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NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Richard Drew/AP)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Richard Drew/AP)

The Look Ahead

Will Devils escape from New Jersey? Add to ...

Ray Chambers is the latest person to find out you cease to be an NHL owner only when commissioner Gary Bettman and the governors say so.

That became clear on NHL all-star weekend when Bettman said Chambers may have made a deal several months ago with his co-owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek to cut his ties to the financially strapped New Jersey Devils but that means nothing in the eyes of the league.

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“There are obligations [Chambers and Vanderbeek]may or may not have to each other and there are obligations they have to the league,” Bettman said. “He’s still an owner.”

So even though Chambers is said to turned over his 47.5 per cent of the Devils to Vanderbeek, who owns an equal share, with a $25-million (all currency U.S.) payment, he is not free and clear of the franchise and its severe financial problems. Vanderbeek has been scrambling for months to refinance an $80-million loan that went into default and find enough money to pay the Devils’ big losses. But Chambers, whose share is held through a company run by his son-in-law Mike Gilfillan, cannot unload his interest without the approval of the NHL governors, Bettman said.

Bettman’s stance makes the Devils the most interesting team to watch over the rest of the season. Thanks to league rules, the bankers who hold the Devils’ loan cannot foreclose until after the Stanley Cup playoffs are over but so far Vanderbeek has not been able to find any saviours.

One person who is familiar with several people who would like to buy an NHL team said one group who examined the Devils’ finances told him they could see no way the team could break even let alone turn a profit.

Bettman admitted the NHL is giving the Devils money to stay afloat through advances on its share of league revenue, such as television money. But he denied the league, which already owns the money-losing Phoenix Coyotes, is subsidizing the Devils with any formal loans.

However, the NHL advances cannot go on indefinitely. Someone has to be found to pay the freight.

And if Chambers thinks he won’t be that someone, he should look no further than former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes. He managed to sell the Coyotes to the NHL through the U.S. Bankruptcy Court but is still facing a lawsuit from the NHL for $62.4-million to cover the league’s costs plus damages.

Bettman is using the league’s consent agreement to hold Moyes’s feet to the fire. Every owner who buys an NHL team signs a consent agreement in which he agrees, among other things, to make sure his team has enough money to operate.

A fellow who’s handled more than one of those consent agreements says they contain a nasty little bomb that can blow up an owner’s bankroll. There is no cap on the amount of money an owner is expected to pony up for any losses, so legally the NHL could bleed him dry if he can’t sell the team.

A few owners who bought teams in recent years were smart enough to negotiate a cap into their consent agreements but there are a lot who don’t have that protection. It isn’t known if Chambers is protected.

Bettman says he is trying to get either Chambers or Vanderbeek to buy a majority share of the Devils if no owner is found. Since Chambers is by far the wealthier of the two, he is probably the preferred owner.

But he is also a reluctant owner, which means another nasty court fight could lie ahead.

WILL THOMAS STAY WITH BRUINS?

While NHL all-star games are meant to burnish the reputations of the players, Tim Thomas might beg to differ. The Boston Bruins goaltender saw his persona as an unassuming everyman-made-good take a big hit with his ill-advised boycott of his team’s visit with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Thomas claimed he made what amounted to a political protest because he feels all levels of government are “out of control.” But he couldn’t seem to grasp the necessity of explaining his political beliefs once he made such a big splash with them. Then again, Thomas left the impression he isn’t capable of explaining them in any detail.

In any event, the discussion soon turned to the goaltender’s future with his team. That will depend on how Thomas performs over the rest of the season (he’s been great so far) and how he is received by the home fans, not to mention his teammates. Backup Tuukka Rask has shown he can handle the No. 1 job.

At 37, with a no-move clause in his contract, Thomas will be difficult for Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli to move by the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline. But that is less so on July 1, when Thomas’s no-move rights expire.

At that point, he will have one year left on his contract with a $3-million salary(all currency U.S.) and $5-million cap hit. That would make him attractive to budget-minded teams that want to hit the salary-cap floor without spending the actual money.

BOSS RATTLES SABRES

One team to keep an eye on as the NHL trade deadline approaches is the Buffalo Sabres. They are stuck in 14th place in the Eastern Conference with a general malaise lingering over a team that is costing owner Terry Pegula $65-million in payroll.

But Sabres president Ted Black issued a wake-up call while he was in Ottawa for the all-star game. He told the Buffalo News that no one among the team’s most important players should feel comfortable. General manager Darcy Regier has the go-ahead to make any changes he sees fit by the deadline.

“Our commitment is to winning, not to any particular group of players that are labelled as a core. Take that for what it's worth,” Black said.

That will keep the Ryan Miller trade talk boiling. The Sabres goaltender is having his worst NHL season and 23-year-old backup Jhonas Enroth is outplaying him. While Miller says he does not want to be traded, Regier might be tempted to use Enroth and spend Miller’s $6.25-million cap hit elsewhere.

SUTER SITUATION

Ryan Suter will be worth keeping an eye on thanks to a contretemps that blew up on all-star weekend. It started when the Nashville Predators defenceman, who can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, told reporters he would not sign a new contract with the Preds before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

Some media outlets, who were surely not present when Suter made his remarks or didn’t stay for his full explanation, jumped to the conclusion he plans to hit the open market come July 1. This would put pressure on Preds general manager David Poile, who also has to sign superstar defenceman Shea Weber, to make a decision whether or not to trade Suter and get something for him before losing him as a free agent.

But that was not what Suter meant at all. He said he did not want to sign before the deadline because he did not want to be a distraction to his teammates. He made it clear he wants to stay in Nashville.

“I love it in Nashville,” Suter said. “It's a great place to live and a great place to play.”

He felt compelled to repeat those sentiments after he saw several media reports that implied Poile might have to trade him.

QUOTABLE

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on those cities that want an NHL team: “We’ve told anybody in any market who’s asked, who doesn’t have a team, don’t do anything planning on having a team because we’re not making any promises on anything.”

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