Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week's topics: Calgary Flames’ failure on the Jarome Iginla trade has been years in the making; San Jose Sharks considering all of their buy/sell options with NHL trade deadline just days away; Carolina Hurricanes ready for risk-reward ride after Alex Semin’s rich extension; Mike Keenan on Miikka Kiprusoff’s intentions; and another relocation rumor haunts the NHL-owned Phoenix Coyotes.
FIRST PERIOD: Flames fiddled around with Jarome Iginla for far too long
The Calgary Flames should be embarrassed. Deeply, deeply embarrassed. Because this goes beyond the obvious – that they waited far too long to trade captain and icon Jarome Iginla, that they let one team believe a deal was done only to have him waive his no-trade clause for another team, that they got far too little in return. Let’s not lose sight of why they had to trade Iginla in the first place.
This has been a misguided and mismanaged franchise for years, and it certainly didn’t start with current general manager Jay Feaster, who presided over this shortly after the Ryan O’Reilly offer sheet fiasco. The blame reaches back to former GM Darryl Sutter – which has to just burn Flames fans, who watched him come out of his Alberta exile last season and win the Stanley Cup as coach of the Los Angeles Kings. It extends to team president Ken King and up to chairman Murray Edwards.
Bad drafts. Bad trades. Bad signings. Bad decisions in so many areas for so many years. The Flames didn’t just waste Jarome Iginla as an asset. They wasted Jarome Iginla as a player. A good organization would have recognized reality – that this was not a playoff team, let alone a potential Cup contender – and would have moved Iginla long ago in a smart way to start the rebuild. A better organization wouldn’t have had to move Iginla at all because it would have actually built a playoff team around him.
[Cotsonika: Iginla trade was type of NHL deal that isn't supposed to happen anymore]
Iginla had a no-trade clause and was close to Edwards. He loved Calgary and was beloved by Calgary. Maybe he was just as delusional and stubborn as management, and maybe all that made him more difficult to trade. At a news conference Thursday, he wouldn’t rule out coming back to the Flames, saying: “I think the organization is going in the right direction.” He slipped and still called the Flames “we.”
But it was not Iginla’s job to make tough decisions, and it was not his job to surround himself with talent. It was his job to lead and perform, and his loyalty and class helped make him more than just a star player. He did his part even as he aged and his teammates struggled, all his numbers going for naught.
Iginla scored 32 goals at age 32 in 2009-10, when the Flames didn’t make the playoffs. He scored 43 goals at age 33 in 2010-11, when the Flames didn’t make the playoffs. He scored 32 goals at age 34 last season, when the Flames didn’t make the playoffs. And he has nine goals in 31 games at age 35 this season – a 22-goal pace over an 82-game schedule – with the Flames out of playoff position yet again.
Had the Flames decided to trade Iginla a year or two ago, they could have done this the right way. They could have worked with Iginla to create a market that would reap a decent return, and theoretically the assets they acquired would be paying dividends by now. It would have been brutal, but it could have been dignified and productive. Most fans and media would have understood. Many were calling for it.
[Related: Why Iginla picked the Penguins]
By waiting, they ended up stuck – under pressure to do something with Iginla on an expiring contract, with Iginla in control because of his no-trade clause. The Boston Bruins offered the best deal, even if it wasn’t great, and the Flames agreed to it. But Iginla picked the Pittsburgh Penguins, who offered even less than the Bruins did, and so the Flames had to accept only a late first-rounder and what experts consider two C-list college prospects. They are not going to start a rebuild with that.
But worst of all, by managing the team so poorly after their run to the Cup final in 2004, they squandered the back end of Iginla’s prime and made their captain the subject of trade rumors for years, testing his character in all sorts of uncomfortable situations.
Could they have refused to trade Iginla to Pittsburgh and tried to force him to Boston to get the best return? Could they have refused to trade him at all? Maybe. But they’re the ones who gave him the no-trade clause, they’re the ones who put him in this position, and they’re the ones who would have looked classless, not just clueless, had they tried to play hardball. And what if they alienated him so much that he left for nothing as a free agent?
Failure begets failure. Even though the Flames have finally recognized the need to rebuild and finally traded Jarome Iginla, there is no reason to believe they are about to break the cycle. Their future looks as bleak as ever.
They’re lucky Iginla wanted to stay for so long. It’s incredible he won’t rule out coming back. You’d think it would have been Iginla asking for a trade, not the other way around.
SECOND PERIOD: Sharks test the water ahead of NHL trade deadline
Listen to what San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson said Monday after trading defenseman Douglas Murray to the Penguins: “Can it lead to other deals? Sure, it can. There are certainly a lot of teams that are in contact with us.”
