Modano has best of both worlds
Mike Modano's signing with the Wings is a win-win situation for him and the NHL
Detroit, unfazed by the veteran's age (40), thinks he can still contribute
Modano is highest-scoring American-born hockey player in the NHL's history
There aren't many happy endings in the National Hockey League these days.
It's a salary-capped world and that means most decisions are made for and about money.
Players realize that. So do general managers and even the occasional enlightened owner. When it comes to the bottom line, hard decisions are going to have to be made. Just ask Ilya Kovalchuk (currently a free agent facing arbitration), Antti Niemi (a Stanley Cup-winning goalie now separated from his team because of an arbitration award and its impact on the Chicago Blackhawks), Jaroslav Halak (a goalie who thought he had played his way to the top for the Montreal Canadiens only to be traded because of what he might have earned in his next negotiation), and, as you will see a little farther down in this column, Tim Kennedy (a third-line forward in his home town of Buffalo who was turned away by the club because he took it to arbitration and won a mere $200,000 more than the club was willing to pay).
So we here at SI.com, who so often dabble in the negative side of the sport, will pause to mention that it all seems to be going well for Mike Modano, the highest-scoring American-born player ever to grace the NHL.
It likely didn't seem that way at first. A legend in Dallas and, arguably, the No. 1 reason why the franchise was able to establish itself and find success in the Southwest, Modano had a right to think that what likely would be his last NHL season would be spent with the Stars. It was, perhaps, a rude awakening when former teammate Joe Nieuwendyk, a player with whom Modano had won the franchise's only Stanley Cup back in 1999, told Modano that he was finished there. Those weren't the words of a well-meaning-friend trying to ease Modano into a reality he knew was upon him. They were the words of a newly-minted GM. Nieuwendyk had been charged with running a now-troubled franchise and he made it clear to Modano that it was in the Stars' best interests -- as well as Modano's -- to either retire or seek out another team.
Tough to take, especially if you subscribe to the theory that Modano did more to build the franchise than Nieuwendyk or any other player who ever wore the green, white and gold, but Modano took the message in the way it was intended. After taking some time to make up his mind about where to play or even if he should play one more year, he this week opted to sign with the Red Wings.
It's a good fit for hockey, it's a good fit for Detroit, and it's even good for the Stars who need to get past their past in order to look ahead to their future.
Most of all, however, it's a best-case scenario for Modano.
Though he is closely associated with Minnesota, having given the North Stars a measure of fame and success during his early years in the game, Modano chose a different homecoming of sorts. For one thing, the Red Wings wanted him and that helps a lot when a player is nearing the end of his time in the game. Having a team -- a very good team -- that still thinks you can play at 40 years old is a nice addition to the confidence box. For another, Detroit is really the place where it all began.
Modano, who will make the announcement official at a press conference on Friday, said he thought about several other teams, including the Minnesota Wild, but Detroit made the decision easy for him.
"Detroit pushed very hard from the start," Modano told Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News. "They want me there, they think I can help, and they're very open about it. That was neat. It's such a good organization and they really, really believe they're going to have a great team this year. They said the injuries were ridiculous last year, and they're ready to bounce back from that. I really think they're a team where you can think about winning it all.''
Nice thoughts, but there's more at play here.
Modano was born in the Detroit area. He played much of his youth hockey there and he even played some games at Joe Louis Arena for Little Caesars, the pizza operation that sponsored hundreds of kids and whose owner, Mike Ilitch, later bought the Red Wings and turned them into perhaps the most admired professional sports team of the last two decades.
That's like playing for family and the bonus is that Modano's mom and dad still live in the Detroit area and can now watch their son play whenever he's at home.
And once the push was on, the Red Wings were relentless. They didn't just call and express interest, they sent a plane and brought Modano into the marketplace to make the push. It wasn't a hard sell, what with 15 division championships and four Stanley Cups over the last two decades. More importantly, the Wings weren't asking him to be a hero or the face of the franchise. There are enough good players in Detroit to take care of that. Modano needs only to fit in and contribute as a two-way forward and exceptionally experienced, successful player.
