Sunday, July 31, 2005

New U.S. TV deal in place says Globe

This morning's Boston Globe is reporting that the talked about deal with Comcast to be their new national cable partner has been agreed to and will be announced sometime soon, once the Sidney Crosby story gets all the press it will. They even go onto say that Comcast may bid for a piece of the NFL cable package, which, as you can imagine, won't make the fine folks at ESPN too happy.

And here I was hoping that the rumored (or perhaps, wished for) NHL deal with HBO was going to happen, allowing us to hear the wonderful profanity laced tirades that make sitting close to the glass and especially behind the bench such a joy. Shucks.

I'll let someone who knows more about the American TV industry tell you whether or not this is a good move.

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.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The draft's done and White's gone

You'd think with NHL history being made a few miles from my home, I'd be there to soak it in in person, right?

Unfortunately, with the Westin Hotel's perimeter being surrounded by armed guards, scaring off anyone who wanted to witness the Sidney Crosby coronation in person, as well as the NHL sanctioned attack dogs roaming the city, I was unable to attend the draft in person. Such a shame.

But alas, like most I have to assume, I did watch it's sloppy and often downright amateurish TSN broadcast. I realize this thing was put together on short notice, but my God were there a lot of technical errors. From wrong camera shots (which of course led to the always fun uncomfortable smiling) to bad mics to the analysts, who I normally enjoy immensely, stepping all over each other to offer commentary, this thing was about the polar opposite of the draft lottery a few weeks ago, which not only went off without a hitch, but was produced wonderfully and made for compelling TV.

While it was certainly cool to watch Crosby finally get selected, it was also, perhaps, the most anti-climatic moment in hockey in some time. Part of me was hoping Craig Patrick and the Pens did move him in some blockbuster trade just for the shock value. We would've heard what 200 NHL executives gasping sounds like, that's for sure.

Fortunately, the rest of the draft was not so predictable, with Bobby Ryan, who looks quite massive in person, going #2 to Anaheim, meaning Brian Burke was unable to work his draft day magic for his new team and make some kind of big trade, as had been rumored. You have to wonder how much of the "Burke will trade #2" talk was rooted in any kind of reality, as I wouldn't put it past the Ducks' new GM, a master media manipulator, to have created the whole story himself just to get he and his team's name out there. What kind of player Ryan becomes remains to be seen, but he seems to have all the physical tools and, apparently, has tremendous character. Hopefully he'll have a good career and won't be the answer to some trivia question 20 years from now.

The Sens picked 9th, and selected defenceman Brian Lee. To say I was underwhelmed would be putting it mildly. He wasn't even on my radar as someone they might pick, which is maybe why I should leave that kind of stuff to the people at Hockeys Future, who know more about this kind of stuff anyway.

All the info on Lee says he's a solid two-way d-man. He won the Associated Press's high school player of the year award as well as the Mr. Hockey award for best high school player in Minnesota. He was ranked the #15 North American skater in the Central Scouting Bureau but the Sens saw him in a much more positive light. He says he likes to emulate Brian Leetch, but Sens GM John Muckler says he's comparable in play to Wade Redden.

Speaking of whom, Muckle openly admitted part of the reason for the pick was the fact that the team might be in a position where they need some young defencemen soon, with their top three blueliners, Redden, Zdeno Chara, and Chris Phillips all eligable for unrestricted free agency status in a few years. It's doubtful the team will be able to keep all three, and maybe none at all if they decide the grass is greener elsewhere, so loading up incase that happens makes sense.

Like a lot of the players in this year's draft, Lee is going to a U.S. college to play next year, specifically the University of North Dakota, so he won't step in right away. I will say I hope he takes a charisma class in school because when interviewed, this kid had the personality of a piece of lumber.

The team's other picks were big defencemanVitaly Anikeyenko - who's 6'4" stature is a positive - 70th, center Cody Bass 95th, defenceman Ilya Zubov (any relation?) 98th, Finnish left-winger Janne Kolehmainen 115th, Czech defenceman Tomas Kudelka 136th, Russian defenceman (yes, another one) Dimitri Megalinsky 186th, and Canadian forward Colin Greening 204th.

The full draft results can be found here

The Senators also officially parted ways with local boy Todd White, sending him to Minnesota for a fourth round pick. Considering they weren't going to qualify him tomorrow, the fact they got anything is, I suppose, a positive. As I wrote earlier in the week, White's been an important part of the Sens for a few seasons, and off the ice and in the community, he's also been one of the more active players, and thus losing him is unfortunate.

Another trade saw the Maple Leafs acquire Jeff O'Neill from the Hurricanes, who like White here in Ottawa, was not going to get a qualifying offer from his team, and thus, Carolina got something for him instead of losing O'Neill and getting zero compensation. What's interesting about the O'Neill deal though is his contract, as it's yet another example of this wacky new NHL we live in. He agreed to a two-year, $3 million deal, giving him an annual salary of almost half of what he would've had to have been qualified at. While his numbers have slipped as of late, that could end up being a steal. Getting a 29-year-old former 40 goal scorer at such a price indicates just how much the financial landscape has changed, and I suspect when the flood gates open on Monday at midnight, we'll see more players like O'Neill willingly take less money to play where they want.

