Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thoughts on Adam Rubin and the Mets

Yesterday when the news broke that the New York Mets had fired vice president for player development Tony Bernazard over angry outbursts directed at everyone from players and minor leaguers to scouts, I was riveted by what came out of the press conference to announce it.
Mets general manager Omar Minaya specifically called out the team's beat writer for the New York Daily News, Adam Rubin, saying that Rubin purposely tried to get Bernazard fired because Rubin wanted a player personnel job within the Mets organization.
That's a humiliating situation for a reporter to be in. I know, I've been there.
During the 2003-04 NHL season when Atlanta Thrashers right wing Dany Heatley was rehabbing from injuries suffered in a car crash that led to the death of teammate Dan Snyder, everything Heatley did was huge news.
It was about as difficult a situation as a rookie beat writer can walk into, with the accident happening just a few weeks into my tenure. For a while, the team won and that masked most of the tensions that those around the team would have felt from having to deal with the enormity of Heatley's situation (the emotional loss from the death of a popular teammate, Heatley's legal jeopardy, the on-ice loss of star, etc.).
But then the team began to lose and the perception of petty slights on both sides of the ledger -- the team's and the media's (mostly mine, as I was the only reporter with the team on a daily basis) -- grew into a general sense of animosity.
It all broke down one day in acrimony over a story that I wrote about Heatley's first full practice with the team since his accident. Thrashers coach Bob Hartley referred to a "mistake by our beat writer," in front of a large (for the Thrashers but surely nothing compared to what was there for the Mets yesterday) media assemblage.
I could feel my face turn red. There is nothing worse for a reporter than becoming the story, as opposed to reporting on it. Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley was forced to slap Hartley down, much as the Daily News' Filip Bondy had to do today in defense of Rubin. It ruined my relationship with the team for the final three months of the season, something that was not repaired until the NHL lockout ended more than a year later. (The great irony is that I rebuilt my relationship with Hartley and we remain on good terms.)
Although my situation was not quite as severe, I could feel Rubin's pain when he had to give an impromptu press conference and said, "I don't know how I'm going to cover this team anymore."
The answers to that question seemed to arrive in the aftermath from Daily News editor-in-chief Martin Dunn who said that the paper will stand behind Rubin "1,000 percent."
Rubin also shot back with this first-person account today to defend his record. And Minaya was forced hours later to offer what could be mistaken for an apology, along with the team's reclusive chief operating officer, Jeff Wilpon.
In the end, Rubin appears to be not only vindicated but now to have the national spotlight on him for having broken the stories that got Bernazard fired.
Some media ethicists may fault Rubin for the crime of asking for career advice from Mets officials. In the New York Times, columnist George Vecsey writes that Rubin may have engaged in a "slight conflict of interest" -- which I agree with to a degree because you do have to be so careful of how your conversations with the people whom you cover might be interpreted -- but in the end Vecsey opines that Rubin was mostly "naive to trust the wrong people."
I also agree with Bondy's assertion that "Beat reporters spend a lot of time talking about stuff with baseball guys during the eight months a year they cover the sport. There is considerable chatting, in both directions."
It's a long season and there's a lot of small talk but in whatever you say you can always provide ammunition to your critics. It seems that is mostly what Rubin is guilty of.
The great irony is that in trying to expand his career's horizons through those conversations that Minaya distorted, Rubin may have done just that. He is now sure to receive recognition for his work and attention from potential employers after this ham-handed flap by the Mets.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Looking at Anderson vs. Griffey as Braves Surge

Imagine if the Atlanta Braves had signed both John Smoltz and Ken Griffey Jr., as most fans were hoping, during the offseason?
I'll admit -- I was among them (at least on Griffey, not on Smoltz). Griffey is about three years older than I am and when he first came up with the Mariners, I was a much bigger baseball fan.
Something about the idea of signing him captured the imaginations of so many baseball fans in Atlanta. Even if he could not perform at the level that he did when he first came up more than two decades ago -- of course everyone knew that he could not -- it was Griffey nostalgia that would have played so well in Atlanta.
After all, unlike so many other sports, isn't so much of baseball about a reverence of and affection for the past? (I don't see Hollywood making movies like "Field of Dreams" or "The Natural" about other sports.)
Atlanta baseball fans could have re-lived their own pasts, the idea goes, by watching Griffey creak around the outfield, even if he were a shadow of his former self. One could sense the team's sales and marketing department collectively salivating over the billboards, slogans and Griffey-generated ticket sales.
When he chose to sign instead with the Mariners amid a flurry of acrimony, all of that hot-stove anticipation was dashed. Exacerbating the problem was that it marked the third time in three months that the Braves had failed to land a big name.
First in December, it was ex-Brave Rafael Furcal ditching the team at the last second (after the Braves believed that Furcal had agreed to a contract) to re-up with the Dodgers, prompting Braves president John Schuerholz's tirade that the organization would never again deal with Furcal's Atlanta-based agent Paul Kinzer.
In January, Smoltz seemed to do the impossible and turned his back on the only organization with which he had ever played to sign with Boston.
Clearly, by the time that the Braves failed to land Griffey, the luster of 14 straight division titles was so far in the past that many -- the fans, media -- began to dump on the organization.
Whether the Braves make the National League playoffs remains to be seen, but what seems fairly obvious right now is that with Smoltz or Griffey or both, they would not be a better team. The Braves are 6 1/2 games behind the defending World Series' champion Phillies in the East, but only 3 1/2 behind Colorado for the Wild Card spot. If the current pace holds, it looks as if the Braves are on the verge of playing meaningful baseball well into September for the first time in four seasons -- what seems like an eternity here in Atlanta, where postseason runs once seemed a birthright.
Since June 28, when the Braves entered the day 34-40, they have gone 17-8 over their last 25 games. Their pitching -- already among the best in the major leagues -- got a shot in the arm from the promotion of rookie Tommy Hanson (in spite of the fiasco that erupted when the Braves cut future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine) at the start of June, but it's the amazing turnaround in run scoring that has the Braves competitive again.
Which brings us back to Mr. Griffey. Griffey is doing the impossible: By hitting .211 with 10 home runs and 27 RBI, he almost makes ex-Brave outfielder Jeff Francoeur's offensive output look like an All-Star season in comparison. Griffey also has 45 strikeouts in 75 games.
His contract is worth $4.5 million with $2 million in guaranteed money.
Now let's look at who the Braves signed instead, Garret Anderson. Anderson, who started slowly, is making $2.5 million this year with the Braves.
In the 10 games since the All-Star Break, Anderson is hitting a sizzling .429 and has scored 7 runs and has 4 RBI. Over his last 13 games, he's hitting .383 with 7 runs and 6 RBI.
Overall, he's hitting .292 with 7 home runs and 37 RBI. He has struck out 40 times in 77 games.
So not only did the Braves save money in the long run with Griffey's incentives, but they also got a player who is hitting 81 points higher and has 10 more RBI.
To be fair, others -- notably Yunel Escobar, Martin Prado, Brian McCann and Chipper Jones, who was suffering through an inexplicable season-long (by his standards) slump -- have picked up at the plate and now Braves admirers are saying the lineup doesn't have any easy out in the top eight.
And then there is Smoltz, who gave up six earned runs in five innings on Sunday and watched his record fall to 1-4 and his earned-run average balloon to 7.04. The Red Sox say they plan on sticking with Smoltz -- for how long, one wonders -- but a frustrated 42-year-old Smoltz seemed to openly raise the prospect of his retirement after his latest outing.
(Interesting how what the Braves feared would happen if they had allowed Glavine to return to the major league roster is playing out in Boston with Smoltz. While I think that the Braves made the right move with Smoltz, I still think they dealt unfairly with Glavine.)
So with football -- King of Sports here in the South -- about to get training camps underway in less than a week in Atlanta, the Braves could keep a bit of the sporting interest turned their way.
That certainly would not be the case with Smoltz and Griffey in the lineup.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Reflecting on a Favorite Book

