Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The frenzy (sorta kinda not really) starts and questions arise

The free agent sweepstakes got underway yesterday, and boy was it exciting, with the first move being the biggest. I think we’ll all remember where we were when Brad Isbister was traded to the Boston Bruins. Truly a historic moment.

Of course, the two big signings were
Adam Foote to Columbus and Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts to Florida. All three were on the Leafs radar, so you know there will be some sad folks in Toronto this morning. I’m sure it’s all part of some big conspiracy to bring down the Mighty Mighty Maple Leafs.

While I’m sure they’ll hate to hear this, especially from a Sens fan, I think Leafs fans might be in for a harsh dose of reality with this free agency season.

For years, we’ve heard about how so many players want to take less money to come play in Toronto. There were some examples of this idea holding some weight, including Nieuwendyk two summers ago. But to the degree that everyone suspects? I don’t think so.

The truth is, it takes a certain type of player to be a Maple Leaf. Much like playing for the Yankees, Red Sox, Cowboys, and even the Canadiens, the pressure involved with playing in Toronto can be extremely difficult to overcome. While perhaps some relish the idea of playing hockey in a market where everyone cares, it can also be overwhelming to others. The scrutiny one undergoes is beyond intense, and rarely stops at the play on the ice, often including their personal lives as well.

Not everyone is cut out for this. It’s much easier for many to go to a place like Miami or Los Angeles where 3/4 of the population doesn’t give a shit about hockey, and the 25% (if that) that do don’t care enough to yell at you when you’re out in a restaurant with your family because they believe you played poorly the night before.

Whether or not this applies to Roberts and Nieuwendyk’s decision to go south remains a mystery, but both witnessed what it’s like to play in the biggest hockey market in the world and decided not to come back to it. The fact that Florida offered more money didn’t hurt I’m sure. That also raises the issue of whether or not this idea that players would take less money to either win or play where they want was a pipe dream created by fans like us who want to believe in our hearts that pro athletes aren’t only about the cash.

Adam Foote going to Columbus also questions this theory. Though the Blue Jackets have plenty of tools, including Rick Nash, who will likely be one of the top scorers this coming season, and Nikolai Zherdev, one of the more talented young players in the league, they’re also far from being out of the woods. They have plenty of glaring holes that need fixing immediately, and taking up $4.5 million of cap room on Foote doesn’t give them the wiggle room under the cap to fill them all. By the time Nash and Zherdev and Gilbert Brule develop into the players everyone thinks they will, allowing Columbus to contend, Foote and his wealth of big game experience won't be around to be utilized.

I rated Foote as my #2 free agent on the market, and I still believe that, but in order for a team to get the most out of what he brings to the table, they have to at the very least be a playoff contender and ideally have some pieces already in place that have shown the ability to do so. This qualifies nearly 3/4 of the league. Unfortunately for Adam Foote, Columbus is one of the few that this doesn't apply to.
I’ve always thought Foote was one of the best defencemen in the NHL, and now we’ll see if that’s true once he’s away from the uber-talented Avs.

With Foote having already won two Cups in Colorado, maybe his top priority was financial. The fact he'll be playing on a team that has been among the league's worst over the last couple years, apparently, doesn't bother him.

The only certainity in this free agent season will be that players, when interviewed about their new teams, will say money wasn't the deciding factor. Gary Roberts went to Florida because they're on the verge of winning another Cup for him. Adam Foote signed with the Blue Jackets because he's been impressed with their winning track record and on-ice progress since coming into the league.

Riiiiight.

Let the spinning begin.

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