July 10, 2008

Goodbye 68, Hello Russia

Last week Jaromir Jagr confirmed he would be leaving the NHL to join Avangard Omsk of the Continental Hockey League, now 36 and with his heart set on an eventually return to his native Czech Republic and HC Kladno, the news all but certainly signals the end of Jagr’s oft brilliant, oft controversial NHL career after 17 years.

For anybody who grew up in the hockey world of the early 90’s Jagr was one of those young starlets who developed into a league and world megastar, coming to identify the sport and the NHL in much the same way as fellow Penguin alumni Sidney Crosby does today. With Jagr on his way to Russia, Selanne possibly on the way to Finland or retirement, Kariya and Tkachuk spent forces in St. Louis and Eric Lindros long retired by injury, few of the youngsters who became NHL institutions in the offensive golden age of the 1990’s remain in the modern game. Jagr’s leaving signals nothing if not the end of an era for a large portion of today’s fans.

Drafted 5th overall in 1990, Jagr’s ascent into a powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins within his first year of eligibility was an astounding feat, that he was also the first Czechoslovakian to play in the NHL without having to defect from behind the iron curtain made it all the more notable and allowed him a privilege many had never been given.

Often dwarfed by the shadow of Mario Lemieux in his early years, upon his mentors first retirement, Jagr went on to secure four consecutive Art Ross Trophy’s between 1997 and 2001, a feat only equaled by greats such as Howe, Esposito and Gretzky. Regarded as the leagues finest skater in the late 90’s, the young Czech developed in skill and confidence from the gangly European who tended to pass the puck into one of the games greatest right wingers, winning two cups in his freshman and sophomore seasons before achieving what he regarded as his finest accomplishment, guiding his beloved Czech Republic to Olympic gold in 1998.
Despite being marred by gambling problems and a tendency to fall out with taskmaster coaches Jagr’s career will forever leave a mark on the NHL.
To end the story there would pay some testimony to a great player and character, but his choice of destination following the NHL is both a perplexing one and a considerable reason for concern in the annals of the NHL.

Often quoting Ronald Reagan as one of his childhood heroes, Jagr boasted that he carried a picture of the former US president in his wallet, an act of immense insubordination in the former communist state of his birth. Now going out to pasture in a country still greatly blemished by the era of communism and too many commentator, still ruled by an old school elite, Jagr’s choice seems at odds with his childhood beliefs.

Naturally the move is fuelled by something else, something more fundamental to hockey itself. Jagr had said that if an NHL team was willing to put up a reasonable contract, he would have stayed in the NHL, yet whilst teams had offered a considerable amount more than Avangard Omsk, the restrictions of the Collective Bargaining agreement tied organizations to one year deals for a potentially injury prone veteran. Jagr was not willing to be wrung through the Free Agency mill again. In the meanwhile Omsk were happy to put up a three year deal for the services of a player still vaunted by North American fans, after all Jagr was not only going to be a superstar for Omsk, but the face of a rival European league.

The Continental Hockey League or KHL is due to commence its inaugural season in September 2008. Having swallowed up the Russian Super League, the KHL has also taken the cream of the crop from the rest of Eurasia including top teams from Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan. Funded largely by the new Russian business class of oligarch’s whom came to prominence after the collapse of communism and the subsequent market liberalization, and backed by Russian hockey great Igor Larionov, the KHL is the closest thing to a European super league and with the touted expansion from twenty four to thirty teams in 2009-10, many expect the league to encompass more countries in the next few years. Indeed invitations for expansion have been proffered to Swedish superpowers Frolunda HC and Farjestads BK with teams from the Ukraine expected to bolster the league roster alongside the recent Finnish champions Karpat.

All this makes for a potentially threatening outlook for the NHL, which draws a considerable deal of its fan base from Europeans blighted by a lack of glitz and glamour associated with the world’s major league in their own backyard. Furthermore for a league gearing its rules to a more European game, the lack of traditionally lopsided trade agreements for much of Europe and non existent pacts with Russia has left the NHL open to the potential loss of its European player base who could be easily tempted to the deep pocketed KHL. All of this had been so much smoke in the breeze, a pipedream of primary backer and deputy chief executive of Gazprom, Alex Medvedev who envisioned a great new league born out of Russia. Having only previously tempted minor leaguers, juniors and lesser NHL veterans like Jamie Heward and David Nemirovsky, the signing of Jaromir Jagr, an NHL legend, will provide a real boon for the fledgling KHL.