As far as trades involving current NHLers, those two were the most significant, which is sorta disappointing considering all the talk that had been swirling about this all-star defenceman going here, and that one going there. Surely all those rumors couldn't have been bullshit, right? Right?

The Sens did reveal they had extended qualifying offers to Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, Ray Emery, Chris Kelly, Chris Neil, Christoph Schubert, Brian McGratton, and Antoine Vermette. The same can't be said for a few others, including Martin Prusek, who many thought would be dealt today, and John Langfeld. Whether or not they do so before tomorrow's deadline remains unclear, but I'd have to guess the answer is no.

Senators draft preview

With the draft looming, the Ottawa Senators, selecting 9th, seem to have an opportunity to select an impact player. So on that note, we'll examine what they will be doing tomorrow.

DRAFT HISTORY

Long-considered to be one of the best NHL franchises in drafting amateurs, the story of the Ottawa Senators at the draft is a positive one.

The history of their first round selections is interesting in itself. The first ever draft selection of the Senators, Alexei Yashin in 1992, went onto be the team's franchise player and while he and his agent Mark Gandler certainly brought considerable drama to the Nation's capital, there can be no disputing the fact that he contributed many things to the team's growth. As well, they were able to trade Yashin to the NY Islanders in 2001 for two key parts of their current core in Zdeno Chara and Jason Spezza. Those same things, however, can't be said for Alexandre Daigle, their 1993 first overall selection. Touted as the next superstar, the team gave Daigle a rich contract (over $2 million per year, a contract that many see as the cause for the rookie max in the next CBA) but he never materialized, never quite developing into the scorer everyone had hoped. 1994's first pick, Radek Bonk, was much hyped, having ripped up the IHL before being drafted. That offensive touch was never displayed with any consistency with the Senators, though his two-way game was a major asset to the team. Unfortunately, his legendary playoff meltdowns and big contract caused his stay to be much shorter than he'd hoped, having been traded to the Montreal Canadiens last summer.

The Sens once again had the first overall pick in 1995 with defenceman Bryan Berard, but he never once played a game in an Ottawa uniform. A contract dispute erupted, with Berard going as far as to say he would never play for Ottawa, and then-new GM Pierre Gauthier, having enough contract drama with Yashin, shipped him to the Islanders for another defenceman, Wade Redden, who was the 2nd pick after Berard. In retrospect, it looks like a steal. Berard has bounced from team to team, and though he's solid, he hasn't been the backstop anywhere he's been that Redden's has here in Ottawa since coming over. The first overall pick came to Ottawa for a second straight year (boy, those early Ottawa teams stunk) in 1996, and they dipped into the defencemen market again, picking Chris Phillips. Some were disappointed with his lack of offensive production early on, but Phillips has emerged as one of Ottawa's most consistent blueliners, and in the past few seasons has seen his offensive touch come alive. 1997's pick, Marian Hossa, looks like a theft at 12th overall, as the Sens picked what has become one of their best players, and someone who's goal scoring ability is among the best in the NHL.

Every team has a black eye on their draft record, and for the Ottawa Senators, it's goaltender Mathieu Chouinard, their first pick in 1998. As the Sens became competitive, they began to draft later and later, and thus, the pickings, as far as impact players, were slim. Still, the fact that Chouinard never played one game in Ottawa, and only one for his whole NHL career (with the Kings) is telling. I believe he's still in the game as a minor league back-up.

Fortunately, things picked up the next couple years, with three straight strong draft years as far as the first round goes. 1999's Martin Havlat, 2000's Anton Volchenkov, and 2001's Spezza (2nd overall) all look like tremendous choices, as every one are significant NHLers with their best years looking ahead of them. The past couple years have seen the Sens take a different approach though. They parlayed their first picks in the 2001 and 2002 draft into veterans via trades, acquiring Vaclav Varada from the Buffalo Sabres for 2002's first round pick Jakub Klepis and Bryan Smolinski from the Los Angeles Kings for 2001's first round pick Tim Gleason. The jury's still out on the picks of the next two years, Patrick Eaves (a highly touted U.S. college scorer) in 2003 and Andrej Meszaros in 2004, but most hockey pundits believe both will be good NHLers (hopefully Senators), as their widely considered the number #1 and #2 prospects within the organization.

But beyond their (mostly) positive first round history, an important part of the Sens at the draft is their uncanny and perhaps unmatched ability to pick Europeans in the later rounds. Among them, Pavel Demitra (10th round/227th overall in 1993), Daniel Alfredsson (5th round/133rd in 1994), Sami Salo (10th round/239th in 1996), Andreas Dackell (6th round/136th in 1996), Magnus Arvedson (4th round/119th in 1997), Karel Rachunek (9th round/22th in 1997), and Martin Prusek (6th round/164th in 1999).

