Sunday, January 31, 2010

How Lightning Sale Could Benefit Thrashers

Without nearly as much fanfare, it appears that the ownership situation surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning might be in a perilous situation that could start to approach that of the Phoenix Coyotes' before former 'Yotes owner Jerry Moyes put that team into bankruptcy.

The big difference between the two situations is that the NHL looks as if it has been able to find a stable buyer of its choosing before anything truly calamitous happened with the Lightning, a Stanley Cup winner in 2004 that ranked among NHL attendance leaders for a few seasons. The Hockey News' Ken Campbell, about as well connected as any Toronto-based hockey reporter, has been all over this one and is reporting that the Lightning could be sold imminently to Boston-based hedge fund operator Jeffrey Vinik.

For hockey fans, most of whose eyes must glaze over whenever they hear that another team's ownership is in trouble (save those in Canada who salivate at the thought of a struggling U.S. Sun Belt franchise possibly re-locating back to the Great White North), this story has one very juicy tidbit that could affect the Lightning's on-ice product. Campbell is reporting that as part of Vinik's purchase of the team the Lightning would immediately trade Vincent Lecavalier to get his 2009-10 salary of $10 million off the books. According to, the Lightning are less than $4.6 million from the league's salary cap.

Of course, Lecavalier, who has a no-trade clause, would have to approve any such deal and we've seen how that can go (see Heatley, Dany). By trading Lecavalier, whose cap hit is only $7.27 million (annual cap figures are the average of each year's salary divided by the number of years on the contract), the Lighting would still be above the league's cap floor of $40.6 million and would probably be a lot closer towards breaking even -- even if their on-ice product would no doubt suffer. In fact, Lecavalier would have 10 more years and about $75 million left on the deal after this season.

Larry Brooks of the New York Post has reported twice this week that 10 NHL teams are suffering double-digit declines in revenues from 2008-09 to 2009-10. Campbell says that the Lightning's paid attendance is averaging only 10,500 per game. So it would not be a huge stretch to guess that Tampa Bay is one of those teams whose revenues are down double digits this season and that a new owner, coming from a hedge-fund background, would seek to cut costs immediately. Florida has been one of the hardest-hit states by the Great Recession and the Lightning, while in playoff contention this season -- though hardly blowing the doors off -- have not made the postseason since they were a first-round loser in 2007. The economy and poor play would both be factors that would complicate selling tickets, luxury box suites, premium tickets and sponsorships -- in essence, all of the things that make hockey teams money -- in that market.

But what would trading Lecavalier do to the Lightning? As long-time Lightning beat writer Erik Erlendsson writes, it "could be a sure way to alienate a season-ticket base that already has thinned out the past two seasons" -- once one of the most vibrant of NHL nontraditional markets. During my years on the Thrashers' beat, I watched up close the rebuilding project that the Washington Capitals took on after electing to trade Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar, Michael Nylander, Peter Bondra, Steve Konowalchuk and virtually every other veteran with almost any trade value back in 2004. The Capitals were dreadful for years and the then-MCI Center was about as bereft of fans as any arena in the NHL for a number of seasons.

But astute drafting by Caps general manager George McPhee and the amassing of draft picks that came with those trades turned into Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Jeff Schultz and on and on and on that has turned the Caps not only into perhaps hockey's most exciting team but also a raging box office success. If the Lightning traded Lecavalier, surely, as Erlendsson suggests, they would face some kind of backlash. But they also are much farther along in their rebuilding process than Washington was at the time of its rebuilding project and would retain noted veterans like Martin St. Louis and Ryan Malone. In Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman already in place, they have the core of their future intact. If they were to add, as Campbell suggests, defenseman Jack Johnson, winger Wayne Simmonds and draft picks from the Los Angeles Kings, the Lightning might only be a few years away from a, pardon the pun, phoenix-like resurrection from the ashes.

Since I formerly covered the Thrashers and still closely follow that team's progress, I often view events in terms of how they would affect Atlanta. Moving Lecavalier to Los Angeles could be one of the best things ever to happen to the Thrashers. Not only would it remove a perennial Thrasher-killer from a Southeast Division rival, but in the process it also would remove the team that I view as the most likely landing source of Thrashers soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, Ilya Kovalchuk.