Avangard Omsk Oblast, to give Jagr’s new home its complete title, is entering into its 58th year of existence with renewed hope. With only one European Championship and one Russian Championship to its name since it’s formation in 1950, the team has undergone a considerable overhaul in recent years thanks to the financing of Omsk Oblast tax payers and it’s part funding by Russia’s fifth largest oil provider Sibneft, now known as Gazprom Neft after it’s merger with Gazprom. Another sparkling example of Russian newfound and selective wealth in an open and oft corrupt market, Avangard Omsk are on of the forerunners for the KHL’s first title to be decided in April 2009 boasting a roster which includes two North American goaltenders in the shape of Fred Brathwaite and John Grahame.

With the recent disquiet that surrounded Nikita Filatov, a top 3 lock to many that ended up being taken on a “gamble” 6th by Columbus in the 2008 Entry Draft, many an NHL analyst will have one eye on the development of the KHL which is benefited by a wealth, interest, population and geographical distance that the World Hockey Association could never muster. Whilst the glamour and too an extent the money still lies in the NHL, the trade boundaries and potential loss of crowd pulling talent could open the door to the KHL if it can broaden it’s European remit into other hockey hotbed countries.

For Jagr, a chance to become a poster boy for a new age in hockey will perhaps allow him to relive the glory days nigh on a decade ago. With the troubles that North America often burdened him now in his past, Jagr can now leave hockey on a new high, in a new place and admired by the worlds second most hockey mad nation. Already given the “A” for the upcoming season, Jagr can build upon the legacy he created as opposed to vanishing into obscurity.

