Sunday, July 31, 2005

Volchenkov-Sens war could be a sign of bad things to come

The Anton Volchenkov saga, which frankly came out of the blue and caught most Sens followers quite off guard, looks like it will get a whole lot nastier before reaching whatever resolution it does.

First though, a couple corrections from the initial post on Friday morning. Volchenkov signed with Lada Togliatti, not Kazan, of the Russian Elite League, and the contract is worth a little less than originally believed - $1.2 million for the season instead of $1.5. The Sens did make a qualifying offer, the terms of which were unknown, but the minimum offer they were able to issue was for $798,000.

Both sides of this drama have been slinging considerable mud in the media. Sens GM John Muckler did not seem too happy about the situation in yesterday’s Ottawa Citizen.

“We view this team very much as a family. We want our players to stay with us for a long time, and if they make a committment to us, then we’ll make a committment to them. But first they have to show a committment to us.”


Meanwhile, on the other side of the table, both Volchenkov and his agent, J.P. Barry have been giving their side of the story. Volchenkov told RussianProspects.com it all comes down to money, which, at least, is refreshing in it's honesty.

“Yes, the NHL lockout is over, but I still haven't gotten a respectable offer from Ottawa. Everyone's salaries were cut over there, and my three year contract has just ended. Who is going to raise my salary based on the current circumstances over there?”


Fortunately for the team, they have decent depth at defence, and a few of the young prospects who already appeared ready to at least challenge for an NHL job might be able to step in and fill the void Volchenkov playing in Russia would leave. Muckler said Andrej Meszaros, the team's first round pick in 2004, will get such a shot in training camp. Like Volchenkov, he's a physical player who's shown sparks of offensive upside. He's considered somewhat of a project, as most 19-year-olds are, but the talent is clearly there, and barring major injuries to the Sens top four defencemen, he wouldn't be asked to carry too heavy a load.

The other defenceman to watch will be German Christoph Schubert, who the Sens issued a qualifying offer to on Friday. Though considered behind Meszaros on the team's prospects depth chart, he's improved his game considerably since being drafted and many within the organization see him as someone who's capable of big things in the NHL. The league has a long, storied history of great German defencemen, from Uwe Krupp to..., well, Schubert can make history.

And of course, the decision to not buyout Greg de Vries this past week, something I was very much in favor of and told anyone within ear distance they had had had to do so, looks especially wise with this development. I'd love to give Muckler and company credit, but based on his aforementioned comment, I doubt Muckler saw this coming and thus the two probably don't have anything to do with each other. I'll still tell you that at $2.2 million, de Vries is highly overpaid, but now that the Sens are in a bind, it doesn't look like such a bad deal.

For Ottawa fans, European players holding out for more money is hardly a new story, and by now, it almost feels old hat. That's not to say people aren't upset at the idea of losing one of their better young defenceman. But we've been down this road with Alexei Yashin more times than I care to remember, Martin Havlat the last NHL season, and, even Bryan Berard tried to hold the team up (though he insisted his motivations were not monetary). And let's be honest, Volchenkov's role on this team, though not minute, is significantly smaller than Yashin's was then and Havlat's is now, and yet the team went on with business as usual both times. I have to think they will do so this time around as well.

The bigger issue, beyond Volchenkov and the Sens, is the reality that many European players will forgo the alleged glitz and glamour of playing in the NHL to lace their skates in their native countries. In some ways, the idea isn't a new one. We've heard players make such threats before. Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit comes to mind. Up until now, little credence was given to these player claims and more often than not, the individual in question would end up back in the NHL, maybe playing for a different team, thus showing it was all a ploy to get shipped out of town.

However, now that it appears to be happening for real, how teams adjust will be interesting to observe. Because not only can players stay closer to home, they also have the opportunity to make even more money while playing a less physically strenuous style of play, thus adding years to one's career.

The argument for why players will not go down this road and instead continue to keep coming to the NHL has always been that it's the premier league in the world and hockey players, being the competitive individuals they are, want to test their skills against the best.

It sounds absolutely lovely and romantic in theory, and I'm sure in some cases (Alexander Ovechkin?), it's true. But I have a sneaking suspicion some NHL GMs will be in for a harsh wake up call if they continue to underestimate the lure that is European hockey to a lot of these young men.