To me, Los Angeles would appear to be an ideal location for Kovalchuk to land: Great weather, little media scrutiny and a vastly improved young team whose presence he could make into a Stanley Cup contender. Plus, the Kings have cap room and a stable, deep-pocketed owner in billionaire Philip Anschutz. Remove the Kings as a potential bidder in the Kovalchuk sweepstakes come July 1 and, in my mind, the chances of Kovalchuk re-signing in Atlanta greatly increase.

So, there you have it. Winners and losers of a potential Lecavalier trade. Any winner, no doubt, would be the team that landed one of hockey's classiest and most talented players. Tangentially, Atlanta also could be a winner in both a short-term and long-term sense. And while the Lightning would definitely be a short-term loser (though not in the fiscal sense), if they manage their team properly they could be a long-term success -- especially if they finally land a stable, wealthy owner.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kovalchuk, The Canadian Dollar And The Cap

As much as I think that a lot of the names surrounding potential offerings to the Atlanta Thrashers as part of a trade for Ilya Kovalchuk are nothing but speculation, I think there has been some really insightful commentary on the circumstances surrounding the negotiations. But I also think a point has been left out about where the cap could be headed.

I think two of the best this week came from Puck Daddy, who pointed out that Kovalchuk's asking price could come down if the Thrashers wait until the summer, and Craig Custance, who wrote that if the Thrashers lose Kovalchuk they will need to spend nearly $20 million just to get the salary cap floor. Both of those are extremely relevant to what the Atlanta Spirit ownership group must involve in their thinking as it negotiates.

Let's take a look at those quickly for a minute before I get to some other news items that I saw earlier in the week that the Thrashers and every other NHL team who would consider meeting Kovalchuk's demands definitely should take into account. First is the option of letting Kovalchuk hit the open market on July 1. It sounds risky -- and it is -- but Thrashers general manager Don Waddell has done it before twice with Slava Kozlov and re-signed him both times. With so many capped out and uncertain about whether the cap will go up or down, teams could get sticker shock as they contemplate making Kovalchuk the league's highest-paid player for a term possibly as long as 12 years at that much-mentioned maximum salary figure of $11.36 million per season. As a result, Kovalchuk's demands could decrease if no one wants to give him that max deal. Of course, the risks in following that path are that someone could meet that figure -- it only takes one, as they say -- or that a more attractive team with a better history of winning could knock on Kovalchuk's door and he may choose to bolt.

But it's no secret that Kovalchuk likes living and playing in Atlanta. Otherwise, he would do what Marian Hossa did and not accept any offer to force a trade. I'm not sure that anyone doubts that Kovalchuk would remain in Atlanta if ownership meets his price. After all, how many other general managers would build a team around him and take in his input in player moves, as Atlanta did in signing Nik Antropov last summer? And it's not like coach John Anderson uses the strong-arm tactics of his predecessor Bob Hartley in managing Kovalchuk. Could anyone envision Kovalchuk playing for Jacques Lemaire-type and chafing as Marian Gaborik did for all of those years? All are calculated risks on both sides of the negotiation.

But now let's look at what could happen with the cap. Larry Brooks of The New York Post reported this tidy little item on Monday that "the league is experiencing an overall two-percent decline in hockey-related revenue prior to currency conversion, after a three-percent decline in HRR last quarter." The NHL salary cap went up 0.18 percent from 2008-09 to 2009-10, only $100,000.

Bridget Wentworth of the Star-Ledger reported last May that NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly projected that the cap would decrease by about 5 percent, or $2 to $2.5 million, unless the NHLPA "wants a 5 percent inflator" -- its right as part of the collective bargaining agreement to which the league must agree, as it ultimately did. That use of the inflator, or escalator clause, kept the cap from such a decline. Last year hockey-related revenues rose 1 percent from $2.62 billion to $2.64 billion, according to Sports Business Journal.

If, at present, revenues overall are down 2 percent -- before currency conversion -- the future of the cap the next few seasons might not exactly be looking skyward, to put it modestly. Let's see what happens when currency conversion comes in. Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that options traders are the most bearish on the Canadian dollar that they have been in 13 months. Canadian teams represent 20 percent of league's franchises but in terms of revenue they contribute a disproportionate share. This story that I wrote for The Sporting News two years ago shows that the Canadian teams were contributing about 28 percent of the revenue and the Canadian dollar wasn't at $0.96 then. The New York Times in December showed how the Canadian dollar went from $0.62 in 2002 to $o.96 in seven years -- a 50 percent increase -- helping the bottom line of Canadian teams and the league as a whole.

