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Hockey notes

League is unmoved by Balsillie's intentions

JIM BALSILLIEWants to buy and relocate JIM BALSILLIEWants to buy and relocate (File/Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
May 10, 2009
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Jim Balsillie makes a lot of sense. He is Canadian, loves hockey, and he grew up in southern Ontario, a place where most infants utter "one-timer," "two-hander," and "hat trick" while teething on large chunks of vulcanized rubber.

Balsillie, 48, is a billionaire, reported to be among the 10 richest people in his country, and his dream is to own an NHL team and have it play somewhere in the hockey-loving neck of the woods between Toronto and Buffalo.

All good by me. Remember, the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils have found a way to coexist along a stretch of asphalt not much longer than a marathon course. If they've been able to make it work, chances are decent that the Maple Leafs, Sabres, and Hamilton Mighty Balsillians could work out their menage-a-pucks over a much wider commute.

Balsillie last week offered $212 million to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and put the great state of Arizona out of its ice cold hockey misery, with the condition that he could load up the whole show and bring it back to Ontario. That's where the league stepped in, raising myriad objections, including the fact that commissioner Gary Bettman & Bros. have propped up the sorry franchise with gobs of money and therefore current owner Jerry Moyes really doesn't have the privilege, despite filing for bankruptcy, to sell the club to Balsillie or anyone else.

On top of the NHL's it's-not-your-team-to-sell objection is the fact that the league, as stated by Bettman time and again, doesn't want to abandon the idea of trying to shoehorn hockey into the desert. Furthermore, the league also doesn't want an interloper - even one with billions in the bank and a love for hockey deeper, wider, and longer than the Rideau Canal - dictating the terms of how he'll buy into the league and where he'll operate his franchise.

The way this plays out, we all know, won't be pretty and won't be quick. Such a large amount of money and angst makes for the kind of brew that brings out the best of lawyers and the worst of times.

Two NHL GMs, commenting off the record, said they believed Bettman will prevail, especially when it comes to preventing Balsillie from setting up a southern Ontario storefront. One of the GMs depicted his attempt as "terminally stupid" in terms of winning support from the league or club owners to drop a team between the Leafs and Sabres.

Balsillie in recent years tried to purchase the Penguins and Predators. He also kicked the tires on the Sabres but never made an offer. "This," noted one of the GMs, "is strike three." Or maybe even four.

Some points to consider:

  • Run efficiently, the Coyotes could thrive in Phoenix. But because they've been so poorly run, and performed so woefully, it makes it easy to scoff at hockey attempting to succeed under the burning sun. The issue, though, is one of management rather than geography.
  • Dropping another NHL team in southern Ontario is the hockey business equivalent of an empty-net goal. Lots of people - people who live and breathe hockey - and lots of money. The Leafs and Sabres would have their gripes, but it could work. Like any business, the competition should make them all better. If so, everyone wins. If not, again, like any business . . .
  • Balsillie, though shrewd, must be convinced that this is his only hope to get what he wants. It's hard to imagine a bankruptcy judge not looking favorably on his offer, even harder to imagine anyone would trump his $212 million bid. Can the judge then grant, directly or indirectly, the condition that lands the franchise in Ontario? Again, league lawyers are stacking sandbags along every inch of the Arizona border on that very point.
  • Let's assume Balsillie gets everything he wants. He gets the team at his price and in his town. In theory, great, especially from the standpoint of fans in his hometown area. It makes abundant sense to have more NHL teams in Canada.

    All that said, it's the method here that doesn't make sense, and then turns success into failure. Balsillie becomes the uninvited guest, despised by league headquarters and shunned by fellow owners. It's the old Groucho Marx line turned inside-out. Marx joked that he preferred not to be a member of a club that would have him. Balsillie, who built his fortune around an addiction, the Blackberry, joneses to be a member of a club that obviously doesn't want him.

    In the 1939 film, "At the Circus," Groucho played attorney J. Cheever Loophole. Seventy years later, Balsillie is both the circus and the loophole.

    In the land of the free

    With NHL free agency approaching (July 1), the Bruins have 10 pending free agents, if they include goalie Manny Fernandez on their list of would-be negotiations. However, Fernandez will not be asked back, in part because of his uneven two years in the Spoked-B, and in part because of the decision last month to ink Tim Thomas to a four-year pact worth $20 million.

    As for the nine other free agents, a quick look at how talks could play out:

    P.J. Axelsson, F (UFA/$1.85 million) - Will be asked to stay, but likely not at the same pay rate. If he'll work for around $1 million, he can stay for two more years. If not, he might find someone willing to pay $5 million over three years. Tough decision for the loyal and effective Swede.