It's part of what Detroit does: build a good core and then add to it with a mix of quality young players and some veterans they know still have a desire to succeed. Modano isn't a kid anymore and he has his Stanley Cup ring, but there's nothing wrong with wanting one more, and if a team is willing to pay you to play, why would you not want to try, especially with a successful franchise in the place where it all began?
The deal is a reported $2.5 million for one season, something the Stars likely could afford, but just didn't see as necessary. It's a bit of a tough cap hit for the Wings, but they can make it work and they think they've got a bargain. Modano likely will be on a checking line with Jiri Hudler and Dan Cleary, but those two got plenty of ice time last season as checkers and against third defensive pairings. Having Modano between them raises the experience level considerably and could lead to more goals and more points for all even in the occasional "clutch" situation.
Playing in a division with Chicago and in a conference that includes the still good Sharks and the seemingly rising Canucks is more of an opportunity than the Stars could offer. Having an in-depth knowledge of the strengths and, especially, the weaknesses of former Dallas goalie Marty Turco (newly signed by the Blackhawks) won't hurt either.
It's not all that bad for Dallas, either. The Stars are, at best, a rebuilding team in the beginning stages of becoming solid. It would be hard for Modano to be a part of that at this point in his career. He will be missed by the fans there, but there really wasn't much he could do to help the club and there was a very good chance that he would have been frustrated to the point of anger and, perhaps, a forced retirement should he be asked to do the things he can no longer do as an athlete past his prime.
Modano told Heika: "It's still a little disappointing and a little strange, but I've gotten over it as time has gone on. I know what Joe is thinking, and there's no hard feelings there. He has to do what he has to do. But, I want to play, and I think I can still play, and I really think Detroit is the best place to do that. They have a lot of guys who are closer to my age, and I just feel like it's a good fit for me. I'm excited. You look at that team and the way they play hockey, and you get excited about how you fit and how it would be to play on that team. I'm looking forward to it.''
It may only be part of a rocking chair tour, a Goodbye Mike farewell across the NHL stage, but to be able to do it at home and with a team that is good enough to win, and maybe even win it all, well, as happy endings go nowadays, that's not all that hard to take.
If I were Michael Leighton of the Philadelphia Flyers, I would feel pretty much blessed right now.
Leighton got a new contract that's good for two years and worth a reported $3.1 million. He's got public and private assurances that the Flyers are not interested in signing former Blackhawks (and, for the record, Cup-winning goalie) Antti Niemi even though he's suddenly on the market. Leighton appears to have the support of a notoriously fickle fan base despite the fact that he was the primary reason why the Flyers lost the Cup to the Blackhawks in six games last spring, the last match on Philadelphia's home ice.
Compare that with the other three goalies who made it to the Stanley Cup Final four in 2010:
Chicago just walked on Niemi after an arbitrator awarded him a seemingly reasonable $2.75 million for one year. Niemi must now find another team that can use his services, and unless the Flyers or the Sharks have a change of heart, the chances of that team being a legitimate Cup contender are not particularly good.
Evgeni Nabokov couldn't even get an offer from the Sharks and recently signed in Russia. His deal is said to be worth $24 million over four years, but that figure is somewhat suspect in NHL circles and even if it's true, it's a far cry from playing in the Western Conference Final with a shot at the Stanley Cup.
Meanwhile, Jaroslav Halak, the goalie who carried the Canadiens to wins over Washington and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds of the playoffs and gave the Flyers a bit of a fright, has been shipped out of Montreal in favor of Carey Price, the player he put on the bench during the postseason. Halak signed a four year deal with St. Louis with a cap hit for the Blues of about $3.75 million per season. That's a pretty good deal, considering what arbitrators and clubs are handing out to goalies this summer. But St. Louis isn't Montreal in terms of playoff history, and should the Blues falter this season, the blame will be squarely on Halak's shoulders.
