Pushing the Envelope to Win
There are, sadly, too many Canadians who believe the hockey season is now a 12-month affair, particularly with children. It's ridiculous that kids in this country end their minor hockey season and then immediately pick up three-on-three play, spring hockey or head to long "off-seasons" on skates, but that's what has become of the game in Canada. Other sports get crowded out, and it's a shame.
As it stands, however, what began competitively in September generally ends by June, or usually a little earlier. We've now got two more to go, two more titles up for grabs beginning this week.
McGill and Boston College reign supreme on either side of the border as far as college/university champs, and the Shawinigan Cataractes captured the major junior title on Sunday night in a stirring Mastercard Memorial Cup triumph over the London Knights.
This Friday, the Toronto Marlies and Norfolk Admirals will begin their joust for the Calder Cup, symbolic of minor pro supremacy in North America, down in John Brophy's old Virginia stomping grounds. The Marlies are missing key players due to injuries and the Admirals - not to be confused with the AHL's other Admirals from Milwaukee - have romped through the league this season, winning 28 straight at one point. Dallas Eakins' crew is clealry the underdog in this one.
Then there's the big one, the Stanley Cup, although the NHL hype machine is going to have to go into overdrive to make this one into a big attraction. The games will decide whether folks will be drawn into the best-of-seven series between Los Angeles and New Jersey; on its own, this one just isn't that sexy. The NHL ceded ground in the continental sports conversation on the weekend to baseball, the endless NBA playoffs and the Indy 500, while north of the border cyclist Ryder Hesjedal stole all the biggest headlines.
Getting that attention back is going to be heavy lifting for the NHL.
Newark and downtown L.A. are almost movie studios, like false fronts in old westerns, when it comes to hockey. The game isn't native to either location, and what they've been trying to sell with mixed success in SoCal for the past 45 years since Jack Kent Cooke brought hockey to the region still hasn't taken permanent roots in New Jersey, where a shift from burbs of East Rutherford to the hardscrabble streets of Newark has yet to produce a positive change in attendance or interest.
Indeed, it's at least theoretically possible the Devils might win the Cup next month and then soon after declare bankruptcy. We shall see.
There are some good talking points between the Kings and Devils, and let's start with this one; it's a final between two teams who both wanted Ilya Kovalchuk, and the team that got him was willing to do anything.
In some ways, it's a referendum on whether boardroom crime pays in the NHL.
L.A. wanted Kovalchuk as a free agent, you'll recall, but weren't quite as anxious to get a deal done at any cost as the Devils were. First, New Jersey signed the Russian sniper to a 17-year, $102 million contract in the summer of 2010, a deal that was rejected by the NHL as a deliberate attempt to circumvent the collectively bargained salary cap.
Later, a 15-year, $100 million contract was approved for Kovalchuk, and the Devils got their man. But in September of that year, the league announced sanctions, fining New Jersey $3 million, forcing the team to give up a third round draft choice in 2011 and a first round pick in one of the four subsequent drafts. Jersey has yet to give up that pick, and it makes some sense that with the 29th or 30th pick this year, depending on whether they win the Cup, this would be the draft to do it.
What the league did not do, and what many believe it should have done, was take away cap space from the Devils as a penalty for their actions.
Less than two years later, it's clear that punishment amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist. Indeed, it was no more onerous a burden than the orginal trade in which the Devils sent Nicolas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and Johnny Oduya to Atlanta along with a first and second round pick in 2010 for Kovalchuk, a 2010 second round and Anssi Salmela.
Neither the trade nor the sanctions for circumventing the cap crippled or really even hurt the Devils in any meaningful way, although that shouldn't take away from the terrific job Lou Lamoriello has done in taken last season's non-playoff squad and turning it into a Cup finalist.
Still, the Devils broke NHL law to get Kovalchuk, and perhaps if L.A. had been willing to do the same, they'd have him under contract. Instead, the Kings got here by another route.
So was the Kovalchuk deal, and all the money and players and picks and forfeited picks it cost, not to mention the remaining 12 years on the contract at an annual cap hit of $6.7 million, worth it? If the Devils win, does it prove Lamoriello did the right thing for his franchise by breaking NHL rules?