But what happens if the cycle reverses itself, as the Bloomberg story suggests? It's not like we'll go back to a situation tomorrow where the Canadian dollar goes back to $0.75, but if it did that 28 percent of revenues that Canadian teams contribute would be cut to 21 percent and that could have a major impact on the salary cap.

So what does all of this have to do with Kovalchuk's impending free agency? In the Star-Ledger story, Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke was quoted as saying the cap, in effect, has a 12-month lag time between when they compute the numbers and what the current economic reality is. So if, over the next few years, the Canadian dollar settles back into its more historic relationship with the U.S. dollar it could strangle the growth of the NHL's upper team payroll limit, currently set at $56.8 million. Even a modest decrease in the Canadian dollar over the next six months before the league computes the cap for its July 1 free agency date could make a relative impact. (Perhaps that's why Kovalchuk is pushing hard for that big number now while it's still available.) NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has long cautioned as a general theme about teams' entering into player contracts of extreme length -- those given to Philadelphia's Mike Richards, the Islanders' Rick DiPietro, the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg and Chicago's Marian Hossa, to name a few.

The Thrashers definitely have to have this long-term thinking reflected in their negotiations with Kovalchuk -- and so should other potential suitors.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sutton's Hit

In my last post, I wrote about how Andy Sutton ruined my Thanksgiving in 2006. On Tuesday, the New York Islander did far worse to Pittsburgh Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis, with whom he played in both Minnesota and Atlanta.

I don't mean to make light of the situation. For those who haven't seen the grisly video, it's available on YouTube. Let's hope that Dupuis comes out of this without any ill effects.

I've seen at least one story written by someone whom I respect who attests to Sutton's character, saying that that likely will be taken into consideration in assessing any additional discipline than the game misconduct he received on Tuesday.

Sutton certainly is no Todd Bertuzzi, but he does have his own history. I covered Sutton for years in Atlanta and got to know him pretty well. Let's say his personality is fairly complex. In terms of book smarts, he's probably one of the more intelligent players in the NHL. He once told me that he was an environmental engineering major in college at Michigan Tech -- how many pro hockey players can say that? -- and that the possibility of playing hockey professionally did not seem to be a serious option for him until he reached his junior season, so, until then, he had focused mainly on his education. Also, he is a fairly sensitive when it comes to criticism, a reputation he earned in Atlanta from both coaches and media alike.

Amid all this, he can be guilty of some of the worst mental lapses on the ice -- the kind that would infuriate coaches and teammates. I'll note a few, including some that include questionable hits.

The first that comes to mind was not a hit but still ranks among the dumbest things I've ever seen a hockey player do on the ice. The Thrashers had won three out of four following a six-game losing streak. They were finishing up a seven-game road trip in Philadelphia on Feb. 21, 2004, and had fought hard to rally from a 3-0 deficit to play to a 4-4 tie with 61 seconds left in regulation. On a relatively harmless 2-on-2, Sutton was playing left defense. John LeClair had broken his stick in the Thrashers' zone and it lay there for several minutes, not having been removed from the ice. Sutton used his stick to flip the broken one at the puck carrier, Simon Gagne, to dislodge the puck. The officials immediately awarded Gagne a penalty shot and he scored for a 5-4 victory. Ilya Kovalchuk received a gross misconduct penalty at 20:00 of the third period. Marc Savard smashed his stick at the boards.

Here's what Sutton said after the game: "We looked at the tape, and it was the right call. I was mostly upset because the stick sat there for so long. Usually those guys pick the stick up. I think both the referee and the linesman -- although I think they made the right call -- I think they both skated by the stick a couple of times. I was just mad because it sat there and I could have tripped over it just as easily and he could have come in and scored that way. "They made the right call. It was unfortunate it came in a tie game with a minute left."

The tone sounds somewhat similar to what a repentant Sutton told reporters after Tuesday's game: "Just playing my usual game, trying to play hard, finish checks. I feel awful. I've played with Pascal. I've known him a long time. I obviously never intended for that happen."

The next incident that comes to mind will figure most prominently in what NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell chooses to do in whether to hand Sutton a suspension. I was not present that night (I was attending a friend's wedding) but the Thrashers lost to Toronto 9-1 in October 2005. Sutton's hit on Darcy Tucker that night was remarkably similar to the one he delivered on Dupuis on Tuesday, except that Tucker had the good fortune not to hit his head on the dasher. Nonetheless, Tucker required 20 stitches and Sutton was suspended for four games.

