Archive for August 2006

Chicago – 45 years

August 29, 2006

It’s been 45 years since the Blackhawks have brought a championship to Chicago.  The entire time, owned in part or in whole by Bill Wirtz.

The Leafs are in a similar position.  And other franchises have never won the cup at all in almost as much time, look at the St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, Buffalo Sabres, and Washington Capitals as examples of that.  They’ve all had opportunities, but the one thing Chicago has that other teams don’t is a maddening owner.

A few years back ESPN did a quantitative analysis of all major sports franchises in North America using many different aspects and the Chicago Blackhawks came in dead last.  They couldn’t even beat out the Arizona Cardinals.  It’s incredible to think that a once proud and great franchise has been driven so far into the ground that they now rank last among 4 major sports in North America.

Each year Wirtz walks around telling everyone that the teams new signings are going to bring great success to Chicago, and every year it brings the exact opposite.  It reminds of George from Seinfeld when he realizes that if he does everything the exact opposite from his natural instinct, things go amazingly well for him.

Somebody please give Bill Wirtz this insight.

Let me recount some amazing events over the past year or so that will leave you astounded and wondering why.  Why would you continue to distance the limited fan base you have left?

Pat Foley

THE VOICE of the Chicago Blackhawks for 25 years was relieved of his duties earlier this year.  No surprise to anyone, he was quickly picked up in Colorado to do their play by play, but not before the New Jersey Devils also tried to take him away.

Anyone that regularly watches or listens to their favorite teams broadcasts get attached, or at least familiar with their play by play guy.  It’s one of the ways teams connect with their fan base, and most teams feel it’s important to find that right voice.  After Jim Robson retired in Vancouver, the Canucks spent a few seasons getting their guy before finally settling in on John Shorthouse, or Shorty as he’s affectionately referred to.  The team has recently signed a new radio deal with the TEAM 1040 and Shorty will be moving over to the new radio station as part of that deal.  Why?  Because they believe that it’s important to have that familiar voice connecting with the fan.

So what happened with Foley in Chicago?  Well he’s not retiring, and although the Blackhawks are a bit cheap, it also wasn’t a money thing.  The reality is that we’ll never know exactly why Wirtz deliberately low-balled Foley to get him out, but we do know one thing, Wirtz found yet another way to alienate the fans from listening to any more games.

Press Clippings

I decided to do a bit of research to see what was being said out of Chicago about the Havlat deal which is how I found out about Pat Foley.  What I found was that there was some strong opinions against the team, very little written over the past 3 months, and that they have no beat writer for road games anymore.

I was not astonished that both the Sun-Times and Tribune both only had one recent article each on the team, and that both were derogatory in some fashion towards the owner Bill Wirtz.

I guess if the fans don’t care about the team, why should the papers bother writing about them, or send a beat writer to road games. 

Fan Favourite – Mark Bell

So what do teams normally do when they are struggling at the gate?  They often leverage off the popularity of players that the fans are attracted to.  The Canucks did it with Druken, Schaeffer, Cooke, & Sopel quite a few years ago when the team was struggling.  It’s one of the reasons Cooke is stilled loved so much in this town.

What do the Chicago Blackhawks, North America’s last ranked pro-franchise do in the same situation?  They trade the fan favourite, then pay the incumbent so much money, Bob Goodenow had to give his head a shake.  Seriously, if free market Bob thinks it’s above market then somethings out of line with the contract.

For a team that should be desperate to connect with its fan base, it continues to find ways for them to do what they do best, alienate the fans.

Home Games

Chicago’s archaic view of not broadcasting home games continues to spell disbelief in the sports entertainment world. 

Vancouver fans are disgusted when networks won’t pick up all the games, and the team goes out and puts them on PPV.  Can you imagine the disdain in this market if all games weren’t available, even by PPV?

Well, fortunately for Chicago, they will get 5 home games broadcast this year leaving 37 not available in the home market.  Mind you, that’s up from only 1 game last year.  

