Kovalchuk matter hardly resolved, Ovechkin backs off, more notes
The Devils still have a legal case that they did not try to dodge the salary cap
Marc Staal's new Rangers deal creates a squeeze that may bury Wade Redden
Alex Ovechkin softened his stance on the 2014 Olympics and his reckless hits
I've been around the sports writing business long enough to know that words truly matter. So when a general manager tells me that he doesn't anticipate surgery on his star player "at this time," the key phrase is "at this time." By definition it's at the moment that he is speaking. The moment he stops, all denials of a possible surgery are officially off the table.
I mention this because in the wake of the stunning slap-down of the New Jersey Devils by the NHL regarding their initial contract offer to free-agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk, GM Lou Lamoriello's most recent statement would appear to carry a special meaning.
"It's a non-subject right now," Lamoriello told the New York Post in the wake of his team's stunning and massive $3 million dollar fine and loss of two draft picks in the next four years. Lamoriello is a veteran GM. He is also as careful as he is smart, and he cautioned reporters not to read anything into his remark, but it is different from "we accept" or "we have put this behind us and intend to move on" or, quite simply, "it's over." Given that everyone in the NHL is under a "no comment" directive regarding the decision to discipline the Devils, the caution is no surprise. But Lamoriello had options, and so the words he chose, as non-definite as they would appear to be, must have some meaning.
"You would think they are at least thinking about a lawsuit," said one agent who has had many dealings with Lamoriello, but asked for anonymity on this issue because of its sensitive nature. "It doesn't appear they got any formal support at the Board of Governors meeting (Tuesday in New York) and that's to be expected, but Lou has a lot of friends in that room and some of them can't be proud of what happened there."
The agent has a point and there is a point to be made, be it with Lamoriello working the other members of the BoG in the hallways to petition for some relief or at least taking the temperature of his brethren regarding hauling the league to court.
Court is a dangerous option all the way around. To take internal matters outside is to run afoul of what is arguably the most powerful commissioner in the long history of the NHL. That's no small consideration when it comes to Gary Bettman, who does not take challenges, legal or otherwise, lightly. He's been on a long winning streak with the well-plotted demise of the owners' most troublesome adversary -- former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow -- and a disconnected Players Association, a CBA that rewarded Bettman with hockey's first salary cap, and a landmark win in regaining control of the Phoenix Coyotes via a bankruptcy court ruling, as well as maintaining league control over the possibility of a second team in the Greater Toronto Area marketplace. Along the way, his many triumphs have earned him the respect -- and, in most cases, full support -- of a heretofore cantankerous ownership group that now seems to consistently back his judgment and (usually via the threat of massive fines) allows him to speak as the league's only voice.
But Lamoriello has clout as well. Often referred to as perhaps the most powerful behind-the-scenes person in the game, Lamoriello has the respect of virtually all of the GMs and many owners. He knows he can make a compelling case in that what he did with the initial Kovalchuk offer was no less a circumvention of the CBA than what Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch did with contracts for several veteran players, or what Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider did with his "retirement" contract for Chris Pronger. Lamoriello can also include what Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs did regarding center Marc Savard's soon-to-be-in-play deal, what Vancouver has done for Roberto Luongo, or even what Washington did with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Lamoriello even has the league's own actions to use against it, as the NHL went on record in its initial Kovalchuk rejection as having the contracts of Luongo, Savard, Pronger and others "under investigation" for the same offenses that Bettman has convicted the Devils of committing. In addition, Lamoriello has the in-writing opinion of arbitrator Richard Bloch that the Devils did no wrong in their initial offer to Kovalchuk and that their actions in no way amounted to an attempt to circumvent the established salary cap.
The league has said little on this matter, but its defenders argue that it had no choice but to punish Lamoriello and the Devils in much the same way it punished the Maple Leafs for their stated interest in then-upcoming free agents Daniel and Henrik Sedin (since re-signed by Vancouver) and the way they lured Jonas Frogren to Toronto (which resulted in fines totaling $500,000 and the surrendering of a fourth-round draft pick). The St. Louis Blues were likewise hit ($1.5 million and two first-round picks) for the way they once tampered with defenseman Scott Stevens, who had a valid contract with the Devils.
My colleague Allan Muir made a strong and responsible argument on these pages that Bettman let Lamoriello off somewhat easy given the power the commissioner has at this point, but those close to the Devils, and perhaps Lamoriello himself, see it differently. In their eyes, the Devils did no more wrong than any of their above-named brethren in exploiting a loophole in the CBA that even the NHL acknowledged existed.
But the fact remains that Lamoriello and the Devils have been singled out and fined heavily for doing nothing more than what others have gotten away with for years. Those who did get away are unlikely to come to his aid now, but the fact that Lamoriello didn't completely and unequivocally say that this issue is finished has to at least give them pause.
After all, it was Lamoriello who once took then-NHL President John Ziegler to court over the one-game suspension of his coach, Jim Schoenfeld, for his "have another donut" fracas with referee Don Koharski during in the 1988 playoffs. It took a lot of courage to do that and even though Lamoriello won, he likely paid a heck of a price.
Will he be willing to do that again and against a Commissioner many times more powerful than Ziegler ever hoped he could be?
Well, as of today, he hasn't officially said no.
To the surprise of no one except perhaps former Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan, current head coach Joel Quenneville was "thrilled" with his recently-announced contract extension. It is well deserved after his bringing the talented but very young team through the playoffs to the 2010 Stanley Cup championship. Quenneville had the upcoming season left on his deal, but the Blackhawks made a smart move in announcing the extension (a rumored two more seasons) on the eve of the opening of training camp.
There's likely to be problems in the early-going for the Blackhawks as they adjust to the roster losses they forced upon themselves by playing so close to the salary cap limits in recent years. That can cause problems for young players, but by extending Quennville now, the team can ascertain that management is in control, Stan Bowman is the GM, his father, Scotty, remains a senior consultant, and Quennville is coach with more than a few years to go on his contract. That's a message to the players that success or failure this season will be on their shoulders.
The extension can also be looked upon as a reward for Quennville not just for winning the Cup, but also for publically supporting all the changes that were brought about by the financial issues in Chicago. Coaches are expected to do that, but it doesn't always happen and that's a reason why some, like Keenan for example, have had so many different stops in their coaching careers.