Senators first round selections:
1992: Alexei Yashin (2nd overall)
1993: Alexandre Daigle (1st)
1994: Radek Bonk (3rd)
1995: Bryan Berard (1st)
1996: Chris Phillips (1st)
1997: Marian Hossa (12th)
1998: Mathieu Chouinard (15th)
1999: Martin Havlat (26th)
2000: Anton Volchenkov (21st)
2001: Jason Spezza (2nd)
2001: Tim Gleason (23rd)
2002: Jakub Klepis (16th)
2003: Patrick Eaves (29th)
2004: Andrej Meszaros (23rd)

WHAT ARE THEIR NEEDS?

The truth is that because of their aforementioned accumen in drafting, the Senators do not have any glaring, desperate needs. But make no mistake, like any team, they could always use more blue chippers, not only for their own future use, but also perhaps as trade bait.

Starting from the net out, despite it often being the Achilles’ heel at the NHL level, the Senators are very well situated between the pipes. 23-year-old Ray Emery has long been touted as the team's "franchise goalie", and as recently as a few years ago, he was considered the best goaltender not in the NHL. He’s had some rough spots in the AHL with Binghampton though. Still, he's expected to back-up Dominik Hasek this coming season, and barring an unforeseen move, will be the successor whenever Hasek retires. But even beyond Emery, the team is strong in net. Jeff Glass(19), who played goal for Team Canada in the 2005 World Jr. Championships, also gives them good depth at the position. He's coming off a tremendous season with the Kootenay of the WHL where he finished with a GAA of 1.76, winning him the CHL's Goaltender of the Year award. Past Glass, the Sens also have Kelly Guard (22) and Billy Thompson (22).

At the NHL level, depth at defence is considered to be one of the Sens greatest strengths. But they also have many, seemingly almost NHL ready, d-men on the horizon. Their first round selection last year, Andrej Meszaros had a fantastic '04-'05 season with the WHL's Vancouver Giants, and is expected to be with the big club within a couple years. In addition to Meszaros, Christoph Schubert (23) has also developed into a strong blueliner and most figure he too will be an Ottawa Senator sooner rather than later. Russian Kirill Lyamin (19) was their second round pick in 2004 and Jan Platil (22), who who played in Bingo this past season, So though I'm sure they would pick a defencemen if a great one was available, it's doubtful it's high up on their "want list".

It's at forward where the needs lie. Their lack of a power forward with offensive upside within their system is obvious. None of their top young forward prospects, from Brandon Bochenski to Patrick Eaves to Igor Mirnov to Alexei Kaigorodov, though all gifted offensively, fill that void. Although their record of drafting offensively capable forwards speaks for itself, the Sens have never been able to develop a true "power forward" of their own, with perhaps the closest being Mike Fisher, but even he has not shown the offensive touch that a legitimate power forward has.

As well, a scoring left winger has been a pressing need of this organization for a while. On the right side, they have Hossa, Havlat, and Alfredsson, giving them three 30-goal scorers on one wing, and little to work with on the other. Bochenski's been waiting in the wings (no pun intended) for some time, and will likely be next in line to get a shot with the club, however adding some other options should be a goal of Sens brass tomorrow afternoon.

WHO'S AVAILABLE?

Though drafts rarely unfold the way the experts expect, with one team always throwing a wrench in the mock drafters (well thought out I'm sure) plans, it's worth noting who will likely be available by the time John Muckler and the rest of the Sens brass takes the stage to announce their pick. In all likelihood, one of these young men will be Senators property come Saturday night.

Anze Kopitar. The Slovenian center is the highest rankest European skater, and at 6'3" and 202 pounds, seem to have the physical tools to fill the void of a power forward. His skating is said to be his major weakness, and he's considered to be a project, but most see him as one of the best raw talents available in the draft.
Jack Skille. If he's even available at 9th, many see Skille as another player who can fill the Sens need for a power forward. Standing in at 6'1" and weighing 200 pounds, he's not afraid to mix it up physically, and has strong offensive skills. He was a member of the under-18 world championship team that won gold for Team USA this past spring. The fact he's a RW, a position the Sens are strong in, might contribute to them not selecting him though. In addition, he's headed to the University Of Wisconsin next year.
Marc Staal. Brother of Carolina Hurricanes bluechipper Eric, he's rated 9th among North American skaters, but those who follow young players say such a ranking is probably understating his abilities. He's thought of as a strong skater with offensive upside, and most feel as though he'll be NHL ready in a few years. Even though the Sens are not weak at defence, I'd assume they'd pick him anyway if he was available simply because they might not get a shot at such a good prospect in a while, but it's doubtful he'll be there, as the talk is that Carolina will pick him so that he can play with his brother.
Martin Hanzel. The Sens have a rich history with Czech and Slovakian players (Hossa, Havlat, Chara, Prusek, Rachunek), so one might assume he'd fit right in. At 6'4", he's physically impressive, but weighing in at less than 200 pounds, it's also pretty obvious he has some filling out to do. That said, he's shown in the past a willingness to play the physical game (breaking the stereotype) and is considered defensively strong, another uncharacteristic trait of Czechs.
Ryan O'Marra. 14th in the final rankings, this center is considered an excellent leader with great character and a good scoring touch (averaged a point a game with Eerie in the OHL this past season), but like many in the draft, his speed and agility is said to be an issue.
Guillaume Latendresse. Another big bodied player who's shown he can score, Latendresse, like Skille, also plays RW, and thus, might not fill the needs the Sens seem to have. And like a lot of other large players in this year's draft, his skating speed is said to be an issue. Still, when you have a 6'2", 217 pounder who put up 78 points in the QMJHL, teams like the Sens might be willing to overlook his flaws due to the big upside.
Marek Zagrapan. From Slovakia, this big center is different from many Europeans in that he played in Canada this past year for Chicoutimi of the Q (32 goals, 50 assists in 59 games, leading all rookies), so he won't have to make the adjustment to the North American game. He's only ranked 23rd among North American skaters, but many think a team like the Sens might bite on his potential.
Luc Bourdon. A strong puckmoving defenceman with strong skating skills and a big point shot, he seems to have all the tools teams are looking for. But the questions about his defensive skills might scare some away.
Niklas Bergfors. Sweden's best prospect in the draft, he's considered quite the complete player, with great speed, good hands, and a solid hockey mind.
Ryan Parent. Ranked 8th, he might still be around when the Sens come up to pick. Though his offensive skills are said to be limited, he's extremely reliable on the back end and may be the quickest skater in the entire draft, having won the 60-foot dash and full-lap competition at the Top Prospects game in the spring.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Predators owner: Blame Canada

