Friday, January 11, 2008

A Tale of Two...Opinions

December 21st...

"If the Islanders can throw 15 years at Rick DiPietro and the Flyers are willing to give Mike Richards a dozen, why not a 15-year deal for Ovechkin? Is there a player in the league, apart from Crosby, as likely to make such a deal pay?...Is it worth it? Put it this way: If Lecavalier is the reincarnation of Jean BĂ©liveau, then Ovechkin is the Rocket. No one in the league plays the game with such fire, such joyous abandon. Ovechkin is the real thing, the bona fide, superstar sniper the Canadiens have not had in nearly a quarter-century, since Guy Lafleur hung 'em up. All it will take is, oh, $120 million over 15 years and a slew of first-round picks."

January 11th...

"Is Ovechkin worth $124 million over 13 years? Is anyone?...even with his deeds of derring-do, the sad sack Capitals are tied for 27th in a 30-team league, and quite probably doomed to miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive of Thursday, Ovechkin may have just consigned himself to being the most commanding one-man show since Henry Fonda as Darrow."

The latter, from an article written in the Vancouver Sun, was lambasted by Ted Leonsis. The irritation appears well placed.

There are two arguments made in that latter article that seem especially ill-fitting. The first concerns the quote, "Is Ovechkin worth $124 million over 13 years? Is anyone?"

Well, yes. By definition, that's true, by whatever definition of "market" one wants to use. Leonsis and the rest of the club deemed that number was what it would take to secure Alex's services for the next 13 years -- he accepted it. End of discussion; he's "worth it" to someone (and, I suspect, to a lot of fans long before this contract expires).

Second, there is the inevitable lament that Washington is the shack at the end of the dirt road of hockey -- hopeless and clueless about winning a championship. Ovechkin has, so the argument goes, chained himself to a loser for the next decade or more.

Well, gee, I haven't seen any championships in Pittsburgh since Sidney Crosby came into the league, either, and they remain a flawed team to boot, despite their current winning ways. Because of the manner in which the league has pursued an "all-the-eggs-in-one-basket" strategy by making Crosby the be-all and end-all of hockey, that Crosby-centric theme works only if Crosby wins...will we be seeing these same laments in a few years, that he toiled in a city that couldn't win, should the Penguins fail to win a Cup and the end of his contract is in sight?

And more to the point, when that contract does come up, as Leonsis put it in the context of Ovechkin (but replacing Alex with Sidney), "does anyone really believe that in five years - as a free agent - that a player such as [Sidney] wouldn't receive an offer for $10 million per year as an unrestricted free agent? What does this writer think the salary cap number will be in five years? In 10 years?"

If that scenario unfolds, Canada might be beckoning, especially if Pittsburgh hasn't won anything.

The Montreal Gazette article opined that $120 million and "a slew of first round picks" would be a good deal for the Canadiens. Ted spent about that much, gets to keep the picks (no small consideration, given the strategy of team-building the Caps are trying to employ), and that's a bad deal.

Guess only when the city involved is Washington.

If you don't read this, you're an idiot's nothing authored by my stubby fingers on a is an excellent wild-ride sort of account of the lead-up to the Ovechkin signing by the guys at On Frozen Blog.

To pucksandbooks and Dmitry...well done.

A Tale of Two Deals

Let us consider this morning a tale of two players, of two deals, of two very different times...

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

In July 2001, the Washington Capitals had recently completed another solid regular season, followed by – again – a gut-wrenching loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs. On the 11th day of that month, when the deal was announced to bring Jaromir Jagr to Washington and the wild cheering in its aftermath subsided, the prevailing view was that Jagr would be the last, best piece of the puzzle to bring a Cup to Washington. The other pieces were in place – a solid goalie (Olaf Kolzig), a sniper to be the finisher to Jagr’s playmaking skills (Peter Bondra), a power play quarterback who would complement Jagr’s skills in that facet of the game (Sergei Gonchar), and a solid defense to balance the upgrade in offense thought to be so desperately needed – and addressed in the Jagr trade.

In January 2008, the mood is different…the Caps are in the midst of another also-ran season, made more disappointing by the promise of playoffs swirling about the club in September. While improving, they remained in the bottom half of the standings, only recently escaping the league’s cellar. What’s more, the cornerstone of the club’s attempts at rebuilding – Alexander Ovechkin – is the subject of wild speculation of his whereabouts come the fall and whether or not a city such as Washington even “deserves” such a talent.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

Dealing for Jagr was a matter of “branding” the club, in the vernacular of the time. With the addition of the superstar, the Caps would make a statement that they were: first, serious about competing with the Detroits, New Jerseys, and Colorados of the hockey world; and second, that they would be a serious player for talent to achieve those ends. The logic was sound…the results, disastrous.

