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Sakic's farewell, Blackhawks gaffe, Leafs tampering and more

It's never easy saying goodbye to a career, especially one that has been as productive and lengthy as Joe Sakic's, so it comes as some surprise that the laconic one actually consented to a media conference to say his farewell. Then again, Sakic was always full of surprises.

He surprised a lot of people when he emerged from a relatively mediocre 1987 draft to outshine the 14 players selected before him and everyone else taken after. He stunned the hockey world when he managed to play all of his 20 years with the same franchise -- the Quebec Nordiques-turned-Colorado Avalanche -- and he likely even surprised himself by playing most of them at such a stunningly high level.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Sakic is walking away after being named to Canada's tryout camp for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in his native British Columbia. But when you think about it, that is something Sakic would do.

All players claim to know when it is time to walk away, but very few really recognize when their time is at hand. Sakic does. Injuries have marred the last two years and prompted some to write that he may have stayed a year too long. But nobody knows Joe Sakic like he knows himself. He tried to come back, for himself and the Avs, and his comeback was a full-effort affair, but his body sent the message and his mind has received it.

Sakic said his initial plans don't go beyond taking some time to relax and think about his future, but he did say he spoke with Avs President Pierre Lacroix about the possibility of some role with the team and received an indication that there could be something there for him in the future.

"I want to get involved in a management role at some level," Sakic said about the only franchise he has ever played for. "I'm not sure what that role would be or even when, but I'm interested and we've discussed it. I'd like to learn that side of the business."

He also spoke with Steve Yzerman regarding his being invited to Team Canada's Olympic Hockey evaluation camp in August.

"I told Steve 'thank you", but I just couldn't do it," Sakic said. "It was hard because it's really my hometown (the 2010 Games are in Vancouver and Sakic was born in nearby Burnaby) and having been in three of them it would have been nice to make the last trip and have it be there, but I told him I couldn't. I was going to retire. That was really hard."

Sakic told Yzerman that if he had an off-ice role or need for his services in any fashion other than playing, he would be happy to help out, but he was not expecting anything to come of it. And so a great career is over, and this is one player who can surely walk away with no regrets -- as long as he doesn't think too much about those upcoming Winter Games in his backyard.

Chicago Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon did the right thing in taking blame for the foul-up that put his team at risk regarding eight restricted free agents. But like most people in authority, he didn't bother to explain exactly why the Hawks were late in filing their paperwork, who was responsible for the miscue (contrary to public perception, a GM generally doesn't lick stamps, call Fed Ex, or make sure there's toner in the fax machine). And Tallon hasn't exactly addressed the cost of his actions, which appear to be noteworthy.

If you missed the little kerfuffle, not only were the Hawks' offers late going out, they went out in the mail, a direct violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which specifies that they must be sent to players and their agents by fax or courier. In not doing so, some offers showed up in the mail after the deadline date, and the NHL Players Association filed a grievance.

In his defense, Tallon reported that the contracts went out before the deadline and it wasn't the Hawks' fault if they didn't reach their intended parties on time. He also said the team had faxed copies to the league office. The NHL is said to have looked into the matter and found no fault, but the PA sees it differently.

While that might seem like a small thing, it isn't.

The players had a right to know, on or before deadline, whether they'd be receiving qualifying offers. If they don't get one, they usually become unrestricted free agents and can sign with any team at any price they can negotiate. Technically, the Hawks didn't meet CBA obligations, and the PA is arguing, rightly, that the players should be free agents. The timing issue is most important because much of the market's money is consumed in the first 24 to 48 hours of the free agency period. After a certain amount is spent, teams, because of the cap, have less at their disposal and offers tend to go below market value.

On a second level, the miscue may have cost the Hawks a great deal of money and set them up for cap problems down the road, possibly as early as next season. In an effort to bring in the players before the grievance was decided, Tallon made offers and signed them, but in several cases, and we'll use the example of Calder Trophy finalist Kris Versteeg, Tallon may have been forced to overpay.