Nashville Predators owner Craig Leopold was interviewed by the Nashville City Paper, and had some less than complimentary words for Canadians who aren't fond of the fact that Nashville has an NHL team.

"Canadian reporters were always talking about it. All of the bad raps against us are contributed to somebody in a Canadian market. Let’s face it. Canada is still upset that Nashville has a hockey team. That’s just the way it is, and we have to live with that. Logic, common sense says I would not be on the executive committee, the audit committee or the negotiating committee if anybody was thinking that Nashville would be contracted. It was never discussed. It was a non-possibility. It was frustrating because I know where ground zero of where those rumors always started. If the sun shines, you can’t have hockey. I’m a little bitter about that. I’m tired of hearing about it. Dallas is accepted as an NHL franchise. They are successful on the ice with a good program. That is what we are trying to do here. San Jose is not discussed. Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup. I think there will be stability in that market. Once we have some winning seasons and the fans stay with us like they did the first couple of years this market is going to be one of the best in the National Hockey League."

Now, he probably does have a legitimate gripe in that wouldn't be unfair to say much of the Canadian hockey media (and in truth, most Canadian hockey fans) throw darts at the "southern NHL teams" for being the supposed weak links of the NHL. I imagine for someone like Leopold, who's trying to grow the game in a market that hasn't exactly embraced the team universally, such comments are very frustrating.

But...

The NHL has too many teams. Period. The league grew too much too fast, with Commissioner Bettman chasing that elusive "Nascar market" that would bring the NHL their big TV deal that would make all the owners rich. And it's hurt the quality of the game.

It's no coincedence that almost all of the recent expansion teams play a defensive (read, boring) style of play. And why shouldn't they? They have to compete somehow. Unfortunately, in markets like Nashville and Atlanta (who probably should be playing a run and gun style with their talent), where fans understanding of hockey is not what it is in the stronger cities, this becomes all the hockey they know. They think hockey is just that boring, most of whom having never seen the league when 5-4 games were not a rarity.

The 100 or so player jobs created by the introduction of the Wild, Blue Jackets (Columbus has, quietly, become one of the best U.S. hockey markets, by the by), Predators, and Thrashers are mostly filled by players who wouldn't be seen as NHL calibre otherwise. They're not exclusive to those clubs, and their effect, even as fourth liners getting six minutes of ice time per game, should not be understated.

So contraction seems to be a pretty logical step to improve the game. It doesn't appear that such a measure is on the horizon, as Bettman, for better or worse, is stubbornly standing by his "30 team NHL" vision. Probably because eliminating teams would be admitting he was wrong in putting them there in the first place. And as we've seen, conceding defeat in any form is not exactly Gary Bettman's strength.

But if we are going to contract teams, where do you snatch them from? One would think the cities with the least amount of fan support. And it just so happens that, with the exception of Pittsburgh, who have been a mess unique to themselves, those teams lie in sunny, warm climate markets. Phoenix, Florida, Atlanta, Anaheim, Carolina, Nashville. All beautiful cities I'm sure. But hockey markets? I'm not convinced of it. Does that mean I'm part of some big Canadian conspiracy to eliminate hockey from those who come to games in shorts and sunglasses, as Leopold seems to suggest?

There is certainly a lingering bitterness in Canada over the loss of two Canadian teams in the last 10 years, and that might be why some endorse contraction with such a smile. But is the overall point that eliminating some clubs would improve the state of the NHL moot because some people in Winnipeg have alterior motives when suggesting it? I sure don't think so.

In the case of Nashville, you have a team that has seen their attendance go down ever year since coming in the league. They finished with the third lowest attendance average for the last NHL season with 13,157, behind only Pittsburgh and Carolina. This despite having their best season, which included a playoff birth. I'm sure I'll get hate mail from people in Nashville who say that there are a lot of hockey fans there and I'm being unfair to the market. Unfortunately, the numbers tell a different story.

