Last week, at the NHL general managers’ meetings in New York, the Ottawa Senators’ Bryan Murray did a smart thing. When reporters asked the obligatory question about Jason Spezza’s status with the organization, Murray freely volunteered that his star centre had asked to be traded – and that the Senators would try to meet his request.
Nice. An honest man. Few general managers are ever so frank about personnel decisions. Fact is, the organizational reins are so tight on some GMs that they are afraid to say even hello in the press boxes for fear of getting caught talking to a reporter, which would get them into hot water with their overlords.
Yes, it really has come down to that for some micromanaging teams. There is internal media and external media. External media is the enemy. External media is granted access grudgingly and with the watchful eyes of the organization hovering close by.
Ottawa isn’t that team. Ottawa still has some soul. For Murray, in order to maximize the value he gets in return for Spezza’s rights, he needs to create an auction-like environment for his services – and he did that by telling the world he was available.
In a world as small as the NHL’s, you’d think that would be a given, but you’d be wrong. Not every GM is tight with every other GM. That’s why you sometimes see trade pipelines – two organizations continually trading with each other. It’s usually because the managers have prior relationships. Philadelphia always talks to Los Angeles. Florida always talks to Chicago. Chicago always calls Winnipeg.
So now you get into an off-season, where there are all kinds of new faces managing the GM’s chairs – five changes already, plus Murray’s nephew Tim went into Buffalo in the middle of the past season – and it’s valuable to let everybody know publicly who might be available.
It isn’t enough just to send a fax around anymore. Saying it publicly takes away any ambiguity and avoids the sort of situation where, for example, a lot of NHL teams didn’t know the Calgary Flames were dangling Dion Phaneuf until they learned he’d been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Unbelievably, that does happen.
Contractually, Spezza has the right to list 10 teams where he doesn’t want to land; and the Senators wouldn’t be keen to deal him to an Eastern Conference opponent, in case he has a monster year playing for a team competing with the Senators for a playoff spot.
But even if the destinations for Spezza are somewhat limited, there are at least two teams that fit the bill as perfect trading partners – the St. Louis Blues and the Anaheim Ducks.
The Blues desperately need the sort of creative playmaking skills that Spezza can bring to the mix. They’ve got plenty of pluggers and support players that can grind it out. Patrick Berglund has been mentioned as the centerpiece of a deal going back to Ottawa and depending upon the reports the Senators pro scouts would file on him, he would be an interesting case to ponder.
Berglund, a late 2006 first-round pick, turned 26 earlier in June and has never scored more than 52 points in a single NHL season (2010-11), his third year. For reasons that are difficult to explain, his development stalled at that point. Could a change of scenery get him back on track? Maybe.
The irony is that the Blues would make Berglund available because of how well Vladimir Tarasenko has developed in a far shorter time – and the Blues drafted Tarasenko with a pick acquired from the Senators back in 2010. The Senators then traded the spoils of that deal, David Rundblad, to the Phoenix Coyotes for Kyle Turris, whose emergence in Ottawa has made it possible for them to consider moving Spezza in the first place. The only way this circle becomes full is if Phoenix gets into the Spezza sweepstakes, but it would only be an option if the Coyotes could find a way of moving Mike Ribeiro’s contract.
The likeliest landing place for Spezza remains Anaheim, just because the Ducks have more young talent with an upside in the pipeline and an intriguing commodity in defenceman Luca Sbisa, who could be a top-four player under the right circumstances.
Now that the Stanley Cup final is over and the annual NHL entry draft is less than two weeks away, trade talks are heating up. What fun!
IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO TODAY: No, not that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, but that Sports Illustrated produced perhaps the most enduring and talked-about hockey cover in their history – Why the NHL’s Hot ... and the NBA’s not.
It came out in June of 1994, soon after the New York Rangers ended a 20-year championship drought and while the star-driven NBA was trying to figure out how to replace Michael Jordan, after he left to try his hand at professional baseball.
Michael Farber did an excellent job of retelling the circumstances of that cover decision – how it wasn’t so much that SI managing editor Mark Mulvoy (who once covered hockey for the magazine and is close pals with Cliff Fletcher) wanted to praise the NHL as he wanted to “tweak” the NBA.
Sadly, whatever momentum the NHL gained from the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup victory, it lost the next fall by staging the first of three lockouts of the Gary Bettman era.
