I've been around the sports writing business long enough to know that words truly matter. So when a general manager tells me that he doesn't anticipate surgery on his star player "at this time," the key phrase is "at this time." By definition it's at the moment that he is speaking. The moment he stops, all denials of a possible surgery are officially off the table.
I mention this because in the wake of the stunning slap-down of the New Jersey Devils by the NHL regarding their initial contract offer to free-agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk, GM Lou Lamoriello's most recent statement would appear to carry a special meaning.
"It's a non-subject right now," Lamoriello told the New York Post in the wake of his team's stunning and massive $3 million dollar fine and loss of two draft picks in the next four years. Lamoriello is a veteran GM. He is also as careful as he is smart, and he cautioned reporters not to read anything into his remark, but it is different from "we accept" or "we have put this behind us and intend to move on" or, quite simply, "it's over." Given that everyone in the NHL is under a "no comment" directive regarding the decision to discipline the Devils, the caution is no surprise. But Lamoriello had options, and so the words he chose, as non-definite as they would appear to be, must have some meaning.
"You would think they are at least thinking about a lawsuit," said one agent who has had many dealings with Lamoriello, but asked for anonymity on this issue because of its sensitive nature. "It doesn't appear they got any formal support at the Board of Governors meeting (Tuesday in New York) and that's to be expected, but Lou has a lot of friends in that room and some of them can't be proud of what happened there."
The agent has a point and there is a point to be made, be it with Lamoriello working the other members of the BoG in the hallways to petition for some relief or at least taking the temperature of his brethren regarding hauling the league to court.
Court is a dangerous option all the way around. To take internal matters outside is to run afoul of what is arguably the most powerful commissioner in the long history of the NHL. That's no small consideration when it comes to Gary Bettman, who does not take challenges, legal or otherwise, lightly. He's been on a long winning streak with the well-plotted demise of the owners' most troublesome adversary -- former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow -- and a disconnected Players Association, a CBA that rewarded Bettman with hockey's first salary cap, and a landmark win in regaining control of the Phoenix Coyotes via a bankruptcy court ruling, as well as maintaining league control over the possibility of a second team in the Greater Toronto Area marketplace. Along the way, his many triumphs have earned him the respect -- and, in most cases, full support -- of a heretofore cantankerous ownership group that now seems to consistently back his judgment and (usually via the threat of massive fines) allows him to speak as the league's only voice.
But Lamoriello has clout as well. Often referred to as perhaps the most powerful behind-the-scenes person in the game, Lamoriello has the respect of virtually all of the GMs and many owners. He knows he can make a compelling case in that what he did with the initial Kovalchuk offer was no less a circumvention of the CBA than what Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch did with contracts for several veteran players, or what Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider did with his "retirement" contract for Chris Pronger. Lamoriello can also include what Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs did regarding center Marc Savard's soon-to-be-in-play deal, what Vancouver has done for Roberto Luongo, or even what Washington did with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Lamoriello even has the league's own actions to use against it, as the NHL went on record in its initial Kovalchuk rejection as having the contracts of Luongo, Savard, Pronger and others "under investigation" for the same offenses that Bettman has convicted the Devils of committing. In addition, Lamoriello has the in-writing opinion of arbitrator Richard Bloch that the Devils did no wrong in their initial offer to Kovalchuk and that their actions in no way amounted to an attempt to circumvent the established salary cap.
The league has said little on this matter, but its defenders argue that it had no choice but to punish Lamoriello and the Devils in much the same way it punished the Maple Leafs for their stated interest in then-upcoming free agents Daniel and Henrik Sedin (since re-signed by Vancouver) and the way they lured Jonas Frogren to Toronto (which resulted in fines totaling $500,000 and the surrendering of a fourth-round draft pick). The St. Louis Blues were likewise hit ($1.5 million and two first-round picks) for the way they once tampered with defenseman Scott Stevens, who had a valid contract with the Devils.
My colleague Allan Muir made a strong and responsible argument on these pages that Bettman let Lamoriello off somewhat easy given the power the commissioner has at this point, but those close to the Devils, and perhaps Lamoriello himself, see it differently. In their eyes, the Devils did no more wrong than any of their above-named brethren in exploiting a loophole in the CBA that even the NHL acknowledged existed.
