Wednesday, November 16, 2005

This is My NHL?

If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, and especially the Senators game wrap-ups, you’d know I’m pretty enthusiastic about the “new NHL”. Though there certainly are some issues that make the game far from perfect, among them the inconsistent officiating as well as the fact defencemen have been rendered impotent around the net, as a whole, I like it. Maybe I’ve just tried to be a glass half full kinda guy for once, but I look at it like this: are the games better? Am I enjoying hockey more? The answer to both, on most nights, is yes. So I can’t be mad.

But last night, a part of this new NHL that I don’t like reared its ugly head. Sergei Fedorov was, essentially, sold to the Columbus Blue Jackets. A guy who I consider to be a first ballot Hall Of Famer, and one of the best hockey players of the last 15 years changed teams for what amounts to a firesale.

Every pundit and analyst has covered it the same way: this is the new NHL we live in. With the economic landscape having changed this past summer, it now looks like gone are the days of trades based on actual hockey matters and not simply contracts.

At least for both parties.

Oh, from Columbus’ end, it was a hockey trade. They’re one of the worst teams in the league, and with their franchise player out for an extended period of time, again, they needed a boost of some kind. For GM Doug MacLean, it was a no-brainer. Those who criticize the trade need to understand one thing, I think: he is on his last lifeline. This will be the Jackets’ fifth year in the NHL, and they have yet to make the playoffs. In spite of this, Columbus as a market has supported this team extraordinarily well considering the on-ice product hasn’t been all that good. How much of that is because they’re the only game in town as far as the major four pro sports, who knows, but it won’t sustain itself. Eventually, they’ll want a winner.

That’s when MacLean will run out of rope. While other teams like Nashville and Minnesota took to building their clubs the old fashioned way, through smart trades, other teams table scraps, and young players, the Jackets were aggressive in the market, signing and/or trading for many “name” players. Among them, Luke Richardson, Todd Marchant, Scott Lachance, Geoff Sandersonand Andrew Cassels. All with contracts that a lot of league people looked at with just a tad of skepticism.

MacLean took the approach of constructing his club largely around these high-priced veterans. It hasn’t worked. Nashville, in their sixth year, went to the playoffs and took the President’s Trophy champs to a tough sixth game. Minnesota got their in the third year of existence, going all the way to the final four, knocking off two heavy Western Conference favorites in Colorado and Vancouver in the process.

It’s do or die for Doug MacLean.

On Anaheim’s side, unloading a player like Fedorov hurts. I’ve seen some say he’s washed up, or past his prime, but I still think he would’ve been a big part of whatever success they would’ve had this season. But when you’re as close to the cap as they were, moves like this have to be made. They basically moved Steve Rucchin, long the heart and soul of the team, to the Rangers for nothing.

But what message this deal sends, beyond the reality that Doug MacLean is a desperate man, is that the days of hockey trades are not coming back with any regularity anytime soon. That’s what makes the Dany Heatley-Marian Hossa trade this past summer all the more special.

Of course there were financial ramifications involved in that deal, as the Sens couldn’t afford to keep Hossa at that price and maintain the rest of the core. But at least it was a swap of elite players and not a selling of the farm.

Kevin Allen penned a piece in yesterday’s USA Today about the deal, noting that it’s worked out well for both teams. Even though they’re at opposite ends of the standings, I’d probably be inclined to agree with that so far.

Heatley has been a phenom here in Ottawa, but a lot of his success has been how well he’s gelled with the surroundings, specifically Jason Spezza. Hossa hasn’t had as much to work with down south. Even with Ilya Kovalchuk playing with him, it’s hard to win on a consistent basis when both of your goaltenders are out with injuries. As good as Ottawa is up front, I’d hate to even ponder what would happen if both Dominik Hasek AND Ray Emery went down and they had to call up someone like Billy Thompson or Kelly Guard to carry the load for a while.

If you talk to Thrashers fans, they’ll tell you Hossa has been their best, most steady forward from jump this year. Even though part of me still smarts from how he left, it’s nice to see someone like Marian Hossa, who was such an integral part of this organization’s rise to prominence after years of occupying the basement, I’m glad he’s doing well.

It’s a shame fans of the rest of the teams in the NHL likely won’t be lucky enough to experience the excitement that Sens and Thrashers followers did on that faithful August afternoon. Such emotions now sit in a box somewhere in NY with the redline and puckhandling goaltenders.


At 6:00 AM, Anonymous David Johnson said...

Yup, in the "New NHL" having $4.5 million in salary cap space is just about as good as having a Sergei Fedorov on your team. Every deal has to be pondered with money being an equal part of the equation. This is why I always preferred the idea of a luxury tax and I never bought into the argument from the owners that a luxury tax couldn't work.

The Heatley-Hossa part of the deal was talent for talent but the Greg DeVries part was a pure salary dump. If Atlanta didn't take him in that deal, he probably would have been dumped on another team.

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason salary is such an important issue here is because the current salaries were founded on the old system - one of no limits. Once these contracts are over, players will be resigned to significantly less lucrative deals and sanity will finally prevail on NHL payrolls. At that time you will again see talent-for-talent trades.

At 9:40 AM, Anonymous David Johnson said...

The same sanity that saw Khabibulin get $6.75 million per year, Derien Hatcher a four year deal and Mike Rathje? And do you really think Kovalev will be worth the $4.5 million Montreal is going to be paying him at age 36? He's barely a 30 goal scorer now who plays little defense and plays the disappearing act at times. Habs fans better hope he doesn't suffer too many knee injuries because if he loses a bit of quickness he won't have much left.


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