Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What if? ...

General managers around the NHL say they don't like dealing in hypotheticals, but there we were, dealing in the biggest plethora of "what-ifs" I've ever heard in 37 years covering hockey.
The first "what-if" came well before the draft when we were talking about the huge trade that sent Vancouver Canucks power forward Todd Bertuzzi, a 46-goal scorer just three seasons back, defenseman Bryan Allen and goaltender Alex Auld to the Florida Panthers for rising goaltender Roberto Luongo, defenseman Lukas Krajicek and a sixth-round draft pick.
"It's a home run for the Canucks ... if they can get Luongo to sign a long-term contract," said one GM.
"There's a snowball's chance in hell of that happening," said another GM. "Why would he sign now when one year from now he can deal with 20 to 25 teams who will bid up the dollars he makes ... well past what Florida was offering him."
Enter one of the new phenomenons of hockey, one that will become an even bigger story to watch, when free agency begins on July 1.
Based on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, Luongo and several other young stars like Minnesota winger Marian Gaborik and Ottawa winger Martin Havlat have one more year left before they can become unrestricted free agents. Those three names have already been in headlines and there are certainly other starry prospects who will have seven years vested in the NHL, which now triggers unrestricted free agency. Under the old CBA, a player had to wait until he was 30 or 31.
That scenario became the point of contention in recent ill feelings between Luongo and the Panthers. Those feelings forced his trade to Vancouver after the Panthers initially offered Roberto a five-year, $25 million contract in training camp and revised their proposal to $25 million over four years as recently as last week. The Luongo side maintained it would sign a one-year contract for next season and then become unrestricted the next year.
This is where the Luongo story gets dicey. Reportedly, Luongo was ready to accept the four-year, $25 million deal last Friday ... pending three requests:
* The Panthers announce they would not trade Luongo in the next season, before he would have become unrestricted.
* The team sign Luongo's goaltending mentor Francois Allaire as goaltending coach.
* Florida would bring back Jamie McLennan as Luongo's backup next season.
Panthers GM Mike Keenan acknowledged receiving the three requests, but he argued there was more to the story at the midnight hour before the draft last Saturday.
"They came back wanting significantly more than $25 million," Keenan said. "And we weren't going to be held up at gunpoint."
After the trade, however, both Gilles Lupien, who represents Luongo, and Canucks GM David Nonis said they seemed to be headed in the right direction for a new long-term contract -- presumably without having to adhere to all of those last-minute requests the Luongo group wanted from the Panthers.
But maybe some others will take their place. Stay tuned.
Regarding Gaborik, the "what-if" game started in late May after the Tampa Bay Lightning signed center Brad Richards to a new five-year, $39 million contract. Gaborik's side argued that the five-year, $27.5 million offer the Wild were making to Marian was too low. The Richards comparable became a case study for agent Ron Salcer because the Tampa Bay center was the player the Minnesota team used back in 2003-04, when Gaborik was holding out.
Dollars aside, Richards has helped the Lightning win a Stanley Cup in 2004 while being named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs that year. Gaborik doesn't have that kind of accomplishment on his resume.

The real what-if we saw at Vancouver in this case study came when the Wild obtained Gaborik's best friend, Pavol Demitra, from the Los Angeles Kings for prospect Patrick O'Sullivan and a first-round pick, 17th overall, in the draft. Don't think for a moment that aside from Demitra's 25 goals and 37 assists in just 58 games this past season, plus the fact that he has averaged 27 goals and 65 points over 11 NHL seasons, getting Pavol to pal with his buddy Marian to help in negotiations didn't figure into the mix.
"I think they both are a good fit and they'll feed off each other," Wild GM Doug Risebrough said. "Marian's the best player on the team. We know that. We're trying to find ways to make him better and this is one of those opportunities."
Both Demitra and Gaborik are from Trenchin in Slovakia. They combined with Atlanta winger Marian Hossa to be one of the most productive lines at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. But Demitra and Gaborik go back in other ways.
"Hockey was always my first love. But I still play soccer a little to keep in shape in the summer, although I play more tennis," Demitra told me a couple years ago.
"He doesn't just dabble at tennis," Gaborik told me. "I think I'm pretty good at it, but I have never beaten Pavol, and that drives me crazy."
Now they are teammates ... in hockey. And the Wild hopes that is the first step toward signing Gaborik to a new long-term contract.
Those Martin Havlat trade rumors presumably won't end any time soon.
The 25-year-old winger, who had seasons of 22, 24 and 31 goals for the Ottawa Senators, was off to a flying start this season before he suffered a shoulder injury that limited him to just 18 games. Still he scored nine goals and seven assists in those 18 games, showing off his immense offensive skills.
Havlat's name was reportedly in a blockbuster offer Ottawa made to Florida to try to get Luongo -- the deal was reportedly, Havlat, defenseman Chris Phillips, goaltender Ray Emery and the Senator's first-round draft choice. Rebuffed in that deal, Ottawa GM John Muckler reportedly offered Havlat to San Jose for goalie Vesa Toskala.
The what-if? Sharks GM Doug Wilson, who is listening to offers for either Toskala or veteran goalie Evgeny Nabokov, reportedly refused an offer from division rival Los Angeles in which San Jose would have gotten wingers Alexander Frolov and Dustin Brown, plus goalie Mathieu Garon, because he didn't want another of his goalies coming back to haunt the Sharks like Miikka Kiprusoff did in the 2004 Western Conference finals. Can you blame him?
Second part of this what-if -- the Sharks would have to convince Havlat to sign more than a one-year qualifying offer. The club would want something long-term, just like the Canucks with Luongo and the Wild with Gaborik.
It will be interesting to watch all of these scenarios and other restricted free agents who could gain their unrestricted freedom after next season.
While we are talking about dollars and sense ... one GM told me he could have had Colorado winger Alex Tanguay for a draft choice -- and not a first-rounder.
The Calgary Flames acquired Tanguay, who had 29 goals and 49 assists in 71 games last season for the Avalanche, for defenseman Jordan Leopold and two second-round draft choices -- one this year and a provisional second second-rounder in either 2007 or '08 ... if the Flames are able to re-sign Tanguay.
The first GM told me he was very interested in Tanguay based on the fact that he was made just $3.23 million last season, he's just 26 and has already accumulated 400 career points, four 20-goal seasons, three 70-point seasons and won a Stanley Cup ring. But Tanguay is a restricted free agent who is arbitration-eligible. When the GM went to his cap guy, he was told based on Alex's numbers the dollars in arbitration would be at least $5 million ... and that was toooooooooo much.
Unless, apparently, you are the Calgary Flames looking for a way to make life easier for star right winger Jarome Iginla, who had to work too hard to get his 36 goals and 32 assists.
To prove that dollars and sense hasn't always been an equal partner in trades and free-agent signings in the past, but will be looked on with more scrutiny in the new salary cap, economic world, we have been hearing about teams like the Dallas Stars and Toronto Maple Leafs wondering what they might be able to do with the contracts they have in right winger Bill Guerin and goaltender Ed Belfour.
One of our GM predictors said on draft day: "Maybe you have Guerin traded to Toronto for Belfour. One contract for the other. Or at least some deal like that, where one team agrees to take some of the veteran player's contract in turn for another team's perceived problem that might not seem so unbearable to the next team. It's a catch-22."

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