Cross Checks: Atlanta Thrashers
The move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, confirmed at the start of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, was heralded (mostly in Canada, of course) as a cause for rejoicing, a return of a once-proud NHL franchise from a southern wasteland to its rightful place on the snowy prairie.
How's that move working out so far?
On Sunday, the moribund Jets fired coach Claude Noel, who took over after the team's move in the summer of 2011 and failed to nudge the Jets appreciably closer to the playoffs than when they were playing to spotty crowds at Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta, where they managed to make the postseason just once in a dozen years, winning exactly zero playoff games.
Sure, you can blame former Atlanta GM Don Waddell and the wildly dysfunctional ownership group in Atlanta -- which allowed a glorious opportunity to join franchises such as Dallas and San Jose in building a viable hockey culture in a nontraditional place to simply fall to pieces -- for the ills that continue to plague the franchise in snowy Winnipeg.
It's a convenient talking point, even if it's no longer true.
The reality is that the failures of this team can no longer be pinned on whatever earlier failures marked the team's time in Atlanta. And the longer this team spins its wheels, the longer it continues to ice a team that does not compete often enough and cannot master the fundamentals of playing competitive hockey, especially now that it is playing big-boy hockey in the Western Conference, this move back to Winnipeg inches closer and closer to colossal failure.
Sure, fans still flock to the tiny MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg, but the honeymoon is long over, as the frequent boos from the stands and the sharp questions asked in the city's competitive media market attest.
GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who took the job after apprenticing with the Chicago Blackhawks, has played the first card in trying to reverse the tidal wave of mediocrity that threatens this team's future by firing Noel.
The general pattern for young GMs in the NHL is that you get one mulligan when it comes to coaching hires. Hard to imagine that if veteran bench boss Paul Maurice, named Sunday to replace Noel, doesn't get the job done, the next card dealt will have Cheveldayoff in the hand.
For Maurice, whose history includes guiding overachieving teams in Carolina to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals and the 2009 Eastern Conference finals but who twice failed to get the Toronto Maple Leafs into the postseason dance, the bar has been set impossibly low in terms of showing improvement.
But this isn't about improving a Jets team that ranks 25th in goals against, pretty standard for the history of this franchise, ranks 25th on the power play and has lost five straight games during which it's been outscored 24-14.
That's small-picture stuff, and we're guessing that Maurice will be able to effect that kind of short-term change.
But what's at stake is so much bigger, especially given that this season is already a write-off with the Jets 10 points back of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Moving a franchise to Winnipeg brought with it inherent risks.
Like Edmonton or smaller markets with little recent history of success (sorry, Wayne Gretzky et al was so long ago), the path to viability is clearly marked with little margin for error. Draft shrewdly, develop properly, hire good hockey people up and down the organization, including the coaching staff, and hope that as your team grows and matures and takes steps forward you become the kind of place other good hockey players and people will be drawn to.
We've seen the model happen for years in Detroit and more recently in Chicago and Pittsburgh.
But fail to hit those markers, draft poorly or make poor decisions in handing out long-term deals and that plan falls to pieces in a hurry. Make mistakes and as an organization you're forced to overpay for free agents that would rather be somewhere else or rush young players into roles they're not equipped to handle and the circle of failure spins and spins.
The Jets have failed in many ways to step beyond that cycle in their brief time in Winnipeg.
Their lineup boasts too many castoffs, players who could not fit in with better teams, players such as Devin Setoguchi, the one-time 30-goal scorer in San Jose who wore out his welcome after moving to Minnesota and now has seven goals for the Jets. The oft-traded Olli Jokinen is another player seemingly taking up space on the Jets roster, on pace for fewer than 20 goals.
In recent months, Cheveldayoff has rolled the dice, locking up young pieces of the Jets' convoluted puzzle to long-term deals, hoping they will form the nucleus of what this franchise has never produced: a consistent playoff team.
But already there are serious question marks about those decisions.
Zach Bogosian, the third overall pick in 2008, has failed to develop into anything approaching that lofty draft selection but was curiously inked to a long-term deal that carries through the 2019-20 season with an annual cap hit of $5.142 million.
Dustin Byfuglien had been moved to forward after compiling a minus-17 playing on the blue line. He still has two more years remaining on a contract that carries a $5.2 million cap hit.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is in goal, where Ondrej Pavelec, once thought to be the heir apparent to Kari Lehtonen as franchise netminder, has been an enigma at best and a disaster at worst. He is signed through 2016-17 with a cap hit of $3.9 million. Now, is the fact Pavelec is carrying an .898 save percentage and 3.14 GAA a function of the poor defense played in front of him or simply the fact he is no better than a Grade B goaltender?
Those are questions Maurice will have to come to grips with in the coming days.
It's not all doom and gloom, though.
Jacob Trouba is going to be a special player on defense. Mark Scheifele, another top prospect, has been nurtured instead of rushed. Other promising prospects are in the pipeline.
Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little have justified, at least in part, their contract extensions. Andrew Ladd is a consummate pro and wise choice as team captain, although this team still suffers from a lack of a solid leadership core that can help arrest the skids that ruin playoff hopes, as this current one has done for the Jets.
Evander Kane is a good player, although whether he'll ever become the kind of dominant player offensively this team needs has yet to be seen.
There are pieces in place.
So maybe this coaching change is the catalyst to that long-awaited turning of the corner, which has eluded this franchise whether it has courted sunburn or frostbite.
But over the years, fans both north and south have been fed a steady diet of such maybes and found it entirely wanting.
It is very possible, although not quite a guarantee, that Vincent Lecavalier will choose his next team by the end of the day Wednesday.
The UFA center, who is allowed to speak with teams earlier than other UFAs because his contract was bought out, has been deliberating with family where the best fit might be for him to continue this career.
The likes of the Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames are among the teams that have shown interest.