This is all salary-cap related, but that doesn't mean it makes sense. It's possible that Niemi will be seeking work come the start of training camp if teams stick to their reported choices. The logic of that seems unfathomable, but in the NHL, normal is usually just a state of mind and nowhere near reality.
Despite playing to sellout crowds on most nights in one of the league's largest buildings with a newly-created, huge television market and after winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in decades, the Blackhawks claim they lost money in 2009-10 and, as a result, are upping ticket prices 20 percent across the board.
Now this is where we normally throw in that line from Commissioner Gary Bettman, who said that he expected ticket prices would "go down" once the players bought into a salary cap, but that's a little too much piling on. This looks for all the world like a team cashing in on a successful season in a big market, and even if it did lose money last season, one has to ask how.
The cap was supposed to put an end to most cost-overruns. In fighting it time and time again before the players showed him the door, former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow often argued that hockey losses are in the eyes of the accountants, especially if a club has formed different companies to structure parking revenue, concession products, television and radio rights, and arena management.
The Hawks are a private concern and no one but the management there has a handle on how revenue is processed. But until they or any other team bring forth an independent audit, the claims of loss for a championship team are going to be suspect.
Don't expect the Blackhawks to break new ground in that regard.
It's hard to find a more curious case of money management than the one that went on display this week involving the Buffalo Sabres and their former left winger Tim Kennedy. We say "former" because the Sabres not only balked at paying an arbitrated $1 million for Kennedy's services next season, but told the hometown boy that they were not only rejecting the decision, but were also buying him out at a reported cost of $333,333.33.
Now, you can argue that Kennedy angered the Sabres by going to and winning arbitration this early in his career and that maybe $1 million was a little much for a player coming off his first full season in the NHL during which he scored just 10 goals with 16 assists. The Sabres had offered $800,000 before the two sides went into the hearing room, and even after the decision was announced, Sabres GM Darcy Regier said it was "higher than we wanted, but perhaps something we could work with."
Several days later, Regier reversed himself, saying the Sabres were already over their established budget (though some $9 million under the salary cap) and that Kennedy was the player being moved. Regier also said the team would like to have just 22 players for next season, one under the league-wide limit.
Why the change of heart? Regier never made that quite clear, but clinging to the "over budget" line has won him few fans in Kennedy's home town. The left winger grew up wanting to be a Sabre and formed his hockey talents in South Buffalo, a hotbed for hockey in western New York, and at the university level. He's young, but he showed promise in his first year and even got himself named to Team USA for the World Junior Championships. Kennedy was picked ahead of several players on the Sabres' roster, including veteran Tim Connolly who totally disappeared in a first-round playoff loss to the Bruins last spring while Kennedy emerged as a force who contributed in both ends of the ice and showed real promise.
Regier did say that he realized the move would be unpopular with fans, but the team comes first: "Our objective hasn't changed here," Regier said. "It's about building the very best team, a championship team. That's the goal. That's what we do. That's why we do it. That's why we make tough decisions like this. I know it hits home. I know it's personal to our fan base."
Makes sense, except that the Sabres have missed the playoffs more times than they've made them in recent years (five misses, three appearances in the last eight) and the team is entering its 40th NHL season without ever having won the Stanley Cup.
The consensus in Buffalo is that letting a good young player go in a dispute that amounts to chump change and than having to pay a part of his salary when he signs with another team isn't a very good way to "do" what the Sabres claim they are trying to do.
What adds irony to this story is that the arbitrator's award was so low that it didn't qualify for a complete walk-away (the award has to be above $1.6 million for that to happen under NHL rules), yet the Sabres chose to save money by paying a player they traded for and cultivated for years right when he seems poised to make a real contribution.
Regier denied it, but the buyout looks like a power play warning for others who may take the club to arbitration. Might that include rookie of the year Tyler Myers when his entry level contract expires?
Or could it be that there's a budget in place for a much-rumored sale and that current ownership is intent on keeping it there until a deal is consummated?
Anything goes in that regard. Little wonder why ownership and upper management weren't at the press conference to support Regier when he made the announcement.
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