But the fact remains that Lamoriello and the Devils have been singled out and fined heavily for doing nothing more than what others have gotten away with for years. Those who did get away are unlikely to come to his aid now, but the fact that Lamoriello didn't completely and unequivocally say that this issue is finished has to at least give them pause.
After all, it was Lamoriello who once took then-NHL President John Ziegler to court over the one-game suspension of his coach, Jim Schoenfeld, for his "have another donut" fracas with referee Don Koharski during in the 1988 playoffs. It took a lot of courage to do that and even though Lamoriello won, he likely paid a heck of a price.
Will he be willing to do that again and against a Commissioner many times more powerful than Ziegler ever hoped he could be?
Well, as of today, he hasn't officially said no.
To the surprise of no one except perhaps former Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan, current head coach Joel Quenneville was "thrilled" with his recently-announced contract extension. It is well deserved after his bringing the talented but very young team through the playoffs to the 2010 Stanley Cup championship. Quenneville had the upcoming season left on his deal, but the Blackhawks made a smart move in announcing the extension (a rumored two more seasons) on the eve of the opening of training camp.
There's likely to be problems in the early-going for the Blackhawks as they adjust to the roster losses they forced upon themselves by playing so close to the salary cap limits in recent years. That can cause problems for young players, but by extending Quennville now, the team can ascertain that management is in control, Stan Bowman is the GM, his father, Scotty, remains a senior consultant, and Quennville is coach with more than a few years to go on his contract. That's a message to the players that success or failure this season will be on their shoulders.
The extension can also be looked upon as a reward for Quennville not just for winning the Cup, but also for publically supporting all the changes that were brought about by the financial issues in Chicago. Coaches are expected to do that, but it doesn't always happen and that's a reason why some, like Keenan for example, have had so many different stops in their coaching careers.
That five-year, near $20 million contract that the New York Rangers handed out to Marc Staal this week sure makes the player mighty happy, but it does create more work for GM Glen Sather. The deal put the Rangers some $4.1 million over the salary cap for the upcoming season. That's more than the Kovalchuk deal has pushed the neighboring Devils over the line.
Sather is likely to bury Wade Redden and his $6.5 million cap hit in the minors in order to accommodate Staal's deal, but this is exactly what has the rank and file in the NHLPA upset. Younger players demanding and getting long-term, high-pay deals are pushing veterans off the rosters of teams that have been caught up in throwing money at free agents. Most of the players understand how it works, but bet on them looking to tighten up these so-called "cap maintenance" issues when the next CBA is on the negotiating table.
Admittedly, Redden has struggled during his time with the Rangers, as has fellow defenseman Michael Rozsival, whose $5 million cap hit could also be ticketed to Hartford or the trade market. But Staal is just 23 and his career bests (set last season) are eight goals and 19 assists. Veteran players have to be wondering where the fairness is in his deal. Like Redden and Rozsival, Staal is a defenseman, but he was also due to become a restricted free agent at the end of next season and like so many teams in the NHL today, the Rangers wanted to lock up some of their youth before other teams came calling.
Former Edmonton Oilers head coach Pat Quinn has not gone quietly into the good night devised for him by GM Steve Tambellini. Quinn had a year left on his contract when Tambellini suddenly moved him into the role of "senior advisor" and replaced him behind the bench with co-coach Tom Renney, the former New York Rangers bench boss. Tambellini described that move as an agreed-upon process that had simply been moved up one year and that Quinn had been "promoted," but Quinn took if for the firing that it was and has said so.
"If that was indeed the plan all along ... it's probably not a good plan," Quinn said the day it was announced.
Now he's openly challenging Tambellini regarding what his "advisor role" might entail and that he doesn't expect it to be "carrying bags."
To his credit, Tambellini has handled this affront to his power carefully. He's on record as saying that he sees a role for Quinn within the organization and that he might play a big one in player development. He also said that Quinn will have a say in all of it, implying that it won't be anything that makes Quinn unhappy.