I remember the explanation I was given at the time was that when the 6-foot-6 Sutton went to deliver the blow with his arms they were at the same level as the head of the 5-foot-10 Tucker. (Here's the video.) I guess Campbell did not believe that one. Because the opponent was Toronto, which receives the most media coverage in the NHL, and Leafs coach Pat Quinn loudly complained afterward, the Thrashers started to receive a reputation for playing like goons. Here's what Sutton said about that perception: "I think it's totally inaccurate. When I was playing against Toronto, in no shape or way was I trying to hurt anyone. I play hard."

It's understandable -- though not acceptable -- when players get frustrated in a big loss and make some errors in discipline. What's harder to understand is when they do it in a game that they're winning. That is what eventually touched off the 2006 Thanksgiving Eve brawl with Washington -- Sutton's head-hunting of Mike Green in a game the Thrashers were in command of and ended with 176 penalty minutes. Sutton received a double-minor for roughing and high-sticking at 18:38 of the third period with the Thrashers up 4-2.

And that game had something of a precedent. The previous season in a game against Washington in which the Thrashers were less than a minute away from victory, Sutton delivered a thunderous check along the boards to Washington defenseman Ivan Majesky, Sutton's teammate in Atlanta in 2003-04. The hit was legal, but completely unnecessary -- the kind that serves only to infuriate opponents and display questionable judgment.

The point is that this list of incidents is not akin to anything done by Donald Brashear, who has a long history of suspensions. It is not to equate Sutton to the likes of Brashear -- to the contrary, Sutton has proven himself as a fairly productive top four defenseman on his last two teams and he is an important piece on a surprising Islanders team that is in the Eastern Conference's playoff race.

But it does show that Sutton has something of a history as a result of lapses of judgment more than malice. With hits to the head becoming a bigger issue for the NHL, this is exactly the type of incident on which Campbell could take a stand. How much of a stand is up to him and what he makes of Sutton's history.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sizing Up Richards Vs. Philly Media

As a former beat writer, I always find dust-ups between writers and the athletes, coaches and executives they cover irresistible reading, especially when they become public as did the spat between Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards and the veritable horde that covers the team.

In my first season covering the Thrashers, there was the time that combustible goalie Pasi Nurminen didn't like a question that I asked him about his rebound control after a particularly ugly loss to Ottawa. Nurminen, in his broken English, barked something back at me to the order of, "What game you watching?" The next day, the morning show on Atlanta's alternative-FM radio station played the audio clip over and over. Listening to it in my car, I cringed. Later in the day I learned that the team was listening to the station in the locker room before practice, which made Nurminen's slow burn grow even hotter. We smoothed it over and eventually Nurminen became one of my better sources.

However, I saw far more parallels in another incident that I went through to the Richards' affair. But first a few disclosures in regards to the group that covers the Flyers. I once worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer when current Flyers beat writer Sam Carchidi -- who appears to have been at the center of the controversy -- covered high school sports in south Jersey. I don't think I ever spoke to him. Secondly, I've been to dinner with writer Tim Panaccio once in 2004 and was once in a notes group with Delaware County Daily Times writer Anthony Sanfilippo. That's about the extent of my relationship with those who cover the team, along with small talk one occasionally makes during games and morning skates to pass the time. Also, in September I did two lengthy phone interviews with the Daily News for its Flyers job. So, as I'm not at all close to the situation, I'd say I can write about it fairly objectively.

To sum up, Richards has had a rocky relationship with the Philadelphia media, which, as almost anyone who follows this type of stuff knows, is about as aggressive as any in the country. Richards is arguably the best player on his team, which is one of the problems, but the bigger one is that he is the team captain. In hockey, that role often designates a player as the "go-to" guy for media, whose members expect the captain to be the voice of reason, hold himself and his teammates accountable for their actions and act as a sort of informal spokesman. But Richards, who is 24 and does not exactly appear the picture of the wizened veteran, has taken personally criticism -- some of it coming from his own general manager, as Panaccio pointed out -- that he and his teammates might have a little too much fun with the night life. For this reason, Richards maintained a one-week moratorium on speaking to the media in October after stories came out that suggested Joffrey Lupul was traded from Philadelphia to Anaheim, for, in part, enjoying himself a bit too much.