With unrestricted agency about to become available to players at an earlier age than ever, many GMs lamented woefully about the prospects of losing their talented young players before they ever even enter their prime. But if Volchenkov's course of action does become a trend duplicated by others, then unrestricted free agency is the least of a club's worries. Because not only will these players leave their teams, they'll be leaving the league all together, robbing the NHL of some of its most talented players.

And perhaps it will even extend beyond Europeans who want to stay at home and begin to include North American stars. We saw several European clubs make pitches to obtain the services of Sidney Crosby for this coming season, with some reports saying that the offers got as high as $5 million per year.

Crosby turned it down, largely because his endorsement deal with Reebok would be virtually useless to all involved if he was playing overseas, and said deal can help make up for the fact he likely won’t make more than a million bucks U.S. this season. But few young players coming into the game, or even established veterans for that matter, get those kind of sponsorship arrangements. Having taken big paycuts already, will they be so eager to turn down a European team’s contract that will pay them considerably more? I know we’d all love to think money isn’t everything. Love of the game, dream of winning the Cup, yada yada yada. It warms our hearts to no end. But we also know that pro athletes, like the rest of us, largely base every decision they make on the bottom line.

Even if Anton Volchenkov does in fact return to the Senators, which some close to the club seem to think is the eventual final result of this mess, don’t think this was the last of this kind of story. No longer are teams competing against each other when trying to win over a free agent. And those with restricted free agents on their team now have to worry about more than whether or not the arbitrator woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. There’s a whole bunch of new players in this game, and few operate within any kind of Gary Bettman approved salary cap structure.

Oh, but that new CBA, what a great deal for the owners and their teams.

6 Comments:

At 12:03 PM, Blogger v said...

Great post and great blog! I'm a big A-Train fan and I hope this gets worked out, but it should be noted that Volchenkov may have been the third best defenceman in Binghampton this year; more was expected of him. Pothier made second AHL All-Star and Schubert, who is signed with Adler Mannheim for next year, both may have outplayed him.

Having said that, as you probably know the Sens and Muckler have a history of driving a tough bargain with young Russian defensemen (see: Rachunek, Karel) so there is reason for concern as a Sens fan. Rachunek was a big, talented young D-Man and I think the holdout situation hurt him and the Sens considerably. He didn't play with the same enthusiasm after the holdout, most notably in the playoffs.

I'd like to see A-Train signed, Pothier traded for a bigger right shooting defenseman or waived outright, and have Mezaros (I think he's ready) play as the sixth defenseman, with a big non-pilon to be named later and Schubert and the 7th and 8th Dmen.

Since we are on the subject, here is how I think the roster is shaping up. Muckler has recently stated Havlat and Fisher will get a look at LW, but he knows who he will be going after in the UFA market and I don't. Assuming no UFAs and Kaigodorov and Eaves make the team, this is where the Sens stand right now:

Havlat - Spezza - Alfredsson
Fisher- Smolinski - Hossa
Schaefer - Kaigodorov - Eaves
Varada - Vermette - Neil
13th forward: Chris Kelly
Callups: Langfeld, Bochenski.

Chara - Phillips
Redden - Volchenkov
Devries - Mezaros
7th dman - Pothier
Callup: Schubert.

Hasek
Prusek
Callup: Emery

A pretty good lineup even if Ottawa doesn't make a move; as a cost-concious team they may go the tried and true route of carrying a relatively cheap roster through the season then make a move for an expensive player who fits their needs at the March trade deadline. Like most Sens fans I'd like to see Muckler sign a Roberts or a Holik but I'm not banking on it. Still, I think Langfeld will be gone when the season starts and Muckler will sign a veteran forward.

And I think he will sign a Todd Simpson-type (hopefully better) d-man to give Ottawa a truly 8 deep defense. Assuming he does, I think Ottawa's defence can be described as elite.

I think Hasek is good to go and Prusek is a quality backup. He's healthy physically, and as Ed Belfour has shown not beyond the age where a goaltender can play at an elite level. I'm aware Hasek has played little and fared poorly in recent play but we are talking about a player who I view as the third most dominant player (after 99 and 66) since Bobby Orr. I'm not sold on Emery and his 49th in the AHL save percentage, nor his lousy record in shootouts and think he and Pothier would make excellent trade material.

Most importantly, this lineup is well under the cap and gives a lot of flexibility to pick up an impact player for the playoff run and evaluate the goaltending situation.