Versteeg on Wednesday signed a deal that reportedly pays $9.2 million over three years, a number similar to what teammate Cam Barker, also an RFA, received. That's a lot more than the Hawks would have paid if they'd made a timely offer for the required 10 percent on Versteeg's previous contract of $490,000. Had another team tried to sign the promising young player who had 53 points in 78 games, the Hawks would have had the right to match, or accept draft picks as compensation. They did get Versteeg signed, and that's a good thing, but they also take a much bigger cap hit on it and Cam Barker's new deal than maybe they would have. That's not a good thing for a team that was up against the cap last season before adding Marian Hossa and his 12-year mega-deal.

Because of the Hawks' signings, the PA has withdrawn its grievance, but the issue isn't over. The mistakes coupled with the surprising and lamentable loss of highly-regarded assistant GM Rick Dudley (to Atlanta in what amounts to little more than a lateral move) have people wondering about the status of the good ship Blackhawks.

The franchise is the feel-good story of the recently completed season, but there have been several questionable moves of late (Hossa's contract could be crippling over time) and teh money spent -- some would say overspent -- on goalie Cristobal Huet and defenseman Brian Campbell last year likely will prove to be misspent. The Hawks have a problem if the erratic Huet can't step up to replace the departed Nikolai Khabibulin (now in Edmonton via free agency). There are whispers of infighting between the hockey department and the business side (whispers that team owner Rocky Wirtz has emphatically denied), but if true they suggest that perhaps not everyone is on the same page as to what needs to be done to keep the once moribund franchise going forward.

In taking the blame for the mistake, Tallon sets himself up as the fall guy when the cap issues come to a head. When young stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook come off their current (and very affordable contracts), the Hawks will have real problems. If they lose one of those players and ownership or upper management comes looking for someone to sacrifice to a questioning fan base, Tallon -- the only real holdover from when Wirtz's father Bill ran the organization with an iron fist wrapped around every nickel and dime -- will make a more than convenient scapegoat.

That could happen a lot sooner than even Tallon suspects.

Toronto GM Brian Burke acknowledged this week that the NHL is looking into a possible tampering charge regarding a comment that coach Ron Wilson made on Toronto radio station Fan 590. In an on-air interview with host Bob McCown, Wilson indicated to a Canada-wide audience that the Leafs might have an interest in the Sedin twins should they choose not to re-sign with Vancouver. He made the remark while his boss, Burke, was in Sweden, which just happens to be the Sedins' native country, while the twins were there awaiting the opening of the free-agency window.

Now, Burke has maintained that he was in Sweden only to speak to Jonas Gustavsson, a coveted goalie prospect who also happened to be undrafted and therefore free to sign with any NHL team. Burke's argument is backed up by the fact that he'd made several trips to meet with Gustavsson and the goalie did indeed sign with the Leafs just days after the Sedins re-upped with the Canucks. However, Burke's travel to Sweden is not the crux of the case. Wilson's comments are.

His exact quote was: "You're hearing right now, and this sounds very contradictory but, there's a real possibility, I would think, that we would be going after the Sedins. Let's just speculate there."

Wilson appears to be covering his comment by moving it into the realm of speculation, but NHL bylaw No. 15 (and we all have access to the once-secret NHL bylaws courtesy of them being made a part of the public record in the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case) defines tampering as: "the making or causing to be made through any medium, public or private, any statement indicating any intention or desire of or interest in acquiring the services [of a player on another club]."

There are several interesting issues here: one is that the Canucks have not filed a tampering charge, so one wonders why the NHL is so interested. Another is that last season Burke accused the Oilers of tampering with forward Corey Perry, who was an Anaheim Duck when Burke was GM. The Oilers' then-GM Kevin Lowe made a statement very much like Wilson's, saying Edmonton would "love to have [Perry]." The NHL is known to have investigated that remark, but it did not fine Lowe or censure the Oilers.

Should the Leafs be found guilty after the precedent set by the investigation into Lowe (and we should note that Lowe and Burke are fierce rivals bordering on flat-out enemies), it would come as a surprise to many and appear to be a case of selective prosecution. What Wilson did was technically -- if you read the bylaw closely -- wrong, and therefore tampering even though he tried to put it in the "speculative" arena.