The issue arose again on Sunday following a 5-3 Flyers' loss to Washington after a profile in The Hockey News on Richards addressed the partying subject. (I can't link to that story since some of THN's content is subscriber-protected.) On his blog, DeFilippo transcribed the exchange between Richards and the reporters. I'll excerpt the following portion here, which isn't exactly flattering to Richards. I'll pick it up with Carchidi questioning a Richards quote in The Hockey News that the Philadelphia media "makes stuff up." Richards himself brought up the term "drinking articles" and appears to accuse Carchidi of writing something to that end.

RICHARDS: You didn’t write an article at the beginning of the year?

INQUIRER: That said you were drinking?

RICHARDS: That we’re out too much and that you asked Lupes (Joffrey Lupul, now with Anaheim) all the questions and everything? Anthony? Weren’t there articles?

DELCO TIMES: There were articles about those events but nothing naming you specifically.

RICHARDS: They said the players were drinking too much. Richards and Carter were out all the time.

INQUIRER: He (Lupul) said that?

RICHARDS: Isn’t that what the article said?

INQUIRER: No. I think that you’re making that up.


INQUIRER: You’re making it up.


Here, it's hard to tell if Richards is agreeing with Carchidi's contention that the articles saying Richards drinks/drank too much were a figment of Richards' imagination or if Richards is being sarcastic. After the session soon ended, press members and Richards exchanged heated words and Flyers coach Peter Laviolette eventually had to step in between them.

Once again we fall into the chasm between reality and perception and now I'll fall back on my own experience. Back on Nov.24, 2006, Andy Sutton ruined my Thanksgiving. It seems like a different eon, but back then the Capitals were among the league's dregs and Thrashers were atop the Southeast Division, bullying them on the scoreboard and physically, as well. The Thrashers had the game in hand when the 6-foot-6 Sutton, in the final minutes, exercised some poor judgment and decided to go head-hunting on Caps' up-and-coming 21-year-old rookie Mike Green. The Caps decided enough was enough and a brawl ensued. I'm grateful to Off The Wing Opinion for the following video clip.

In the end, Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby received an instigator penalty and a resulting one-game suspension. I remained in D.C. with my wife's family for the holiday while the team moved on for its next game in Tampa. All Thanksgiving Day long, I tried to reach Mellanby for comment on the suspension via his cell phone. (A team public relations official had told me to call Mellanby on his cell.) In a fit of pique, Mellanby was not answering. In the end, I wrote that Mellanby "could not be reached for comment."

The next day after the morning skate at the St. Pete Times Forum when I saw Mellanby, with whom I enjoyed a good relationship, he was furious. He was raging about how I wrote that he was "unavailable" -- which I did not -- and accused me of being unavailable because I had stayed behind in D.C. with family for the holiday. I countered that I was calling him repeatedly because the team's public relations staff told me to and said he would speak to me then. In an empty locker room, he told me to wait for a minute and grabbed a print-out of my story in his stall. He looked up when he was done and said, "I have no problem with that."

Now, Mellanby was in his 20th season at that point and also was probably one of the league's most respected players. He was as grizzled and wizened as veterans come. He was more angry that the league office did not grant him a hearing than he was at me. I just added fuel to the fire. That night in the press box, he sat next to me and we discussed fore-checking schemes and some ideas he had brought up at practice that the team was trying to incorporate.

I don't think that's going to happen any time soon between Richards and Carchidi or any of the Philadelphia media. But the issue is similar. Richards' perception was that the Philly media had written stories that he and others were always out partying. In fact, Panaccio in his story quotes GM Paul Holmgren in June saying that partying was an "issue" that he and then coach John Stevens had addressed. Just like Mellanby was angry that someone had told him I wrote he was "unavailable" -- which would not have been fair to him since he was at a practice and available to the media but I had previously arranged with my editors not to be at practice that day because of the holiday -- when in fact I did not write that.

In the end will Richards show as much maturity as Mellanby, now an executive with the Vancouver Canucks? It's probably doubtful. But if he's going to remain in Philadelphia and remain the team's captain, it would probably be in his best interest to make peace. Whether he realizes it or not, he will only make his own life easier. Philadelphia can be tough on captains, no matter how good they are. Just ask Eric Lindros.