July 03, 2008

The Leafs Free Agency Ram Raid

If the 2008 NHL Entry Draft was going to be the linchpin onto which the Maple Leafs commenced its rebuild, then the July 1st free agency free-for-all was going to be a barometer with which to measure the organizations immediate ambitions.
Going into the first days of free agency, the Leafs had two options. The first was too play it frosty, pick up some low key, low cap hitters who could provide some depth in the roster whilst giving the team some substantial future cap space, or follow the traditional MLSE route and stack up several big, usually veteran, signings, putting of a true rebuild for instantaneous mediocrity and awkward ego clashes.
Thankfully the Leaf’s erred on the side of caution and picked up a couple of roster guys and a decent offensive presence nailing just 7.2 million on the cap limit and maintaining over 11 million in contingency.
Opening the days proceedings the Maple Leafs announced the return of Curtis Joseph, as much a memento of nostalgia, as a useful stop gap solution between Raycroft’s inevitable exit and Justin Pogge’s arrested development.
Having left Toronto in 2002, his previous incarnation for the Leafs, a three year stint between 98-99’ and 01-02’ saw three consecutive playoff appearances and two conference finals. Now 41, Joseph provided an adequate backup to Mikka Kiprusoff in Calgary where he posted 3 wins and 2 losses and a .906 save percentage last year and whilst little used, is known to be an excellent veteran presence in a young dressing room. Conventional wisdom suggests that 08-09’ will probably be Joseph’s final season and a return to Toronto as a career wrap up had always been in the mind for the Keswick, Ontario native for some time. Playing in front of a more defensively geared team, Joseph will provide good support to Toskala at a decent price so long as a prolonged period of usage is not required.
Three and a half hours later, the Leafs announced their second signing of the day and this one came as something of a surprise. Jeff Finger was welcomed as another defensive pick up but with a 3.5 million a year contract, a considerably number of eyebrows were raised in Toronto.
Entering only his third NHL season, Finger who is now 29, may be something of an unknown quantity outside of Denver, but as a team leader in hits, the overtly physical blueliner has come on leaps and bounds to tighten his positional play around his bodychecking tendencies and posted a +12 rating in a defensively lax team. Brought in, on rumour, as a potential replacement for Pavel Kubina who was being courted by the thread bare Blue Jackets, Finger is seen as a shutdown stay-at-home defensemen that could work well in a system awaiting Luke Schenn.
Nevertheless, considered a borderline 4th or 5th D-man in Colorado, Finger’s ability to be extremely solid and dependable does little to justify the 3.5 million cap hit Toronto have taken on him and the transaction has been a hotpoint of discussion around Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher since Tuesday. Fletcher was quick to point out that Finger was one of the few truly developing players available as a UFA on July 1st whilst waxing lyrical about his work ethic; meanwhile critics in Colorado were quick to scapegoat the rookie for a Minnesota goal in game 3 of the 2008 playoffs which effectively ended his time with the Avs’.
Either way a relatively immobile, low stamina, poor puck handling defenseman with a heart of gold, grinding ethic and decent cannon shot, he will be a dependable D in the vein of former Leaf great Ken Klee or a lesser Brooks Orpik, just a lot more expensive. One of the leagues dubious free agency deals.
From the Leafs most questionable acquisition to the most frugal, three hours after the ongoing debarcle surrounding the Jeff Finger deal, the Maple Leafs tied up former Dallas Star Niklas Hagman to a four year deal for a full half million less than the aforementioned, maligned D-Man.
Coming off the back of a career year in Texas, the unassuming Finnish left winger was something of a snap for the Leafs when nobody else came looking. Fletcher was wooed by the 28 year olds speed and offensive awareness having tallied 27 goals and 41 points in a full 82 game season last term. A consummate second or third liner for the Stars, Hagman’s goal finding flare will likely see him playing on the Toronto second, if not top line, whilst he also doubles as a useful second string penalty killer with a panache for shorthanders owing to his breakaway acceleration. Finishing the season with a total of eight game winning goals, a league wide tying 6th Hagman has proven to show up big late in games with a temperament and consistency much vaunted in an increasingly makeshift lineup. A long time friend of Leafs goalie and fellow Finnish international Vesa Toskala, Hagman is an accomplished pro and competitor and rounded out the first day signings in astute style.
Two days after the Leafs tied up Hagman and all but ceased their interest in the major free agency movements, the collective eye was on a trade falling under the radar. Swapping either side of the great Canadian rivalry, Toronto acquired Mikhail Grabovski from the Montreal Canadiens for the rights of 2008 draftee Greg Pateryn and Toronto’s second round 2010 draft selection.
An irksome return to newly drafted ship outs and draft selections all too common in Leafs history, Belarusian centerman Grabovski comes off the back of a good World Championships and successful stints in the AHL posting 20 points in 12 games and with the Canadiens where he posted 9 points in 24 games. Only 24, Grabovski has real potential stunted last term by a 25 game lay off. Nonetheless a injury shortened season into his NHL career, Grabovski is recognized as a speedy skater with an excellent offensive touch, albeit against AHL goaltenders. Particularly unphysical in his approach, Grabovski offers a lot of heart having been a popular franchise man for the Hamilton Bulldogs where he was a familiar and friendly face to staff, a nice touch for a highly paid athlete. Probably a third liner with second string power play potential, Grabovski has prospective talent that the Leafs will need.
Naturally the flip side saw a few players leave in the touted cleanout, but off the back of three poor seasons and a notorious inability to develop prospects, many of the depth players have had few NHL suitors. In fact, outside of the free agency period, much of the revolver door action occurred before July 1st as the Leafs cut loose the driftwood in buyouts and waivers. Raycroft, Tucker and Wellwood predictably exited whilst one of McCabe or Kubina look Ohio bound, but the biggest story in the free agency period remains the will he won’t he saga of Mats Sundin.
Long time captain on a terminally uncompetitive team, at least in the last few years, with a prolonged period of rebuilding in the woodworks, it would seem an apt time for the Swede to leave. However, with the Canadiens apparently chucking money at the 37 year old in a vein attempt to right the wrongs of the mid season trade deadline fiasco, questions still remain over the future of the Leafs poster boy. With the trade deadline three days deep and the interest of the Canucks apparently ceased, Sundin’s outlook appears to be a three horse race, the Leafs, Canadiens or the golf course.
With 11 million dollars worth of cap space, it’s unclear if the Leafs are planning for Sundin’s return, or preparing for his retirement. Whichever side the coin lands, the Leafs are going to be a very different beast in 08-09.’ Clearly not playoff contenders from the very start, with Wilson molding the team around his defense orientated strategy the Leafs seem to be stacking their roster intelligently with one eye on the future. Sure the Finger deal may be financially bad, but many in Denver prized the underdogs defensive presence and the Hagman transaction was one of the deals of the day.
It’s refreshing to finally see the organization start to put some genuine thought into the trade and drafting process with a mind on the roles incoming players will fill, Fletcher and the MLSE look like they are slowly getting their act together and hopefully, in time, the boys in blue and white might start doing the same on the ice.

