There was a time, more times than you care to remember I'm sure, when your mother told you, "It pays to be good." If we've learned anything from the first day of NHL free agency 2009, it's that it pays to be good and be unencumbered by a contract on the first day of July, even in a very tough economy.
GMs are still handing out fat contracts the way AIG executives dispense plump bonus checks. Take a look at this list and the money attached:
Marian Hossa's 12-year deal with Chicago valued at $63 million; Jay Bouwmeester's five-year deal with Calgary said to be worth $6.6 million per season; Mattias Ohlund's a seven-year, $24.5 million deal from Tampa Bay; Mike Cammalleri getting five years and $30 million from Montreal, who also handed Brian Gionta five years and $30 million; Nikolai Khabibulin receiving four years from Edmonton at $15 million; Marian Gaborik's five years and $37.5 million from the never-learn New York Rangers; Martin Havlat's six years and $30 million from Minnesota to make up for the loss of Gaborik.
The always-adorable Sedin twins (their mom couldn't love one more than the other and neither can management in Vancouver) jumped to $6.1 million per season apiece over five seasons as the Canucks outbid a host of suitors for an inseparable pair of good but not necessarily great forwards.
Detroit re-signed standout center Henrik Zetterberg to one of those massive front-loaded deals that could pay him $72 million over 12 years (pretty much the model Chicago used in luring Hossa from the Stanley Cup finalists) while teammate Johan Franzen received $43 million over 11 years, a nice little bump from the mere $1.1 million he got for the season just ended.
Khabibulin's $3.75 million per season is akin to something of a "value" purchase when you considered that the Boston Bruins will spend $5 million per for four seasons just to keep Tim Thomas, a player any team could have plucked off the roster of a Euro club for the price of a transfer fee just three seasons ago.
Tough times, maybe, but you can't compare NHL life to an auto worker's, especially if you're talking salaries in Detroit. So, haven't owners and GMs learned anything, especially that there's a porven fall-off in production and play from players who score big money in the free-agent derby?
In a word: No.
The lure of easy money is certainly attractive to the players, and it seems to be something that owners sign off on as easily as a ticket price hike, but there's a downside, and it seems to be at the expense of the second-, third- and even fourth-line players, the ones who can help a team win, but don't share in the glory or wealth of their more expensive brothers.
Take for instance the case of Dominic Moore. The young center, arguably a journeyman in the finest sense of the word, was having a decent season for also-ran Toronto when he started looking for a new deal in the $2 million-per range. The Maple Leafs, who thought his success came largely from playing on the No.1 line despite his not having No.1 centerman skills, declined and shipped him to Buffalo, another playoff also-ran, for a draft choice at the trade deadline.
Moore hasn't had much luck getting a deal from the Sabres even though they gave up a second-round pick to get him. He's also not having much luck on the free-agent market, at least not after the first day-and-a-half. An unrestricted free agent who made $900,000 last year, Moore is, at the moment at least, out of a job.
It's a similar situation for Manny Malhotra, who had a decent season for Columbus, a franchise that just made the playoffs for the first time in its history. Malhotra, looking to move from $1.5 to $2 million per, has received little more than the proverbial cold shoulder from the Blue Jackets, who on Wednesday signed free-agent forward Sami Pahlsson, a career checking center, away from division rival Chicago for $2.65 million per season over three years, a salary that's likely to make the Malhotra camp wince.
If there's a constant, it's that good players command great salaries even in the toughest times. Nothing wrong with that, but in a salary-capped system, it's not just simply a case of adding more money to the payroll. There's a squeeze on, and players like Malhotra, Moore and a slew of others are beginning to feel it. Their options are to take less than they think they are worth (in many cases they are not worth what they think), jump to a shrinking number of teams in Europe, or perhaps play in the AHL which, thanks to the NHL cap, is paying less for real talent than at any time in the last two decades.
Another complicating factor is the escrow clause. Players, many of whom didn't even bother to attend the NHL Players Association meetings in Las Vegas even though a great many were there on the PA's dime, found that the current CBA clawed a significant amount of money out of their paychecks last season in order to meet the contracted requirement that if overall spending goes over the cap, the excess will be taken out of player salaries.
It's a great deal for owners and it certainly allows GMs to make mega-offers with only a modest regard for the consequences, but players found out this season that the NHL may be getting back revenues in excess of $4 million per team and it's all coming directly out of their pockets. According to one published report, the escrow agreement will make Alexander Ovechkin's wallet lighter by some $1.4 million for last season.