The decision for Lecavalier begins with Montreal. He has to decide whether he wants to go home and deal with both the perks and detriments of playing in his native town. And if he goes home, it’s not going to be for the same kind of money or term other clubs would have offered. If he’s a Hab, it’s more because he really, really wants to be one. Montreal definitely has interest in signing him, but it’s going to have to be on a reasonable deal that fits within its cap and payroll structure.
But no one should fault Lecavalier if he decides to avoid that situation; that’s his choice as a UFA.
I still think Dallas is a solid possibility for Lecavalier if he wants to remain in a quiet, nontraditional hockey place such as the environment he has experienced his entire career with the Tampa Bay Lightning. And I think the Stars are willing to go five years on a deal.
While it’s true to a degree, as Nashville Predators GM David Poile suggested to his local media Tuesday, that Lecavalier would prefer to stay in the East, it does not preclude him from playing in Dallas, I can tell you that.
Detroit is a great fit, too, and so is Boston. We’ll know soon enough.
As a reminder, beginning at 12:01 a.m. ET Wednesday (so basically Tuesday night), a wrinkle in the new CBA kicks in that NHL fans haven’t seen before: Free agents have the right to speak with other teams in the 48-hour lead-up to the opening of the market Friday.
So for teams trying to re-sign their free agents, Tuesday was their last day of exclusivity to do so. For example, it was the last day for New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello to be the only voice in David Clarkson’s ear. Clarkson recently turned down an offer from the Devils and most likely is headed to the market. Then again, maybe Uncle Lou has another last trick up his sleeve.
• Traded texts Tuesday morning with UFA forward Danny Briere. He says he’s talking to teams as he’s narrowing his focus. We should know more Wednesday.
• The Devils and pending UFA center Patrik Elias were close to a deal, but it wasn’t done as of noon ET Tuesday, agent Allan Walsh said. Walsh also represents winger Pascal Dupuis, another pending UFA, and the agent said talks with the Pittsburgh Penguins were continuing.
• Pending UFA winger Damien Brunner was a day away from being able to speak with the 29 other teams. His agent, Neil Sheehy, told ESPN.com via email Tuesday morning that he planned to talk again with Detroit but wasn’t sure where it was all headed.
• The Predators put veteran blueliner Hal Gill on waivers. He has one year left on his deal at $2 million. GM David Poile said via text that the blue line is a little crowded given the drafting of Seth Jones, and the hope is to find a new home for Gill. If no one claims him on waivers, another possibility would be to buy him out.
If the Western Conference remains a place of high anxiety for teams such as the Minnesota Wild, Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets, who are wrestling for the final two playoff berths in the final days of the regular season, there is at last some clarity in the Eastern Conference.
Overtime victories by the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers on Thursday night made the outcome of the Winnipeg Jets-Montreal Canadiens game moot. Still, as if to emphasize the finality or even futility of the exercise, the Jets were downed at home 4-2 by the Habs and again will finish outside the playoff tournament.
Credit coach Claude Noel for guiding the Jets on a late-season surge toward the postseason, but after two seasons in Winnipeg since the team was relocated from Atlanta, it's hard to see that much has changed.
This is a franchise that has qualified for the playoffs only once in its history and has never won a playoff game, having been swept by the Rangers in its only appearance while in Atlanta in 2007.
As of Friday morning, the Jets were tied for 22nd overall in goals allowed per game, and if there is any solace it's that the teams with whom they were tied (the Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars) aren't going anywhere but to the cottage next week, either.
The Jets rank 23rd on the penalty kill, and when you combine that with the team's ongoing struggle to keep the puck out of its own net, it tells a story that has been told and retold since the Thrashers joined the NHL in 1999.
Is netminder Ondrej Pavelec the man? His 2.80 GAA ranks 38th in the NHL and his .905 save percentage is 33rd, but Pavelec ranks first in minutes played.
In some ways Pavelec reflects the team's ongoing identity, whether in Atlanta or in Winnipeg, and that is one of startling mediocrity.
The late-season run at a playoff berth, while no doubt exciting for Jets fans though certainly impeded by injuries to key personnel such as Zach Bogosian, does little to help move the team forward. Not quite good enough -- indeed almost never quite good enough -- to be a playoff team but rarely bad enough to reap the true rewards of poor play with a franchise draft pick.
It is, as has always been the case, a lineup with too much dead wood, and at this stage there is little optimism for a quick turnaround. Management has preached patience. That's a storyline that is familiar to anyone who has followed this franchise for any length of time.
There are more than a few parallels between the Jets and Blue Jackets, who joined the NHL a year after the Thrashers and have the same miserable playoff record: one appearance, that a sweep of the hands of the Red Wings in 2009. But on Thursday night, the Cinderella Blue Jackets kept their playoff dreams alive by crushing the Stars' hopes with a 3-1 victory in Dallas.
With Detroit also winning, the pressure, at least in the short term, turns to eighth-place Minnesota, which is tied with Columbus at 53 points (the Blue Jackets are ninth, having played one more game), one point behind Detroit. The Wild have two games left, one of which will be played Friday night at home against the Edmonton Oilers.
Like Detroit, the Wild control their destiny; keep winning and they're in. Columbus has to hope one if not both teams falter and it can win its final game, against the Nashville Predators on Saturday.
Still, even if Columbus falls short, is there anyone in the game who wouldn't take the Blue Jackets and their chances of both immediate and long-term revival over those of the Jets? Anyone?
BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. As the days dwindle down toward the end of the regular season, I am more and more convinced that there will be only room for either the San Jose Sharks or the Los Angeles Kings in the postseason dance. Shocking, really, given that I think most prognosticators liked both teams to easily qualify for the playoffs and battle tooth and nail for the Pacific Division title. Now, given the mediocrity in the Pacific, I suppose that’s still possible. But the schedule-makers have set up a dynamic that suggests only one will survive, and right now it looks like the talented Sharks will be on the outside looking in. In spite of getting Martin Havlat back into the fold, the Sharks continue to stumble around without a clue. Tuesday night they were mauled by the Kings in Los Angeles by a 5-2 count. They were outshot 42-22 as the Kings won their fifth straight and jumped into eighth place in the conference. The Sharks, meanwhile, languish in 10th place. Yes, they’re just two points out of eighth place but is there anything that suggests they’re capable of mounting a challenge to the teams ahead of them? The Sharks have won just three of their past 11 games and, perhaps worse for them, finish the season with a home-and-home against the Kings. Their goaltending has been shoddy, they can’t get timely scoring and seem to lack the kind of leadership needed to get over the hump. After two straight trips to the Western Conference final, this would be a huge setback, needless to say, but would it be the kind of setback that causes a dramatic change at the top?
