Perhaps no one knows or understands Owen Nolan better than Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter. In Sutter's previous National Hockey League incarnation, five-plus years as head coach of the San Jose Sharks, Nolan was his captain, and, on many nights, his best player.
Seeing Nolan move to Toronto represents a mixed blessing for Sutter. On the one hand, Nolan is out of the Western Conference, and the Sharks, after years of slow but steady improvement, are now taking a step backwards and shifting into a rebuilding mode.
This is good for Calgary.
It also means the balance of power in the Eastern Conference has tilted again, as the Maple Leafs add a quality, and grit and meanness to their forward line, which dramatically enhances their chances of advancing to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1967.
This is good for Toronto.
"The thing about Owen . . . is he's a big-game guy," Sutter said. "He wanted to be on the ice in clutch situations. He's a very private guy. He's selective about who he likes and who he doesn't like and he doesn't pull any punches. That's why I had such a good relationship with him.
"All that stuff about problems in the dressing room? That's way out of line. If Owen's healthy, they're getting him at a good time."
A day after the fact, Nolan's move to the Maple Leafs still had the league abuzz.
"You can just tell, playing with him, he's a tough player. A real competitor," said Calgary forward Jarome Iginla, who was Nolan's teammate on Canada's 1997 gold-medal world championship squad and on the 2002 men's Olympic team.
"He's a hard guy to play against for opposing D-men. He goes to the net hard, he's got a huge shot. Once he gets going, he's the type of player who's a force, someone you'd think would be a great playoff player -- and who has had great playoffs in the past," Iginla said.
"He could be good there. They'll be pumped in Toronto."
The Sharks decided to trade Nolan after losing back-to-back games to the Flames and Edmonton Oilers during a disastrous trip through Alberta. Had San Jose managed a pair of victories and closed the gap on the eighth-place Oilers, it might have convinced general manager Dean Lombardi to keep his team intact.
Instead, the Sharks raised the white flag on this season and maybe on the seasons to come as well.
In effect, the Sharks' decision to trade Nolan could also end up costing them two of their more experienced players, centre Vincent Damphousse and right winger Teemu Selanne, who might waive their no-trade clauses and ask to move on as well -- if not by Tuesday's NHL trading deadline, then next summer when both can opt to become unrestricted free agents.
Nolan's move was, pure and simple, a salary dump by the Sharks, a move made in anticipation of a lockout in September of 2004. Generally speaking, a team such as Toronto needs ownership permission to acquire so much salary in a trade. Nolan is signed for two more years at $6.5-million (U.S.) per season, meaning the Maple Leafs will have to account for his salary in any post-2004 NHL universe which may include a salary cap.
For years, the Leafs have avoided that type of scenario, not wanting too many players signed to expensive, long-term contracts before the labour Armageddon arrives. For Nolan, who played for Toronto GM/head coach Pat Quinn in the 2002 Olympics, the Leafs figured it was worth the risk, even after factoring in the sore back and the chronic shoulder woes.
Nolan was traded to San Jose by the Colorado Avalanche before they won their first of two Stanley Cups in 1996. The next year, Sutter arrived to coach a Sharks team coming off a dismal 62-point season.
"You know what's neat for me?" Sutter asked. "I saw Owen grow up. When I got there, he was a bitter guy. He'd been there for a year and he was bitter because he was so close to winning in Colorado. Then he got on board with what we were doing, bringing in the young guys and he came a long way.
"That's why I love him so dearly. Because he stuck with it and helped me through a lot of things."
Slowly over the years, the Sharks evolved into a competitive team, until last season, when they won the Pacific Division with 99 points and almost upset Nolan's ex-team, the Avalanche, in the second round. The fact that the Sharks are starting over suggests that Nolan may, in time, come to realize that the move to Toronto was the best thing that ever happened to him.
It's just hard for him -- for anyone really -- to think in that objective, big-picture way today.
Nolan needs time to disengage from the San Jose years and luckily for Toronto, he'll get that time. Playoffs, remember, don't start until April 9, at which point he should be fully integrated into the Leafs' line-up and ready to chase the Stanley Cup ring he missed out on seven years ago.
Eric Duhatschek writes analysis and commentary for globeandmail.com; his column appears on the Web site Tuesday through Saturday.