Wilson said it was “not acceptable” how the Sharks had played after their 7-0-0 start, and he made it clear that their performance before the trade deadline would have a great impact on what he decided to do.
“They’re all big boys,” Wilson said. “They know what’s on the line here. To me, actions speak louder than words. Play well. Let us know where you’re at with your game. … I’d like to see us over the next little while in particular step up our game. There’s no reason why we can’t.”
Well, look what has happened since: The Sharks have won back-to-back games over the Anaheim Ducks, the second-ranked team in the Western Conference. They won on the road, and they won at home. They won by a combined score of 8-3, when their biggest issue has been a lack of offense.
So now what? Should Wilson read too much into that, considering the Ducks have now lost four straight?
The Sharks entered Thursday night in eighth place in the West. They had three more games before the deadline – Thursday night against the Detroit Red Wings, Saturday night against the Phoenix Coyotes and Monday night against the Vancouver Canucks, all at home.
Can they show Wilson enough to keep this group together?
Change is coming, whether it’s now or in the near future. Veteran forwards Ryane Clowe and Michal Handzus, who have combined for only one goal this season, are pending unrestricted free agents. Veteran stars Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle all have one year left on their contracts. By design.
“We knew that this window would be getting here, or this time, if you look at how our contracts are structured, what we have in committed dollars,” Wilson said. “We don’t use the world ‘rebuild,’ because that classically means six, seven years. … We like to use the term of ‘reset and refresh.’ ”
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The Sharks have players to reset and refresh around: Antti Niemi in goal; Brent Burns on defense, when he’s not moonlighting at forward; Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski up front. But now might be the time to part with players like Clowe and Boyle, and they need to make decisions soon on players like Thornton and Marleau, the two who have been cornerstones.
Wilson supported coach Todd McLellan and his staff. He said the coaches have addressed the areas management wanted – penalty killing, goals against, play around the net. When the Sharks play the way they’re supposed to, they play well. But they have struggled to score and perform consistently.
“Do I think that’s coaching preparation? No,” Wilson said. “I think it comes down to players sticking with it, not altering our approach to a game just because we’re down a goal or whatever. … The offensive side, it’s hard to fathom. We’ve got some guys that have been goal-scorers in this league that all went dry at the same time, or guys that were scoring at a very high clip before …”
He did not finish his sentence. He did not identify Marleau, who scored nine goals in his first five games but has seven since. He didn’t need to.
“This is coming to crunch time,” Wilson said. “We’ve had some inconsistency. If you look at any teams that have separated themselves from the pack, they’ve played by committee. They’ve played strong defense. They’ve created some offense and played a consistent approach to it. We haven’t done that. We need to do that now. …
“We have a pretty clear, concise plan. We knew as we were entering into this timeframe – whether it be now or this summer – exactly how we were going to execute that plan, and I guess the timing is dictated by performance.”
THIRD PERIOD: Carolina comfortable with all-in gamble on enigmatic Alex Semin
Jim Rutherford understands your skepticism.
Alex Semin signed three straight one-year contracts – two with the Washington Capitals, then one with the Carolina Hurricanes. He is known for offensive production, but not for showing up every night.
Yet after only 30 games with the ’Canes, less than half a full season, Rutherford, a GM who used to avoid in-season extensions, gave Semin a five-year, $35 million contract.
And he did so knowing full well how difficult it will be to fit a $7 million cap hit into his budget, not just because the cap will come down to $64.3 million next season, but because Carolina doesn’t spend to the cap, anyway.
“I’ve added seven million to our payroll next year,” said Rutherford, who put Jussi Jokinen on waivers this week, hoping someone would take his $3 million cap hit for the rest of this season and next, only to watch him clear. “I’ve got to start to figure out ways that we can get our payroll in better line with what our business does.”
Let him explain:
The Hurricanes gave Semin a one-year deal initially because they simply didn’t know him. They knew both his ability and his reputation, but they wanted to give him a clean slate. Could he play in their system? Would he like coach Kirk Muller, and would Muller like him?
“When we did the one-year deal, it was with hopes that this would work,” Rutherford said. “And it has worked for us.”
Semin has eight goals and 30 points in 31 games. That’s a 21-goal, 79-point pace for a full 82-game schedule. Just as important, he has boosted the totals of Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty, giving the Hurricanes an excellent first line. He has clicked with Staal better than anyone since Cory Stillman, Staal’s right winger when the ’Canes won the Cup in 2006.
“Alex gets Eric the puck more than he’s ever gotten it,” Rutherford said.
Semin is also plus-15, even though he was minus-5 over the past three games.