The intent of the bylaw is to keep club personnel from signaling intent to a prospective free agent or player who might force a trade if it were made clear that a team he was interested in playing for was interested in him. An argument can be made that Wilson did exactly that. He sent a message, if not to the Sedins directly, and any agent worth his commission would have picked up on it. In making the investigation public, Burke appears to have violated an unwritten rule that says neither the NHL nor individuals are to reveal what are almost always internal investigations, but in this case it may have been in his best interest to do so.

On one level, Burke projects the image of an honest, forthcoming executive who wants things clearly above board. He even went so far to say that if the NHL rules that Wilson tampered, the Leafs will accept any punishment even though they might disagree. Burke also set off media who have dug into similar cases (Lowe; one against the Sabres regarding their desire to hire a goaltending coach in the employ of the Ducks before Burke was their GM; and Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton saying he was interested in trading his second overall draft pick to the Leafs for Luke Schenn and Tomas Kaberle). Reports would seem to box the NHL into a double standard should it come down hard on the Leafs.

Ah the games the boys play. They aren't all on the ice now, are they?

While on the subject of tampering, perhaps the NHL would want to look into the deal that brought Mattias Ohlund to Tampa Bay. The veteran Vancouver defenseman was one of the first players snapped up after the free-agency period opened. Ohlund signed off on an amazingly complicated deal only 15 minutes after the opening bell. The deal is so complex that it would take an ordinary man some 15 hours just to wade through its various stages and incremental salary increases over its seven-year life. A player and his agent couldn't possibly understand all the ramifications (let alone make a counter-offer or tweak an element of the deal) in the time they agreed to ink the bottom line. The length of term is surprising for a defenseman who will be 33 when training camp opens.

It's not that this kind of hurry-up deal doesn't happen a lot, but if Burke and the Leafs merit an investigation for a simple comment on the radio, it's hard not to argue that a document so complex it would befuddle former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan doesn't merit at least a look-see for any impropriety.

The Leafs made a nice pickup in getting Jonas Gustavsson to commit to a one-year deal. They were limited by the CBA regarding the amount of years (because of the goalie's age and European status, both sides were limited to one year), but there is room for future negotiations.

I'm always leery about players who bear the "best (fill in the positional blank) outside the NHL" tag. There's usually a reason a guy goes from draft age (18) to star prospect at age 24 without drawing NHL interest, but Gustavsson had creditable numbers playing in the Swedish Elite League last season and one need only take a look at how long it took Boston goalie Tim Thomas to develop and attract the attention of NHL scouts (he was over 30 and playing in Finland when he finally got a real offer) to understand that Gustavsson -- nicknamed The Monster because of his size and ability to cover so much of the cage -- was worthy of a bid.

It's not likely that Gustavsson comes in as the starter, but he could get half the games. Should he push past the diminutive and seemingly injury-prone veteran Vesa Toskala, well, Burke and Wilson always did seem to like big goalies best.

Though it was not meant with any ill feelings, former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu struck exactly the right tone at the presser to announce his free-agent signing with the Ducks when he said, "What (I was) looking for was a team that had a legitimate chance to compete for the Stanley Cup."

Did you get the message, Montreal and Minnesota?

Montreal simply didn't want their captain anymore. They felt his time as an upper echelon player was over and that investing more money in his slow downward spiral wasn't in their best interest. It's a fair, reasonable business stance given the state of the franchise these days. The Canadiens aren't a Cup contender and there are concerns that the remade version GM Bob Gainey is putting together might not even be a playoff team next season, so not attempting to sign Koivu actually did him a favor.

The slippery forward got good money for his one-year deal with the Ducks (reportedly $3 million U.S.) and he'll skate for a team that could have a shot at the Cup next season. Just as important, Koivu gets to play with a fellow Finn and friend Teemu Selanne. There should be enough chemistry and skill left in those four aging legs to make something happen on a quality second scoring line and very interesting power play for a team that just missed getting past Detroit in the Western Conference.

As for his much-rumored signing with the Wild and brother Mikko, Koivu addressed that properly as well. He said there was a risk of jeopardizing his relationship with his brother by signing with the same team, and that it was a safer, easier choice to sign elsewhere. Saku probably could have also said that the Wild weren't likely to contend or offer the same money the Ducks did, especially for the time he has left, but this guy never was one to rock the boat. He left Montreal with the class and dignity that have been as much a part of his career as his immense skating ability and crafty touch around the net.

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