If Christian Hanson begins this season the way he ended last season, the Leafs could have a very helpful player on their hands.
That Hanson will be at camp, meanwhile, will be nailed down today as he is expected to sign a one-year deal with the club after being unable to come to terms as a restricted free agent all summer long.
The 24-year-old scored two goals in 31 games with the Leafs last season, and both those goals came on the final weekend when the Leafs beat Montreal 4-3 in overtime. Last fall, Hanson spent some time on an all-NCAA line with Tyler Bozak and Viktor Stalberg, but now Stalberg has been traded, Bozak is looking like he may be the club's No. 1 centre alongside Phil Kessel and Hanson probably projects to be the clubs fourth line centre, possibly skating with newcomer Mike Brown and enforcer Colton Orr as GM Brian Burke continues to try and make the club tougher to play against.
With Fredrik Sjostrom likely to miss much of camp after off-season shoulder surgery, Hanson may also get a shot at earning time as a penalty killer.
The new contract is expected to be a two-way deal that would pay Hanson less to play with the Marlies, although he'd been looking for a one-way contract.
The Leafs now have no unsigned players, with rookie camp set to commence Sept. 10th.
|Richard Griffin asks: Why is it just baseball that falls under suspicion?|
For the following unpopular question, blame Major League baseball and all the nonsense it has spewed over the past decade.
Don't blame me.
When it comes to Jose Bautista, how is it exactly that at the age of 29 he's suddenly become the most dangerous power hitter in baseball?
Chance? Healthy living? Diet? New contact lenses? Comfortable batting gloves?
Anyone reading about the Roger Clemens perjury case this week, which of course brings up all of baseball's tawdry steroid history, should at least be willing to wonder about Bautista's sudden transformation into the dinger king.
This is a player, don't forget, who never hit 20 homers before in a Major League season. Some of that was due to a lack of opportunity,although in 532 at-bats in '07 he managed only 15 round trippers.
As of Sunday morning, he had 38 homers, six more than the great Albert Pujols, seven more than Miguel Cabrera and Adam Dunn.
Really? Quite a story, huh?
Makes one remember Brady Anderson, who went from 16 homers to 50 and then back to 18 right smack dab in the middle of baseball's steroid problem.
Things happen in baseball, I guess.
The great news for Bautista is that these numbers will surely net him an enormous increase on his current $2.4 million salary when his contract expires. That would motivate any player to find a way to improve his stats.
The Blue Jays, we know, have quietly become known as a bit of a nest for alleged steroid abusers over the years. Clemens played here. Gregg Zaun has been implicated. Ditto for Troy Glaus.
And now comes Bautista. Blue Jay fans will, of course, angrily respond to the suggestion that everything isn't on the up-and-up, just as I remember getting bushels of bitter emails from baseball fans when questioning Mark McGwire's open use of androstenedione back when he was smashing Roger Maris' record.
My favourite line was always how steroids couldn't help a baseball player hit home runs. Too funny.
Maybe Bautista is just one of the great individual stories in baseball this season. This could be his career year, and he could deserve nothing but credit and praise.
But the fact is that baseball's history, and the Nixonian way in which the Selig administration and the players association have chosen to deal with the steroid issue over the years, should compel any intelligent person to wonder when a player suddenly starts displaying abilities never before seen in his career.
Blue Jay fans won't like it. But you've got to at least ask the question when it comes to Jose Bautista.
For the fact that we do, blame baseball.
This is the time of year when the Argonauts, in a perfect world for the CFL, should own the headlines and capture the attention of the GTA.
Are they doing that? Sort of, although some terrific Blue Jay pitching performances on a team that once again won't be playing important baseball in September have created waves, and you couldn't exactly say the entire city is glued to every move the Argos make. This isn't 1972, after all, and the football team long ago was relegated to fourth on the GTA sporting list. The soccer folks would even argue fifth behind Toronto FC.
Still, this much is true. The Argos are by far the most successful team in town right now, and they're doing it in a way that shines a beacon for the Leafs, Raptors and Jays. There's a no-nonsense, no excuses regime in place, plus a sense of resourcefulness in the air. There aren't bodies flying in an out of town, but rather an honest attempt to build continuity and success through the players acquired and signed during the off-season.