CUSTANCE: There's no doubt that the Sharks missing the playoffs would be a colossal failure, and not just because I picked them to win the Stanley Cup. How you can get blown out 5-2 in an absolutely crucial game against the Kings is beyond me. That kind of effort is mystifying.
If this team misses the playoffs, some decisions in team construction will definitely be scrutinized. Hitching the wagon to Antti Niemi isn't looking like the smartest move. Since the All-Star break, Niemi is 7-10-4 with a 2.81 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. The deadline-day decision to send Jamie McGinn to Colorado for T.J. Galiardi and Daniel Winnik isn't panning out either. McGinn has 10 points in 11 games for the Avalanche, while Galiardi and Winnik have combined for exactly one point. Playoff teams need secondary scoring and the Sharks aren't getting it.
But if you look at the big picture, there aren't many GMs who have put their teams in position to win in the playoffs more often than Doug Wilson has in his tenure with San Jose. I'd have a real hard time making any changes to the duo of Wilson and coach Todd McLellan considering they've made two consecutive trips to the West finals. And the playoffs are a funny thing. Let's say the Sharks manage to grab the No. 8 seed in the West and face the Blues in the first round. Which team would you bet the kid's college fund on?
BURNSIDE: Well, I don’t think the Sharks are going to make it so your excellent question of whether the Sharks could affect a major upset in the playoffs is going to be moot (and I’m not just saying that because you picked the Sharks to win the Cup, although I do kind of enjoy that part of it). One of the reasons the table is tilted against San Jose, beyond having two more games against the Kings, is that Dallas, Phoenix and Colorado continue to collect points. I watched that Dallas-Phoenix tilt Tuesday night and, with the Pacific Division lead on the line, the teams didn’t disappoint with an often chippy performance that had definite playoff intensity (ask Jamie Benn, who took a nasty Shane Doan elbow to the noggin). The Coyotes erased a 3-1 lead and then had three or four glorious chances to win it in overtime but Kari Lehtonen was superlative. You and I have saw Lehtonen up close in Atlanta during his formative years and I remain skeptical he is a franchise goalie kind of guy. But his play in the last month or so for a Dallas team that looked like it was a bubble playoff team has been impressive. He stopped 27 of 30 shots and then all three in the shootout. He has won eight of 10. I spoke with president Jim Lites Tuesday and the Stars’ strong play is translating into terrific crowds for the Stars after playing to an empty house for much of the first half of the season. Good news for the Stars. Bad news for the Sharks.
CUSTANCE: Oh, I think Lehtonen has done more than enough to earn the franchise label during the second half of this season. He's answered questions regarding his durability and the only question remaining is how he'll respond to the pressure of the playoffs. Last time I saw him get ready for the postseason, he dyed his hair Thrashers blue in a stunt that rubbed veteran teammates the wrong way. I think it's safe to say he's grown up considerably since 2007, when he gave up 11 goals in two playoff games against the Rangers. That kick save he made last night on Oliver Ekman-Larsson in overtime was absolutely phenomenal. Remember that one if Dallas wins the Pacific by a point. And Joe Nieuwendyk's quiet offseason addition of Michael Ryder continues to pay off. He had another two goals last night in helping the Stars hold off the Coyotes and now has 32 goals this season. He has 10 points in nine games this month. Unbelievable. You mentioned that Shane Doan elbow on Jamie Benn, I'm thinking that could be trouble for Phoenix. Doan was fined last week and Brendan Shanahan hasn't gone easy on players he's had to have multiple conversations with this season. Doan has a hearing with the league Wednesday and if he's out any length of time, that could crush playoff hopes in Phoenix. That team is remarkably resilient, but Doan is the Coyotes' heart and soul.
BURNSIDE: Ah, how fondly I remember that blue dye job during the Thrashers’ one and only playoff run (stumble?). One game I’ll be keeping an eye on Wednesday night will be Vancouver’s visit to Chicago. The Blackhawks are on a tear. Even without captain Jonathan Toews, whose continued absence due to concussion symptoms remains a major concern for Hawks fans, Chicago has turned in some of its best all-around performances in recent days. Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane were impressive in 5-2 spanking of Washington on Sunday and they will put a four-game winning streak on the line tonight against the Canucks. A win could put the Hawks in a tie with Nashville and Detroit after it looked not so long ago that Chicago was destined for a fourth-place finish in the Central. Meanwhile, a fan asked during my chat Monday whether the Canucks’ tepid play of late was cause for concern, and I suggested that this is a team with little left to play for at this stage of the season. They’re too far behind St. Louis for a realistic run at the top seed in the conference or the Presidents’ Trophy and they’re miles ahead of Colorado in the Northwest. But their seeming inability to get ready for games, especially for games against lesser opponents like Minnesota, which beat them 2-0 on Monday, or Montreal has to be troubling for Canucks fans. Vancouver has won just three times in 10 games and one of those wins was against lowly Columbus. In short, one would imagine Chicago is a team Vancouver shouldn’t have any trouble getting up for. Should be a fun one.