But don’t think that Wirtz did this willingly.  The local station CSN’s contract with the Hawks calls for 39 regular season games, but with 7 road games being picked up on the national networks, the team needs to allow CSN access to at least 5 home games.  So Wirtz is simply letting them live up to their contractual agreement, and ensuring that as few home games as possible are still available for viewing.

Think about all that?  The team’s roster no longer has the fan favourite player, THE VOICE of the team is gone, there is no beat writer meaning no articles in the paper for road games, and the home games aren’t even shown on TV!!

Talk about marketing genius.  And those are only current year decisions.  Wirtz has been making these kind of brilliant managerial moves for the past 40 years.

The real question is when will Wirtz be gone so that a once storied franchise can be brought back to glory. 

The Chief Canuck

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Debunking Canuck Summer Rumours

August 25, 2006

I’ve been asked often this summer what I think of some of the rumours that continue to surface regarding potential Canuck roster moves and signings.

Let me tell you why most are not going to happen.

Rumour 1 – Cooke to Pittsburgh for Michel Ouellet 

As much as I dislike Cooke, he has a really high trade value on the market.  His salary is right, he adds some grit, is relatively young but still has considerable experience.  That said, Nonis should be be able to get someone of decent caliber and Ouellet is that.  This kid got 16 goals and 16 assists in only 50 game last year. 

But remember a trade fills a need or upgrades a team on both sides.  Pittsburgh already picked up Jarkko Ruutu on the open market without giving up any talent.  Why would they now trade for Cooke, when they already filled the void they had, that of an agitator to take the spotlight away from Sid the Kid.

This trade will not happen, not because Nonis won’t pull the trigger, but because Pittsburgh doesn’t have the need.

Rumour 2 – Naslund to Philadelphia for Simon Gagne

This rumour is a continuation from last years rumours of Forsberg and Naslund wanting to play together.  There is no truth to that, or you would have seen it happen last summer when both were free to sign with any club.  Remember Naslund did enter free agency before signing back with the Canucks.

The other driver for this rumour is from a cap perspective, the thought being that Clarke can’t afford to pay Simon the $5m per season he’s worth.  But think about it, he’d be letting go of a 26 year old guy getting $5m per season for a 33 year old guy earning $6m per season.  Where is the gain for Philly in that?

The rumour has no merit and will not happen. 

Rumour 3 – Steve Shields signing to backup in net

This rumour was started by Steve himself, claiming in an interview he’d love to backup Roberto again.  I don’t know why his agent didn’t just call Nonis himself, but perhaps he doesn’t have an agent after only playing 4 games in the last 2 years.

The last season of significance for Shields was in Florida when he played 16 games, going 3-6-1.  I’m not expecting miracles from any backup, but a .500 record would be nice.

Nonis will find the right guy to fill in for Roberto when he needs a night off and it won’t be Steve Shields.

Rumour 4 – J.P. Dumont/Radek Dvorak/Jason Allison signing with Vancouver

Of the three players, Dvorak has the highest probability of being in a Canuck uniform at the beginning of next season.

Dumont is going to want a bit more money than the team can afford to pay, and probably for a longer period as well.  Becoming a free agent was an unexpected turn of events for him, and he’ll want to settle his young family in somewhere quickly and for as long as possible.

Allison is simply too slow.  For a team that will continue to play an uptempo style (a focus on defense doesn’t mean we won’t be playing uptempo), Allison will not be able to keep up to the pace.  Really, if Toronto didn’t feel he could keep up, is it reasonable to think Nonis will?  Add to that fact that Allison is said to be a cancer in the locker room leads me to believe Nonis will take no part in this rumour.

Dvorak will probably come cheap (1.2m – 1.8m), and despite his preference to play on the East coast, Vancouver may give him the best opportunity to play on the first or second line.  This is one rumour that has received very little press, but just may come to be.

Dave Nonis is not finished with his roster as he still needs to solidify a few roster spots and get a few players signed.  That list includes Linden & Kesler, but you can forget about most of the rumours you’ve heard so far this summer.

The Chief Canuck

Disfunction in Boston

August 23, 2006

There is no explaining this once proud franchise.  This team has iced hockey greats Johnny Bucyk (sharing the same nickname as me, The Chief), Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers, Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, and of course Bobby Orr.  This team has retired 10 players numbers, and have only the number 1 & 6 left in single digits.