The headlines concerning David Braley's purchase of the Argos, and the departure of former owners David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski, weren't flattering, and the B.C. Lions are evidence of the reality that the the CFL that Braley touches does not turn to gold. But for any number of reasons the Cynamon-Sokolowski tandem wasn't producing winning teams any more, and these days there's a greater sense that all are on the same page with the Argo front office after several years in which key decision makers seemed to be working at cross-purposes.
At the centre of all of this is head coach Jim Barker. Barker has stepped willingly and aggressively into the leadership vaccum of this team as though it was the opportunity of a lifetime, or at least of his football lifetime. No shrinking violent, no CFL clueless sort as was predecessor Bart Andrus, Barker has been loud and difficult to ignore, from his catchy radio commercials to his televison presence on the sidelines to his general unwillingness to quietly accept an unsuccessful season just because the club had been so doggone awful in recent years.
He's made some good choices - Cleo Lemon - had some good luck - Cory Boyd - and received some magnificent play out of players who were here when he arrived, like Kevin Huntley.
But he's has stood up and hollered, "Follow me!", and the players have responded. All the negatives surrounding this team have disappeared, replaced, at least for now, by the unyielding, upbeat nature of the new football front man in town, and that's Barker.
An awful football team, one which fell into chaos and disrepair after the departure of Pinball Clemons as head coach several years ago, is now an engaging team worth watching. The Argos are demonstrating to the other teams in town how not to accept defeat.
Brian Burke's reputation as a manager who likes the big deal certainly hasn't been diminished in Toronto.
The Phil Kessel deal. The swap for Dion Phaneuf. The dealing off of Vesa Toskala and Jason Blake. The acquisition of Kris Versteeg. At least three of those deals - Phaneuf, Toskala, Versteeg - were transactions few believed Burke could pull off.
Now he's got to move Tomas Kaberle by midnight Sunday, and it's remarkable how many seem to be wondering if he can get it done. Seems the man's track record emphatically suggests he knows how to make a trade in the NHL.
Hard to think he won't deal Kaberle in time, if only because he really needs to move this player. And while the market is surely a bit woozy these days after the stunning ruling on the Ilya Kovalchuk contract, there's good reasons to believe there's a 90 per cent chance Kaberle will in fact be dealt.
The top reason? The offers are starting to improve. Deadlines always focus the mind.
The second reason? Burke really doesn't need to hit a home run on this one. He'd like to, but he doesn't have to.
While Kaberle is respected in Toronto, he's hardly beloved, nor is he intimately associated with team success, nor is he regarded as one of the team's leaders. Moreover, he's viewed as a talented puck-mover, but also a flawed defender. In sum, no one's expecting Burke to move Kaberle for Steven Stamkos or Drew Doughty. No one believes Kaberle can fetch an 80-point centre, which is Toronto's most yawning need.
He can also go a couple of different ways on a deal. He can replace Kaberle's salary with those of incoming players -- David Backes, Ryan Malone? -- or he can acquire draft picks and inexpensive prospects, say a solid youngster like 23-year-old blueliner Derek Joslin of the Sharks. The Kings, meanwhile, have both kinds of commodities, young veterans and prospects, and could do a hybrid deal.
If Kaberle's salary isn't replaced in the deal, Burke could also use it on a free agent before training camp. Or he can spend it on Boston's Marc Savard, assuming Savard's contract isn't disallowed by Gary Bettman anytime in the near future. Interesting - Burke has vowed not to sign one of these goofy front-loaded contracts, but does that mean he wouldn't trade for a player who owns one?
The important part is that Kaberle is moved - it's just time to turn the page - and that tangible assets are required, which might not be the case if he were allowed to stay a Leaf beyond Sunday. In the Kessel, Phaneuf and Versteeg deals, the Leafs were acquiring the most talented player (we'll see how the picks sent to Boston for Kessel turn out) who needed to be moved by the other team.
This time, it's Burke shedding a talented veteran, and probably not getting one. This time, he might be adding assets that might not be measurable in the short-term. It's a different dynamic all around.
Bob Young is a rich man used to getting his way. That he apparently won't when it comes to the location of a new stadium in Hamilton, a building that would theoretically house his perenially lousy Tiger-Cats, has to be really bugging him.
After all, it wasn't that long ago that Young was touted as a civic hero for buying the Cats out of insolvency, an Ancaster boy who said he was realizing a dream by buying the football club he grew up loving.