Earlier this week I was reading through the briefs in The New York Times and the news hit me like a punch in the gut. Two Bosnian Serbs were sentenced by a United Nations war crimes tribunal for the deaths of 119 Muslims in 1992 as part of the ugly ethnic cleansing campaigns that tore apart the breakaway republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina amid the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.
In two separate incidents, the men locked their victims, ranging from two days old to age 75, in a house and burned them alive.
The crimes took place in the town of Visegrad -- which happens to be the setting of one of my favorite books, which, coincidentally, I finished reading for the second time (and first in 16 years since I read it in college) just a few days ago.
The name of the book is "The Bridge on the Drina," a work of historical fiction that received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961. It's the story of an idyllic but at times troubled town from the when the bridge was built by the Ottoman Empire in the 1570s to 1914 when a portion of it was blown up during World War I.
The author, Ivo Andric, was a Serb who was raised in Visegrad by his widowed mother and her parents around the time when Serb nationalism began to simmer, helping to draw 20th-century Europe into so much conflagration. (World War I began as a result of the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Habsburg monarchy, archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalists in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.)
As the foreward to my edition of the book mentions, Andric shows a tremendous sensitivity to the Muslims in the book, despite his ethnicity. For much of the book, he writes about the simple co-existence of the town's inhabitants.
He writes of a great flood and how "The force of the elements and the weight of common misfortune brought all these men together and bridged, at least for this one evening, the gulf that divided one faith from the other..."
Throughout the book Andric sprinkles in references to divisions in the town, but for the most part, those divisions remain buried. (Until the Turks conquered Bosnia, the religion of the local populace was Eastern Orthodox Christian -- Serbian -- or Roman Catholic -- Croatian -- but under Turkish rule most of nobility and land-owning classes converted to Islam; in all, about 30 to 40 percent. Nonetheless, all continued to speak the same language, Serbo-Croatian. Curiously, Andric refers to the Muslims in the book as "Turks.")
Here's one of Andric's examples of how those tensions were buried. In chapter VI, he writes about how people in the town, located just over the boarder from Serbia proper, reacted to the rebellion of Karageorge (or Black George) in Serbia against the Turks:

There were in the town both Turks and Serbs who swore that they had heard with their own ears the rumbling of "Karageorge's gun" (naturally with completely opposite feelings). But even if it were a matter for doubt whether the echo of the Serb insurrectionists' gun could be heard as far as the town, for a man often thinks that he can hear what he is afraid of or what he hopes for, there could be no doubt about the fires which the insurgents lit by night on the bare and rocky crest of Panos between Veletovo and Gostilje, on which the huge isolated pines could be counted from the town with the naked eye. Both Turks and Serbs saw the fires clearly and looked at them attentively, although both pretended not to have noticed them. From darkened windows and from the shadows of dense gardens, both took careful note of when and where they were lighted and extinguished. The Serbian women crossed themselves in the darkness and wept from inexplicable emotion, but in their tears they saw reflected from those fires of insurrection even as those ghostly flames which had once fallen upon Radisav's grave and which their ancestors almost three centuries before had also seen through their tears from that same Mejdan....
In those summer nights the wishes and the prayers of both cirlced around those flames, but in different directions. The Serbs prayed to God that these saving flames, like those which they had always carried in their hearts and carefully concealed, should spread to these mountains, while the Turks prayed to Allah to halt their progress and extinguish them, to frustrate the seditious designs of the infidel and restore the old order and the peace of the true faith.

Andric writes that any time such a rebellion occurred, inevitably some Serbs were scape-goated and paid with their lives, their heads displayed on spikes along the bridge.
In 1878, the fears of the town's "Turks" came true, as the Ottoman Empire -- the "sick man of Europe" -- withdrew and Austria-Hungary, a Christian power, was given the right to occupy Bosnia military and to run in administratively. Thus, the long-feared erosion of the Muslims' power and rights began. The same year, Serbia was granted independence and expelled its Muslims.
In 1909, Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia. By 1914, timed with the onset of World War I, Andric writes about how tensions in the town are coming to a boil with the rise of nationalism. Born in 1892, Andric would have been one of the university students that he portrays at the time debating the merits of nationalism against socialism.
And he explains how foreign powers exacerbated the differences in the town. The Austrians asked the local Muslims to participate in a schutzkorps, a local militia designed to patrol the town for Serb insurrectionists. One of the wise old Muslims named Alihodja, who ranks among the book's major characters and who seems to embody Andric's sympathies, often counsels against any political violence -- mostly because he himself always seems simply to want to be left alone by any authority, be it Turkish or Austrian. He successfully convinces most of the town's prominent Muslims leaders not to participate.
In the final, turbulent times in which the book comes to a close, Andric reveals the bloodlust and opportunism that he ascribes to the lowest of motives associated with war time. Gustav, a long-time Austrian beer server and cafe owner, shows up drunken in the quasi-military uniform of the schutzkorps shouting at an Austro-Hungarian military officer that he was "promised that I could hang two Serbs with my own hands when the time came." The lieutenant, in his Hungarian-accented German, "exasperatedly" denies Gustav his request.
Nonetheless, the execution of three Serbs -- guilty of the crime of giving light signals at night towards the Serbian frontier -- goes on. Andric appears to indicate that one of them, Vajo, is innocent and that "in a weak and tearful voice asserted his innocence, that his competitor was responsible for the charge, that he had never done any military service and never in his life known that one could make signals with lights."
It's all to no avail, as the man is executed on the bridge.
The book ends with the death of Alihodja, who suffers a heart attack after the bridge, which had been mined, has a hole blown between two of its grand piers. In his final breaths, he cannot comprehend that anyone would consciously destroy something so gorgeous, vital and enduring as a bridge that was the bequest of an Ottoman Vezir.
Which brings us back to the present. As I was reading the book, I would periodically go online to look up photos of the bridge or research the history of the area, which has interested me ever since I took an Eastern European history class in the fall of 1993.
Someday, I had thought, if I could ever persuade my wife to do it, I would like to visit the town and see the bridge's amazing architecture. But amid my research I learned that Visegrad is part of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian enclave of partitioned Bosnia, and that almost all of the town's 14,000 Muslims are gone, the victims of ethnic cleansing.
This post mentions how the bridge was used to dispose of Muslims who were shot, beaten and otherwise tortured and that a resort hotel overlooking the bridge, used a center for mass rapes, continues to operate as if nothing had happened.
And then I came across the news item about the crimes of Milan and Sredoje Lukic.
Andric died in 1975. It makes me wonder what he would have thought of this sordid history and the sad legacy of the town that is home to "The Bridge on the Drina."