CUSTANCE: It's always fun when those two teams go at it. I agree with you on the Canucks. Things are so tight in this league that if a group is even the slightest bit off or a step behind the opponent, it makes winning nearly impossible. A lot of the good teams have gone through stretches like we're seeing Vancouver endure right now and I think motivation plays a big part in that. The Canucks face a Chicago team that is clicking. You mentioned the strong play up front but I also think the Blackhawks are starting to reap the benefits of the Johnny Oduya trade that allowed Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith to reunite. Those two are playing well, with Keith putting up four assists in the win over Columbus. Seabrook led the team in ice time and was a plus-2. If those two are clicking and Toews can get healthy, that's an extremely dangerous team come playoff time. We joked about it on the podcast yesterday but they might want to ease up on the throttle. They're sitting comfortably in the No. 6 spot, which would mean a first-round series against the Pacific winner. To me, that's much more attractive than moving up to No. 5 and potentially facing a loaded Predators team that gave Chicago fits the last time they squared off in the postseason. Speaking of the Predators, time to get ready for the Alexander Radulov news conference. It's been fun Scott, enjoy the games.
GMs who spoke to ESPN.com in recent days describe this as one of the most curious trade periods in recent memories. So many teams would like to add pieces but there are so few teams that are actually out of contention. Seven points separate seventh and 13th in the Western Conference, and teams like as Dallas and Colorado have assets they’d like to move including Steve Ott, Mike Ribeiro, David Jones, T.J.Galiardi and/or Daniel Winnik, but they would like to make a hockey trade and bring back every-day players.
In the Eastern Conference, there remains a furious battle for the Southeast Division lead and the last playoff berth in the conference.
Much of the attention Monday will be focused on whether the Columbus Blue Jackets will move captain Rick Nash, but as of Sunday evening it appeared that the top suitor, the New York Rangers, were unprepared to meet the demand for top assets in return. Will the asking price drop as the day progresses?
Will Toronto GM Brian Burke, looking to make a move for an impact forward and perhaps a goaltender, find a deal that works for the slumping Leafs? And what kind of Plan B exists for the many teams looking for offensive help? Andrei Kostitsyn in Montreal, Paul Gaustad and Derek Roy in Buffalo will be players whose names are bandied about.
Defensemen are always at a premium on deadline day and this year is no different, with Jaroslav Spacek and Bryan Allen in Carolina likely to be on the move to teams looking to shore up their defensive lineup. Will there be a trade out of left field? Given the strange dynamics of this year, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility. Stay tuned.
The NHL may have forsaken the Atlanta market, but the battle for the city's few hockey hearts and minds continues.
The Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators are both in discussions with the league and Fox Sports about the possibility of sending their local television broadcasts into the Atlanta market for the coming season, a source told ESPN.com on Friday.
Further, the Predators have launched an advertising campaign in the hopes of luring disenfranchised Thrashers fans to the Music City.
"It's sort of an awkward situation, if you will," Predators CEO Jeff Cogen told ESPN.com.
The team doesn't want to be seen as the buzzard picking over the bones of the Atlanta Thrashers after they were relocated to Winnipeg following this past season. But, by the same token, there is a core of hockey fans that followed the Thrashers and the NHL for the past decade (as ugly as that show may have been for the most part in Atlanta). So the Predators are hoping some will make the four-hour trip northwest to Nashville and build a new relationship with the Predators.
The Predators, who have coined the phrase "Smashville" to denote their franchise, are offering packages that feature essentially a game a month on the weekend and hotel specials in Nashville. "Thrash to Smash" is the catchphrase. Among the games offered will be a visit to Nashville by the new Winnipeg Jets and another former Atlanta franchise, the Calgary Flames.
The ad campaign is in its infancy and Cogen said they aren't sure whether they'll try to sell the plan via phone or hire sales people in Atlanta and pay a commission. Even with a passive start to the campaign, Cogen said they have already sold a couple of dozen packages.
The standing joke, of course, is people wouldn't travel the few miles, or even blocks, to see the Thrashers in Atlanta, so why would they drive four hours to watch the Predators? Well, for one, the Predators have actually won an NHL playoff series, let alone a single playoff game, something the Thrashers failed to do in Atlanta. Secondly, these are hockey fans and that means sometimes defying logic.
Cogen recalled a recent town hall meeting in Nashville that attracted several thousand fans. Among them was a former Thrashers season-ticket holder who stood up and asked team executives how they could convince him to become a Predators fan. After hearing responses, the man was presented with a new Predators ball cap by the team's mascot.
Hey, you've got to start somewhere, no?
Regardless of the traffic the ad campaign generates, it shows a certain chutzpah for a market that seems to have finally turned a corner after being considered on the NHL's critically endangered list for many years. The Predators' home sellouts jumped from four in 2009-10 to 16 this past season, and the team hopes for another jump in sellouts in 2011-12. The season-ticket base has also seen a 10 percent spike. Sponsorship is up and the team is appealing to the employee base with those sponsors to drive up demand for tickets.
"Nothing sells tickets like selling tickets," said Cogen, who was previously the president of the Dallas Stars and the MLB's Texas Rangers. "We're trending the right way. We're growing the base."
As for trying to fill the local television vacuum in Atlanta, Cogen said he's indicated to the NHL they would love to put Predators games on the air in Atlanta, but the decision will involve a number of other parties.
"I'd love to have our games broadcast in that area," he said. "But I can't snap my fingers and make it happen."
What is interesting is that his new posting with the Toronto Maple Leafs harkens back to one of the most dramatic draft-day deals in NHL history.
At the time of the 1999 draft, Dudley was the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He worked closely with his new boss, Brian Burke, who was then the GM of the Vancouver Canucks, in a complicated series of moves that saw Burke obtain the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel.
"The day that Winnipeg notified me and the world that I wasn't going to Winnipeg, Burkie got in touch with me and we started talking at that point and it evolved from there," Dudley said Friday shortly before the start of the 2011 entry draft at the Xcel Energy Center.
Burke finessed a number of teams, including Tampa Bay and the Atlanta Thrashers, into a series of deals that resulted in Burke selecting the Sedins with the second and third picks in that fateful draft.
"We had to spend a lot of time together, and we got a certain trust level because a lot of that deal was based on handshakes. A lot of the parameters were based on a handshake. I think from that time on, we got along pretty well," Dudley said.