Well, the love affair ended a while ago. Young has done a lamentable job of bringing winning football back to Hamilton - the team hasn't been to the Grey Cup since 1999 - and his attempt this week to try and scare Hamilton city council to put the stadium designed for the 2015 Pan-Am Games at his desired location has apparently fallen on deaf ears.
Hard to say who is right in this debate. As a born and bred Hamiltonian, I have seen the downtown core deteriorate drastically over the past 40 years, nothing like my youth when we'd go ride the classic elevator at the Right House near Gore Park just for fun. The West Hamilton bay location where city fathers would like the stadium to go has slowly improved over the past 20 years, but it's not easy to get to. They want it there in hope that it might, maybe, help revitalize the downtown core. Look around, and it's happened that way in more than a few North American cities.
Young, meanwhile, couldn't care less about downtown revitalization. He wants the stadium on the east mountain, in the burbs, really, where new highways have created access and visibility. That makes some sense, too. His frustration with the process is understandable in a city where politics have created all kinds of development issues.
But this was always going to be a negotiation, and while Young can huff and puff, his football team supplies nine dates a year out of 365 days, although if he could organize a team capable of making the playoffs he might manage another one or two. That might make him the main tenant, but running a money-losing team that usually loses more than it wins does not exactly give him a big hammer to wield. That tiny Regina has built a strong team on community ownership during the same period where Richie Rich has turned the Cats into a consistent cellar dwellar doesn't exactly speak to his expertise.
So Young threatens to what, move the team? To where, exactly. Not Burlington. Ottawa? They're slated for expansion, and nobody really knows if even that will happen. Then there's Quebec City and Moncton and a bunch of other places, and we're supposed to believe a CFL team is going to abandon southern Ontario and Hamilton, and the new stadium that will apparently be built one way or another, for another Canadian city where no stadium exists? C'mon.
Young may not like the West Hamilton location but he undoubtedly doesn't like where Ivor Wynne is, either. Maybe he knows better, but maybe he doesn't. Maybe he knows how to run a CFL team - he's been botching the job on this one since 2004 - and maybe he doesn't.
But apparently he isn't likely to get his way on this stadium. If he doesn't want to be part of the Tiger-Cats future, he can sell the team. Or try to. But moving it? Not a chance. Teams fold in the CFL and sometimes come back, but they don't move. No viable markets, you see. So Young should swallow his pride and ego, cut his best deal or get out. Empty threats are a waste of everyone's time.
If he does decide to conclude his ownership of the team, it's not exactly like a golden era in Hamilton football will come to a close.
Success, as much as power, tends to corrupt. It's a maxim that applies to sport as well as any walk of life. Just ask baseball. What drove Messrs. Clemens, Bonds and Rodriguez to do what they did as much as anything was a desperation to both be perceived as the best and continue to be perceived that way.
Once winning starts, nobody wants it to end.
Which brings us to the curious case of Ilya Kovalchuk. In this case, maybe because it all happened during the dog days of summer when much of the traditional hockey media has been vacationing, not enough has been said about the fact it was the New Jersey Devils who, depending on your perspective, stretched the law or blatantly broke it.
Certainly Gary Bettman and his coterie of lawyers believe the Devils trampled on the rule book. Ditto for independent arbitrator Richard Bloch. The ghost ship that is the NHL Players Association disagreed - well, kinda - and mounted a half-hearted defence of the contract between Kovalchuk and Jersey. The rest of us? Some, like me, don't much care. It's just business, hockey business, and whatever they sort out is fine by me. After all, it's their business, not some government agency or public body, and it's certainly not a morality play with right and wrong. Don't put me in either the league or union camp.
What's interesting, however, is that it was the Devils involved. This, for years, has been one of the NHL's law-abiding franchises, a team that believed in doing it the right way, including not spending crazily on players. Other than the Don Koharski donut imbroglio, the Devs, since Lou Lamoriello arrived in 1987, were more often than not on the right side of the law and, unless it came to filling their building, able to lecture the rest of the league on correct franchise behaviour and being a good team player. When it came to labor fights with the players, the Devils were always hawks.
Next spring, however, will mark eight years since the Devils last won the Stanley Cup, equalling the longest Cup drought for the club since Lamoriello arrived. This is a team that got used to winning, capturing three titles between 1995 and 2003. Since that last Cup, there hasn't been much post-season success at all for the Devils, certainly not in the new arena in Newark or under new ownership.