Monday, July 20, 2009

ESPN and The Future of Sports Media

About a year ago it started to dawn on me where the future of sports journalism -- traditionally the province of daily newspapers -- was going.
The first domino came last summer when the news broke that longtime Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz was giving up his role to become team president. A quick visit to the Braves' official Web site revealed an incongruous picture.
One link announced that the team was having a press conference later in the day. Another, an independently reported story by MLB.com staffer Mark Bowman, broke the news itself about Schuerholz's departure.
The second came when I heard that former Falcons beat writer Steve Wyche was leaving the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a job with NFL.com and the NFL Network. (Wyche remains a fixture here in Atlanta on local radio.)
Around the same time, The Sporting News hired Jeff D'Alessio away from the AJC and launched an innovative daily online newspaper, Sporting News Today.
The picture rounded out for me when the NFL season began and I noticed that ESPN.com had hired friend and former hockey writer colleague Tim Graham away from the Palm Beach Post, where he worked for less than one year as back-up Dolphins writer, as its AFC East blogger. That meant that in addition to all of the national writers and reporters that ESPN has on the NFL, the Web site had created a direct 1-to-4 ratio of reporters (or bloggers) to teams.
What was to prevent ESPN.com eventually, I reasoned, from going to a 1-to-2 ratio or a 1-to-1 ratio with, in effect, beat writers for every team?
The answer is on the front page of the New York Times today written by Brooks Barnes (with whom I worked briefly in the West Chester, Pa., office of the Philadelphia Inquirer when we were both two-year correspondents).
For some reason, today could be a watershed moment -- at least for media navel gazers like myself -- as Sports Business Journal's Bill King has a lengthy story today examining how staff and travel cuts by daily newspapers have hurt the teams that they cover. This Tweet today from SBJ's Liz Mullen sums up the story succinctly enough: "SBJ survey: 303 sports editorial job cuts at 50 North American dailies in last 18 mos. sports staffs at papers cut 21%."
The Times' story says that ESPN.com is opening microsites, in addition to its pilot site in Chicago, in Dallas, Los Angeles and Dallas.
ESPN already has eviscerated local sports casts, as local TV executives have cut back the amount of time they devote to sports and have filled in with relentless weather coverage, forfeiting sports news to the cable goliath. And those who follow what is going on with print journalism don't need to be reminded that the Internet (hello, ESPN.com) is eroding the financial underpinning of newspapers to the point that a good number of large ones are half the size of their former selves, having gotten there in only a few short years.
Will ESPN.com's micro sites be successful? It's hard to doubt almost anything that the network does will fail. It certainly has financial resources these days that newspapers can only dream of and putting reporters on the road with teams is the backbone of comprehensive sports coverage. It seems unclear from the Times' story as to whether that will be the case or not.
But why wouldn't they? Obviously, ESPN sees the vacuum.
Here is how I began to envision sports coverage when I had my epiphany last year and it appears to be shaking out. First, you will have the large, independent news-gathering organizations. Under this I put ESPN, ESPN.com, Sporting News Today, Sports Illustarted and SI.com, the New York Times and a select few other truly national newspapers. (The Wall Street Journal has increased sports coverage and will continue to beef up that part of its operation.) For example, I wonder how many newspapers sent a writer to the British Open. The AJC used to and Stewart Cink, a local guy, winning the tournament was huge news, but readers will have to go to a news organization like the Times with the budget to put a writer on the ground in Scotland to find non-news wire coverage.
Secondly, you will have what remains of newspapers until they find a sustainable model for survival. In Atlanta, with the coming of the fall season, expect some significant cutbacks in terms of writers traveling with the teams they cover. (This began last winter in the midst of the paper's latest round of buyouts when University of Georgia and Georgia Tech basketball, Thrashers and Hawks coverage on the road was cut back in certain circumstances.)
Those newspapers will have to pick their poison, so to speak. It's impossible for the AJC not to travel with Georgia and Tech football and -- for now -- the Braves because of the popularity of beat writer Dave O'Brien online. The Falcons, on the upswing, should be in a similar category (also because of the relatively limited travel and, thus expense, related to an NFL team) and the Hawks -- again, for now -- also would seem to be in that category.
Everything else would seem to be up for debate, as the paper has stopped traveling with NASCAR (when I joined the paper in 1999 the paper attended races in 33 of 39 weeks, I believe) and golf, Olympic sports and a lot of others -- playoffs included -- that are national in nature.
If financial pressure continues to increase on papers like the AJC, is it possible that the paper would restrict travel further to save costs? Yes.
And it's not the simple question of how the paper travels, it's in the numbers. When Georgia Tech made it to the 2004 NCAA men's basketball tournament finals, the paper had about 10 people there. It sent several on the day of the game. But when the Hawks were in the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time in who knows how long, the paper sent the beat writer and columnist Mark Bradley to Cleveland.
So, in addition to the expansion of some large national media entities, most notably ESPN, you will see another source of expansion: the leagues and teams themselves. The coming of these experiments were explored briefly in today's SBJ.
Bowman has been covering the Braves for a few years now. And the leagues and teams themselves keep hiring notable sports writers. Sam Smith, one of the most respected NBA writers in the league and author of "The Jordan Rules," writes for the Chicago Bulls' Web site -- with a disclaimer noting that the contents of Smith's writing have not been "reviewed or endorsed" by the team.
Another example is the recent leap by ex-Redskins beat writer Jason LaCanfora to a job seemingly similar to what Wyche is doing with the NFL.
And back on June 22 when the NHL laid off 20 employees at its league offices, it was accompanied by coverage by SBJ's Tripp Mickle that alluded to the coming growth of the league as a media company. Mickle's Tweets that day mentioned that the league would hire "20 new employees" and that the new hires "aim to get rt skills".
Oh, and let's not forget bloggers, whose contributions are significant. However, I'm talking mainly about paid media.
So, there it is sports fans. The great irony is that readers' consumption continues to increase. Where will they get their news? Here are a variety of sources. The market will determine the winners.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Falcons' New Minority Investors Mean

There are several kinds of sports business stories. There are those that mean everything to a fan: seasons canceled over labor disputes, a team's decision to cut payroll and dump its stars or a sale to a new owner who promises dramatic changes to payroll, culture, etc.
Then there are those that are interesting only to those with a keen interest in business and that have little impact on the reader whose sole interest is the team's on-field performance. Inside baseball stories, so to speak.
Classify the decision by Falcons owner Arthur Blank to sell a minority interest in the team under this last category. According to the story in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Blank will still retain a controlling interest of more than 90 percent in the team. (To my knowledge, the NFL does not allow any owner to own less than a majority interest in any of its teams and also disallows corporations from owning teams; that way NFL franchises don't get in any Atlanta Spirit-style court messes.)
With this sale, Blank was simply monetizing his asset. Seven years ago, Blank paid a reported $545 million for the Falcons. As of last September in Forbes' annual valuation of NFL teams -- which economists I have interviewed cite as reliable and use in their own work -- the Falcons were estimated to have a value of $872 million.
So simply in appreciation, Blank has banked $327 million. (And you wonder why there are always people willing to buy downtrodden pro sports franchises, as the Falcons had the label of, when Blank bought them.)
Let's pretend, then, that Blank allowed his four new investors to buy 1 percent of the team for $8 or $9 million. The team already had two minority investors and, if we take the reporting in the story at face value that Blank still retains more than a 90 percent interest, let's assume that Blank sold 5 percent of the team.
That's a realized gain of between $40 and $45 million. Not bad.
In a statement released by Blank in announcing the transaction, Blank indicated that impetus for the sale was to increase funding to his family foundation: "This decision is driven primarily by my charitable and estate- planning goals and by the value that can be added to the franchise by partnering with minority owners of this caliber."
Blank's family foundation is not endowed -- that will happen, I believe, when both he and his wife are deceased, with the sale of his estate endowing the foundation. For a story I wrote early last year about Blank Foundation grants, its president Penny McPhee, explained how the foundation was financed.
"McPhee said foundation officials meet annually with Arthur Blank's finance team on a multi-year budget. She said Blank does not want the annual donations to be erratic, lest they affect the foundation's partners in a negative way."
Well, the Great Recession has taken its toll on almost everyone. That story indicated the foundation would make $19 million in grants in 2008. The first story I wrote at the Atlanta Business Chronicle indicated that the foundation gave out $23.3 million in 2006.
This year's total was set to be down to about $12 million, according to his November 2008 story by Rachel Tobin Ramos in the Journal-Constitution.
Obviously, this situation was not sitting well with Blank. The new infusion from this minority sale in the Falcons ought to help him get back to higher levels of funding for the foundation and weather the storm.
It's also interesting to take a look at who he chose to bring in -- in general, businessmen and entrepreneurs who share his interests. I don't know much about Ronald E. Canakaris or Ed Mendel, but I do know a bit about Doug Hertz (who, I believe, is a big Georgia Tech fan) and Derek Smith, whom I wrote a story about several months ago.
I first heard about Hertz in that same first story I wrote for the ABC. For those in Atlanta familiar with AM talk sportstalk station 790 The Zone, Hertz is the force behind Thursday's telethon on that station for Camp Twin Lakes, a nonprofit that hosts children with disabilities and serious illnesses.
Published reports have stated that Smith's value in Alpharetta-based ChoicePoint fluctuated over the years between $120 and $50 million. He recently founded his Myfifident Foundation
foundation with $10 million.
So, obviously, these are serious players who are not only incredibly wealthy but also share Blank's passion for philanthropy.
As for what it means for the Falcons, perhaps the bottom line is just a few more wealthy individuals watching games in the owners on Sundays.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Blackhawks' Pickle

