Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Look Back - and Ahead - at the Muskoka Five

Now that the Ilya Kovalchuk hostage situation is over, the rest of the hockey world can move on.  Oh wait, strike that thought....

Even with the news of the scrutiny over the Kovalchuk contract, the moratorium on player movement seems to have finally broken with a handful of deals signed today (including RFA David Perron re-upping with St. Louis).  And teams have finally returned to the bargaining table to hash out trades to either fill a need in their lineup or to clear out cap space. The Philadelphia Flyers opened those floodgates Monday afternoon by trading Simon Gagne to Tampa Bay for a 4th rounder and Matt Walker. News of the Flyers-Lightning trade (the 2nd deal between these teams in the past 3 weeks) circulated almost instantly once the details of Kovalchuk’s massive deal with the Devils broke.

As there are a handful of teams in similar cap pinches as Philadelphia is (COUGH – Chicago – COUGH), several players’ names have been bandied about as trade bait. This is where we come to the curious case of Kaberle….Tomas Kaberle, that is.

Kaberle has seeming been on the trading block for well over two years now (and some may say since he signed his current 5-year, $21.25 million deal to open Free Agent Frenzy ’06, the first following the lockout). Considering Toronto’s need for a top-six forward, the salary cap pinch the Leafs’ blueline has the team in (counting Kaberle’s salary and the recent Brett Lebda signing, the Leafs’ top 7 D-men pack a salary cap hit of nearly $27 million), and Brian Burke’s unwillingness to part with youngsters Luke Schenn or Nazem Kadri (WHAT?!? There’s prospects and young players the Leafs AREN’T willing to trade?!?!?!?!?), Kaberle becomes Toronto’s most marketable trade asset by default.

With Kaberle’s imminent departure from the Big Smoke all but assured, I can’t help but look back on the end of the Leafs’ season just two short seasons ago….and back to the Muskoka Five.

If you recall, the Leafs were making another ill-fated late-season charge towards the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (Toronto was eliminated on the final day of the regular season in both 2005-06 and 2006-07). Interim-GM Cliff Fletcher – brought back temporarily for a second reign in T.O. following the firing of John Ferguson, Jr. in January 2008 – had every intent of making the Leafs “sellers” at the trade deadline, but was unable to convince the team’s core players (and most valuable trade assets) to waive their no-trade clauses to aid in the (eternal) rebuilding process. These players became infamously known as “the Muskoka Five."

With Kaberle – currently the longest tenured player Leaf – being the last man standing amongst the group who refused to go to greener pastures at the 2008 trade deadline (and with Burke seemingly mulling over his options), I figured a brief look back at what exactly transpired for the remaining player who are now only a memory to Leafs fans.

Darcy Tucker was the first of the gang to go, having had his contract bought out prior to the opening of Free Agent Frenzy ‘08. Tucker was just one year into a four year, $12 million deal – meaning the Leafs will continue to owe Tucker $1 million each season through 2013-14. Tucker signed with Colorado for $4.5 million over 2 years, and after two largely unproductive seasons in the Rockies, is presently a UFA.

The scourge of Leafs fans in 2007-08 (and the butt of all own-goal jokes), Bryan McCabe was traded in training camp on 9/2/08 with a ’10 4th rounder to Florida for Mike Van Ryn. While McCabe has been the lynchpin for the Panthers’ power play, Van Ryn has played a grand total of 27 games over the last two seasons for the Leafs thanks to a rash of unfortunate injuries (and one memorable shattering experience) – and will miss the 2010-11 season as well).  Florida, by the way, used the pick to select goaltender Sam Brittain of the AJHL’s Camrose Eagles at 92nd overall last month, a player bound for the University of Denver in 2011-12.

Mats Sundin – you all remember him, don’t you? Sundin became the poster boy for indecisive hockey players everywhere (perhaps inspiration for Kovalchuk?) after dancing around the topic of retirement-vs.-returning-for-one-more-season during the 2008 off-season. When 2008-09 started, the long-time Leafs captain was still without a team, and waited until mid-December before finally signing with Vancouver. After an unimpressive run in his half season with the Canucks (where he never really seemed at top speed nor found chemistry with his new teammates), Mats hung up the skates for good in 2009.

Thanks to a loophole in his no-trade clause which permitted the Leafs the chance to trade him during the off-season (which is the case with Kaberle as well), Pavel Kubina was traded on the opening day of Free Agent Frenzy ‘09 from Toronto (with Tim Stapleton) to Atlanta for Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart (who was later traded with Anton Stralman and a ’12 7th rounder to Calgary for Wayne Primeau and a ’11 2nd rounder). Kubina spent just one season in Hot ‘Lanta, and recently signed with Tampa Bay – where he won a Stanley Cup in 2003-04 – to a 2-year, $7.7 million deal. Meanwhile, Exelby made it clear during the season that he didn’t exactly enjoy his time in Toronto – considering he spent a good part of it in the press box. Both Exelby and Primeau are seeking new teams as UFA’s.

Tomas Kaberle will become an unrestricted free agent after the 2010-11 season. His $4.25 million hit against the cap certainly won’t break the bank, considering his value as an offensive weapon on the power play.

I mention these things because considering how little the Leafs received in return for Tucker, McCabe, Sundin, and Kubina, I’d prefer to see Toronto actually receive something of value for the services of Kaberle (well, duh). But knowing the non-sensible way the Leafs have been governed over the years, let’s just say I won’t hold my breath.