July 02, 2008

The 84 Game Question

During the November 2007 Board of Governors meeting, the decision was made to return to the pre-lockout scheduling matrix ensuring every team sees each other at least once a year whilst cutting down potential periods of intercity activity from 3 years to 2. A considerable victory for the fans, at least that was how the NHL was selling it, the piecemeal offering to supporters also placated TV companies bored with repetitive league scheduling. However for many the measures did not go far enough and a new debate sparked when a suggested 84 game season was tabled for further discussion by the Detroit Red Wings.
Within the newly suggested 84 game matrix the permutations are varied but general consensus usually circulates about six games (three home, three away) against divisional rivals totaling 24 games, three games (a mix of one home or two home) to the other ten conference rivals totaling 30 games and two games home and away against all 15 teams in the opposing conference totaling 30 games. The subsequent extension of the regular season would be offset by a reduction of meaningless pre season exhibitions whilst ensuring every fan could see every team in the NHL every season.
Merely a suggestion doing the rounds following the great scheduling debate of last years post season, the 84 game concept has its fair share of supporters and detractors whilst underlining a variety of issues concerning the leagues size, product viability and sustainability.
Off course the biggest argument was that fans wanted to see the big stars in their building at least once every season, creating a need for home and away fixtures against opposing conference franchises. Fans only getting to see the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin once every three years was not a palatable concept and was particularly galling for teams in divisions such as the Southeast which struggled to muster enthusiasm for “rivalries” borne out of eight yearly games against the likes of, say, the Florida Panthers. Furthermore, established rivalries between the likes of Toronto and Montreal were bemoaned by opposing fans due to “overkill” on the part of the eight game interdivisional scheduling with the sense of occasion lost; familiarity not so much breeding contempt as tedium.
Whilst Gary Bettman was quick to point out that the league had seen average attendances rise three years on the run with interdivisional matches the most well received, he was not so rapid as to highlight the particular divisional matchups providing sizeable attendance data.
Detroit fans would be less than prompt in buying up tickets for a four game run in the Joe against the perennial crowd diminishing Columbus Blue Jackets, whilst many in the motor city are clamoring for a return to the original six matchups, traditional divisional names and alignments; a degree of feeling widespread amongst an increasing brand of die hard supporters.
Whilst a real return to core values such as the Patrick, Adams, Norris and Smythe may be pie in the sky, the decided and thankful retraction of the divisional schedule was the first recognition that the NHL is not working in its current makeup and size. Whilst some organizations continued to profit during the post lockout scheduling, the thread bare spread of talent and patchy nonexistent rivalry were, and to some extent, still are strangling the NHL and stunting its ability to market the game to US TV companies hungry for week in week out superstar billings.
A big burden the NHL faces is creating genuine enmity when the regular season ends, when Ottawa and Anaheim faced off for the 2007 Stanley Cup Final series they had not met on NHL ice since 2005. Additionally, the repetitive divisional matchups may have made for big games in the playoff run-in but were also believed to be creating lopsided conference standings, especially for teams in poorly stocked divisions. Naturally the decided change makes a lot of sense on so many levels but the 84 game debate signals the want for more; more exposure and more marketability.
There is however a notable sticking point in pushing forward an increasingly diverse fixture list. When the votes were tallied for the reintroduction of the pre-lockout schedule, the result came in 26-4, a sizeable victory with a noted opposition. The four dissenters in the verdict were believed to be Anaheim, New Jersey, Boston and the New York Islanders. Where the latter three were profiting from limited travelling in the geographically tight Atlantic and Northeast divisions, Anaheim were one of a number of Western Conference teams voicing concern over the extreme travelling distances cross-continental match ups would create. Where Anaheim was the only organization to oppose the return to a conference centric matrix, there would almost certainly be greater opposition in an 84 game debate.
This however controverts the NHLPA’s stance concerning travelling, with players believed to be in support of an 84 game schedule and increased balance if it saw a reduction of pre season exhibitions.
When the debate was originally tabled in November, the information from the NHLPA had not been received but the debate will almost certainly be tabled latter this year.
Whilst detractors are quick to concern themselves will the potential ruinous effect two extra games could have on the record books, my personal belief is that the NHL should be looking to shorten the schedule, to concentrate the matchups and to maintain sustainable interest in struggling markets. Perhaps employ a 74 game season with the three inter-conference games reduced to an even one home, one away make up, reducing games per week, allowing for an adequate spread of TV coverage as to avoid the usual canonizing of six teams to the detriment of the leagues other 24 and reducing league wide injuries. A shorter schedule would allow for more journey time and would see many teams spending considerably less on travel in a balanced schedule. It would of course see the NHL glean less revenue and shoot the idea dead in the water.
Personal digress aside, all eyes could be back on the great scheduling debate come the next GM’s meeting as players and organizations clash over how best to balance the leagues marketability and short term viability. Balancing the schedule further would be an undeniable victory of fans, more so in marginal markets as well as making the league a more versatile brand. With a decided increase in league revenue and players support the 84 game schedule is a shoe in if dissent from the West can be quelled.