If commissioner Gary Bettman's pre-lockout hope was that an NHL salary cap would function to create NFL-style parody, then Chicago hockey fans are about to get a first-hand taste of what that means.
Blackhawks fans, say hello to your friends in Buffalo and Tampa Bay -- two of the NHL's best franchises in the middle part of this decade that have sunken to also-ran status (or worse) because they were, in effect, "capped out."
ESPN.com's Scott Burnside gives an insightful look today into why Chicago general manager Dale Tallon was relieved of his duties after bringing the franchise to its most successful point in 13 years. It seems there was a lot of politicking going on in the front office and that when Tallon flubbed the timing of sending out qualifying offers to retain the team's restricted free agents at the end of last month, potentially risking that they could become unrestricted and leading to the filing of a grievance by the NHL Players Association, Tallon provided the amunition to his enemies that led to his ouster.
Yes, the Blackhawks have delivered one of the NHL's most exciting renaissances in recent years and, in the process, have become a financial juggernaut, leading the league with an average attendance of 22,247.
But this isn't Major League Baseball or the NBA where a team can buy itself out of bad contracts or the NFL, where cutting a player means you don't have to pay him. These are precarious times for NHL general managers to negotiate the NHL's guaranteed contracts and its hard salary cap, set for next season at $56.8 million.
And it appears that the trend of teams' awarding insanely long contracts is going to start haunting some teams. Philadelphia is among them, with Daniel Briere and his eight-year, $52-million deal and Chris Pronger, whose seven-year, $34.9-million extension won't kick in until he's 35, leaving the Flyers, most likely, with dead cap space at the end of that contract for at least a few years.
But let's take a look at the 'Hawks and what gave Chicago president John McDonough the pretense to get rid of Tallon.
Because of Tallon's mistake in the timing with the qualifying offers, he was forced quickly to sign deals with two players that ended up being more lucrative than might have been the case to prevent the possibility that they would go unrestricted (at which point he might have lost them to potential rivals or had to pay them even more). In particular, rookie of the year finalist Kris Versteeg, a forward, will assume a $3.083 million cap hit for the next three years, as will defenseman Cam Barker.
Those millions -- or hundreds of thousands -- are precious in the cap era and the Blackhawks' cap issues will shortly become an acute mess. A quick look at the Blackhawks' cap figures on NHLnumbers.com would indicate that the Blackhawks' window to win the Stanley Cup, as currently constituted, could be as short as next season.
Here's why: The Blackhawks owe the 21 players signed to contracts an estimated $58.147 million, which would theoretically put them $1.347 million over the cap.
Two of Chicago's best players and the foundation of the franchise for years to come, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, are on rookie contracts that pay them $850,000 and $875,000, respectively. However, those players' cap numbers are $3.725 for Kane and $2.8 million because of performance bonuses in their contracts. The Blackhawks are only under the salary cap because of a $4.26 million cushion provided by the league in case those players do not hit all of those bonuses.
If they do hit all of those bonuses -- which is very possible, considering they ranked as Chicago's No. 2 and 3 scorers last season -- then the mechanism in which the NHL compensates for teams that exceed the cap through bonsuses is to deduct the overage from the following season. (Ain't cost certainty a bitch?)
So the Blackhawks could face a 2010-11 season in which all of the following happens: The salary cap goes down because of continuining economic pressures, the Blackhawks face a charge of several million dollars from the previous season, further lessening their cap space, and, oh by the way, those two pillars of the foundation both hit restricted free agency. So does defenseman Duncan Keith, who led the team in average ice time per game. (Defenseman Brent Seabrook, No. 2 in average ice time, hits it the following season, but that's another quandary for another year.)
This is the crisis that new general manager Stan Bowman, one season into his tenure, will face. It will be impossible for him to keep the key elements of the team together.
Take a look at Chicago's largest contracts:
-- Defenseman Brian Campbell, cap hit of $7.140 million with four years remaining after '09-'10.
-- Goalie Cristobal Huet, who was the team's back-up in this year's playoffs but will assume the No. 1 job, at $5.625 million with two more years.
-- Right wing Marian Hossa, $5.233 million, with 10 years remaining.

So if Kane, Toews and Seabrook all receive contracts in the $5-$6-million range, one way to get under the cap would be to get rid of Campbell, Hossa and Huet, which, in addition to being nearly impossible, would eviscerate the team.
Here are some of the hideous options the Blackhawks could undertake to remedy the situation. They could buy out Campbell at a cost of $19 to $20 million. They could send him -- their No. 3 defenseman and highest scoring player at that position -- to the minors and pay him $7.14 million per year so he wouldn't count against his cap.
They could trade Huet, if anyone would take him at that salary, or buy him out and then try to find a cheap goalie capable of winning a Stanley Cup. (Good luck with that, although it's more risky than impossible.)
Ironically, the most movable player becomes Hossa. His 2009 Stanley Cup final performance aside, he's one of the game's premier wings and when compared to his peers his $5.233 cap number makes him much more palatable -- despite the length of his contract -- than say, Dany Heatley, whom Ottawa is finding untradable, in part, because of his $7.5 million cap number. (Remember, those players were once traded for each other with Greg de Vries thrown in largely as a salary dump for the then-cap strapped Senators.)
One other minor point about the Blackhawks' situation is how it puts the NHL and the NHLPA at odds even when they are supposedly partners. The union wants to maximize revenues (and, thus, salaries) so having a team resurgent in a market like Chicago, with its vast windfall of revenues, is vital.
But to the NHL the most important thing is keeping teams under the cap, which, in this case, could hurt the Blackhawks on the ice and, as a result, on the balance sheet. Chicago's loss could be the gain of, say, Nashville or Phoenix, if it still exists, which would do nothing for revenues.
So good luck Stan Bowman. You'll need all the help you can get from your legendary father.
And your accountant.

Monday, July 13, 2009

How about a DeVo Reunion in Atlanta?