When Lamoriello acquired Kovalchuk during the season for a decent package of talent, it seemed to be a very anti-Jersey deal. At the very least Kovalchuk seemed most unlike the protypical Devil, and while he played well, the trade certainly didn't pay off in any playoff success.
Having sacrificed those players and prospects to get him, however, and with a growing desperation that winning had become so elusive, and with all-world goalie Martin Brodeur starting to edge towards the final days of his career, the Devils couldn't stop there. They had to try to sign Kovalchuk, and then they willingly structured a contract that made Bettman gag and most of us laugh.
it was taking exploitation of a CBA loophole to the extreme. A salary apex of $11.5 million. A valley of $550,000. A 17-year term, taking Kovalchuk to the ripe of age of 44. It's legality could be argued, but not its absurdity as a concept.
But the Devils were desperate to recapture success. More than that, they'd seen Philadelphia and Chicago commit to precisely these kinds of deals, and then find themselves in the 2010 Stanley Cup final. It was a way to squeeze more talent on the ice than the salary cap was supposed to permit. To the frustration of roughly two-thirds of the league's teams, these contracts, hand-in-hand with burying bad deals in the minors and buyouts, had slowly started to create a competitive advantage for the teams willing to commit to them. Chris Pronger wasn't on the Flyer blueline because the Flyers were smart. He was there because Ed Snider was willing to do a deal that most teams couldn't, or wouldn't.
To those who despise the salary cap system as socialism, that was virtuous. To those who believe the 2005 CBA was supposed to be idiot proof and a scheme to ensure an even playing field, it was abhorrent.
What was strange this summer was to find the Devils on the side of the big market boys, willing to stretch the rules to get Kovalchuk under contract. Lamoriello could, at best, describe the deal as "legal." In a final moment of irony, he and the Devils needed the NHLPA to defend the contract they'd devised in front of an arbitrator.
Now, there is no GM more admired in the sport than Lamoriello, and for good reason. Many other managers would describe themselves as Lamoriello disciples - Brian Burke would be one - and many would call him for free advice when stuck in a pickle. People want to stay part of the Devils organization because of Lamoriello and the way in which he conducts himself.
Accordingly, many were surprised - shocked - that it was Lamoriello and the Devils who did this deal with Kovalchuk. Some suggest Lamoriello was pushed into it by an over-aggressive owner. Burke, for one, has said repeatedly these Kovalchuk-like deals are wrong and has vowed never to sign one on behalf of his owners. So far, he hasn't. Now, it will be interesting to see if the Devils try to gently tweak the Kovalchuk deal to make it pass Bettman's smell test, or walk away from this front-loaded, pay 'em 'til they die philosophy of cap evasion.
Within this current context, meanwhile, maybe the team to admire these days is the San Jose Sharks.
No, the Sharks have never won the Cup, and of late they've been tagged as post-season underachievers.
But since the institution of the cap system they've never done one of these bizarre front-loaded deals as a way of cheating the system. They've never bought out a player. Never sent a one-way contract to the minors as a means of clearing cap space. Last year, according to GM Doug Wilson, they were 21st in money spent on player payroll.
They've had more than 100 points in four straight seasons and made it to last spring's conference final, losing four straight to the Hawks.
Maybe the Sharks would behave differently under ownership willing to spend more freely, and maybe if you're not cheatin', you're not tryin'. The Hawks have a Cup and the Sharks don't and maybe that's all that really matters. But the Sharks pay their bills, don't do contracts that put other teams in trouble, fill their building and win a lot more games than they lose.
If it's only about doing whatever it takes to win, maybe they aren't winners. But in a league in which partnership is a curiously defined thing, they seem like partners you'd want to have.
"In this case, the record strongly supports the claim this contract is “intended to, or has the effect” of defeating or circumventing the Salary Cap provisions of the CBA," wrote Bloch in his decision.
"The overall structure of this (contract) reflects not so much the hope that Mr. Kovalchuk will be playing in those advanced years, but rather the expectation that he will not. This is a long contract --17 years -- the longest in NHL history. That, in itself, poses no contractual problem. . . . . But Kovalchuk is 27 years old, and the agreement contemplates his playing until just short of his 44th birthday. That is not impossible, but it is, at the least, markedly rare. Currently, only one player in the League has played past 43 and, over the past 20 years only 6 of some 3400 players have played to 42."
