Friday, June 22, 2007
It's a shame how Predators continue to twist in the wind
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Bye bye, Jimmy. Don't let the door hit you on the way out of Club NHL.
Apparently outraged at the behavior of Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, who has sold thousands of tickets in Hamilton, Ontario, in anticipation of buying the Nashville Predators and carting the team out of Music City, current team owner Craig Leipold on Friday asked the NHL to no longer consider Balsillie as a potential owner.
The move, shocking given Balsillie's over-the-top offer of $238 million, could cost Leipold $40 million or more. It's believed the next-best offer Leipold has had for his financially strapped team is $190 million.
Leipold cited the fact he wasn't aware Balsillie had asked the league for consideration to move the franchise when he made his offer to purchase as the reason for asking the league to show Balsillie the door. More than 12,000 people put down deposits on season tickets for an NHL team in Hamilton after Balsillie's bid.
The Predators continued todump salary by trading goalie Tomas Vokoun to the Panthers.
"We did send the NHL a letter [Friday] requesting that it not do any further due diligence on Jim Balsillie's offer for the Nashville Predators until we reach a binding agreement," Leipold said in a statement. "If Jim is interested in reaching a binding agreement, we are prepared to move forward."
Up until this point, there was never a binding agreement for the sale. Does this mean all bets are off? One source familiar with the negotiations said it still remains up to Balsillie and Leipold whether they work out a deal. But given Friday's development it's hard to imagine Balsillie will re-emerge as a player in this ongoing drama.
It stretches the limits of credulity that Leipold could have ignored all the signals that Balsillie was determined first to obtain an NHL team and then to move it as swiftly as possible to Canada. Regardless, Leipold decided he'd had enough of Balsillie's act and decided to find someone else to take the team off his hands. The question is whether other owners, or even commissioner Gary Bettman, whispered in Leipold's ear about how to avoid having Balsillie take over the team.
William "Boots" Del Biaggio is believed to be the next most likely purchaser of the team, although he would likely want to move the team to Kansas City, where there is a brand new arena waiting for an NHL team. Del Biaggio, who has a contract with Anschutz Entertainment Group to own an NHL team in the new Sprint Center in Kansas City, lost out to Balsillie in the Preds bid.
The prevailing belief among hockey people is Bettman is resistant to having another team in Ontario. Yet, having another owner willing to pay significantly less for the Predators helps neither the team nor the league. Regardless of how big an annoyance Balsillie was with his rush to lay the groundwork to put a team in Hamilton, he remains awash in money and is passionate about the game -- attractive qualities for an ownership club that has lots of members who lack either, or both.
The fact a franchise in Southern Ontario is seen as a surefire winner seems to have been overshadowed by Balsillie's abrasiveness, and that's a shame. Almost as big a shame as what's happening to the Predators hockey team, a team that continues to twist in the wind.
The aimlessness of the franchise was reinforced Friday afternoon, when the Predators traded elite netminder Tomas Vokoun to the Florida Panthers for a first-round and two second-round draft picks.
Vokoun, who has four years left on a deal that pays him an average of $5.70 million annually, has won 97 games over the past three NHL seasons. He went 27-12-4 last season after missing 20 games with a thumb injury, although his play was uncharacteristically inconsistent after returning from the injury. He played in the 2004 All-Star Game and was a member of the Czech Republic's Olympic team in Torino in 2006.
"Our staff felt he was one of the top five goaltenders in the league. Any time you have a chance to get a goaltender of that status you try," Florida coach and GM Jacques Martin said after the deal was announced. "We've established ourselves to move up in the standings."
As for Nashville GM David Poile, he acknowledged the optics of the situation don't look good, especially after they traded the signing rights to top free agents Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell to Philadelphia, which immediately signed both to long-term deals earlier in the week.
"I totally agree with you and I don't think we can change that," Poile said. "We're not dealing on a level playing field right now. So we're going to have to be a lower-payroll team this year based on the circumstances we have within our franchise."
Leipold, who claims to have lost $27 million over the past two years, exercised an out option in their lease that allows the next owner to break the existing lease with Nashville Arena if the average paid attendance doesn't hit 14,000 this season. It was 13,815 last season, but it's clear a "Save the Predators" campaign will be hurt from the get-go by the team stripping itself to the bare bones allowed under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Vokoun had a no-trade clause in his contract that was due to kick in on July 1.
"That was the timing. It either had to be now or never, and we chose to do it," Poile said.
The deal probably looks worse than it actually is for the Predators. Backup Chris Mason was sensational in relief of Vokoun, going 24-11-4 with five shutouts. His .925 save percentage was second in the league.
"Chris Mason will do a very good job for us this year," Poile said. "Is he as good as Tomas Vokoun? No, not yet, he doesn't have those credentials. But he's going to be given the chance to be a No. 1 goalie."
Poile will talk to Paul Kariya, the team's most high-profile star for the past two seasons, about whether he's interested in returning. But given the dumping of talent over the recent days, it seems unlikely Kariya will return.
"We're vulnerable in the sense that our team is for sale, but yet we don't have a sale," Poile said. "We have an owner that does not want to necessarily be the owner anymore and he certainly does not want to lose any money. Having said that, I'm not giving up."
Sadly for a model on-ice franchise, there appears only one direction in its immediate future. It's not north to Hamilton, but simply south.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.