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Monday, June 18, 2007

A Change of Seasons

I've been thoroughly hungover and left speechless and wondering over the last couple of weeks after the only prediction I'd made to myself came true with Anaheim handling Ottawa in five games to win the Stanley Cup and set the NHL right back to square one. Of course, the NHL thought they'd gotten off that square after the lockout killed an entire season and it seemed like free-wheeling hockey was going to be back in a big way.

Nuh uh - not so much.

Anaheim and Ottawa co-conspired to set the NHL back to 1995 - obstructing and trapping each other to death and not-so-coincidentally enough, the one fun and exciting game of the Finals was the game won by Ottawa. Teams like Anaheim (and New Jersey, Ottawa, Minnesota, Calgary, Dallas, Vancouver...the list will grow more next year without a doubt) have taken full advantage of the referees giving up on listening to grown men whine, complain and dive all over the ice to enhance calls or to get the referees to stop blowing the whistle all together just for the sake of the game to keep moving.

Funny, I don't recall the NHL having issues like this throughout the 1980s - all anyone seemed to complain about then was whether or not it mattered to even have a goalie out there and if anyone played any defense at all.

Fact of the 1980s: Only two Stanley Cup Champions were true defensive stalwarts in the 1980s - the Calgary Flames (1989) and the Montreal Canadiens (1986). The Canadiens, of course, are the inventors and originators of the infamous trap that Jacques Lemaire taught to the New Jersey Devils in the 1990s. Of course, it wasn't the trap that was the problem (since every team traps in some way, it's the way you get turnovers after all) it was the obstruction and the officials refusal and ignorance and the NHL giving it the wink-and-nod approval from on high.

I know I get off on this ramble quite a bit, but I suppose I do it now to beat the drum that this is the road the NHL is headed down once again if they don't do anything - and given what we've seen of Bettman and Company, we'll see them do something about it by the time the CBA runs out and they're deciding on a TV contract between having games shown on National Geographic Network and the Bloomberg Channel.

After all, this is the man who wants to accept Jim Balsillie's bid for the Predators so badly just to get his mitts on his $220 million dollars but doesn't want the PR nightmare that will accompany such a move because the Predators will be out of Nashville on the first Mayflower Moving Truck he can scrounge up. Given that the NHL in the sun belt states while removing it from traditional hockey areas is Bettman's pet project, it would be egg on his face to see a team go from the southern U.S. back to Canada.

Just keep this in mind, with the recent advances the Canadian dollar has made against the U.S. dollar, keeping a team out of Canada should one want to relocate back there and using the currency difference as a reason not to go is no longer viable.

Bad taxes and crappy facilities, however, is still a damn good reason to say, "NO!"

What has disappointed me in this Hockey Apocalypse Redux is the lack of outrage being voiced by writers and those who follow the NHL the closest. Apparently having close games that are for the most part boring as hell to watch is favored over games that are even slightly high scoring or close to being officiated correctly (which NHL officials were good for about one good period in each game played). There were a handful of columns that came out in American media about how Anaheim winning wasn't the end of the world and then listed off a pack of mythical reasons as to why it's a good thing - none of which actually focused in on the quality of play but rather decided to play up the "success in a non-traditional market is a good thing" angle.


As the attendance figures from this year showed, only one of the sun belt teams that have won the Stanley Cup recently have maintained the kind of figures the NHL should want: Tampa Bay. Carolina and Anaheim both checked in at less than capacity for the year, which is even more embarassing for Carolina since they've won it and been in the Finals another time just in the last five years. Their success doesn't give the fans a reason to stay away. Of course, these issues in many team's cases hinges upon the ticket prices themselves with many fans getting gouged by their own teams horribly, most notably Toronto. Of course, the Leafs still sell out, so they're just getting spiked for their rabid loyalty. Sheesh.

The antithesis of that is the Chicago Blackhawks who at last report some ten years ago had rabid loyal fans, but owner Bill Wirtz has gone out of his way to make sure that Chicago fans hate the home team as much as possible. He doesn't televise home games because he fears that fans will stay home rather than go to United Center to watch the team that he's assembled with all the care of Ebenezer Scrooge without a scout.

These problems aren't anything new, unfortunately, yet they all go unchecked and as long as Bettman continues to somehow magically make money for the owners, he'll have a job for life meanwhile the game suffers under his every idiotic whim to keep the outsider "fans" pleased and the soccer moms, who only pay attention to hockey when someone gets hit in a dirty way, happy. What can you say, the man know's who his constituents are!

All that said, it's time to think about the future this Friday night with the Amateur Draft - and unlike the last few years where there was stud, knock-it-out-of-the-park talent at the top of the draft or Mike Milbury working the phones to do something incredibly stupid, this draft will likely be more about teams trading players and picks and everything in between. Some of the best deals we've seen recently in the NHL have happened at the draft and we've already seen one rather questionable one go down with Nashville and Philadelphia.

You might remember them for their near-deadline deal of Peter Forsberg - this time the Predators sent a couple of guys they likely weren't going to afford in forward Scott Hartnell and captain defenseman Kimmo Timonen to the Flyers for the first round pick that they'd originally given to Philadelphia in the Forsberg deal. You got that? Essentially the Predators traded Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell for Peter Forsberg.

Under normal circumstances you'd say, "Wow, how dumb is Nashville?" Not so fast.

Timonen and Hartnell were both unrestricted free agents, but the Flyers having a heap of cap space and an upper management pining for the good ole days of no salary cap you get the Flyers giving Hartnell, a career third-liner, $4+ million dollars a year for six years and Timmonen gets $6+ million a year for six years as well. I like Kimmo Timonen a lot, but for that much money? Screw that. This now sets the bar for Sheldon Souray's unrestricted services into the stratosphere. Souray has been a monster defenseman for Montreal the last few seasons after escaping the clutches of New Jersey and being allowed to show he has talent and now he's looking to get paid. And you better believe he's going to now - as he'll probably come in somewhere close to what guys like Niedermayer, Pronger and Lidstrom make per season.

Hartnell's salary scale of over $4 million a year also sets a nice high-low bar for guys like Chris Drury and Daneil Briere who are both unrestricted and will likely get paid big time for what they've done in Buffalo. Whether it's by the Sabres remains to be seen as they're up against the cap pretty hard and would likely only be able to keep one of those guys all while hoping no one gets daring and signs Thomas Vanek to an offer sheet (he being a restricted free agent and all).

It's at least good to see some owners showing fiscal responsibility. I wonder if anyone will actually face punishment for going over the cap - like New Jersey last year should've but got around it by making a highly questionable deal with San Jose. My answer is, of course, no - nothing will happen because why would Bettman step in and upset one of his bosses?


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