The increasing frequency and volume as to the fate of Ovechkin, on the other hand, created its own echo chamber. The expected suspects – Larry Brooks, Eklund, Canadian media – weighed in with almost desperate scenarios (really, Carey Price is off the table in any trade talk concerning Ovechkin?...Ovechkin to Nashville?). As the conversation became more hyperbolic in its character, it leapt from the quasi-serious (the “deal” with the Los Angeles Kings at least had a whiff of seriousness in the thought put into it) to the silly, to the outright foolish (go ahead…try, try very hard to picture Ovechkin with a Predator logo on his chest).

It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity...

When Jagr was acquired, the Caps – and their fans – hardly knew how to act. Unlike Pittsburgh, from whence Jagr came, Washington had not seen a star of Jagr’s caliber in his prime, certainly in hockey and arguably in any of the major team sports. Delirious with joy, there was a belief surrounding the club that this was the final, missing piece, obtained for a pittance.

In January 2008, pounded by years of disappointment, mediocrity, and – more recently – lottery-pick-inducing ineptitude on the ice, fans might be excused for harboring the spark of a thought that Ovechkin would leave the club and find himself perhaps wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge, instead of the red, white and blue. Assurances from club management that they expected Ovechkin to be a Cap for a long, long time might have been offered in good faith, but fans might not have been of a mind to believe the assurances unconditionally…the club had too long a history of disappointing them.

It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness...

2001-2002 was going to be The Year. Kolzig was only two years removed from a Vezina Trophy, Bondra had just posted a 45-goal season (halting a two-year slide in goal production) during which he led the league in power-play goals, Adam Oates was coming off a 69-assist season (would he get a hundred playing with Jagr?), Gonchar was coming off what at the time was a career year for him in goals-assists-points, they had the Dahlen-Halpern-Konowalchuk line to give opponents fits. At no point in the history of the franchise did things seem brighter.

When New Year’s Day 2008 dawned in Washington, the Caps had been losers of 180 of their previous 275 games and hadn’t been within a couple of time zones of the playoffs. At least the 1974-1975 club – the one that set a galactic, never-to-be-eclipsed record for ineptitude – had the charm of being record-settingly bad with the comic relief that attends such achievement. The Caps of the early 21st century inspired grumbles at best, empty seats and speculation as to relocation at worst. The only thing that made the club worth watching, frankly, was Ovechkin and his one-of-a-kind-until-the-next-one nights of goal scoring, hits, and enthusiasm.

It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...

In the summer of 2001, fans were looking at city maps, plotting where might be the best place to camp out for the parade after the Caps won the Cup…In the fall of 2007, fans were thinking, “is Alex going to be here?...are we going to even have a hockey club in a few years?

We had everything before us, we had nothing before us...

In the summer of 2001, the Caps would exact their revenge for a decade of disappointments at the hands of the Penguins, using their home-grown star as the dagger. In January 2008, the Penguins had signed their own bright star to a five-year deal and were embarking on a winning streak that stood at eight games, and counting, lifting them to the third best record in the Eastern Conference…the Caps were mired in 13th place with five clubs to climb over just to make the playoff mix.

We were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

In 2001, Caps fans were going to be rewarded for years of suffering in the purgatory of disappointment. The rapture was upon them, and Jagr would deliver them to the promised land. In 2008, they were heading for the exits, last in the NHL in attendance.

In short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only...

There will be comparisons between the Jagr deal (more the contract extension he signed in the wake of that trade – eight years (including an option year) for $88 million) and the Ovechkin contract extension. Like all comparisons, they will be imperfect…

Jagr was brought in, Ovechkin is home-grown. Jagr could only win hearts in the long term if he delivered on the promise his acquisition entailed – a Stanley Cup. When he didn’t, and more to the point, when the Caps foundered, the bloom was off that rose quickly. By the time he left in a trade with the Rangers, no one was sorry to see him go. Ovechkin is “one of us.” He is a Cap – even at this point in his young career perhaps the best “home grown” Cap in the franchise’s history (with apologies to fans of Peter Bondra and those of Scott Stevens, who we do not include here since his best years came after his departure). What’s more, Jagr’s personality – at times alternately moody, distant, and surly – worked against him, while Ovechkin’s – enthusiastic, lacking inhibition on or off the ice, personable – endears him that much more to fans.