Quinn is a career coach and even at age 63 has shown no signs of slowing down or wanting to do so. It's still very much an unstable situation in Edmonton what with the once-proud franchise essentially starting over and from the bottom of a 30-team pile, but Quinn isn't likely to start some kind of internal power play.
In the end, he simply got out the message that he didn't feel his being demoted was necessary and that he wants to coach again somewhere at the NHL level. But if that doesn't happen and Renney stumbles out of the gate, well, he's still under contract to the Oilers and there just might be people in that organization who still support him.
That's no small rule change the Board of Governors approved when they opted to take shootout wins out of the tie-breaking formula for a playoff spot.
Under the new rule, the league will use a team's total number of regulation and overtime victories to break ties among teams that have the same number of points. Victorious teams will still get two points for winning the skills competition, but the change will put more emphasis on winning in regulation or OT, something that coaches will have to take note of regarding how they play the third period of a tight game or the initial overtime period.
The league's GMs became concerned with the number of games that have gone to shootouts in recent seasons, and it's obvious that coaches are managing their rosters with a defensive bent in order to get a tied game or overtime to the shootout where they feel they can better manager their chances for gaining the win and the two points. Only now, those wins won't count in a tie-breaker situation, which will change the dynamic, especially down the stretch in a drive for a playoff spot.
For a sense of that dynamic, consider that the 2008-09 Florida Panthers would have made it to the postseason had the new rule been in place back them. The Panthers and Montreal Canadiens finished tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference that season with 93 points (the first tiebreaker is points) and 41 wins. Montreal got the spot by having more wins vs. Florida in head-to-head competition. However, had the new rule been in place, the Panthers would have prevailed because seven of Montreal's wins came via the shootout while the Panthers notched only three.
It's a small tweak on paper, but a huge one for the way the game will now be played.
Maybe they finally got some kind of a filter on that crazy tap water in the Washington D.C. area. On the heels of some strange pronouncements from team owner Ted Leonsisaccusing Toronto-based writerDamien Cox of unfairly criticizing him in order to sell more copies of his upcoming book about Ovechkin, and the amazingly over-the-top tweet of Washington Post columnist Mike Wise (for which he rightly received a 30-day suspension from his job for fabricating news on his Post Twitter account), comes word that Ovechkin is lowering his tone regarding the 2014 Winter Olympics in his native Russia.
Speaking to Toronto Globe and Mail hockey writer Erik Duhatschek this week in New York, Ovechkin said that the Olympics were still four years away and there is plenty of time to come to a negotiated solution. That's a far cry from his statement of a year ago (and at the same event -- hockey rolling out its young guns as a part of Fashion Week in New York City) when he said he would breech his NHL contract to play in the Sochi games.
Ovechkin this year didn't back away from that threat, but he did temper it by saying, "Let's wait and let's don't think about it right now. You never know what's going to happen. Right now, they say one thing. After four years, [maybe] they're going to say different thing. Let's just wait and see."
It was a solid gesture on his part and one that helped lower the glare on Leonsis, who is on record for backing his star player in his quest to leave the Caps in midseason to play in an Olympics that the NHL has not yet committed to.
And for those in the D.C area that think I might be rubbing the faces of Leonsis, Ovechkin and Wise in their own words, far from it.
Everyone has a right to an opinion. In the recent past, Leonsis and I have differed on several important issues, but we've also reached an understanding as to where the other one is coming from and we respect each other for it. It's the same with Ovechkin, who in that same interview acknowledged that perhaps his penchant for hitting, sometimes from behind or when his opponent is vulnerable, doesn't always help his team and that both he and the Capitals might be better served if he concentrated on just helping them win and perhaps reined in a few of the blind-side hits that became problematic for him last season.
Regarding Wise, well we had a spirited debate on his radio show last season after I took Ovechkin to task for his reckless ways, but the contested issues were more with his attack-puppy co-host (one I wasn't aware was even going to be involved in the debate) than with Wise himself.
I think Wise is one fine columnist, but he made a serious mistake for which he is paying a serious penalty. When he returns, he will be both a better writer and radio host for the experience.
Sportswriters, broadcasters, team owners, we're people, too -- people who understand that learning is a lifelong process and that learning, especially learning from one's mistakes, is nothing to be ashamed of.