It’s an amazing history.  But that’s all it is, and they are now almost as pitiful as the Toronto Maple Leafs, with 2 Stanley cups in the early 70’s and nothing to show since.

Here’s whats so perplexing about the situation.  They continually destroy the ground the CBA is built on, then complain about the situation they are in.

In 1997, after only 1.5 years of hockey since the (first) lockout, Boston side steps the Rookie Salary Cap by signing Joe Thornton to the rookie max, but then added considerable dollars in a bonus structure with easy thresholds to meet.

That resulted in top picks earning in excess of $4m in each of the first 3 years in the league.  Then they were expected to take huge pay cuts as they were RFA with no arbitration rights.  It also resulted in some players not signing at all as not all teams were willing to fork out so much cash for questionable talent, albeit highly rated. 

Boston has also walked away from an arbitrators decision twice.  Two times isn’t a lot until you consider the fact it’s only ever been done 4 times.  Ever.

Boston also questioned their top player’s work ethic and dedication despite playing through the playoffs with broken ribs.  If you’ve ever broken your ribs, you know how much pain any pressure can cause you, and knowing this, there should be no question about Joe Thorton’s heart.  I guarantee you the brass in Boston has no idea the pain he played in.

Boston then signed their top player to a 3 year deal and subsequently traded him for a bag of pucks.  No disrepect to Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart or Wayne Primeau, but San Jose hosed Boston royally on this one.  Compare that trade to the Pronger deal where Edmonton ended up with at least 2 future top line players in Smid & Lupul.  Boston has to start from nothing which leads me to my next point.

Thornton has no heart, but Marc Savard is going to save the franchise?  5m per season for 5 years is more than they ever offered Thornton who has always outperformed Savard in every respect.  it’s why he’s a household name and Savard is the kid know one really knows with an attitude problem.

Then 7.5m per season to Chara.  A great defenseman, but does he have enough heart?  I don’t think he’s got the leadership required to raise the level of play on this team.

Boston got sticker shock in the first year post lockout and missed out on some players they wanted.  In the second summer, they gave all the other GM’s sticker shock by shelling out so much on 2 average players.

Now, they’ve done it again and handed Patrice Bergeron who has only one decent season under his belt, and only two in the NHL, a 4.75m per season deal.  This guy is not of the same caliber of a Crosby, Heatley, or Nash.  He’s good, but not the second coming of Gretzky. 

The new GM talks a good game, but it’s clear that Sinden has been running things too long and while he’s starting to slide into the background for good, until he’s gone for good Boston will continue to struggle.

Boston, enjoy your world series win, it could take that long for your NHL franchise to bring a championship back to your city.

The Chief Canuck

Nonis – Back to Work

August 16, 2006

Nonis has gotten right back to work after returning from some time off.  I guess even a GM needs to take a vacation once in a while.

In two days since he’s returned, he has made progress with Linden, Kesler, Bieksa & Fitzpatrick (more about him below). 

Bieksa – signed a two year, 1.05m deal.  Bieksa has no negotiating rights, and is getting the only thing he can right now, and that’s a one way deal.  He’ll be given every opportunity to make the team being that he’s on a one way deal, and this will set him up well for a better paycheck in two years time when he has arbitration rights.  Not that Nonis would let it get that far, but more on that later.

Linden – They’ve had talks, and Lindens heart is nowhere else but Vancouver.  The team did not pick up his option at 1.5m, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t wanted.  If you look at the bottom few lines on the team, you see clearly that some leadership is required to help the young guys out.  This is where his true value will come out.  Expect him to sign for about 850K later this week.

Kesler – A little background first.  Kesler and Umberger were teammates at Ohio State University.  Umberger was the Canucks first round pick in 2002 and Kelser was picked in the first round a year later. 

The Canucks tried desperately to sign Umberger, but he wanted top rookie dollars allowed under the old CBA.  He left school and stayed out of hockey for an entire year during 2003/04 in order to secure his Free Agent status.  Essentially he became a free agent if the team was unable to sign him during this period.  The team eventually traded him for Rucinsky at the deadline in 2004 to the NYR’s as they knew he was never going to become a Canuck.  Okay, back to Kesler. 

