significant obstacles in attracting UFA talent that his peers don't have to face.

Given those factors, I long ago realized that it was pointless in counting on the Canadiens to sign a signficant UFA star every summer or two.

Besides, it may also be that Gainey and company are more committed to the players they're developing than in having their cap space gobbled up by the salaries of one or two expensive stars.

If the Habs are to become a Cup champion again, they'll have to do it the old fashioned way, via the draft and shrewd trades, and by retaining their stars who have gotten used to live in the Montreal fishbowl and are willing to stay.

Big name help from the UFA market ain't coming.