There is, after all, a price tag on the priceless. Those
immeasurable and invaluable NHL qualities--determination,
toughness, leadership--have a market value: $45 million for five
years for center Bobby Holik and $25.5 million for six years for
defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. Holik, 31, and Kasparaitis, 29,
unrestricted free agents who last week signed with the New York
Rangers, are short on flashy numbers but big on intangibles.
"There are two sides of the ledger in hockey," Washington
Capitals general manager George McPhee says. "There are physical
skills and then there are other things: character, a winning
attitude. Teams are willing to pay a premium for that."
New York certainly was. Third-year Rangers president Glen Sather,
the champion of small-market franchises when he ran the Edmonton
Oilers from 1979 through 2000, is living large in New York,
handing out big money in two contracts that raised eyebrows among
other general managers--at least the ones who couldn't plunge into
the deep end of the free-agent waters. With New York failing to
qualify for the playoffs in the last five seasons and often
showing as much toughness as instant oatmeal, Sather was
compelled to obtain players who will make the Rangers more
Sather was not bidding against himself, either. He had several
competitors, most notably the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were ready
to pay a huge sum for a complementary player (Holik) and for a
thumping No. 3 or No. 4 defenseman (Kasparaitis) who does not
move the puck especially well, makes questionable decisions and
has the occasional lapse in discipline. Still, Sather was correct
last week when he said opposing players would now have to keep
their heads up when they play New York, and not just because $9
million for a second-liner means the sky is falling.
Intangibles have been handsomely rewarded before, most notably
last July when a bidding war broke out over Martin Lapointe, a
hard-nosed right wing. Until then Lapointe had been a role
player, but he was from a winning organization (Detroit Red
Wings) and was coming off a 27-goal year (even though he had
never exceeded 16 goals in his previous five full NHL seasons).
The Boston Bruins, usually tight with a buck, signed him to a
four-year deal worth $20 million. In 2001-02 Lapointe responded
with 17 goals and 40 points, stats that were near his career
averages. It's difficult to quantify Lapointe's character or
leadership qualities in the playoffs, because the upstart
Montreal Canadiens bounced the Bruins in six games in Round 1.
July 14, 2002
If Lapointe's contract was a landmark, it was dwarfed by the one
the Rangers gave Holik, who has played for the rival New Jersey
Devils for the past 10 seasons. Holik fills the No. 2 center slot
behind Eric Lindros, but Holik is a middling offensive player
whose 25 goals and 54 points last season were typical for a
player who has never had a 30-goal season. Despite the talk
coming out of New York that Holik is hockey's best two-way
center, he's not even close. At 6'4", 230 pounds, he can be the
NHL's most difficult center to play against, he'll be a strong
voice in the dressing room, and he'll win more face-offs than he
loses, but $45 million--the same amount the Dallas Stars gave last
week to 41-goal scorer Bill Guerin, one of hockey's premier power
wingers--is a lot for a player who's not a first-liner.
"If you had told me that some team would pay $9 million for
Holik, I would have been surprised," Montreal general manager
Andre Savard says. "But when you have teams that identify an
unrestricted player as filling a need and they start bidding,
this is what happens. You must have a talent base. Without that,
no matter how much character you bring in, it isn't going to
work. But if you have that talent base, you need strong people
with experience, character and leadership skills to make [the
team complete]. Those guys make good players better."
As Holik knows, you can take that to the bank.