Overall, I think the lineup looks like a top 5 club but unless Muckler signs a Roberts or a Holik I can't say they've improved the team enough to advance deep into the playoffs let alone win the cup. Some people (like...er...me) giggled when Dave Andreychuck signed a "retirement" contract with the Lightning and look how that turned out. Ottawa is a legitimate cup contender and that has to be a draw to UFAs, but Ottawa winters are cold, and in the new CBA world where the playing field is substantially levelled I think players will look to factors like climate and this may hurt the Senators in unforseen ways. So it's tough to say how this will go. Let the UFA period begin...

"Finnish left-winger Janne Kolehmainen 115th"

One poster at HFBoards suggests Kolehmainen is afflicted with the same tragic flaw as Stan Neckar and Stephen Harper: a solid prospect with great potential whose career has been hampered by an inability to turn left ;-)

 
At 10:21 PM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

Great post and great blog!

Thank you.

I'm a big A-Train fan and I hope this gets worked out, but it should be noted that Volchenkov may have been the third best defenceman in Binghampton this year; more was expected of him. Pothier made second AHL All-Star and Schubert, who is signed with Adler Mannheim for next year, both may have outplayed him.

I wonder how much of that was due to him not wanting to be there. He had signed a contract with a European team last July, anticipating the lockout, but was forced to go to Bingo by the Sens. I didn't see more than a handful of Bingo games, but his numbers seem impressive.

As well, it should be noted that Pothier has much more experience in the A, and knows the league and its ins and outs better, perhaps giving him a leg up on Volchenkov.

Having said that, as you probably know the Sens and Muckler have a history of driving a tough bargain with young Russian defensemen (see: Rachunek, Karel) so there is reason for concern as a Sens fan. Rachunek was a big, talented young D-Man and I think the holdout situation hurt him and the Sens considerably. He didn't play with the same enthusiasm after the holdout, most notably in the playoffs.

I agree.

I'd like to see A-Train signed, Pothier traded for a bigger right shooting defenseman or waived outright, and have Mezaros (I think he's ready) play as the sixth defenseman, with a big non-pilon to be named later and Schubert and the 7th and 8th Dmen.

Didn't you just say Pothier had a great year in the AHL? He doesn't make much cash, so I'm perfectly fine with him sticking around as the 6th defenceman. Mezsaros, I'd like to see come up, but I'm also fearful they might rush it. Another year in Vancouver, or even in Binghamton wouldn't be the worst idea.

Since we are on the subject, here is how I think the roster is shaping up. Muckler has recently stated Havlat and Fisher will get a look at LW

Right. I'm not too hot on the idea of playing both out of position. Havlat I understand, because they've pretty much said they want to go with Havlat-Spezza-Alfie as the first line. But Fisher's a strong center, decent on faceoffs (still a weakness on the team overall though). I'd rather put Smolinski on the wing if I had to.

, but he knows who he will be going after in the UFA market and I don't.

I think he's certainly going to try. Whether it's Roberts, or Darren McCarty, or Martin Lapointe, or (please God no) Bobby Holik, I suspect we'll see someone of at least some significance signed this week.

Assuming no UFAs and Kaigodorov and Eaves make the team, this is where the Sens stand right now:

Havlat - Spezza - Alfredsson
Fisher- Smolinski - Hossa
Schaefer - Kaigodorov - Eaves
Varada - Vermette - Neil


The idea of two rookies in the starting line-up like that makes me kind of scard.

I'd go:
Havlat - Spezza - Alfredsson
whoever they sign - Fisher - Hossa
Varada - Smolinski - Bochenski
Schaefer - Vermette - Neil

I'd put Eaves in the A for a year. Bochenski, though maybe not as talented, seems more NHL ready.

Callups: Langfeld, Bochenski.

Did Langfeld get qualified today? If not, I doubt he's coming back.


Hasek
Prusek
Callup: Emery


I doubt Prusek is coming back, and I hope he doesn't. I don't think my heart can take both goalies on the team playing the same style.

Like most Sens fans I'd like to see Muckler sign a Roberts or a Holik but I'm not banking on it.

Bobby Holik? Eee, my head hurts.

Still, I think Langfeld will be gone when the season starts and Muckler will sign a veteran forward.

I think he's as good as gone now.

And I think he will sign a Todd Simpson-type (hopefully better) d-man to give Ottawa a truly 8 deep defense.

Todd Simpson was quite the awful trade.

Assuming he does, I think Ottawa's defence can be described as elite.