Over the weekend I was watching the NHL Network when the names of some of the remaining unrestricted free agents scrolled across the screen. One leaped out at me: Greg de Vries.
It was hard to understand why the Thrashers let him go in the first place, although I'm sure the fact that he made $2.75 million last season was a big part of it. De Vries has size and some offensive upside (former coach Bob Hartley once referred to him as his "secret weapon" for the shootouts even though that little experiment didn't last long) but most of all he's probably one of the top character guys the franchise has ever had.
From my modest view of things, the Thrashers' roster could use an infusion of leadership. Ilya Kovalchuk is the team's captain and he was lauded for his work as captain after receiving the "C" last season. No doubt, Kovalchuk has the respect of every player in that room, but going forward it remains to be seen over the long haul if he will continue to do all of the things that a captain needs to do, especially standing up after a tough loss, taking responsibility and saying all of the right things.
That has not always been Kovalchuk's strong suit, as youth and hot-headedness have caused him at difficult times either to ditch the media -- most often, to the credit of the team's public relations staff, he would be dragged back to talk long after he had showered and calmed down -- or he would say some intemperate things. (See MacTavish, Craig; Crosby, Sidney.)
And unless he signs a new contract some time by the end of December, Thrashers media availability sessions will become a circus concerning Kovalchuk's status, as they were in 2008 with Marian Hossa, as the trading deadline approaches.
For Kovalchuk, such circumstances could be far from an ideal, just in terms of team leadership implications alone, to put it mildly.
Having been out of the room on a daily basis for a little more than two years now, I cannot personally attest to the leadership qualities of every player on the roster. However, if I had to name the team's veteran leaders/character players who play key roles (especially with the loss of Garnet Exelby) I'd say they are Slava Kozlov, who can be media shy himself at times, Colby Armstrong, Marty Reasoner, Ron Hainsey and Johan Hedberg, who, as a back-up goaltender, is hardly in much of a position to lead. (I'm not saying that Eric Boulton, Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn aren't good character players -- to the contrary, they are -- but defensemen log significantly more minutes than third- and fourth-liners and play a more integral role.)
That seems a little thin to my liking, especially on the backline where Hainsey appears to be the only player in a position to lead. Maybe Pavel Kubina will be a great leader, but I'm not quite sure that's his reputation or skill set.
Now let's take a look at what you get in de Vries, who, despite his age, hasn't played fewer than 71 games in a season over the last four and twice played a full 82 in his two seasons in Atlanta. At the end of the 2007-08 season, de Vries played with a broken rib. Notably, he scored the game-winning goal over St. Louis in the second-to-last game of the season as Nashville earned the Western Conference's final playoff berth by only three points.
That's character and it's leading by example. What's more, de Vries is a calming influence, always saying the right things at difficult times. He is one of those players who helps to build team unity, as he did in Atlanta by being one of the ring leaders of team paintball games.
There's also the small matter of his having played in 111 playoff games in 10 different seasons, winning the Stanley Cup in 2001 with Colorado.
Yes, he will be 37 during the season, but who would you rather have as a third-pair defenseman, deVo or Joel Kwiatkowski, who will be 33 in March and whom the Thrashers thought they had signed until they learned that Kwiatkowski already had inked a deal to return to Russia?
For the record, de Vries is plus-23 in 878 NHL games while Kwiatkowski is minus-27 in 282 career games, albeit having played on mostly dreadful teams.
At this stage of his career, de Vries probably is not looking for a huge contract, but he likely would not play for the NHL minimum ($525,000) either. The question is whether Thrashers general manager Don Waddell has the budget for perhaps $1 million for de Vries and whether de Vries would want to return.
Last year the Thrashers were keen on having defenseman Mathieu Schneider to help in the tutelage of budding star Zach Bogosian and, by all accounts, the experiment went well. In that sense, money for de Vries would go to that same good, mentoring cause and would accomplish the same goal -- along with having a more than competent player at a key position.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Francoeur's Fall and Hope for a Fresh Start

A little more than a year ago I spoke to Jeff Francoeur for a story that I wrote about his seemingly limitless potential as a corporate pitchman.
At age 24, the right fielder was coming off his second straight season in which he played all 162 games. The Atlanta Braves home-grown product had hit .293 the year before with 19 home runs and 105 RBI and he had a bona fide squeaky-clean, local-boy-makes-good image. (I remember when I was at the Journal-Constitution and covered one of his high school football games during the 2001 season at Parkview -- Francoeur was an unbelievably dominant player as a safety and wide receiver on back-to-back state championship teams -- I counted something like nine different staffers who had written stories about him; today nine reporters would represent almost the entire AJC sports staff.)
By early 2008, Francoeur already had endorsement deals with Delta Air Lines, sports apparel maker Under Armour and sporting goods equipment manufacturer Mizuno.
He had switched his representation to Cobb County-based Career Sports and Entertainment, an agency that specialized in marketing, as well as client representation. He was entering a contract year and figured to cash in both with on the field and off.
I was convinced that for Francoeur the sky was the limit concerning his marketing potential, as, apparently, was Francoeur.
"We're looking at a couple of other big ones for this offseason," he said. "There are so many good businesses in Atlanta, from Coke, Home Depot, Chick-fil-A."
That story ran on May 30. If his decline had not begun at that point, it was about to. According to the AJC's Dave O'Brien, Francoeur's numbers have been dreadful since the 2007 All-Star Break: a .256 average with 25 home runs, 153 RBI, a .304 on-base percentage and a .381 slugging percentage in 310 games.
I remember feeling bad for Francoeur after the story ran. There he was on the front page of the Atlanta Business Chronicle talking about his strategies for life after baseball and such and at the same time the fortunes of his on-field career were plummeting.
Was it possible that he took his eye off the prize, that he was thinking too much about contracts and endorsements and not baseball? I've never been around him long enough to know, but I'd imagine that that his comments in that story might not have made the Braves' baseball people too happy. Of course, had Francoeur played the same way as he had in his first few seasons, there would have been no issue at all.
But on a few occasions, Francoeur, someone unaccustomed to having to deal with adversity, could have made better decisions in how he handled situations. At the top of the list was his comments after the Braves sent him to the minors to try to get his hitting back up to par in '08.
He bristled at the demotion and talked about how it had hurt his relationship with the organization. Then this past offseason there was his decision to consult a hitting coach other than the Braves' Terry Pendleton.
An effervescent personality who is a hard-worker and popular with his teammates and the fans, Francoeur's popularity made it virtually impossible for the team to criticism him publicly. But until the point where the Braves ultimately shipped him to the Mets late on Friday, the trade rumors had long persisted.
How much was the Braves' shopping of Francoeur a question of performance and how much was it a question of attitude?
Only Frank Wren, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz know the answer. Yet it's possible that performance and attitude were intertwined and that is what so frustrated the Braves. But the truth is that on an offensively weak team like the Braves, Francoeur's performance at the plate was not nearly good enough.
I am neither a fan of the Braves nor Mets (nor any baseball team, really) but I hope Francoeur regains his past form mainly because it's sad to see someone who appears to be a genuinely decent person succumb to such a fall from grace. (I covered the night when Parkview retired his baseball jersey in 2007 and he cried and gave a long speech and seemed sincerely moved, lingering long after the ceremony had ended to talk with members of the Gwinnett Daily Post and others.)
It would be a great irony to see an Atlanta product come back to haunt the Braves' most hated rival. I doubt few if any fans would turn on him in the way that they did when Tom Glavine signed with the Mets. After all, Francoeur didn't choose to leave, even if the move was necessary.
If Francoeur doesn't get back to form, he risks becoming one of those baseball oddites like 1980 American League Rookie of the Year Joe Charboneau who was out of the major leagues after hitting .214 in '82.
And that's a cruel fate that few, if any, deserve.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Comparing Contracts: Kotalik vs. Antropov