With this new, united NHL still wet behind the ears, I'm willing to give the 30 team NHL a try. Maybe, with the promise of a renewed initiative to eliminate obstruction (I know, I know, but let's all hold our laughter and give them the benefit of the doubt) and the CBA seemingly leveling the playing field, the Nashvilles and Phoenixs of the league will finally get behind their teams fully, not just when they're winning, and show us angry, bitter Canadians that we're wrong about you not deserving franchises.

I hope that's what happens, because hockey is a great game, seeing it live in person is the best way to view it, and everyone should have the ability to do so, whether it's 90 degrees outside or there's a blizzard. But I'm not exactly holding my breath.

Volchenkov to stay in Russia?


A story that may become quite significant to the Ottawa Senators broke late last night. 23-year-old bruising defencemen Anton Volchenkov has signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal Kazan of the Russian Super League, and could very well not suit up with the Sens this coming season.

According to a story in today's Ottawa Sun, it's not known whether Volchenkov, a restricted free agent, will actually fulfill the deal, but the fact he's even taking such measures is not a good sign. Under the terms of the NHL's new agreement with the IIHF, he has until August 15th to walk away from the contract. His salary during the previous NHL season was a little more than $1 million, and the Sens will need to issue a qualifying offer of at least $798,000 to retain his rights. He might be going this route to put pressure on the team to offer him a better contract, however stories of European players chosing to stay in their native countries instead of coming back to this new NHL have been prevelant since the CBA was signed last week.

The two-year veteran has emerged as a major piece of the team's puzzle. His physical play has earned him the nickname the "A-Train", and this past year, playing for the Sens' AHL affiliate in Binghampton, put up offensive numbers (45 points in 69 games) that show the potential for the same at the NHL level. Though the Senators are considered to be quite deep at defence, losing Volchenkov would be a major blow.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

City's heating up with the draft less than 48 hours away

With only two days until the Sidney Crosby Show hits the stage at the Westin Hotel here in downtown Ottawa, all sorts of NHL types, from prospects to agents to GMs, have begun flocking the city, and the rumor mill is swirling hard. I could've sworn I saw Brian Burke yelling at someone this afternoon, but maybe I'm just imagining things.

I am, however, actually debating doing something quite stupid and heading out to the area on Saturday to scope out the action from behind the yellow police tape. If anyone from the NHL is reading this and wants to fire off a press pass, that'd be alright too. Still, what are the chances I'd overhear two GMs negotiating some kind of deal when outside having a smoke?

I do intend to go to the prospects clinic tomorrow in Kanata though. The event has been well advertised locally so I imagine there will be a good crowd on hand to watch the top five rated North American prospects (Crosby, Jack Johnson, Benoit Pouliot, Gilbert Brule, and Bobby Ryan) work out. Any chance to see the supposed Next One is on my radar, and I probably need to become more acquainted with the rest of them.

Speaking of which, I'll try to put together some kind of Sens draft preview (assuming you're all not sick of those yet) for tomorrow. As well, we should know by then who the Senators are issuing qualifying offers to, thus giving us a better idea of what the team will look like come training camp time. It should be especially interesting to see how they go about dealing with Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat, both of whom will be UFAs in two years.

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As a follow-up to my post from this morning regarding the NHL's "new" drug program, the Sports Illustrated published a story featuring quotes from the heads of the now infamous congressional committee that nearly brought Sammy Sosa to tears on the matter. The pair criticize the NHL for it's "loopholes" and "inadequate testing".
" ... we have serious concerns about the effectiveness of this new policy. It appears to contain numerous loopholes that might allow players to circumvent the testing regime. ... Your efforts to develop your own policy appear to be inadequate and to provide additional evidence of the need for our legislation."

Correction: Hasek deal sweeter than first thought

Bruce Garrioch corrected the initial report of Dominik Hasek's option with the Sens that was picked up yesterday was worth $2.28 million. In fact, Hasek's 2005-06 salary will be for $1.52 million. The $2.28 million was what he would've made last year had the lockout not whiped out the season. However, don't shed too many tears for Hasek over his low pay. He has the chance of making much more, as he can get a $3.5 million bonus if the Sens win the Stanley Cup. And because the deal was signed before the new CBA, the bonus will not count against the $39 million salary cap.

NHL's new drug program beyond insufficient

I didn't get a chance to talk about it yesterday, with the H.N.I.C. news, the schedule being released, the '08 draft news, and the White/Holik story from Bruce Garrioch in the Sun, but Al Strachan wrote a scathing piece on the NHL's new drug program in yesterday's Toronto Sun that's worth checking out.

With this recent kick the U.S. government seems to be on about drugs in sports, the NHL has often been the wipping boy by pundits who claim their previous program was the thinnest of all the big four leagues (does NASCAR have piss tests?). So naturally, implementing a new one was an initiative of Commissioner Bettman and the NHL when ironing out this new CBA with the NHLPA.

And on the surface, what they unveiled sounded like a move in the right direction. But as Strachan points out, it's hardly as it seems and what we have is, basically, the same program dressed up.