"If we hadn't had that relationship, the deal would never have gotten done."
It's unknown exactly what Dudley will do for the Leafs, although you can bet it will involve driving thousands of miles to chilly, dark arenas to scout hockey talent.
"I see the team as evolving into something good. And I'd like to be part of that, to be honest," Dudley said.
Does the longtime NHL player, coach and GM see any similarities between the Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks, whom he joined as a talent evaluator and worked with GM Dale Tallon to help build the 2010 Stanley Cup champs?
"Well, the Leafs are ahead of where Chicago was when I arrived," Dudley said. "There are some pieces in place. There are some very likeable pieces in place. That's a key thing."
One issue unresolved, though, is whether Dudley, a Toronto native, will be paid gas mileage in Canadian or U.S. funds.
"We haven't talked about that," he said.
The deal is expected to be worth in the ballpark of $4 million per year. Brewer, who had a solid postseason for the Bolts after coming over from St. Louis at the trade deadline, would have been an unrestricted free agent July 1.
- Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman met in Minnesota with Rick Curran, the veteran agent for Patrick Sharp. The star center is one year removed from being an unrestricted free agent. Bowman and Curran plan to talk again this summer. The Hawks are optimistic they can get Sharp signed to an extension.
- A source within the Winnipeg NHL front office said there is still internal debate as to whether or not the team name should be announced Friday night before their draft selection. Our bet is that they do. Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet in Canada says the team name will be the Jets.
- Jeff Carter on Friday was still incredibly upset about being traded, a source told ESPN.com. When the Columbus rumors first began to fly earlier this month, he met with Flyers GM Paul Holmgren and was assured not to believe those rumors. Ouch.
- Robyn Regehr remained undecided Friday about waiving his no-movement clause for a trade to Buffalo. "Obviously Robyn's been in Calgary his entire career," his agent, J.P. Barry, told ESPN.com. "This is quite possibly one of the most important decisions regarding the next phase of his career. He needs to think about his family and needs time to determine whether this is the right move."
- The Florida Panthers have the No. 3 overall selection, which makes them an attractive target for other teams wanting to move up. But as of noon ET, a Panthers source said there was nothing going on. That can change in a hurry.
The feeling is that would iron out some of the geographical issues as well as lead to a more balanced schedule.
Again, it's very preliminary in the process. The league will entertain all kinds of ideas before all is said and done.
One NHL GM we spoke to Saturday actually favors scrapping the divisions altogether and going to two conferences, but a league source told ESPN.com it was highly unlikely that would generate any real interest.
Hot ticket in WinnipegTrue North was privately stunned Saturday at how quickly it got to the 13,000 season-ticket mark. It figured it would have taken several more days. True North also had to cap the waiting list for season tickets at 8,000 on Saturday. Simply amazing.
The market for RichardsWe updated the Brad Richards' situation on Thursday. Some further notes on the matter: While the whole world knows the New York Rangers will be in the mix for him, we're told the Blueshirts also have interest in Florida's Stephen Weiss, should the money and terms to get Richards get out of hand. In other words, Weiss would be an appealing Plan B.
The Detroit Red Wings, meanwhile, are an intriguing team that has some interest in Richards, but only for a short-term, cap-friendly deal. The pitch from Detroit would be to come and win a Cup. Richards will certainly be fielding more lucrative offers in terms of term and money. Expect the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs, among other teams, to be in the mix.
Crosby expected at campSidney Crosby is feeling good and is expected at Pittsburgh Penguins training camp in September. However, it obviously depends on how he reacts to his summer workouts once they intensify. No one knows how that's going to go.
Former NHL coach Mario Tremblay caused a stir Friday on French sports network RDS in Montreal when he reported that Crosby's career was in jeopardy because of his concussion issues. Crosby's agent Pat Brisson released a statement Saturday night firmly rebuking Tremblay.
"It is very disturbing and disappointing to me when someone from the media and especially an ex-player brings such baseless comments toward the medical status of [a] player. Unless a report comes from the medical staff and or an official voice for the player, it's of no merit whatsoever,'' Brisson said in a statement he sent ESPN.com and other media outlets.
Stars, Senators coaching searchesThe Dallas Stars have interviewed four candidates so far in their head-coaching search: Kirk Muller, Peter Horacheck (Preds assistant coach), Ken Hitchcock and Glen Gulutzan (Stars AHL coach). The Stars front office will meet Monday to discuss whether it should interview anyone else or focus on those four candidates.
The Ottawa Senators' coaching search has yielded interviews with Bob Boughner, Craig MacTavish, Paul MacLean, Kirk Muller and Dave Cameron, we were told Saturday. Binghamton Senators coach Kurt Kleinendorst is also in the mix but is tied up with the AHL finals right now.
Expanding Rule 48The concussion group unofficially known at the blue-ribbon committee (Steve Yzerman, Joe Nieuwendyk, Rob Blake and Brendan Shanahan) met for four hours Friday in Vancouver, British Columbia, with Colin Campbell, Gary Bettman and Bill Daly. The blue-ribbon panel will recommend to GMs next week that Rule 48 be expanded.
NHL loses in courtThe NHL was really surprised to have lost the Molson-Labatt case Friday in Toronto. An Ontario judge ruled in favor of Labatt's claim that the league reneged on its agreement with the beer company. Labatt claimed it already had a deal in place with the NHL before the league committed to a $375 million sponsorship agreement with rival Molson Coors.
The league was very confident in its case. But we're told the league will appeal the court's decision. Given that the deal with Molson would be the most lucrative sponsorship deal in NHL history, that's the obvious play at this point.
Burnside: Well, my friend, the moving trucks are idling near Philips Arena, and the fans in Winnipeg are dancing in the streets. No doubt this ranks as a seminal moment for the NHL as it abandons a major media market in the South for a small prairie market in Canada. The NHL will never be the same, and this move is likely to create some significant changes in how the NHL looks over the next year. The Winnipeg squad (I like to tentatively call it the Frostbites) will play in the Southeast Division next season, and the NHL is going to take its time figuring out all the ramifications of the relocation. So, how do you feel, my Canadian friend? Is this a proud day for you?
