Last June, in a rational and thoroughly convincing explanation of why he was so anxious to land Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets’ general manager Scott Howson noted that there’d only been two No. 1 centres traded in the six years since the NHL lockout ended (Joe Thornton, from the Boston Bruins to the San Jose Sharks; and Brad Richards, from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Dallas Stars) before two more were moved on a single day before the 2011 entry draft. That shattered the NHL peace in a big meaningful way.
The Los Angeles Kings got the other one, by the way - Mike Richards, who was signed to a 12-year, $69-million contract by Philadelphia. Howson, by comparison, got off comparatively lightly in terms of the overall cash outlay - Carter’s contract was for a mere 11 years and $58-million, a reasonably cap-friendly number, even if it was a significant commitment in terms of the overall dollars.
Of course, the reason the Flyers were so anxious to move out all that money was so they could hand a lot more of it over to goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who received $51-million from them spread over nine years. If you factor in the money Philadelphia paid Daniel Briere (eight years, $52-million), Kimmo Timmonen (six years, $38-million), Scott Hartnell (six years, $25.2-million) and Chris Pronger (five years, $31.25-million, to a player past the age of 35 when he signed), you can genuinely conclude that the Flyers contributed more to the NHL inflation rate than OPEC ever did to the general economic malaise back in the high-interest eighties (hey, if Tim Thomas can mix sports and monetary policy, so can we).
Now, some eight months after making the Carter deal, there is talk that the Blue Jackets would consider moving his rights, if they could find someone willing to take on the contract (and give up something of consequence in return, since Columbus surrendered two top-10 NHL entry draft picks to land his rights in the first place).
With the NHL about to start new collective bargaining talks with the players association some time after the all-star break, it bears asking the question: Is anybody really getting their money’s worth on these mega-year, mega-bucks contracts that commit team to player in a long-term relationship that invariably seems headed for the rocks sooner if not later?
Not that the NHL all-star game should act as the perfect referendum on money well spent, but consider this: Eight players are earning over $8-million this season, according to capgeek.com. Only two - Evgeni Malkin and Zdeno Chara - are playing in the all-star game. Alex Ovechkin would have made it three, had he not bowed out; and you’d have to think a healthy Sidney Crosby would be there as well. But think of some others: Brad Richards ($12-million), Vincent Lecavalier ($10-million), Bryzgalov ($10-million), Christian Ehrhoff ($10-million). Dany Heatley didn’t make it, nor did Duncan Keith nor Thornton nor Henrik Zetterberg nor Eric Staal nor Scott Gomez nor Rick Nash nor Anze Kopitar. What do they have in common? All are signed to contracts seven years or longer and earn $7-million or more on average. And the conundrum is, if the players underperform, or simply just aren’t a good fit, or by their play, give you a strong message that they’d really like to be somewhere else, how do you move all that money when so many teams are capped out?
Worse still, those sorts of forever-commitments put ownership in the awkward position that Washington was in this week when both the owner, Ted Leonsis, and the general manager George McPhee, came rushing to Ovechkin’s defence when he decided to drop out of the All-Star game, after a perfectly legitimate decision by the NHL’s player safety department, to suspend the Capitals’ captain for three games for leaving his feet to hit Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek in the head.
Didn’t the Caps get the memo? Half the league is currently missing in action because of concussions. Hits to the head are bad. They damage brain cells. They may cause significant health issues down the road.
The league is trying to minimize these blows so that its star players are actually in the lineup on a more regular basis, instead of being on the sidelines, seeing stars, and otherwise not functioning properly. If everybody exempts their own players from the new standards that the league is trying to impose, nobody wins - and everybody loses. But with so much money committed to Ovechkin, the Caps are not about to hurt his hurt feelings any further by noting that everything else about the hit on Michalek was fine, but Alex - please, please, please - don’t leave your feet to launch yourself like a missile into him. That’s a no-no in 2012. That would be the right message to send. But right now, the desire to keep Ovechkin happy trumps all, a function of committing too many dollars for too many years to a player, so you end up coddling them, and do whatever it takes to prevent the sort of week-long pouts that has the Blue Jackets thinking about what to do with Carter after going to such trouble to land him in the first place. What a crazy business the NHL is becoming.
DUCKS QUACKING: The Anaheim Ducks entered the all-star break on an 8-1-1 run and have been one of the most dangerous teams in the league ever since general manager Bob Murray read his players the riot act and threatened to move everybody but Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu (both of whom are protected by no-trade clauses).
The problem with the Ducks is that they dug themselves too big a hole early, so that they look like this year’s version of either the 2010-11 New Jersey Devils or the Calgary Flames - two teams that were red hot in the second half of last year, but were so far gone early that even their big push didn’t result in a playoff spot. But the Ducks are true believers, at least Selanne is. And by the way, he has no interest in moving to another team - pretender, contender or the Winnipeg Jets - at the trading deadline, under any circumstances. Selanne said that in a conversation the other day, and then went on to assert: “The thing is, I still feel we can make it. This is a great league when we play well.” Selanne went on to note that past the all-star break, “there are still 30 games left. That’s a lot of hockey if you can stay hot and healthy for a while.
“This is almost like a very familiar situation. We are always behind the eight-ball at Christmas and we start climbing. Hopefully, this is the case too. If this type of team makes the playoffs, that confidence, that building ... who knows? You never know. That’s a new world. That’s a new hockey world then.”