Jagr was the last piece, Ovechkin the first. Jagr came into a club with a personality, one that might have been described as a “lunch pail” mind set. It was the personality of the franchise since Rod Langway was acquired in the early 1980’s. Being more of the creative, intuitive, free-wheeling sort in his playing style, Jagr did not mesh easily with his on-board teammates, and that made for ill-feelings as time wore on, and Jagr and his teammates found themselves on different pages of the songbook. Ovechkin was the asset around which the club would be built. As the first overall pick in 2004 – at the dawn of the rebuild – he was the first piece applied to a canvas around which the rest of the work could be completed. The task of finding complementary assets is easier if the cornerstone is laid first than if one tries to set it into an existing structure.

There is also the matter of “money” versus “term.” Large signings of the sort made with Jagr were not rare in sports in 2001, even in hockey (several players were making, when adjusted for inflation, more than Ovechkin will make in any year under this deal). What made Jagr’s contract extension different was the term – seven years and an option. That kind of commitment was not common in sports at the time, certainly not in hockey. By 2008, though, long terms deals – while not common – are not rare, either. Alex Rodriguez has signed two ten-year deals in his baseball career. Rick DiPietro signed a 15-year deal with the New York Islanders, and several free agents of this past summer signed long (greater than five years) deals with NHL clubs. Ovechkin’s deal is the first nine-figure contract in NHL history, and that will generate some buzz, and the 13 years will add some to it. But this is the environment in which sports and hockey exists these days.

Ultimately, as the wise man – I think it was me – said, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” There will be those (all those commentators clamoring for Ovechkin to be rescued from the backwater of Washington, primarily) who will view this as merely a money grab by Ovechkin. Caps fans, on the other hand, will exhibit short memories and go giddy over the signing (maybe we can have a celebration at Dulles Airport). But this has a different “feel” than the Jagr contract. Because of the run-up to the Jagr trade – knowing that Pittsburgh was selling off assets it could not afford to sign in the long term, that it was unlikely Jagr could be accommodated there, that Jagr was going to be the jewel of the free agency class the following year – money was the issue that seemed at the bottom of the matter. And behind that, the idea that Jagr held most of the cards (without the extension or a trade, he could walk for nothing the following year).

With Ovechkin, the matter is turned sideways. The Caps always had the last word in this. They could sign him, they could wait for offer sheets to be tendered, they could match, they could let him walk for draft picks. Ovechkin could exert influence, but not necessarily pressure. The Caps held most of the cards in this instance.

But when all is said and done, the best take on the matter probably comes from Ovechkin, himself. In his comments following his signing, he said, “Hockey is my life, and money is money. ... If you think about money, you stop playing hockey." Coming from another, it might have had the tinny sound of a rehearsed sports clichĂ©. But with Ovechkin, who is nothing if not candid, it rings like crystal.

And so, with that, we go from the beginning to the end of this tale, and to what Caps fans hopes the signing means…many years of competing for Stanley Cups and the memories those years will leave to look back upon…

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Stepping Up

Well, the six-and-fifty-four (not to mention my math in the last post) was wrong...

...was it ever.

The new report on the Ovechkin signing is 13 years and $124 million. That qualifies as one helluva thunderclap rolling across the hockey landscape. And for a club that had been averse to the big free agent signing, it is a case of really stepping up to the plate and swatting one out of the ballpark.

With an appreciation for the dramatic flair -- drawing out the announcement and teasing fans with a statement that the original reports on the deal were wrong -- Ted Leonsis announced the mega-deal at a "meet-the-team" function last night at Verizon Center.

Speaking of the deal, Leonsis said, "I'm a risk-taker. And if you're going to make a long-term investment, who else would you do it with?"

It's "risk-taking," to be sure, but there is another element to this, too. It's putting one's money where one's mouth is. Ted has said all the right words about what he thinks the state of the league is and its prospects for improvement in the business side of the sport. In signing Ovechkin to this long a term and this high an average salary, he's gone past words into concrete actions, banking on the league to continue its growth and thus making the $10 million he will pay in each of the last seven years of the deal a bargain for the club.

Is it a "good" deal? There will be no shortage of commentary on that subject in the days to come, although that's the kind of thing that is only going to be known in retrospect. It is a risk, as Ted suggested, but for stepping up like this and backing up his talk on the league's prospects with a signing of this magnitude, we think Ted and the club deserve a lot of respect.