LeBrun: Mixed feelings. I don't feel like the Atlanta market was given a real chance had there been proper ownership. You eloquently hammered that point home in your column today. On the other hand, having the NHL back in Winnipeg is fantastic. It's never a bad move to put a team in a market where the sport is king. I'm not sure the Thrashers players share that thought, but it'll grow on them. Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, a Winnipeg native, told me this morning that the players will realize it's a privilege to play in that market where the sport is beloved. And I chatted today with Wayne Gretzky, who shared the same sentiment.
Burnside: You know that Toews is nothing if not sincere, although let's see whether he bolts Chicago for Winnipeg as a free agent when his current deal comes up. Doubt it. And regardless of what players say, it's going to be a tough sell for the folks in Winnipeg to draw top free agents. That's just the reality. Whoever is running that franchise, and right now we don't know whether it will be current GM Rick Dudley, had better draft and develop properly because that is the only way this team will move on from the perpetually mediocre past that doomed it in Atlanta. But let's look big picture, my friend, after one year of limbo playing in the Southeast Division, Winnipeg will move to the Western Conference and will set in motion dominoes that might mean seminal changes for the league. You've been talking to league officials who say this will be an opportunity for the league to make meaningful changes and for officials to think outside the box about how they want the league to look. Will the current six-division, two-conference setup remain? If it's just a one-for-one swap, which of the handful of Western Conference teams that want to move to the East will get the nod? Many questions. Not so many answers at this stage.
LeBrun: The obvious realignment to me is this: Detroit goes East, Winnipeg into the Northwest, Colorado into the Pacific, Dallas into the Central.
But a league source told me recently that the reason realignment is being delayed a year is that the league wants to properly canvass all its governors and get everyone's feedback on what is always a contentious issue. The Red Wings desperately want to move east. They're tired of playing most of their games outside of their time zone, and it's brutal for TV ratings when you're asking your fans to stay up late to watch most of your road games. Having said that, many Western Conference governors will oppose losing Detroit because of the Wings' gate power. So then, what to do? I think the league will examine all kinds of possibilities, perhaps use this opportunity to revamp the entire division and conference setup, not just plug in one team for another. There will be lots of talk and ideas leaked in the next 12 months.
Burnside: I think a simple swap of Detroit for Atlanta/Winnipeg is short-sighted and would be a significant blow to the two-conference setup that has, I think, worked pretty well. You could lose the divisions, as far as I am concerned, especially given that they have no bearing on the playoff seeding. You play an unbalanced schedule that includes six games against each division rival, then throw that out the window come playoff time and seed one through eight based on points.
But here's the thing that many people are forgetting as we imagine what the new NHL will look like post-Atlanta: A year from now, we might be having this exact discussion about the Phoenix Coyotes. All the City of Glendale did was buy another year of uncertainty in the desert by anteing up another $25 million of taxpayer money to cover the team's losses this season. If the city can't nail down an owner by midway through the 2011-12 season, the NHL will be looking for a new home for the Coyotes. Could it be Retreat North Part Deux with a new team in Quebec? Doubtful unless the arena plans there get fast-tracked. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly raised the idea of Seattle recently, saying there are potential owners interested there. The bottom line is that Winnipeg might not be the last of the upheavals the league will be confronting.
LeBrun: I think the uncertainty that remains in Phoenix is an important part of why realignment is being delayed for a year, whether the league wants to do admit it or not. You don't want to realign two years in a row. My sense is that things in Glendale will finally get figured out, but if they don't, there's a group of cities in play for relocation: Quebec City, Seattle, Houston, Portland (Ore.) and Kansas City. Quebec City and Seattle do not have rinks. The race is on to build one if they want any chance at getting a team. In the meantime, what about Vancouver's Winnipeg-based AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose? St. John's, Newfoundland, and Thunder Bay, Ontario, have been among the possibilities discussed.
"The Canucks are examining a number of options in the AHL," AHL president Dave Andrews told ESPN.com via email Tuesday. "I anticipate that it will be a couple of weeks before the various affiliation agreement changes are finalized."
And finally, will it work in Winnipeg? The strength of the Canadian dollar is a huge factor in favor of success. Should the dollar ever go back to mid-'90s levels, that will seriously endanger the viability of the Winnipeg franchise. Either way, it beats playing in front of a half-empty arena in Atlanta.
The Atlanta Thrashers defenseman watched, as presumably most of his teammates did on Tuesday, as the NHL confirmed the long-anticipated sale of the Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment, setting the stage for the team's relocation to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season.
"It's weird," Hainsey told ESPN.com shortly after the announcement was made in Winnipeg.
Five years ago, when he was single, a move like this might have been greeted by a "what the heck, bring it on." But Hainsey is married now and has a 7½-month-old daughter, Alexa, to consider.
"There's so much more that goes into it now," he said.
He and his wife would like to have another child, so there will be finding new doctors and all the things that come with setting up a home in a new locale.
"You get attached to things," said Hainsey, who signed with the Thrashers before the 2008-09 season.
Not that he's complaining about his lot in life.
"What we're going to go through is pretty normal, like anyone who's had to move for a job. It's really not a big deal," Hainsey said.
In the coming days, he will be dealing with realtors in the Atlanta area to try to sell his home and will begin figuring out what to do for housing in Winnipeg.
But the big defenseman, the 13th overall pick in the 2000 entry draft, is also looking forward to what will be a dramatically different hockey experience.
"Obviously, you wanted it to work out [in Atlanta], but you're going to a place that's going to be really excited for the arrival of a team," Hainsey said. "It's hard not to be excited by that stuff."
He watched on television Tuesday as hundreds of people gathered in Winnipeg to celebrate the announcement. There is now a burden on the Thrashers (or whatever they will be called) to repay that loyalty by making the franchise work the second time around.