So now, 20 years later, in revisiting that cover story, SI concluded that the NHL and the NBA were both hot – though how anyone could compare the excitement of NHL finishes to the tedious way close NBA games close boggles this mind. Farber concluded that the NHL’s “hotness” reflected a series of off-ice factors – labour stability, the success of the six outdoor games, excellent television ratings – but mostly was a reflection of how entertaining the product has been in these playoffs.
Partly, that is a function of the NHL’s new financial order.
In the pre-salary cap era, when NHL payrolls ranged from $80-million at the top (think Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers) and $20-million at the bottom (think Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes), the financial imbalance between teams created an incentive for the disadvantaged teams to play hook-and-hold hockey to overcome the skill gap.
By forcing every team to spend within the prescribed range, it allowed – and in some cases even forced – small and mid-market teams to up the payroll ante. They may not always have spent the money wisely, but they spent it nevertheless.
Beyond implementing a new financial system, the decision to take out the red line quickened the pace of the game significantly since the mid-2000s. Suddenly, you had a far more compelling show – one that produced a 2014 playoff in which few leads were safe; and games could go long stretches without a whistle, teams attacking and then countering the way they once did in the mid-1980s, the peak of the offensive era. In the Stanley Cup final, No. 10 overall in the regular season standings, the Los Angeles Kings, defeated No. 12, the Rangers. That never happened before three years ago.
With labour peace assured for the foreseeable future and an influx of Rogers’ television money starting next season, you’d have to think, after frittering away an opportunity 20 years ago, the NHL isn’t going to make the same mistake twice – and will continue to stay “hot” into the years ahead.
THIS AND THAT: U.S. television ratings for Friday’s Cup-clinching game were excellent. Officially, NBC attracted six million viewers for the telecast, which translated into an overall 3.7 rating and made it the most-watched Game 5 since a triple overtime game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008. Most tellingly, it was up 82 per cent compared to the fifth game of the 2012 Stanley Cup final between the Kings and the New Jersey Devils, which was also a potential Cup-clinching game, but drew just 3.2 million viewers. The peak audience came in the half-hour window between midnight and 12:30 a.m. Eastern time, with the game in overtime. More than 8.5 million viewers were tuned in then ... Something to consider: The perception was that the L.A. Kings were the big losers back in the summer of 2011, when Brad Richards chose to sign with the New York Rangers instead of them. Richards signed a nine-year, $60-million contract that comes with a $6.67-million cap hit that the Rangers cannot afford going forward. He will get a compliance buyout this summer, so the Rangers can spread that money around to restricted free agents who’ll need a raise (Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider) and unrestricted free agents who provided great value this year: Dominic Moore, Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle. Unlike the Kings, who have most of their core players locked up on long-term multi-year contracts, the Rangers have just six players signed beyond 2015-16: Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, defencemen Ryan McDonough, Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, and forwards Rick Nash and Richards. McDonough is on an exceptionally good contract – only one year into a six-year, $28.2-million deal. Lundqvist, at $8.5-million, is steep, even for a goalie with his pedigree. Nash, owed another $7.8-million per year for the next four years, is too pricey as well, but the Rangers only have one compliance buyout left, after spending the first on Wade Redden, and will have to use it on Richards ... Okay, let’s play Islanders general manager for a while because, hey, everybody else is doing it too right? They have huge amounts of salary-cap space, so anything is possible, as long as you’re prepared to cajole players into coming. Even the guys they’ve got signed – such as John Tavares – are on reasonable deals ($5.5-million through 2017-18 – tip of the cap to Garth Snow for that one). They also have two more years of Kyle Okposo at $2.8-million. So after Thomas Vanek played so badly in Montreal and Minnesota’s interest in him is waning, why wouldn’t the Islanders circle back to Vanek and make him an offer on July 1? Bet they could outbid anybody for his services – and they might not even have to offer that seven-year, $50-million deal that he turned down. The Islanders could sign Vanek, bid for Matt Moulson (who liked it there and might consider a return, because his options might be limited as well) and bring back them both back. Put it this way: Without a first-round pick in 2015, which they gave up to get Vanek in the first place, the Islanders better make the playoffs. As they are currently constituted, they have no chance. With Vanek and Moulson in the lineup, they might.