When I first saw the Thrashers' signing of Nik Antropov, I thought that four years at $4 million apiece for a two-time 20-goal scorer was a lot. The New York Rangers' signing on Thursday of Ales Kotalik, who received a three-year contract at $3 million per to replace Antropov on the Rangers' roster, essentially confirms that.
Let's take a look at the two players. NHL.com lists Antropov as a center, but for the last few years he's moved to right wing (where TSN.ca lists him). NHL.com lists Kotalik as a left winger/right winger. So, for all intents and purposes, if Atlanta was looking for a right winger to play with Ilya Kovalchuk, both players were available.
Antropov is 29 and was selected 10th overall in 1998. Kotalik was a sixth-rounder in the same draft year, which basically makes them the same age, although Kotalik is 30. Kotalik has played seven NHL seasons (only 13 games in his rookie season) and has scored 121 goals or an average of 17.3 per season. Throw out that one goal in his rookie season and he's averaging a round 20 goals per season and has hit that plateau four times.
On the other hand, Antropov has nine NHL seasons under his belt and 132 goals for an average of 14.7 per season.
That's a difference, conservatively, of eight goals over three seasons and, using Kotalik's higher average, of almost 16. Yet Antropov will make $1 million more per season and got an extra year.
Let's look at assists now. Kotalik has 130 in his career for an average of 18.6 per season while Antropov has 172 for 19.1, which makes them roughly a wash.
If Atlanta is counting on Antropov to produce at a higher level because he will play on the same line with Kovalchuk, consider that Antropov played with for several seasons in Toronto with one of the game's premier centers in Mats Sundin. In the second-most productive year of Antropov's career, he scored 26 goals when Sundin had 46 assists.
Kovalchuk has averaged 37 assists per season in his career and has never had more than 48, his total of 2008-09, so unless the Thrashers can find a center to channel 50 or 60 assists (Angelo Esposito, anyone?) they can basically expect Antropov to score somewhere between 17 and 25 goals.
Anything more than that and he'd clearly be producing beyond his historical levels.
One factor that Antropov does have on his side is size. At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, he's one of the game's biggest players, especially in terms of skilled forwards. Kotalik is 6-1, 227, which doesn't exactly make him a tiny.
But if Atlanta is hoping for durability out of that size, Kotalik again has the edge: He has averaged 63.6 games per season to Antropov's 58.6. (Remove that 13-game rookie season and Kotalik again rockets to an avearage of 74.2; Antropov, in his third season, played only 11 games and had a 34-game stint that season in the American Hockey League.)
One final comparison. Should Atlanta make the second playoff appearance in franchise history next season (which, in itself, would likely seal the Antropov deal as having been worth it), Antropov does not have the greatest postseason history. In 35 games, he has four goals and four assists for eight points. His best season was this past one when he truly was one of the Rangers' best players against Washington in the first round. He totaled two goals and one assist in seven games on a very low-scoring team.
Kotalik? How about 15 points in 34 games. So, Kotalik has seven more playoff points -- which are like gold -- in one less game. Again, in fairness, Kotalik's Buffalo teams were much better than any that Antropov played on but he nonetheless performed, posting back-to-back seasons of 8 points in 18 and 16 games, respectively. For that, he deserves credit.
I don't mean to sound overly negative about Antropov -- I wrote and I believe that he will be a good fit with Kovalchuk and overall I think he improves the team -- but I'm just looking at his value in terms of what Atlanta paid.
If they signed him in large part with the design of pleasing his pal Kovalchuk and hoping that Kovalchuk would re-sign beyond the coming season, their plan had best work. If not, they could be looking at three years of a disgruntled Nik Antropov who could struggle to perform at a $4-million level if history is any indicator.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Reading the Obits Today

As a lover of newspapers, I've always enjoyed reading the obituary section. Morbid, you say? Not at all. I view it as the complete opposite: The celebration or chronicling of fascinating lives.
Up here in Maine today -- with the temperatures barely breaking 60 degrees and heavy downpours from the late afternoon on -- I had plenty of time to read two obits in the New York Times, one of which was extremely lengthy.
As someone who did not reach high school until the late '80s, I had little appreciation for who Robert McNamara was other than the secretary of defense during the Vietnam War. His obit read like a history lesson and made me realize how great his influence was. He will go down as one of the most important figures in American history in the 20th century.
I came away from it thinking about what a tragic figure he was -- truly someone out of Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. I needed the perspective of people who were older (which I got in reading Bob Herbert's op-ed in the Times and the excerpt in the obit about a Times' editorial on McNamara from the '90s) to comprehend how reviled he was.
McNamara served as defense secretary for seven years in the '60s and was the principal architect of the Vietnam War. By the late '60s, he realized the war was not winnable but said nothing publicly for almost 30 years. For this, he was excoriated for the lives he could have saved but did not.
Sixteen thousand soldiers died in Vietnam while McNamara was defense chief. That meant 42,000 more died after his tenure -- lives he could have potentially saved by using his stature in the country to denounce the war.
What struck me was the guilt that the man must have lived with for the final 42 years of his life. One of his sons joined anti-war protests. To know that a close member of your family disagrees with you on something so elemental and would take to the streets in a showing that would be sure to capture public attention and that so much of society finds you worthy of revulsion would be a torturous way to end one's years -- like Oedipus' blinding himself and living out his life in exile.
Many probably wished that McNamara had done exactly that. Unlike so many of the 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-years who were sent to Vietnam and came home in body bags or who came home with debilitating physical or mental scars, McNamara got to live out his years in relative peace. In a poignant anecdote, the Times described the aged McNamara and his 1,000-yard stare as a common site walking the Washington, D.C., streets near his office by the White House.
While many from the Vietnam generation would likely find nothing but disgust for McNamara, I found him pitiable. For one, the man was tortured by the idea that the only thing that prevented him from being convicted as a war criminal for his role in the decision to bomb civilian targets in Japan during World War II was the concept that the United States came out on the winning side.
I also thought of George W. Bush's defense secretary, Donald Rumseld, and how he seemingly repeated so many mistakes in Iraq that McNamara did in Vietnam (a failure to know your enemy, notably) and Rumsfeld's bristling at any criticism. In the end, McNamara accepted blame for his failures.
It's one thing to realize the error of your ways and be tortured by it. It's quite another never to admit that you made any. ("Stuff happens," is a favorite Rumsfeldian bromide.)
The other obit was that of Robert Taylor, who served as publisher of the Philadelphia Bulletin when it was that city's largest newspaper and one of the largest in America. When I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, many of the older veterans of the paper talked wistfully about the Bulletin, which went under in 1982. (Just as 2009 is sounding the death knell for a number of large newspapers, so did the early '80s with those in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., going under.) Those reporters saw the competitive pressures from the Bulletin as making the Inquirer better; they viewed the Inquirer as badly in decline when I worked there in the late '90s, a shell of its perennial Pulitzer Prize-winning self from the era of editor Eugene Roberts.
So, in essence, the Bulletin went from being the largest afternoon paper in the United States to out of busines in about 15 years. Afternoon papers began dying, losing out to their morning counterparts which won out as readers chose the immediacy of earlier as opposed to later news.
It's not so different from what's going on today. It's taken the Internet about as long to erode the business model of today's papers.
There were but few similarities to the obits for Taylor and McNamara, one being that both lived well into their '90s. These men, ensconced in white-collar, upper class jobs, lived a lot longer than both of my grandfathers, who expired in their mid-70s after lifetimes of manual labor.
For a cold, rainy summer day, it proved to be a thought-provoking dose of reading.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Nash Contract Sets a Benchmark for Kovalchuk