“People view him as an offensive player, but he’s done some things in games defensively that’s saved the game for us,” Rutherford said. “He’s played the game at both ends of the rink.”
[More: Relocation rumblings coming out of Phoenix]
But what about the small sample size? Isn’t Rutherford worried Semin will start coasting now that he has security? And why has Rutherford started giving extensions during the season?
“I believe with a player like this, if you wait too long, you could very well miss an opportunity,” Rutherford said. “I can tell you that I’ve had two teams in particular – and I can add another, more in a casual way – that asked if we were going to re-sign Alex or if we would consider trading him.
“So once I get those calls, and there’s other teams thinking about it now, the judgment call becomes more, do you make that decision after 30 games based on what you’ve seen, or do you also factor in how far you can run the risk until you get closer to free agency?”
More teams are locking up their key players, which means fewer key players are reaching the free-agent market, which means they are more difficult to replace. So more teams are locking up their key players, creating a snowball effect.
That’s why Rutherford changed course last year and locked up Tuomo Ruutu, and that’s why he locked up Semin. Had he let Semin hit the market, he likely would have lost him. Had he lost him, he likely would not have found an equivalent replacement. Had he not found an equivalent replacement, what would have happened to his first line?
“I think that if a team decides they want a player – certainly if we decide we want a player – we’re going to jump in and do it before the season’s over instead of waiting now,” Rutherford said, “because it becomes a lot riskier.”
Even riskier than giving Alex Semin a rich, long-term deal.
OVERTIME: Mike Keenan, Miikka Kiprusoff and Calgary’s other quandary
If only Jarome Iginla were the only issue in Calgary.
Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester has a no-trade clause and one year left on his contract at $6.68 million. He could, and should, be asked to go if the Flames can get something decent in return for him.
Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff does not have a no-trade clause, but he reportedly will retire rather than play the final year of his contract if the Flames try to move him. That’s ostensibly because he and his wife just had a baby.
But Mike Keenan has said the Flames and Kiprusoff had a mutual understanding that he wouldn’t play the last year of his contract, anyway. Keenan was the Flames coach when they signed Kiprusoff to a six-year, $35 million deal with the following structure: $8.5 million, $7 million, $7 million, $6 million, $5 million, $1.5 million.
The last year seems phony, tacked on to lower the cap hit to $5.833 million. That’s why the NHL fought to outlaw back-diving contracts in the new collective bargaining agreement. And Keenan’s comments seem to prove cap circumvention. But will the NHL take action? Probably not, and certainly not at this point.
League officials aren’t naive. It’s likely the Flames and Kiprusoff considered the idea he might retire before the end of his contract. But even though Keenan was their coach then, he is now a media personality and his comments alone aren’t enough to establish a pre-existing agreement that Kiprusoff would not play the last year of the deal. The NHL will at least see what Kiprusoff actually does before exploring it further or making any judgments.
SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL
— The NHL continues to work on ways to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, Ariz. But the league does not know if any of them will work, and this has been going on for years. Relocation has to be considered. But will the league make a decision before the playoffs? Not necessarily. It depends on the progress that is made – or is not made – in the coming weeks. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL’s “current focus remains on selling the Coyotes to ownership in Glendale. We haven’t spent much time on anything else.”
[Also: Five reasons why the Penguins aren't a mortal lock to win Stanley Cup]
— Eric Staal had 24 goals, 70 points and a minus-20 rating in 82 games last season. He has 14 goals, 35 points and a plus-16 rating in 31 games this season. Three reasons: his own determination to improve, his chemistry with Semin and his brother Jordan’s arrival from Pittsburgh. Eric still faces the toughest matchups as the No. 1 centerman, but Jordan takes a lot of pressure off him as the No. 2. “When you’re rolling two 6-foot-4 centericemen back to back, that gives a guy a comfort level,” Rutherford said. “Jordan’s eating up a lot of minutes. He’s playing over 20 minutes a game, and he’s done a good job for us despite the fact he’s playing with a whole lot of different guys. But we’ll get that straightened out here when we get everybody healthy.”
— Now that the Tampa Bay Lightning has fired coach Guy Boucher, the heat is on GM Steve Yzerman. He has been through struggles before as a player and executive, but this is perhaps the first time he has been singled out and blamed, at least to this degree, for his team’s failures. He might have made a good hire in Jon Cooper, but it remains to be seen whether Cooper is just the next Guy Boucher, a well-regarded, up-and-coming coach with no NHL experience. Like Boucher, Cooper won’t succeed unless Yzerman gives him better goaltending, a more mobile defense and increased scoring depth. One thing about Yzerman, though. He works hard, relishes challenges and never gives up.
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