"This is going to be a really exciting place to go and play. It's up to the players to make sure it's that way for a long time to come," Hainsey said.
This won't be Hainsey's first trip to Winnipeg. In the AHL, he played a number of times in both the old Winnipeg Arena and in the new MTS Centre, where the Thrashers will play.
Now, he's looking forward to making Winnipeg his home.
"I think you could kind of see where this was headed a week or two ago. It's always easier to get moving in a direction when you know where you're going," he said.
Fans were emptying their piggy banks to try to save the team. Toews had a solution.
"I asked my dad why he didn't just buy the team," Toews told ESPN.com Tuesday from Winnipeg, chuckling at the memory.
The Chicago Blackhawks captain was thrilled with the official announcement Tuesday that the Atlanta Thrashers were moving to Winnipeg. And he's got advice for players who may not be too thrilled with having to play in Winnipeg.
"Growing up here and watching the Jets, I knew what the city was all about," Toews said. "People will get to know what a great hockey town this is. Everyone wants to talk about the cold weather and that it's not easy to live here with the winter and stuff like that. But a lot of guys don't realize the atmosphere for hockey and treatment players will get here beats a lot of the best cities in the NHL. In the next couple of years, I think players will be privileged to play in this city."
Having said that, Toews said he's still surprised it's actually happened.
"The last four or five years you heard whispers that a team might come," he said. "In all honesty, I never thought it would happen during my career. But I guess the opportunity arose with a couple of teams in a situation where they might move. The stars aligned, and hopefully everything goes well the next couple of years."
"I don't have any control over that part of things," the Thrashers GM told ESPN.com Saturday. "Right now we have a draft coming up and meetings coming up, and obviously, we have a team to run. That's what I'm focused on. Of course, all the staff and all the scouts are nervous, but I told them we can only focus on the task at hand."
Dudley is scouting at the Memorial Cup Canadian junior championship with his staff this weekend. He is one of the game's great talent evaluators, and it is unknown what his future entails if or when True North Entertainment takes over the team, which could be as early as next week. Dudley did sign a four-year extension in January, which doesn't kick in until next season.
Meanwhile, there were more talks Friday between the Thrashers' ownership and True North Entertainment. But sources on both sides insisted to ESPN.com Friday night that a deal was still not quite done. One issue that still needs resolution requires a letter from the bank, and banks are closed Monday in Canada for Victoria Day.
Expect the purchase price to be around $170 million, which includes the relocation fee.
Talks didn't begin between Atlanta and Winnipeg until last weekend when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave both sides the green light to commence the process, a source told ESPN.com. They were waiting for the Coyotes' situation to figure itself out first.
Once an agreement is finally reached, the deal requires full NHL Board of Governors treatment at a June 21 meeting in New York. There would be two votes on the table:
- The ownership transfer, which requires a three-fourths membership vote for approval.
- The relocation, which requires only a majority (16 votes).
And by the way, even if the Thrashers and True North agree to a deal, the board of governors and the league reserve the right to explore the possibility of keeping the team in Atlanta if a local interest suddenly pops up in the wake of the Winnipeg announcement. It's highly unlikely in my opinion, but it's a right the league has nonetheless.
Realignment would very likely wait another year, meaning Winnipeg would play one season in the Southeast Division, because the league believes all board members deserve a say on the matter. All kinds of scenarios are in play. This might be a chance to do a massive overhaul of the league's divisions and conferences, not just switch one team with another, a source told ESPN.com Friday.
Meanwhile, Thrashers captain Andrew Ladd was close to signing a long-term extension near the end of the regular season, but the two sides weren't able to close the gap. Now that's obviously on hold because of the franchise situation. But people shouldn't read into it that he doesn't want to play in Winnipeg. It simply was a case that both sides couldn't close the deal.
"As a Canadian, you felt a loss when you see teams move from Quebec and Manitoba, where people love the game of hockey. So it was a loss there. From a purely hockey standpoint, it's nice to see them get another team in the market," he said.
"They're already inheriting a nice hockey club. I was speaking with [Atlanta head coach] Craig Ramsey just recently. He's excited about going back. It's a wonderful opportunity for them to see what a very good hockey club has. Canadian hockey fans will love it," Essensa said Friday.
A Michigan State Spartan, Essensa was drafted by Winnipeg with the 69th overall pick in 1983. He said the experience of playing in Winnipeg was different than anywhere else he played.
"There's something to be said for those small-town Canadian teams that the players and the community really rally around. Certainly my best years hockeywise were in Winnipeg, and certainly my most enjoyable years from a community standpoint and team standpoint were there in Winnipeg, just because the players band together. They don't have maybe as many distractions as a big American city. From that standpoint, you're focused on hockey, you're focused on your teammates, and I think the team and the city is better off because of it," Essensa said.
He acknowledged that perhaps some free agents will shy away from signing on in Winnipeg.
"It's tough to say. Certainly in this day and age, with salary caps and whatnot, if I'm getting X-amount of dollars in Tampa and the same amount of money in Winnipeg, maybe I'm leaning towards going to Tampa. But like I said, I think there's a quality to playing to Winnipeg that can't be matched anywhere else. The community will really rally around them, rightfully so, and everybody will feel at home very quickly," he said.
While most of the discussion surrounding the potential relocation has been on the excitement in Canada, Boston forward Rich Peverley saw his career resurrected in Atlanta when the Thrashers picked him up on waivers from Nashville during the 2008-09 season, and he said the news has saddened him.
"Yeah, it does. I think it could be a successful franchise. Obviously, making the playoffs one out of 10 years can be tough. I think there's hockey fans there; I just think there's a lot of transports from other cities," Peverley said.
Even though he no longer plays for the team, he said he will likewise be sad if it is no longer an NHL stop.
"I think so. Atlanta's a great city. It's got a lot of things to do. I really enjoyed my time there. It's too bad that the league couldn't find a way to make it work," he said.