Just as it happened in 2005, the contract that Columbus Blue Jackets winger Rick Nash received this week will impact what the Atlanta Thrashers will need to do to re-sign Ilya Kovalchuk. (The only difference is that Nash will have signed his deal one season before Kovalchuk has to re-up.)
The two players, selected first overall one year apart, have often have their destinies intertwined. In 2004, they both finished tied for the league lead in goals at 41 (along with Jarome Iginla.)
Nash, 25, signed an eight-year, $62.4 million contract that carries with it a $7.8 million annual salary cap hit.
The 26-year-old Kovalchuk has totaled more than a point-per-game in seven NHL seasons (545 games, 297 goals, 260 assists for 557 points) or 1.02 points per game.
Nash's totals are considerably lower. In 441 games, he has 194 goals and 161 assists for 355 points or .80 points per game.
So, in essence, Kovalchuk's production is almost 25 percent higher. Does that, then, mean that he should be paid 25 percent more than Nash?
That would mean an annual cap hit of a whopping $9.75 million per season. No doubt, Kovalchuk's agent Jay Grossman would love to land a deal of that value.
When Kovalchuk signed his last deal, contracts were mostly evaluated in terms of the average salary over the length of the deal. (Kovalchuk's was just shy of $6.4 million while Nash's was about $5.4 million. Atlanta could be lucky if the difference between Nash's and Kovalchuk's contracts ends up being $1 million per year more again.)
Because NHL teams have lengthened the terms of contracts with much smaller salaries at the tail ends to lessen the annual cap hit, the average value is no longer a valid measure of a player-to-player analysis.
For example, Tampa Bay center Vinny Lecavalier has an 11-year deal worth $85 million so his average is $7.72 million. Few would argue that Nash is a better player than Lecavalier, though Nash's contract's cap hit is higher.
And because of Lecavalier's winning of a Stanley Cup, Kovalchuk cannot command as much as Lecavalier.
But look more closely at the Lecavalier deal: It pays him $10 million for each of the first seven seasons.
Alexander Ovechkin's deal does not tail off in this way. It pays him $9 million for the first six seasons and then $10 million for the last seven, giving an annual cap hit of $9.538 million.
Some would argue that Ovechkin, relatively, is underpaid then when compared to Lecavalier. (Again, Lecavalier has that Stanley Cup on his resume, even if he had perhaps a better supporting cast than Ovechkin with Brad Richards -- Conn Smythe winner in the Cup-winning year -- and Martin St. Louis -- Hart Trophy winner that year.)
Look for Atlanta to use Marian Hossa's new contract with Chicago as a comparable. The most it pays him in any year is $7.9 million, as it averages $5.233 million. It is 12 years long and pays him $62.8 million. The total of Hossa's deal is only $400,000 more than Nash's, but the amount of years involved severely alter the average cap hit. However, Hossa is four years older than Kovalchuk and, thus, closer to a theoretical decline in production while Kovalchuk would theoretically have more years remaining in his prime.)
These will be the arguments between Kovalchuk and the Thrashers as they negotiate and, for the most part, these contracts will be the comparables that, to a large degree, will set the parameters.
Last time Thrashers general manager had Doug MacLean to thank for Nash's contract. This time, he has Scott Howson.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Thoughts from Maine; Quick Note on Antropov

I've been here for less than 24 hours and I'm being struck in a number of subtle ways about the quirky differences between Maine and other states, including New England ones.
A few of them come from the grocery store. Shopping in the dairy aisle right next to the french onion dip is clam dip. I asked my mom how to eat clam dip and she didn't seem to be too sure if it went on crackers or potato chips.
The best thing about grocery stores in Maine is that you can buy hard liquor there. Hmmm, cereal, soup... whiskey. Nice! That's good old-fashioned libertarianism, the kind of conservative politics that could come back in vogue, if anyone would ever choose to practice them.
There's also the bottle bill redemption. One of my first jobs was working at Star Market and my favorite thing to do was redeem bottles. It was sort of like a carnival game, trying to get the right bottle in the right bin as fast as you could, they needed to be sorted by size. (Although in the summer sometimes people tried to get money for bottles they had collected in the woods or on the streets and they were filled with things that were growing in them and smelled. Disgusting.)
But long ago Massachusetts, along with, I thought, almost every other state, jettisoned the bottle redemption concept. Not Maine, set in its ways.
And then there's the beach. The sun actually has come out today, after we left, of course. But it was probably about 70 degrees and cloudy. Almost no one at the beach stripped down to their bathing suits.
Beachgoing in Maine, to me, seems confinded to sitting in chairs and watching children make sand castles, as their ankles freeze in a few inches of ocean water.

* * *

The Thrashers got the right player in 6-foot-6 Nik Antropov, but seems to me that they way overpaid and did it in a somewhat desperate effort to retain Ilya Kovalchuk beyond this season.
Antropov was long an enigma to fans in Toronto. With his tremendous size, much more was expected of him than hitting the 20-goal plateau only twice in nine seasons.
However, he seems like he could be one of the few forwards capable of meshing with Kovalchuk in the rare way that singular talents like Dany Heatley and Marc Savard have in the past.
Compare Antropov's pay to another Thrashers winger, Slava Kozlov. Kozlov, who has recorded 71 points or more in three of the last four seasons, will make $3.85 million this coming season.
Antropov, who signed a four-year, $16-million deal, is coming off a career (contract) year in which he recorded highs in points (59) and goals (28). Only two other times in his career has Antropov hit 45 points or more.
Antropov will be 30 in February, Kozlov 37 in May, so that accounts for a large part of the pay disparity.
Still, it's a lot of money for a two-time 20-goal scorer. Take a look at how fast salaries have escalated. Savard signed a four-year, $20 million deal after 2005-06 and last season he ranked among NHL centers in points. That contract came after Savard finished in the top 10 in the NHL in points.
Seems to me that Atlanta overpaid for Antropov as much for being able to entice fellow ethnic Russian and pal Kovalchuk to re-sign in Atlanta beyond the coming season as much as they did for what he can do on the ice.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Thoughts on Kubina Deal