Yes, I do realize Cliff Fletcher’s hands were tied thanks to the unity of these five players just two years ago. Fletcher likely would’ve landed more for any or all of those players at the ‘08 trade deadline, but that wasn’t exactly an option. I also realize Fletcher was acting as a stand-in until Brian Burke officially took the reins as GM and President in November 2008. But considering his previous ties to the franchise, you’d think “Fletch” would’ve made a better effort than he did.

Bottom line, Burke has an opportunity this off-season to make a major addition with Kaberle as the bait. Considering the failure to do so with the rest of the Muskoka Five - combined with the gross miscalculation of the Phil Kessel trade and the inability to acquire a 1st round pick prior to this June's draft - it seems imperative for the Leafs to go fishing for a top-six forward.  And with no 1st round pick next year - not to mention the Leafs horrific track record in the draft over the years -  the time is now to strike while the iron is hot.

Just one simple request:  Please, no more "truculence."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

RFA Poaching: Swimming in Shark-Infested Waters

It’s now been nearly two weeks since the NHL’s free agency period has opened, and with all the fiscal irresponsibility transactions that have taken place, numerous hockey websites, blogs, and analysts are mulling over the best, worst, and most confusing moves made this off-season. But Friday’s top signing seems to trump all the others thus far when it comes to sheer shock-value: the San Jose Sharks’ offer sheet of $14 million over 4 years to Chicago Blackhawks’ defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Since he is a restricted free agent, the Blackhawks have seven days to match San Jose’s offer sheet to retain Hjalmarsson’s services, or lose the 23-year blueliner to the Sharks and receive compensation in the form of the Sharks' 1st and 3rd round draft picks next year.  (For a frame of reference on just how much a team gets compensated for an unmatched RFA tender, click here).

Why the shock, you ask? For starters, Hjalmarsson may well be the eighth player from the ‘Hawks Stanley Cup winning squad from last month to leave the Windy City via trade or free agency. Short of the Florida Marlins circa 1997, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a championship team in ANY sport dismantled so quickly. OK, I’m being a bit rash, but with the number of secondary scorers and role players Chicago has parted ways with so far this summer (Byfuglien, Eager, Sopel, Fraser, Ladd, Versteeg, and Burish, for those counting at home), one can’t help but be curious to see how the Hawks fare in defending the Stanley Cup victory in 2010-11, considering the sizeable makeover. And depending on how well Antti Niemi fares in salary arbitration, more moves could well be on the way (are your bags packed yet, Patrick Sharp?).

But I suppose I’m surprised more because in this salary cap era of financial management – where several teams are pressed against the cap ceiling due to poor managerial foresight, overspending for mid-level players, constant speculation the cap may decrease, etc. – that more NHL front offices HAVEN’T taken advantage of teams in the same monetary quandary Chicago finds itself in by tendering an offer sheet to the numerous RFA’s on the market.

Since the NHLPA ratified the current CBA (and thus ending the darkest days in NHL history), a grand total of FIVE offer sheets have been tendered to RFA’s throughout the league in that time (Ryan Kesler by Philadelphia in 2007, Thomas Vanek and Dustin Penner by Edmonton in 2007, David Backes by Vancouver in 2008, Steve Bernier by St. Louis in 2008) before Hjalmarsson’s signing Friday. All but one contract – Penner’s deal with the Oilers – was matched by the parent club of the prospective RFA. Oilers’ GM Kevin Lowe’s RFA poaching attempts of Penner and Vanek three summers ago drew a stern league-wide rebuke, and birthed a classic feud between himself and both Sabres GM Darcy Regier and then-Ducks GM Brian Burke.

Even before the lockout, it’s not as if teams were in the habit of offering deals to other RFA’s across the league. The last offer sheet tendered to an RFA of an opposing team? Try going back to 1999 and the legendary Brett Hauer, who last played in North America in 2002.

While most of the hockey headlines continue to fixate on the potential whereabouts for Ilya Kovalchuk for 2010-11 (or something about nuptials exchanged this past weekend), little text seems to be devoted to the numerous RFA’s still on the open market (though Puck Daddy had a nice piece earlier last week on this very topic).

Given the (mostly) lackluster crop of UFA’s this summer, one could easily argue that the RFA crop is much stronger (still available as of this writing: Bobby Ryan, James Neal, Marc Staal, Ian White, Carey Price, Devin Setoguchi, Blake Wheeler, amongst others). It’s safe to say NHL Free Agency 2010 has mostly disappointed until Friday. Perhaps the work by Dougie Wilson in San Jose could trigger a shift in philosophy for teams looking to fill the holes in their rosters for next season – and spark some animosity and hostility between other teams (like Chicago) in economic dire straits….nothing like a little hatred towards a fellow conference rival.

Maybe it’s the worst-case-scenario mentality that scares off NHL GM’s from courting RFA’s, knowing the cost of compensation could be quite steep (just think back to the Scott Stevens/Brendan Shanahan fiasco in the early 90's). Perhaps most GM’s seem to think they can do better for themselves by trading for an RFA’s rights rather than actually offering a contract (Phil Kessel last summer and Jaroslav Halak this summer come to mind). Perhaps it’s the harsh scorn and ridicule Lowe received following his pursuit of Vanek and Penner in the summer of 2007 that scares off any notion of scoring an RFA. Or it could be that these GM’s simply don’t want to take that chance, knowing either the parent team will match the offer, or that GM’s are clutching too tightly to those precious draft picks as if they were family heirlooms.

Whatever the reasons may be, I’m one hockey fan that’s hoping Doug Wilson’s actions might spice up the free agency world this summer.