Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 2: Zoolander

We’re almost there, but first…

Number 2: Zoolander

“You gotta tame the beast before you let it out of its cage.”

-- Derek Zoolander

Well, we don’t know about being a beast, or letting it out of its cage, but the Caps unlocked the cage, held open the door, and all but begged Michael Nylander to take his leave and accept employment somewhere else, even if the Caps had to pay his salary to do it. Never did seem that so much silence and inaction could have such effects on the fortunes of a season for a team in professional sports, effects that spilled over from one season into another.

Michael Nylander was signed by the Capitals to a contract as an unrestricted free agent on July 2, 2007. It would be his second tour with the Caps, and this one didn’t come without controversy, either at the beginning or at the interminable end (not that we've reached it yet). Back in that July of 2007, the original reports concerning a Nylander signing had him going to Edmonton to skate with the Oilers. Edmonton could not or would not confirm the signing, and shortly thereafter the Caps announced having signed Nylander. The next week saw considerable back-and-forth with Canadian media reporting that the Oilers were contesting the signing. After much gnashing of teeth and trading of insults across the continent, Nylander would remain with the Caps, a move seen at the time as a good fit for a team that needed a number one center and who played a style suited to the Caps deliberate ways under Coach Glen Hanlon.

Well, things took a turn when the Caps stumbled badly out of the gate in the 2007-2008 season, so badly that it cost Hanlon his job on Thanksgiving. Enter Bruce Boudreau, whose brand of hockey was fire to Hanlon’s…well, if not ice, then slush. There is a place for slush (the Devils have been practicing it for almost two decades with considerable success), but that wasn’t what the Caps bought in bringing on Boudreau. And it wasn’t a style compatible with the sort of game Nylander played. Nylander didn’t get much of a chance to show why this fit was so bad, injuring his shoulder, apparently in a game against the Florida Panthers on December 1st. He played in 13 more games before going down for the year and undergoing surgery. It wasn’t even as if he played badly; he was 4-9-13 in the 14 games he played injured.

But when the curtain rose on the 2008-2009 season it was apparent that Nylander’s role with the team was very much in flux. One could see in the monthly splits… October: 2-6-8, plus-3 in nine games (of nine total played by the Caps)… November: 0-6-6, -3 in 14 games (of 15 total)… December: 1-2-3, plus-3 in 14 games (of 14 total). Nylander was dressing every night, but his production was declining.

2009 began for Nylander with the first hints of a diminished role. He played in only ten of the 12 games in January, going 2-5-7, plus-2. As February dawned, one couldn’t help but think the team would try to move him at the trading deadline, but there was the problem of that contract. It contained a no-movement clause that severely hampered the Capitals in any deals that might become available. Nylander had to agree to the terms.

If there was a player playing as if he was going to be headed elsewhere, or perhaps having the possibility of such weigh on him, it appeared to be Nylander. The month he had was nothing short of awful for a player occupying $4.875 million in salary cap room. Nylander finished the month 2-1-3, minus-2 in ten games. Almost incomprehensibly for a player who was nominally the second line center, he took a total of five shots on goal for the month, one over the last six games in which he played.

Absent granting the Caps relief under the no-movement clause of his contract and accepting a move, Nylander was going to remain a Cap through the March 4th trading deadline. In fact, as a practical matter he had to grant such relief if the Caps were to make any deals, since the Caps were unable to add salary absent that relief. It didn’t keep from rumors being circulated though. Perhaps the one that had the most meaning for the Caps, both at the deadline and (as it would turn out) for the playoffs was one that had Bill Guerin coming to the Caps (as if to put a period on that, it was Guerin who was credited with the game-winning goal in the series clinching win over the Caps in the Eastern semis last May).

After the trading deadline, Nylander became less of a player and more of a symbol – of cap woes, of an inability to make deals, of being a road-block to the advancement of players from Hershey – all stemming from his no-movement contract clause and his apparent willingness to invoke it. The playoffs came, and Nylander dressed for only three games, playing in less than ten minutes in two of them (no points, minus-1, no shots on goal). The summer came – and went – with the occasional blip of a rumor that Nylander was going somewhere (more, it seemed, wishful thinking on the part of Caps fans). Then came an interview published on a Swedish web site in which Nylander was quoted as saying that Coach Bruce Boudreau told him he wasn’t good enough. You would think that such a sentiment, if true, would have led to a deal before the start of training camp.

But like a divorce that can’t find a settlement, Nylander and the Caps remained joined until, if not death, then Nylander’s contract expiring would they part. It made for a strange situation – a team that had moved on (signing Brendan Morrison to take up the second line center position) and a player who was willing to move on… on his terms.

September came… no movement. Opening night… still on the roster (if not, and never to be, in the lineup). There was the tease of a possible deal with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia that gave Caps fans the mirage of hope that something would be resolved. This had been the football that Lucy kept on offering up Charlie Brown since the summer, only to pull it away. It had the special whiff of credibility in that the team perhaps most often cited as a partner in a deal – Avongard Omsk – provided Nylander to reunite with Jaromir Jagr, with whom Nylander enjoyed his best offensive seasons with the New York Rangers.

There came a moment of sunlight peeking through the clouds in late October when the Caps sent Nylander (with his approval) to Grand Rapids in the AHL for a “conditioning stint.” Conditioning for what? It had to signal an imminent deal, didn’t it?

Uh, no.

Nylander’s stay in Grand Rapids came and after two weeks went, and there he was, still on the Capitals roster, still not playing, still with that $4.875 million cap hit. You would have to forgive Caps fans if they were frustrated, even angry at Nylander for not taking a deal (we had our own Nylander hockey-held-hostage watch for a while), but the fact is, Nylander was merely abiding by terms of a contract freely entered into by both he and the Caps. If there was no no-movement clause in the contract, the Caps would not have bat an eye in moving him to wherever they might to maximize the benefit to the club. Nylander merely held those cards on the other side of the table. He didn’t bat an eye in invoking what were his rights under a mutually agreed upon deal. Fans might get upset, but Nylander was comfortably within his rights.

Finally, though, choirs of celestial angels sang, the clouds parted, cherubim and seraphim did whatever they do, and a resolution was at hand… sort of. On December 13th, the club announced in a terse, four-sentence statement, that they had assigned Nylander to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. The cap hit comes off the Caps’ books for the remainder of the season, but there is still the matter of the last year of Nylander’s contract. While the no-movement clause will not be in effect next season as the last under that contract, the Caps still have a contractual relationship with the player that must still be resolved. But that is a discussion for 2010. There was enough to deal with in the saga of Michael Nylander to inspire a 1,500 word entry as one of the top stories for the Capitals in 2009. And with that, we’ll leave the last word to Derek Zoolander…

"Do you understand that the world does not revolve around you and your do whatever it takes, ruin as many people's lives, so long as you can make a name for yourself… no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied along the way, just so long so you can make a name for yourself… no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied and dying along the way?"

It wasn’t bloody, just a zoo… a “Zoo-lander,” so to speak.

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