Kesler was obviously watching all this, and decided to jump on the opportunity to get on with the Canucks.  Due to the absence of Umberger, his stock rose quickly and he ended up playing 28 games with the big club that year.  But in order to do this, Kesler signed a deal that paid what the team was willing to give.  Kesler took it, knowing he would get an inside edge on playing pro hockey in the big league. 

Fast forward to this summer.  Umberger eventually signed with the Philadelphia Flyers for the rookie max and Kesler realizes he could have held out for the same now too.  Kesler’s rookie contract is over and now he wants to make up a bit of the money he gave up on his first contract. 

What he hasn’t considered is the Canucks history in dealing with players that don’t have arbitration rights.  Basically, you either sign (see old Cooke or Sopel deals), or get outcast (see Peter Who…. okay, I mean Peter Schaefer).  Kesler will have no success in getting any more out of Nonis than Nonis wants to pay him.  Here’s hoping the kid realizes this before training camp, or we are going to be wondering what happened to Ryan ‘who’ too.

Rory Fitzpatrick – it was reported today that the Canucks have signed journeyman defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick.  Clearly a depth move, Fitzpatrick has only 210 NHL games to his credit but despite his many stints in the minors, continues to show up at the NHL level and fills in admirably when needed.  I figured we see Sean Brown sign next on defense, but maybe Nonis got the man he wanted here instead.

Nonis still has a few other players to get to sign before training camp, including Bouck, Krajicek, & Noronen. 

Regardless though, after a slow couple weeks, it’s good to see some action on the Canuck front again. 

The Chief Canuck

Canuck Lines – An Inside Look

August 11, 2006

An inside source has been able to provide me with a look at the line combinations and defensive parings that the Canuck Management is entertaining for the upcoming season. 

This is obviously not set in stone as there is a lot of time between now and the start of the season, but it’s nice to see Nonis and staff putting it together nonetheless.

So, here it is, as taken off a white board by my source at GM Place:

Line 1: Sedin, Sedin, Bulis

Line 2: Naslund, Morrison, Cooke

Line 3: Pyatt, Chouinard, Kesler

Line 4: Green, Santala, Bouck

Extras: Reid, King, Linden

Defense:

Pair 1: Ohlund, Mitchell

Pair 2: Salo, Krajicek

Pair 3: Bourdon, Tremblay

Extras: Brown, Bieksa

You should note that Brown and Linden are both UFA’s that are not signed as of yet.  Look for them to ink deals in the next couple weeks.  Nonis won’t let this get too close to training camp otherwise he’ll have a controversy about Linden not being back.

Forward Breakdown

Cooke wasn’t good enough two years ago to play on the Naslund / Morrison line and has done nothing since then to earn a ride to this quality line.  He has never scored more than 15 goals in a season, and has passed the point of ever being much more than that.  He’s valuable, but not enough to warrant 2nd line minutes.

Bulis is a more likely candidate for playing on the second line, and you can expect to see Jason King getting a full opportunity to play with the Sedin’s again.  Only this time, he’ll be getting first line minutes, and maybe second line power play time.

With depth on center due to the signing of Choiunard, it’s no surprise to see Kesler being penciled in on the 3rd line wing.  They need this guy to continue to develop into a second line scorer and having him center the third line will not help his develop there.  Also, placing Pyatt on this line shows that they have high expectations of this Buffalo cast off and that there is still time for him to mature into a top player.  It typically takes a power forward a few more years to develop than other star players.  Todd Bertuzzi was in the league 8 years before having a breakout 85 points in 2001-02.  It’s also interesting that both Bertuzzi and Pyatt are originally NY Islanders first round draft picks.

The strangest thing on the forward lines is that Linden is noted as an extra.  You can definitely expect him to start with less minutes than normal, but look for Vigneault to play him more as the year goes on, the lines get set, and we make a push for the playoffs and beyond.  That veteran presence will be needed.  There is little of it now, and it is a must for a push into late rounds of the playoffs.