    Byron Bitz, F (RFA/$675,000) - Limited look this year, but was impressive, especially with work along the wall. Arbitration-eligible. Should be easy to sign him to a two-year deal grossing $1.8 million-$2.2 million.

    Shane Hnidy, D (UFA/$760,000) - A third-pairing, depth backliner, effective in Claude Julien's system of defined roles. Will be asked to stick around for the same money on a one- or two-year deal.

    Matt Hunwick, D (RFA/$775,000) - Tantalizing speed and smarts from the backline. Arbitration-eligible. Would be a smart investment to lock him in for three years at, say, a $1.5 million average. Big potential upside.

    Phil Kessel, RW/C (RFA/$850,000) - Added a touch of grit and a lot of goal-scoring in 2008-09. No arbitration rights. At age 21, could still be in college. Coveted for speed, could be extended an offer sheet from another club July 1. Bruins have to decide whether to pay him big money ($3 million-$5 million a year, depending on term length), or flip him for a bunch of goodies pre-July 1. He was in play at the March 4 trade deadline. They'll test the waters again.

    David Krejci, C (RFA/$883,000) - A breakout year for the smart, slick pivot. No arbitration rights. Only 23. Deal could range from, say, two years at $2.75 million average to four years at around $17 million total.

    Steve Montador, D/F (UFA/$800,000) - Picked up at deadline from Ducks for Petteri Nokelainen. Ability to swing between positions adds value. If willing to work in same current pay range, can sign for another year or two.

    Mark Recchi, F (UFA/$1.25 million) - Sure, he's 41 years old, but plays with great wisdom and an intoxicating energy. Keeping him for a year, even at a slight raise for good citizenship, makes perfect sense. Like adding a player-coach.

    Stephane Yelle, C (UFA/$750,000) - Gritty, smart, and stable. Just turned 35. Won't be asked back only if decision is made to slot a kid (Vladimir Sobotka) on the varsity.

    Etc.

    Dynamic duo
    Former Bruins coach Dave Lewis, still owed one more season on his four-year Boston contract, recently worked behind the Team Belarus bench at the World Championships in Switzerland, aiding fellow Manitoban Glen Hanlon (last seen in the NHL behind the Capitals bench). Hanlon worked in Finland as head coach for Jokerit this past season, but will direct the Dynamo-Minsk bench in 2009-10. Word around Bern was that Hanlon would like Lewis to aid him in Minsk, too. Vladimir Tsyplakov, the former NHL winger with Los Angeles and Buffalo, is the Dynamo GM.

    He figured it out
    Tom Barrasso, the former Acton-Boxboro star who won back-to-back Stanley Cups as the Penguins goalie, is now the Carolina goalie coach. Barrasso, who spent his elementary school years in Burlington, remains an advocate of figure skating, having spent two years learning his edges and strides at the Burlington Ice Palace. "It teaches you great balance and maneuvering, and gives you an advantage out there," said Barrasso. "The butterfly goalies are very effective in stopping the puck, but I don't see a lot of them able to skate and handle it. It's not easy to skate with that 35 pounds of equipment on you, and the better you are on your skates, that should help you do the job."

    The Great Sum
    Even if the Coyotes get sold, coach Wayne Gretzky will pocket $22.5 million for a contract that covers his next two seasons. The Great One is owed $6.5 million for next season and $8 million for 2010-11, plus another $8 million in deferred compensation. In his four years behind the bench, the Coyotes have gone 143-161-24 and compiled four postseason DNQs.

    Loose pucks
    According to Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, neither Colorado nor Minnesota ownership has made a formal request to interview his top assistant, Jim Benning, for the open GM positions they have . . . The Bruins weeks ago turfed longtime scout Grant Sonier, which, following the death of Don Matheson earlier this season, leaves the club with two spots open on its scouting staff. Chiarelli said he'll hire at least one more full-time scout, but could divvy up the other position among a couple of part-timers . . . Word in the broadcast community is that the Bruins have not closed a deal with WBZ Radio to extend their partnership into next season. As of today, it's a franchise without a radio home for 2009-10 . . . Ex-Wild coach Jacques Lemaire says he is talking to both the Lightning and Panthers about a consultant's position, which sounds much like the role Scotty Bowman has filled in recent years with Detroit and now Chicago. The Lemaires live in Palmetto, Fla., just south of Tampa . . . The Panthers have moved Hall of Famer Denis Potvin off their broadcast crew, and the Blue Jackets have let go of Danny Gare . . . A Sports Illustrated poll of 324 NHL players had the rank and file identifying Steve Ott (Dallas) and Chris Pronger (Anaheim) as the McFilthy and McNasty of the NHL. Perhaps the league should issue end-of-the-year hardware for the best villain. We suggest naming it the "Eagleson."

    Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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