No one should be surprised. Former PA boss Bob Goodenow predicted it when he warned of the dangers of a cap system during the season-killing lockout back in 2004-05. "They (the owners) will be playing with the players' money," he said at the time.
Even players' mothers can tell them that's not good.
Dany Heatley, the one-time golden boy of Atlanta and Ottawa, is now a toxic asset the likes of which even the secretary of the treasury wouldn't touch.
Heatley has badly misplayed his plan for a forced trade out of Ottawa, letting word get out that he didn't want to play for new head coach Cory Clouston (a statement many observers regard as a mostly contrived "leak" with precious little merit). He compounded his error on Wednesday by shoving his no-movement clause in the faces of Senators management after they constructed a deal to send him to Edmonton.
Now, Edmonton will never be confused with Montreal, and it's seldom a destination of choice (according to a recent Hockey News poll, a majority of players would not like to be traded there), but it's in the NHL and the Oilers were willing to meet Heatley's financial needs, which just happen to be a massive contract that most teams won't touch even if it's attached to a two-time 50-goal-scorer's stick.
Heatley is carrying a $7.5 million per year cap hit over the remaining five years of a six-year extension he signed with Ottawa shortly after their run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, and he compounded that burden by snubbing Edmonton's offer just hours before an additional $4 million bonus kicked in and was charged to the Senators.
So while Heatley clearly believed that any team on his list of preferred partners would jump at the chance to have him, the opposite proved to be the case. He's being viewed as a talented but high-priced player who has quit on two teams and undermined the coach of one while slagging a city and a franchise that was willing to surrender cash and talent to have him. Someone may eventually show interest, and it may even be a team Heatley will actually consent to play for, but there's no guarantee, and in the interim a bad situation could well turn worse.
There are people in the NHL who would like to see Senators owner Eugene Melnyk make Heatley sit out a year, much the way the Sabres did with Michael Peca in a major pay dispute that, in the end, hurt Buffalo as much as it did their well-regarded captain. But there was a difference in that case. Peca had completed his contract and wanted either a raise befitting his status on a Cup-contending team or a trade. The Sabres eventually dealt him to the New York Islanders, but only after making him sit out a season.
It was a punishing move, especially for a player who'd honored his contract and performed to the best of his ability while doing it. Melnyk could do the same to Heatley, but while the sit strategy didn't cost the Sabres a dollar, it will cost the Senators some $7 million U.S., and one must ask where is the good in that?
There is no easy or even good way out of this mess, but there are a great many watching on both sides of the battle lines. What happens next is likely to influence the "force a trade" game for many years to come.
From the Good Guys Sometimes Catch a Break file: Ted Nolan, a former NHL coach of the year who has suffered indignities of gossip and outright slander that still seem unimaginable given his record of success, has returned to hockey.
The Rochester Amerks of the AHL have named Nolan their VP of Hockey Operations, pretty much giving him the keys to turn up and develop talent for an historic franchise that has in recent seasons fallen on hard times. The Amerks are an affiliate of the Florida Panthers, and that organization has struggled to put well-regarded prospects into its system. Nolan will be charged with finding a few and it shouldn't be all that difficult. In his time with Buffalo and the Islanders, and with his successes in junior hockey, Nolan was considered a player's coach. He has extensive contacts in both the minor leagues and juniors, and he has a personality and talent for inspiring players to perform at a higher level than their perceived ability.
Nolan won't be the Amerks' coach, but he will be in a very visible position with a franchise that's operating just 60 miles from Buffalo, where he won the 1996-97 Jack Adams Award, and just a few hundred miles from the Islanders franchise that ran him off under the absurd notion that he couldn't work with young players. The 51-year-old Nolan's resume includes Calder Cup and Memorial Cup championships!
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Nolan said it has taken years for him to get over slights he believes were unfair and, in some instances, brought on by his being a native North American, but he's learned from the experience and is happy to be back in hockey. He once played a portion of his AHL career with the Amerks, and says he was honored to be hired by the current owner, who also happens to be a native North American.
In his time away from the game, Nolan has been active in fund raising for the Ted Nolan Foundation, a charity he created in honor of his deceased mother that raises thousands of dollars for first-nation children and is committed to helping them make healthy lifestyle choices, developing a new generation of first nation leaders, and instilling the value of a good education.
And some people think Nolan can't work with kids...