Malone's fond memories of Winnepeg
Tampa forward Ryan Malone had an interesting memory from Winnipeg; he recalled taking a spring break trip with some hockey buddies from St. Cloud State after his first year at the Minnesota college.
"Freshman year at St. Cloud, we drove a Winnebago for spring break to Winnipeg. Try that on. We drove to Winnipeg in a Winnebago," he said. "So, decided to take a weekend trip up there. The beer's a little stronger up there."
A good time was apparently had by all, and Malone said he can understand why there is excitement at the prospect of Winnipeg returning to the NHL.
"You see the Canadian cities, you see how much hockey means to everybody up north. It's a great thing. I'm sure they're not looking too hard for everyone to get season tickets. Obviously, if it doesn't work out in Atlanta -- obviously Atlanta had their opportunity, obviously they tried to do the best they could do there, and if that's how it happened, so be it. Go somewhere where you might sell out the rink, right?" Malone said.
So, just where did the Winnebago get parked?
"On my buddy's front lawn, actually," he said. "I just know because there wasn't snow; I remember there was grass. There was grass. It was a long time ago."
"I think it just didn't seem like it's been working there," said Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle, who played many a game in Atlanta while with the Tampa Bay Lightning. "The team hasn't been that successful. They did have a couple of years where they were in the middle of it. The fans, it just didn't seem like the commitment was there from everybody. It might be time to move. I'm sure Winnipeg will take Atlanta with open arms. We'll see what happens. You never want to see a franchise leave, but it might be time."
Negotiations continue between the Thrashers and True North Sports and Entertainment in Winnipeg, sources confirmed to ESPN.com on Thursday. Unless there's a setback, it appears the Thrashers will play in Winnipeg next season.
"It's exciting for the fans who have been hoping to get a team since they left," said Sharks blueliner Ian White, who grew up a half hour outside Winnipeg. "Hopefully it falls into place for them, and everything works good moving forward."
Canucks assistant coach Rick Bowness was a player and coach in Winnipeg with the former Jets. He spent nine years there.
"Players are treated so well there," Bowness said Friday. "There is only one player in all the years of the Jets that I can ever remember complaining about being there. Every player who ever went there loved it, loved the way they were treated, loved the community.
"The community really made you feel part of it. Players will enjoy playing there."
Canucks forward Jeff Tambellini played in Winnipeg during the past few years with the AHL's Manitoba Moose.
"It's hard to see a Canadian market that has the fan base Winnipeg has, the passion for the game, not to have it [an NHL team]," he said Friday. "I love the game in Canada. Every [NHL player] wants to play in Canada -- from West Coast to East Coast -- Canadian games are big games. I'm a big fan of this."
White was 12 when the Jets left for Phoenix in 1996, and he remembers the outcry when they left, fans literally emptying their piggy banks to try to help save the team.
"It was a sad day," White said. "That's business, I guess. So hopefully it works out for them this time."
Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who played in Winnipeg with the AHL Moose, had no idea how a team would do there financially but said the fan base was very passionate.
"I know they've wanted a hockey team for a long time now, done a lot of work to get back there, and Mark Chipman's pretty determined to make that happen -- and he'd be a great owner, I think," Bieksa said.
"There's trade-offs. Obviously, there's not going to be a whole lot of sun and warm weather in Winnipeg -- it'll be to the extreme the other way. But at the same time, the fan base, the media coverage, the excitement from the city and fans -- it's going to be 10 times better than [Atlanta]."
Sharks winger Dany Heatley feels bad for fans in Atlanta, where he began his career.
"I don't know why it's happening," Heatley said Friday. "All I can say is that there are a lot of great fans in Atlanta. A lot of great people that work for that organization, and if they move it, it's going to be tough for a lot of people."
And he doesn't understand why it hasn't worked in Atlanta.
"I don't know. You look at the city, I think there's 5 million people that live there. You think they could find some fans. I don't know. All I know is that the fans that are there, the season-ticket holders when I was there, they were big hockey fans."
Former NHL center Ray Ferraro played in Atlanta in the early days of the franchise. He has an idea why it hasn't worked.
"I think with the nontraditional markets, there's two constant themes that you've got to battle: One is that it's a market that may not understand the game as well. And two, it's that they've had zero success," said Ferraro, now a hockey analyst for TSN in Canada. "Atlanta has had some really good players, they've hung on to none of them. ... In Atlanta, we had real good support early. But they've played four playoff games in 10 years. Who's going to go to games?"
Bowness echoed that comment.
"In a nontraditional hockey market ... you've got to win, or show some continued signs of improvement," the Canucks assistant coach said. "They never showed those signs. They made the playoffs once, and to go get Keith Tkachuk [for that 2007 playoff run], they gave up a lot of their future. And they didn't win a game.
"It's not the big names that will sell in those markets. Winning will sell. You win, and they'll come. Like in Nashville."
Ferraro also feels Atlanta is a funny sports town.
"The Braves won 11 straight division titles," he said. "The first year we were there, Andrew Brunette and I went to go to Game 1 of the playoffs. We didn't have tickets, and we worried we couldn't get in. We go up to the box office, and there's 11,000 empty seats. They had been in the playoffs 11 years in a row. You looking for a college football ticket? You're not going to get one. You want to go to NASCAR? You're not going to get a ticket. It's a market with different priorities. Pro sports is down the chain, for sure."
The Thrashers have struggled with attendance most of their history.
"I expect the atmosphere in Winnipeg to be a lot better than it was in Atlanta," White said. "It was pretty quiet, modest crowds in Atlanta, unfortunately. It's too bad to see teams relocate like that -- there's a lot of die-hard fans who fall in love with their team -- but business is such that it happens."
Tambellini said playing games in Atlanta wasn't fun.
"It's tough to go to a building where there is two good teams going at it, and there is no one in the building. There's no atmosphere, no buzz," Tambellini said. "That, we know, is something that in Canadian cities, you'll never see.
"We should be putting our markets in the best places to have success. Winnipeg's a place with a great fan base. They deserve a fan base."