Martin Straka

Remember The Penguins

t’s now been over 36 hours and the Rangers have made five moves, none of which could be confused with the wild 90s, or the early 2000s for that matter.  The biggest profile name involved with the Rangers to date is probably the return of Martin Straka, a move that was not unexpected and perhaps hastened by the inability to sign Patrik Elias.  Which is a nice segue into my first point in this week’s column…has the whole world gone CRAZY??!?!?!.

Yesterday’s free agent frenzy saw salaries sky-rocket back to a level that would have made many contracts in the pre-war days look damned reasonable.  There were more dollars flying around than you’d find on a congressional omnibus bill, and many of them going to players who were probably considered to be the losers coming out of the CBA.  The market was particularly hot on the blueline with such leading lights as Willie Mitchell, Filip Kuba, Jay McKee and Brian Pothier (who?!?!) receiving salaries in excess of $3,000,000 per year, for durations that will probably outlast the current fleet of space shuttles.

General Managers around the league spent just one day showing how pointless the whole lockout was, and leading the charge was none other than media darling Lou Lamoriello.  Often portrayed as the NHL’s answer to Alan Greenspan, the GM affectionately referred to as Lou Lam has capped off a less than stellar 2005-06 performance with a couple of deals that may very well consign the Devils to the also-ran column.  Ah, but how many times have the Devils been written off and yet risen like the phoenix from the ashes you say?  Well this time my friends, it appears that he’s dug a hole deeper than the notorious Big Dig of Boston fame.  In a matter of hours, the Devils GM inked the soon to be 31 year old Jamie Langenbrunner to a five year deal that will pay him roughly $14,000,000 and then capped that off with a contract worthy of Mike Milbury, a seven year monster that will pay Elias $42,000,000 and reportedly includes a no-trade clause.

Elias will now be on the Devils’ books through the remainder of President George W. Bush’s second term, through the first term of the next president and into the first years of whomever should follow.  In 2013, he’ll be a 37 year old dinosaur in a league that is quickly finding ways to pay their veterans cents on the dollar.

The good news for the Rangers…Mr Lamoriello may find keeping his team together through the next couple of years could be quite challenging, with Brodeur and Madden still earning a good sum, and Mogilny and Malakhov on the books for this year even though neither is likely to see the ice at the Continental Airlines Arena.

Certainly the Devils are not alone.  Another former representative of the fiscally restrictive the Boston Bruins and owner Jeremy Jacobs, unleashed their checkbooks to the tune of $37,500,000 (a 100% salary increase) to make Zdeno Chara one of the highest players in the league.  They then added Marc Savard at a relative bargain of $20,000,000 for the next five years, a 75% increase over what he made last year with the Thrashers and a 100% increase over his pre-lockout salary of $2,000,000 a year.  So much for the cries of fiscal responsibility and how teams like the Rangers were ruining the league.

All in all there were 15 unrestricted free agents (outside of the Rangers’ signing of Matt Cullen) signed to contracts of three years or more for a staggering total of $275,550,000 for an average of $4,230,000 per year.  There were 3 three-year contracts, 6 four-year, 5 five-year and of course Elias’s seven-year deal.  Those figures  don’t include deals that were signed last August (e.g. Sergei Gonchar for 5 years, $25 million) or the recent run of long-term signings that the Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes just went through to secure several members of their team for the next 2-5 years.

Perhaps if today’s GMs had talked to Mr Howard Baldwin, former owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins (and once more looking for an NHL team to buy), about what it means to mortgage for your future for short term gains.  Baldwin, who owned the Penguins from the mid to late 90s, almost single handedly destroyed his NHL franchise by overspending on contracts and selling off rights to everything bar the surrealistic sculpture of a Penguin that resides in Mellon Arena [Edit:On reflection it is entirely possible that he sold that too] in exchange for some quick bucks.  The end of course is something almost all hockey fans are familiar with, and the franchise continues to struggle today.

While the deals we saw yesterday are hardly on the same scale as Baldwin’s gambling on the Penguins’ future, they do represent a short-sightedness that will inevitably lead to several firings and a number of unforeseen free agents or players made available on the market before their time is due.  If the Rangers can hold the course, then they might one day be one of the franchises that ultimately benefit from days like yesterday.

Well that’s enough about the rest of the league, let’s talk about what the Rangers did and didn’t do…

While many of us have been praising the Rangers for their restraint both last August and yesterday, one has to wonder how many of these deals came close.  The NY Post’s Larry Brooks reported the Rangers were ready to go to $7 million for Patrik Elias, but dropped out of the race on length and what one would assume was the demand for a no-trade clause.  Last August the Rangers were rumored to have offered very similar deals to Adrian Aucoin, Dave Scatchard and Peter Forsberg only to see all three pass up the chance to play on Broadway for opportunities elsewhere.  It should be noted of course that none of these rumors can be verified at this time, but it does make you wonder whether the Rangers simply missed out because they demonstrated restraint, or because like Zdeno Chara reportedly told the Rangers early yesterday…they weren’t interested in playing for New York.

The one deal the Rangers did make for a name free agent, could easily be lumped in with all the other overpriced contracts given out yesterday.  A four year deal averaging out at $2,800,000 a year for a guy coming off a career year is the reverse of the old adage buy low. sell high.  The Rangers very much bought into the 29 year old center at what may very well be the pinnacle of his career.  In Cullen the Rangers basically acquired a slightly younger version of Steve Rucchin, albeit one who had been centering the third line for the ‘Canes.  Don Maloney and his compatriots no doubt are hoping that, like Marek Malik did last year, Cullen will be able to move up and take additional responsibility, and prove to be a bargain basement second line center.

Alternative thinking might perhaps position Cullen as insurance for the second line center position while offering the flexibility to play on the wing, or allow a player like Immonen to build into the role if he’s able to this year.  In a less controversial move, the Rangers also re-signed defenseman Karel Rachunek to a one year $1.8 million contract that seems incredibly reasonable in light of yesterday’s mayhem.  We’re doing some research, but the 26 year old Czech will either be an RFA next year, or will benefit from the age going down to 27 (we think it’s the former at this stage).

Rounding out the day were the return of goaltender Stephen Valiquette, who appears destined to play in Hartford at this stage, and AHL All-Rookie defenseman Dan Girardi, who played well for the Wolf Pack in his first year as a pro.  In news today the Rangers have also re-signed left wing Martin Straka to a contract.

To date Assistant GM Don Maloney and his team have taken a conservative approach for the most part, though there are still plenty of challenges (and temptations) on the road ahead.  We will re-visit the status of the Rangers later in the week…until then ciao!.

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