If Volchenkov comes back, which you seem to be more confident of than I am, I think they can be described as elite already. We haven't seen how the other teams rosters shape up, what with the UFA market not yet open, but I'd think their top four d-men are as good as anyone else's in the league, and better than most.

I think Hasek is good to go and Prusek is a quality backup.

As I said, the idea of two goalies of the same crazy style on the team is enough to bring the collapse of my heart.

He's healthy physically, and as Ed Belfour has shown not beyond the age where a goaltender can play at an elite level. I'm aware Hasek has played little and fared poorly in recent play but we are talking about a player who I view as the third most dominant player (after 99 and 66) since Bobby Orr.

I don't disagree with your point, but...

I'm still not 100% sold on Hasek being the guy. But at $1.5 mil, I'm willing to try, because the better options (Khabibulin) would cost much more, thus meaning we'd have to trim elsewhere. I hope, after the debacle last season in Detroit, Hasek has something to prove, because when on a mission, I don't think there's a better goalie in the world.

I'm not sold on Emery and his 49th in the AHL save percentage, nor his lousy record in shootouts and think he and Pothier would make excellent trade material.

Besides Pothier, it's not the worst idea in the world. Emery's certainly had his ups and downs, but they still seem quite high on him. But they have Jeff Glass, who's torn it up in junior, in the organization, as well as Kelly Guard.

One poster at HFBoards suggests Kolehmainen is afflicted with the same tragic flaw as Stan Neckar and Stephen Harper: a solid prospect with great potential whose career has been hampered by an inability to turn left ;-)

Oh dear.

 
At 8:06 AM, Blogger v said...

"I wonder how much of that was due to him not wanting to be there."

Quite a bit I think.

"Didn't you just say Pothier had a great year in the AHL? "

Yes, and hopefully that adds to his trade value. I am haunted by our last playoff loss to the Leafs: Sens are killing a 5 on 3 powerplay, faceoff in their own end. Martin puts our smallest defenceman out there who is summariliy rolled over by a large Leaf, goal Toronto. Heck, Pothier is skilled and plays smart, like a mini-Redden, but is too small for my liking. He has good trade value; so I'd like to see him gone.

One darkhorse UFA candidate I'd like to see to fill the 6th d-man spot if the market is whacked and he comes cheap - I can dream, can't I? - Scott Stevens. What a leader he would be for this team. He's 41; could we get him for ~$2 million and sign a grunt up front?

"I'd go:
Havlat - Spezza - Alfredsson
whoever they sign - Fisher - Hossa
Varada - Smolinski - Bochenski
Schaefer - Vermette - Neil"

Hey, I don't see Kaigodorov there. I think he'll make the team; do you think there will be contract problems? I think they will get Eaves in there before Bochenski but it will be fun to watch.

Only 4 more hours till UFA period begins...

 
At 9:11 AM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

I don't think Scott Stevens is coming to Ottawa. I wouldn't be opposed to it though.

What about Jason York? There was a story in the Citizen a few weeks back that said he would consider coming back to the team for much less than his market value, but I haven't seen his name mentioned anywhere since. Plus, with Todd White gone, we have to fill the token local boy spot on the club.

As for Kaigodorov, I just don't think he's going to unset any of the other centers and I doubt they'd play him out of position his first year in the league. Does he have any North American experience? I don't recall him being on the Baby Sens last year, but it's still pretty early in the morning so my brain may not be functioning at 100% yet.

 
At 11:14 AM, Blogger v said...

"What about Jason York?"

In his second last year in Ottawa I thought he was Ottawa's best all around defenceman. Big, good Ottawa lad, doesn't make bad decisions. As long as his play is still top 6 worthy then sure, I think he'd be a good choice.

Muckler has stated he wants to bring Kaigodorov over to NA. I don't think he will sign a two way contract since he tore up the Russian League last year. Sure, he's not proven in NA but I think he might be more ready than Mezaros, Eaves, or Bochenski to step in this year and play at NHL level. Maybe not the kind of player Ottawa needs right now, I'd argue but few players' stock has risen as much as Kaigodorov's over the last year and he could be a real surprise this season.

 
At 11:40 AM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

I'd still be more comfortable with a year of seasoning and getting used to the North American game with the Baby Sens for Kaigodorov. Look what a year in Vancouver did for Meszaros' game.

Of course, neither Alfredsson nor Havlat did so, coming right to the big club after Europe, but the Sens didn't have the kind of depth then they do now, and it was more out of necessity with those players.

 

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