One of the parts of the new program Bettman and company proudly ushered out was the supposed "lifetime ban" for a player's third offense. In theory, it sounds fairly strict. Well, that "lifetime ban" would probably be better described as being for two years, as the player can apply for reinstatement. As Strachan points out, would anyone caught twice allow themselves to be caught a third time?

Oh, and one other kink: the NHL and the PA have to agree on what substances are a part of this new program. The one drug they've agreed will not be included is perhaps the one that is most in need of addressing.

If you've ever talked to a hockey player on any level (but especially on the major junior, where the difficult travel can be quite grueling), you know that the "traditional" performance enhancing drugs (namely, steroids) are not considered to be a significant problem. But what's quietly been hockey's dirty little secret is that over-the-counter cold medicines, such as Sudafed (which is on the I.O.C.'s banned substances list), is far more rampant as far as usage (one might argue abuse) goes, providing a player with a jolt of energy that they often feel they need come game time.

Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated penned a pretty revealing look at the problem back in 1998.
Anecdotal accounts of Sudafed abuse in the league abound. A former coach says one of his players built up such a tolerance to the medication that he had to gobble 20 pills to get the desired boost.


The rationale behind not including "Sudeys" is, maybe, understandable initially. After all, it's not an illegal drug. Cold medicine is often used not for the buzz it provides, but rather, to combat a head ache a player is fighting. Meaning, it's intended use. Where do you draw the line between using them for legitimate reasons rather than to enhance your play, right?

Well, yes and no. I'm not any kind of experienced drug program implementer, nor do I play one on TV, but even I can think of some solutions superior to this nonsense.

Surely a program could be put in place to measure the usage. Speak with officials who specialize on cold medicines to know what the "normal usage" looks like, and then punish those who go above and beyond said level. Players, of course, should be made aware of the threshhold. If they're fighting a cold so often that they have to go above it, consult the team's physician or perhaps more appropriately an independent doctor located in every NHL city and make the league aware of your situation. If they have a cold every month, well, there's a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Something, anything, is better than nothing at all. The game's been turning a blind eye to the issue for too long now, probably because taking a few cold medicine pills with a glass of water before the game doesn't have the same stigma that shooting up steroids in a weightroom does. But make no mistake, they're both drugs that if abused will enhance your play, and if you're going to have a drug program, what sense in there in one that's half assed and doesn't address the real problems?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Some H.N.I.C. news

In a move that comes far later than it should've, the CBC announced that they will be removing the seven second delay for Don Cherry's Coach's Corner segment on Hockey Night In Canada as part of his new contract with the network.

Now, I'm not a big Grapes fan, and these days I find myself disagreeing with him more often than I do co-signing his (what I consider to be) ridiculous rants, but the idea that you'd put a broadcaster with his tenure on such a leash is absurd.

His schtick is hardly a secret, and you know exactly what you're going to get when you watch (and in CBC's case, broadcast) Coach's Corner. Either let him do his thing or don't have him at all. A muzzled Don Cherry serves no purpose, as it's not his seering insight on the game that most people watch his segment for.

Like anyone who's act is to push the limits, occassionally he'll go over the line he routinely tipetoes along. In the past, it's included what some consider offensive comments against Europeans and French Canadians as well as Cherry giving his opinion that Canada was wrong for not sending troops to Iraq, and getting into a pretty heated debate with Ron MacLean over the issue on the show.

Should Cherry be on a government network saying such things and being paid so handsomely? I don't know, but that's not even the point. If you want Don Cherry on your network, you have to take the often absurdness that comes with it or let him go elsewhere. Because, best believe, if CBC had cut him loose, there would be a bidding war between the TSNs and Rogers Sportsnets of the world for his brand of hockey commentary.

As well, Jim Hughson, the long-time play-by-play man of the Vancouver Canucks, has joined the broadcast team as their western game/second tier PBP man, a spot vacated when CBC terminated Chris Cuthbert earlier in the year (a travestry in it's own right, but that's an issue for another time.)

Hughson's extremely well regarded within the industry so it's nice to see. He was the voice of TSN's national broadcasts in the late 80's/early 90's if I'm not mistaken, went over to Rogers Sportsnet (then CTV Sportsnet) when they bought the national TV deal, and stayed with them broadcasting Canucks games regionally when TSN got the deal back a few years later. The contract will allow Hughson to stay on as Sportsnet's Canucks man in addition to the new gig.

There had been talk that Dean Brown, the Sens own PBP man, was in line for the job, as he's done CBC games in the past, often working with Marc Lee.

I'd also expect that Hughson will take over the coveted prime time spot currenly held by Bob Cole whenever he decides to retire, though we've been on that watch for years now with no such announcement in sight. We can only hope Harry Neale goes with Bob into the sunset when it does happen though.

Ottawa gets 2008 Draft

The NHL also announced today that Ottawa will host the 2008 Entry Draft.

Of course, Ottawa was scheduled to be the site of this year's draft, but with it being scaled back and not open to the public (though stories of people hoping to sneak into the Westin Hotel are already lingering throughout town), the league said they wanted to make it up to the city by giving them a full draft.