If the Thrashers felt that they were too small of a team last season, they certainly would appear to have one of the biggest top fours in the NHL with the addition of 6-foot-4 Pavel Kubina. Kubina goes with 6-2 Zach Bogosian and 6-3 Ron Hainsey and 5-10 Tobias Enstrom.
New Atlanta associate general manager Rick Dudley's fingerprints have to be all over this deal, as Dudley was general manager in Tampa Bay for several seasons while Kubina was on the team.
Kubina brings a big shot and his 17 goals in 2003-04 for Tampa (during its Stanley Cup season) tied for the league lead among all defensemen.
Over the last two seasons, Kubina posted back-to-back 40-point totals and was a plus-player in his first two seasons with the Leafs on bad teams -- both positive signs for Atlanta. The biggest challenge in using Kubina for Atlanta will be how coach John Anderson manages ice time between Kubina, 32, and defenseman Tobias Enstrom, 24, who represents the future.
The Thrashers now have something that they have never had in their history: some huge minute-munchers on the back line. To me, the most telling statistic for a defenseman, and truly players in general, is time on ice because it shows which player or players the coach has the most confidence in. If a guy is on the ice the most, there's a reason.
Last season Enstrom led the Thrashers in ice time at 23:31 and Hainsey ranked second at 22:22. Bogosian averaged 18:06, impressive for a rookie, especially considering the length of time he missed with injury. Expect his ice time to rocket upwards in Season Two.
Last season for Toronto, Kubina ranked third in average time on ice at 22:03 behind Tomas Kaberle and Ian White. Rookie Luke Schenn ranked only 31 seconds behind Kubina, which is probably what made Kubina expendable, along with his $5 million salary. Schenn is the future while Kubina represents the past as Leafs general manager Brian Burke cleans house to build his type of team.
In that sense, Garnet Exelby, once known as one of the game's premier hitters, is right up Burke's alley. The big challenge for Exelby, especially playing in Toronto under that huge microscope, will be re-establishing that reputation.
I know there had been feeling around some in the Thrashers organization for years that Exelby's physical side had slipped because of his concussion history and that he was not nearly the fearsome presence on the ice that he once was. (Leafs fans surely will talk over and over about the hit that Exelby put on Mats Sundin a few years back.)
Exelby, one of my favorite players when I covered the team, is a strong character guy and was stepping into his own as a team leader, even with his ice time ranking him as the team's No. 4 defenseman. From the comments that I read after games, he was willing to speak up, take responsibility and say when performances were not up to snuff.
But back to Enstrom. For much of the first two thirds of last season, he regressed from his strong rookie year after the team acquired Mathieu Schneider and Schneider received more minutes and more power play time. Once Schneider was traded to Montreal, however, Enstrom flourished.
Will Kubina's acquisition represent a repeat for Enstrom: High-salaried, offensively skilled defenseman reduces Enstrom's time and, as a consequence, his productivity?
Certainly, Enstrom is an enormous part of the Thrashers' future and impeding his development would not help the franchise. The biggest challenge for coach John Anderson will be managing the ice time between Kubina and Enstrom so that both produce.
There's one other possible caution for Atlanta in the deal. Could Kubina represent a replay of the signing of Jaroslav Modry? Like Kubina, Modry was a big, Czech defenseman with offensive upside who could play big minutes.
Unfortunately, what the Thrashers learned in the 2005-06 season, to their surprise, was that defensively Modry was one of those defenders who made his way in the pre-lockout NHL as an obstructionist.
When the new rules came into effect, Modry was a step (or two) too slow and often had to resort to hooking or holding which landed him far too often in the penalty box. As a result, Atlanta could not play him against other teams top offensive lines since he was too much of a liability and Modry became mostly a power play specialist, where he succeeded with 38 points. The next year, he was shipped to Dallas.
Modry was 34 when he played his first season for Atlanta. Kubina is 32. In all likelihood, Kubina is a far better skater than Modry was, has that benefit of being two years younger than Modry was, and there's no new rules to skew any analysis of his game.
But for Atlanta to be a playoff team, they'll need Kubina to return to being a plus player, which he has been three of the last five seasons but which he never was for the first six of his NHL career.
Those were mostly bad teams (although the 2002-03 Lightning were a playoff team), but they were not all that different from Atlanta has been for the last two.
How this trade works out should define the Thrashers' season.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Does Heatley Really Want to go to NY?

All reports indicate that disgruntled Ottawa Senators winger Dany Heatley has invoked his no-trade clause to void a trade to Edmonton. The scuttlebutt also appears to be that the New York Rangers are heavily in the mix to land Heatley. The Rangers had trouble scoring last year and general manager Glen Sather cleared a ton of cap space by dealing center Scott Gomez to Montreal yesterday so Heatley could help immensely in that department.
But if Heatley really prefers to go to New York over Edmonton, he should take a few minutes to do some research if he truly wants to take a bite out of the Big Apple. Not a heavy investment of time, just a few short video clips or transcripts of press conferences.
The first press conference I'd pick would come from this playoff season when Rangers coach John Tortorella fielded media queries after he was suspended in a first-round playoff series against Washington for throwing a water bottle into the stands at the Verizon Center. Check out the dogged nature of the questioning from the New York Post's Larry Brooks and the contentiousness of the exchange. (Here's a transcript.)
The second would be almost any from Tortorella's first few years of coaching Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa Bay when Tortorella would call out Lecavalier by name in postgame press conferences for what he perceived to be less than what Lecavalier was capable of delivering on the ice.
Let's take the first one first. Heatley has taken enough of a bashing in the Ottawa media, so there's no reason to go there. But one thing the coverage does reveal is Heatley's aversion to media scrutiny.
In Tuesday's Ottawa Citizen, Wayne Scanlan had a fascinating story in which he interviewed Heatley defender Tom Molloy, a friend of Heatley's parents. Here is one of the most interesting parts: "Molloy wrote a letter to The Citizen sports department because the Heatleys told him they didn't have 'a forum' to express the other side of the story."
Let me clear my throat. Heatley doesn't have a forum? All he has to do is call one of, oh, about 100 Canadian media outlets to provide his side of the story and it would be front-page news all over Canada. In Atlanta, when the Braves cut future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine a few weeks back, Glavine took a few days then hit the airwaves. Everything he said made sense and fan sentiment was universally in his favor. In essence, Glavine understood that any professional athlete of his stature always has a "forum" at his disposal.
Why hasn't Heatley done the same? In short, he hasn't spoken publicly since requesting a trade because he does not like to answer hard questions until he absolutely has to. It's the offseason, so he can continue to send out his agent Stacey McAlpine to answer for him, insofar as McAlpine is inclined to be a punching bag.
I remember when Heatley got traded from Atlanta to Ottawa in 2005. It was huge news. All day long I played phone tag with McAlpine who promised to get Dany on the phone for me. Guess what? Dany had time to do a phone interview with Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun where he could proclaim how glad he was to be playing in a true hockey market, but not with an Atlanta outlet where questions, in this circumstance, where likely to be more pointed about why he wanted out.
Don't get me wrong, the media coverage in Ottawa is intense. I've had enough players who played there tell me about how the city has such a small-town feel so that everyone knows what they're doing. Players can't go out to eat or walk down the street without being recognized.
That would probably not be the case for Heatley in New York -- where even celebrities like Madonna can live without getting pestered all the time -- but I think it's fair to say that the media's relationship with the team is more adversarial than it is in Ottawa. It's just the nature of the media taking on the personality of its city.
Now let's take a look at the coach that Heatley would have to play for, the famously combustible Tortorella, who, I believe, is one of the best in the NHL. Why did Heatley request a trade in the first place? Oh, his coach, Cory Clouston, was too hard on him. Clouston once had the temerity to politely criticize Heatley in the media.
If he didn't like playing for Clouston, how he could possibly co-exist with a coach who is as in-your-face as Tortorella? Reporters I got to know on the beat in Tampa said that the Lightning players really liked Tortorella. They got more off days than most and, let's be honest, Tortorella doesn't play games. What you see is what you get and they understood that. The man led them to the Stanley Cup and they appreciated that he got the most out of them. But, as with all coaches, eventually the message stops losing its potency after a while.
If Heatley was so sensitive that he could not last two months with Clouston, who cut his ice time and put him on the second power play unit -- how else can coaches get the message to athletes guaranteed salaries in the $40-million range? Certainly not by fining them -- because he didn't like Heatley's two-way effort, how on earth could he last a full season with Tortorella?
This saga is fascinating in how it is playing out. I'd imagine that Senators general manager Bryan Murray's head is about to explode out of frustration after he worked hard to put together a deal for players he truly prized and had experience in managing.
Maybe Heatley eventually will go to the Rangers, but, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.