The decision - an enormous victory for the Bettman administration - means Kovalchuk is now again a free agent, and its possible the Los Angeles Kings may again jump into the picture and try to sign the 27-year-old Russian sniper.
In theory, the KHL might also take another run at Kovalchuk.
The arbitration decision is an embarrassing result for the Devils, but also for the NHL Players Association, who filed a grievance when the contract was rejected even though these type of contracts not only benefit the minority of NHL clubs who can afford to pay for them, but also the vast minority of players in the NHLPA.
In fact, you can make the case average NHLers end up paying a price when contracts designed to lower the annual salary cap hit are signed because of the current escrow system.
The NHLPA is without an executive director after a coup d'etat unseated Paul Kelly last year, and even with former baseball union leader Donald Fehr acting in an advisory role these days, it's difficult to believe the hockey union was able to mount the kind of effective grievance that might have been possible had its house been in order.
After all, similar contracts to players from Miikka Kiprusoff to Marian Hossa to Henrik Zetterberg to Chris Pronger to Marc Savard have previously been approved by the league.It's a stunning development in a summer that has included some surprising financial developments such as the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks walking away from a salary arbitration award to goalie Antti Niemi after Niemi backstopped the club to the NHL championship.
The Kovalchuk decision, meanwhile, addresses a growing sentiment among teams that the front-loaded, long-term deals were becoming a competitive advantage to a handful of teams since two-thirds of the league's clubs couldn't dream of signing such contracts.
Some GMs said the NHL needed to put it's foot down when Kiprusoff became the first to sign this type of contract back in 2007.
"I wish the NHL had started this five years ago," lamented one GM. The NHL says it is still investigating the contracts signed by Hossa and Pronger. In theory, the Kovalchuk decision could give the league new ammunition to go back and challenge old contracts, and even punish teams that signed them.
"Bettman's got the hammer," said one GM. "It's up to him whether to use it."
Who knows? An arbitrator could, theoretically, shock the hockey world today.
But most don't expect that to happen, and instead it's likely Ilya Kovalchuk will officially become a New Jersey Devil, with his controversial 17-year, $102 million deal approved.
Arbitrator Richard Bloch has promised his ruling by 5 p.m. today, It remains curious to many NHL observers that it was the Devils and GM Lou Lamoriello that offered up the front-loaded contract, which pays out $99 million of the value over the first 12 years in a deal designed to keep the annual cap hit at a manageable $6 million.
If the deal was ruled illegal under NHL rules, the 27-year-old Kovalchuk would become an unrestricted free agent again, and it's believed the Los Angeles Kings would be first in line to try and sign him, although Jersey could re-work the deal. Assuming Kovalchuk's contract's contract isn't struck down, the Kings may again turn their attention to Tomas Kaberle of the Maple Leafs, knowing that division rival San Jose is already bidding to acquire Kaberle before his no-trade clause kicks in again next Sunday at midnight.
Along with the Sharks, those teams still interested in Kaberle are thought to be Boston, Tampa Bay and St. Louis. If the Devils were to lose Kovalchuk they might look to make a deal for Kaberle, but few expect that to happen.
The league rejected Kovalchuk's contract as an attempt to circumvent the salary cap, which is of course exactly what it is, an effort to squeeze $65 million worth of players under a $58 million cap, basically.
Problem is, the league has approved similar contracts in the past, and the loopholes exist in the CBA that allow these kind of financial arrangements. Moreover, both Chicago and Philadelphia made it to last spring's Stanley Cup final with these kinds of contracts on their roster, which makes it seem they offer a competitive advantage to teams willing to sign them.
It's seems almost certain these long-term, front-loaded contracts won't be permissable after the current CBA expires in two years. The question now is how many teams will try to use the loophole while it exists, and whether the NHL will continue to try to fight.
Damien Cox, the Star's hockey columnist and associate sports editor, takes turns stirring up trouble and chuckling at the foibles of the sporting world. He'll start with hockey, Canada's ongoing passion play, and stick his nose into a few other games and places where athletes reside. You'll love some of his thoughts, hate others and get a chance to give your two cents on all of them.