In 11 games in January, the Ducks offence roared to life, scoring 37 goals, the second-highest goals-per-game average in the NHL behind Boston, at 3.83. Selanne, meanwhile, has already this season passed Mats Sundin, Guy Lafleur, Brendan Shanahan, Johnny Bucyk and Mike Modano on the NHL’s all-time points-scoring list, and now sits at No. 22 overall, six points behind Brett Hull, who is at 1,391.
Barring injury, he should be able to reel in Luc Robitaille and Jari Kurri before season’s end. Passing Kurri, an idol of his growing up, would be a big deal and also enable him to get to 1,400 career points, something Kurri just failed to do (1,398). The way Selanne, 41, Nick Lidstrom, 41, and Daniel Alfredsson, 39, are all playing this year, you’d have to think there’s a chance all three will play on beyond this season, when many believed the trio might all be in their final seasons.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT ALFIE: The all-star weekend marked the return to Ottawa of Zdeno Chara, who was a popular figure in his four seasons (2001-02 to 2005-06) with the Senators, before leaving to join the Bruins as an unrestricted. Chara has delivered more bang for Boston’s free-agent bucks than perhaps any high-profile, high-priced unrestricted free agent in history, after the Sens chose to keep Wade Redden instead of him when it became clear they couldn’t afford to pay both.
As captain, Chara shared the spotlight Thursday with Alfredsson, a former teammate, when selecting their respective teams for Sunday’s game. An while Alfredsson stuck with the script that Eric Staal followed as the hometown captain last year in Carolina, picking teammates and countrymen first, Chara got off to a great start by grabbing Pavel Datsyuk, then a teammate (Thomas) and then Evgeni Malkin with his first three picks.
Of course, Alfredsson got the de facto equivalent of Datysuk and Malkin by selecting the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel much deeper in the draft, and did what every smart fantasy manager does - which is delay for as long as possible before making his good sleeper picks. Because of Boston’s history with the Canucks and Sedins, it was highly unlikely that Chara was going to take either of them, which meant they (and Alex Edler) would come to Alfredsson anyway.
It’s remarkable how much fantasy sports drives the real thing these days. Alfredsson isn’t into it himself, but is only too aware of how fixated some people can be on picking hockey pools and the like. This year, with 38 points in 46 games, he would have been a shrewd pick for anyone who took him. Coming off an injury-filled 2010-11 season, in which he managed 31 points in 54 games and then required back surgery, there would have been some thought his numbers would tail right off.
Instead, he’s got a chance to finish with 70 points for the 10th time in 11 years and says he hears about his production all the time, “mostly, when you’re out and about in Ottawa, with the younger crowd. The older crowd doesn’t do it much, but the younger crowd does. It’s all about the fantasy - and the betting. Sometimes, it becomes a little bit skewed. It’s too much the statistics behind the way you play. But it’s something, as you get a little older, I’ve been around a long time in the league, so you know when you’re playing good or not.”
What the older crowd does like celebrate is that players such as himself and Selanne and Lidstrom are striking a blow for the Zoomer generation, in an era when youngsters are so celebrated and coveted by teams.
“It becomes a challenge,” acknowledged Alfredsson. “You break into the league, you have to prove yourself. Then you have to prove yourself again - that you are an elite player, over many years. Then when you get older, you got to prove that you can keep up with the young guys again. So it never ends. I think that’s what it is to be a pro athlete, that challenge, to always strive to be better all the time, and never be satisfied. That’s what drives me. I can tell you that’s what drives Teemu and Lidstrom as well. Don’t just go out there and go through the motions because that’s not how we function. That’s not in our DNA. It’s fun to try to keep up with the young kids - and show them once again that you still can.”
As for his health, Alfredsson says that’s the single biggest difference between last year and this year: “I’ve been struggling the last few years with my skating. Today, I felt really strong on the puck and in the battles. That’s what I enjoy. You can forecheck, you can backcheck, you can do everything. last year, obviously, I had my questions. Is this it? I can’t go on like this. If the surgery hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”
CHI TIME: Vancouver’s rivalry with Boston is second only to Vancouver’s rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks, and both can be traced back to great recent playoff series. After the all-star break, the Blackhakws embark on a massive three-week road trip that starts Tuesday in Vancouver which could make or break their attempts to win the West this year.
Chicago plays, in order, the Canucks, Edmonton, Calgary, Colorado, San Jose, Phoenix, Nashville, the Rangers and Columbus (on a Saturday afternoon) before finally returning home for a Sunday afternoon date with the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 19. In all, 20 of their final 32 games are away from the United Centre, and they go into the break without two of their top forwards, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, both out with wrist injuries, though both are expected back at some point on the Western Canada swing of the trip, good news considering how much Toews, an MVP candidate, has meant to their success this year.
AND FINALLY: After playing just 60 and 62 games the last two years, and scoring 57 points in each of them, the Senators’ Jason Spezza is healthy and having a productive season, even with that nasty looking black eye. Surprisingly, Spezza has only played in one All-Star Game in eight years, which is another reason he is looking forward to this one, one that’s being played so close to home. Thankfully, as Sens fans booed all things related to Toronto during the televised fantasy draft, they developed amnesia about Spezza’s birthplace.
“I’ll have a lot more people in town than I normally would,” said Spezza, “so it’s extra special this year with family and friends. It’s real close to home for me, so I can get everybody down - and that’ll probably never happen again, so it’s a good opportunity to include everybody; and the city’s really excited about it. It’s a great hockey town.
“Maybe having it in a Canadian city, it’ll be more appreciated than when it’s in other places that maybe don’t understand the relevance of the game. Nobody’s expecting an intense game. They’re just excited to see all the stars and to interact with them.”