2005-06 Schedule released

As expected, the NHL released the schedule for the 2005-06 season this afternoon. Some important dates for the Senators:
- 10/5 at Toronto <----- of course, the season opener, against their rivals no less
- 10/8 vs. Buffalo <----- home opener, against Hasek's old club
- 10/10 vs. Toronto <----- Leafs first appearance at the Corel Centre
- 10/30 vs. Philadelphia <----- Flyers first appearance at the Corel Centre (we shall see if the bad blood still lingers)
- 11/3 vs. Tampa Bay <----- the Stanley Cup champs come to town
- 11/5 vs. NY Islanders <----- Alexei Yashin comes back. Always fun
- 11/29 vs. Montreal <----- Habs first appearance at the Corel Centre
- 01/10 vs. Phoenix <----- a (perhaps) Wayne Gretzky led club comes to Ottawa
- 02/02 at Pittsburgh <----- first regular-season match-up with Sidney Crosby and Mario
- 02/06 vs. Pittsburgh <----- their first regular-season visit to Ottawa
- 03/21 vs. Pittsburgh <----- they come back. Should be a hot ticket

Sens will close the season April 18th in New York at MSG against the Rangers. If I'm not mistaken, their last game in 2003-04 was on April 3rd, so an additional two weeks has been added to the season because of the Olympic break.

With the new schedule set-up and a greater emphasis placed on inter-divisional play (which for the Sens means facing the Leafs and Habs eight times), we will unfortunately see less of the Western Conference clubs. In fact, the Sens don't play a Western Conference team until December when the Kings come to town on the 2nd. Under the new-set up, every year, a team only plays teams from one division of the other conference. For the Sens, it's the Pacific, which means the grueling West Coast road trips are still on tap (something I'm sure most Eastern teams are glad to be seeing less of).

In addition to the regular season line-up, the pre-season sked was put out, and the Sens seem to have gotten lucky. They will face Crosby and the (expected) new look Pens three times in the pre-season, with one of them being at the Corel Centre, which should be one of the first looks we get at Sid The Kid. The other two games will be at the two teams' respective AHL clubs' venues in Binghampton and Wilkes Barre.

Single game tickets for the season will go on sale across the league September 8th, but of course one purchase season tickets right now if they wish. Pre-season tix go on sale August 18th.

Sens officially option Hasek for 2005-06 season

As they said they would earlier in the week, the Ottawa Senators officially exercised their option (worth $2.28 million) on goaltender Dominik Hasek this morning.

We should know within the next couple days where back-up Martin Prusek sits in their plans, if he does at all. There have been rumors Montreal was interested in acquiring him, because their back-up will be out with an injury until at least January, and if so, there would likely be some kind of qualify-and-trade scenario worked out.

White's future remains in doubt; Sens looking for grit in the middle

Bruce Garrioach has a story in today's Ottawa Sun regarding Todd White's future, or perhaps lack there of, with the Sens. White is an restricted free agent, and the Senators have until the end of the week to qualify him at $1 million.

As discussed in the piece, on the surface, it appears as though White, an Ottawa area native and one of the only players who lives in the city in the off season, is the odd man out when it comes to the team's centers. With Jason Spezza expected to take over the number one #1 spot often held by White over the last two years (due to his chemistry with captain Daniel Alfredsson), Mike Fisher taking on a bigger role, Antoine Vermette expecting to be with the club full-time, and Bryan Smolinski not being bought out, White doesn't seem to fit into any plans. Of course, any of those players could move to the wing, but the team's been playing forwards out of position for a while and it's had some not-so-wonderful results.

At $1 million, he doesn't seem like an albatross, but when you factor in where he'd likely be playing (third or forth line), a player of his size doesn't appear to be cut out for that kind of role. The questions about whether or not he could handle the grind of the NHL were raised last season when he was often on the sidelines injured. Not to mention the fact that his offensive output, despite playing with Alfredsson much of the time, was down last season, as he finished with 29 points in 56 games, giving him a PPG average of 0.55, down from 0.75 the season previous.

If White does move on, the team will be losing a consistently hard worker and someone who, within the community, has been very highly regarded.

In addition, Garrioch speculates that the Sens may be looking at a "gritty center - possibly Bobby Holik". Anyone who's seen a Rangers game the last two seasons knows that there are a lot of descriptives available for Holik's play, and grittyness, at least as I understand the word to mean within hockey, is not one of them. Dirty? Yes. Lazy? Absolutely. Uninterested? Seems that way. But gritty? Hardly. Don't let his size fool you folks. Bobby Holik is not a physical presence, and if I were to draw up a list of guys I'd want to go into corners, stand in front of nets, and pay the physical price, Bobby Holik would probably rank somewhere between Jaromir Jagr and Mike Ribiero. Meaning, not very highly.

When playing a checking-center type role for the Devils, Holik was extremely effective. However, one has to question whether or not Holik, who's view of himself as a player is apparently that of a superstar, would be willing to do the things such a role requires, not the least of which is dimished ice time.

This is, of course, assuming the Rangers buy out Holik, who's $9 million/year contract is one of the examples why a salary cap was necessary, as owners need to be saved from themselves (and before anyone says, "oh, it's just the Rangers", let's not forget what team Holik positioned them against when negotiating to drive up his price; I'll give you a hint. They start with a Toronto). But as we've seen over the last few days, the expected buyouts we were sure were coming have either not happened, as we've seen here in Ottawa, or are taking much longer than anticipated.