The defence pairings seem too heavily weighted in both directions.  Typically, you’ll pair an offensive guy with a more defensive defenseman.  However, the pairings above have Ohlund with Mitchell (both defensive), Salo with Krajicek (both offensive).

You’d likely be better off to mix those pairings up. 

I also expect Bieksa to get his fair share of games and minutes this season.  Depth is important and the team will face injuries that will need quality guys to step up and replace minutes for.  Assuming the team signs Brown, they look to be in great shape on the back-end.

Also, despite Noronen’s claims to expect to play overseas next year as he is not going to get an opportunity to fight for the #1 goal tending job in Vancouver, you should expect to see him.  All he needs is one more season in the NHL to get to free agency and that is definitely something he does not want to give up.  He is the best rated backup this team will have had for a position that seems to turn faster than a revolving door.  Nonis will see to it that we’ve got him till the end of the season.  Next year is another story though.

The Chief Canuck

Arbitration – A High Price

August 10, 2006

The arbitration process will be one that teams will strive to avoid, as the price is high.  Teams risk losing their key talent (see Roberto Luongo), or are forced to walk away from a player due to the unreasonable size of the award. 

In Buffalo with J.P. Dumont, they could have traded his rights previous to the award, but now have been forced to walk away or sign him for an unreasonable $2.9m. 

Compare this to Jan Bulis, who the Canucks recently aquired on the open market for only $1.3m:

2006 UFA Jan Bulis, 20G, 20A, 40PTS.

2006 RFA J.P. Dumont, 20G, 20A, 40PTS.

Explain to me how an RFA gets more money in arbitration than Bulis gets on the open market. 

It doesn’t make sense, and that’s why the arbitration process doesn’t work.  Unless you can get arbitrators that understand the business and game of hockey, it will won’t work. 

The only benefit of having a player going to arbitration is that you know they won’t be sitting out the season to get a deal done. 

I think that it’s unlikely for this to be common anymore.  The age of free agency is dropping every year, and with the high awards being given in arbitration, you’re going to see players going down this path more frequently in future years. 

Either to get themselves onto the free agent market, or to ensure a big pay day for at least one year.  Not that there is anything wrong with wanting to get paid a lot of money, we all do.  But players will be using the system the owners put in place to get the most they can. 

It’s ironic isn’t it.

The Chief Canuck

Arbitration – Walking Away

August 9, 2006

For a second time this year, a team has walked away from a player due to the size of the award granted to them through the arbitration process.

Buffulo was not willing to part with the $2.9 million dollars it was going to take to keep J.P. Dumont on their roster this season.

Last week, it was the Boston Bruins walking away from David Tanabe who was awarded a lowly $1.275 million. 

What makes this situation so interesting is that this is only the 3rd and 4th time in 12 years for any team to walk away from a player’s arbitration award.  The first two situations were both with Boston, in 1998 with Dmitri Kristich, and in 2003 with Bryan Berard.

So Buffalo’s decision is ground breaking, being the first team other than Boston to actually walk away from a player.  But what’s different now, is the salary cap.  Previously it was only a matter of dollars, but now it’s a matter of dollars and cap space.

And that makes all the difference. 

The interesting part of this is that a team can only walk away 2 times in a 3 year span.  So now, a teams ability to sign their players and avoid the arbitration process is even more important to the long term health of the team.  They do not want to risk getting into a position like Buffalo where they are almost forced to walk away.

And this is just the start of things to come.  As more teams see the need to keep their payroll in check, they will not be able to accept unreasonably high awards to players they don’t consider part of the core of their team.

It’s unlikely you’ll see teams walking away from low arbitration awards as Boston did this year with Tanabe, but that’s Boston, and the whole reason this walk away clause was put in the CBA back in 1995 in the first place was because of their owner, Jeremy Jacobs.

It was considered a great win for the owners to have the ability to take a player to arbitration.  It was Mike Keenan who first jumped to use this new clause last year with Roberto Luongo.  And we know how well that worked out for Keenan.

The Chief Canuck