Taking a quick glance at the UFAs, there appear to be more reasonable options available to the Sens as far as "gritty centers" go, none of which would cost as much as Holik nor bring the baggage he would. Tim Taylor, Mike Eastwood, and Travis Green (I know, I know), on the surface, seem to fit the bill quite nicely.

But in truth, I'm not so sure a "gritty center" is needed. If one were to look down the line-up, they'd see that the supposed lack of grit that's unfortunately become this team's trademark is as much existant along the wings as it is down the middle, especially if Chris Neil is not brought back, which, at this point, remains unknown. Peter Schaefer can play that game well, as he is probably the best Sen when it comes to playing along the wall and fighting for pucks, but he's not an extremely big guy. Marian Hossa's shed the "Maid Marian" name over the past couple years with his willingness to play a physical game, but do you really want a guy who you depend on for 40+ goals to be your "gritty winger"? And undersized as he is, Alfredsson isn't afraid to mix it up either, but like Hossa, he's too important to the team in other areas to play that role completely.

Which, I assume, is where all the Gary Roberts talk comes in. It's been all quiet on that front for the past couple days, with Roberts' agent Rich Winter only saying that it's his client's preference to remain a Maple Leaf. And all reports out of the ACC say that Leafs brass would like the same. However, if they are not able to buy out Owen Nolan at 2/3 the contract, which is beginning to look like more and more the reality, then they won't have much room under the cap to operate. When you consider they probably want to beef up their defence with at least one FA signing, as well as their supposed involvement in the Peter Forsberg sweepstakes, there doesn't appear to be much $ left over. Sens fans hope that's when John Muckler makes his pitch.

The Modano rumors won't cease, even though they probably should


Despite the fact that earlier this week he publicly said the Phoenix Coyotes would be his first choice should he not return to the Dallas Stars, the rumor mill continues to buzz that Mike Modano is on his way to the Nation's capital this season to suit up for the Senators.

Eklund over at Eklund's Hockey Rumors has said that he's heard from numerous sources that they expect said scenario to happen, and "insiders" on various message boards and weblogs around the web say the same.

Realistically though, looking at the numbers, one would think the deal would be difficult to execute. The Sens have less than $16 million of cap space to work with, and with significant RFAs to sign, it's doubtful they'd have enough left over to sign a player with Modano's believed asking price.

But the better question maybe be, would this move be a smart one for the Senators?

There was a time when a case could be made that Mike Modano was, all around, the best hockey player in the world. His overall game certainly put him among the NHL's elite and like all great players, he often displayed the ability to break open a game.

However, it's wouldn't be wrong to say that the last couple years have not been kind to the former first overall draft pick of the Minnesota North Stars. His last NHL season was not strong, with Modano putting up the lowest point total of his career (excluding the lockout shortened season of 1995), as he finished with 44 points, down more than 30 points from the previous season. His lackluster play was often the talk of the league, and his -21 +/- number told the story of the season. Stars insiders speculated that much of the reason for the sharp decline was Modano's new found status as team captain, a position he inherited when Derian Hatcher bolted to the rival Red Wings in the offseason. It was argued that Modano, who's demeanor is laid back, had difficulty dealing with the pressures that come with being an NHL captain (and the captain of a team expected to contend no less), and that he wasn't cut out for the role.

Modano's troubles didn't end when the Stars got bounced from the NHL playoffs though. He was mediocre for Team USA in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and didn't play especially well in the IIHF World Championships this past spring either.

So the issue then is whether or not Modano's best days are behind him. At 35, he's certainly not getting any younger, and all the signs say that he's on the decline as a top player.

Much of the reason for the Modano-to-Ottawa talk revolves around the perceived need the team has for a #1 center (though it looks like they're going to let Jason Spezza sink or swim in that spot), and it's a legitimate question. But is Modano the answer?

Some have argued that a change of scenary would be beneficial to Modano, allowing him to reignite the competitive juices that seemed to have run out in Dallas. There may be something to that train of thought. It's happened with other players in the past. But in this new NHL, where every dollar counts, such a risk wouldn't be wise, especially for a team like the Senators who already have such little wiggle room to operate due to the players they already have contracted.

So here's hoping this rumor is put to bed once and for all.

In a related bit, it looks as if Stevie-Y won't be coming home after all. Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland announced earlier in the week that he intends to have discussions with the team's longtime captain Steve Yzerman about returning to Detroit for one more season. Previously, there had been talk that had Yzerman not returned to the only team who's jersey he's worn, he would perhaps end up playing for his hometown team the Sens (Yzerman grew up in the Ottawa area and still has family here).

Though he too seems to be on his last legs as a player, the positives Yzerman would bring to the team (three Stanley Cups, 15 years as an NHL captain, over 20 years of experience) far outweigh the negatives. Factor in the local connection (something we may be without this season with Todd White's day looking numbered) and it's a no-brainer deal.

Alas, it will have to remain the pipedream of Sens fans everywhere.

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