AROUND THE BOARDS: The spin doctor

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Jim Kelley

AROUND THE BOARDS: Kelley's look at the NHL

Not so 'good'

It wasn't surprising to see National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman sitting alone at the table in the bowels of HSBC Arena Monday trying to spin yet another team bankruptcy as a "good" thing. After all, who indeed would want to be a party to such unmitigated gall and such unbridled failure? Give Bettman huge bonus points just for showing up as the point man for the abandoned franchise. A great many people who have been making a good buck running the club into the ground didn't have the nerve to sit there. That's where the praise ends, however. The Commish can spin it anyway he likes, including blaming the deal he struck with the Players Association as being a big part of the problem, but what happened in Buffalo and Ottawa five days earlier was anything but a "good" thing. Bankruptcy in any business is not a "good" thing. It is a bad thing, a very bad thing. People get stiffed in a bankruptcy. Good people who were willing business partners who entered into legally binding agreements, at least in part because they thought their partner was someone dealing in good faith, will end up with nothing or next to nothing (given they are sometimes paid pennies on the dollar) once this franchise is "cleansed." For the commissioner or anyone else to say otherwise isn't just a misrepresentation of the facts, it's a lie. Someone always gets hurt in a bankruptcy. There's nothing good about it. We've stated before in this space that to blame the players is another fallacy. To be sure, players' salaries impact the bottom line, and the currently structured Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and the NHL, willfully entered into and twice extended by Commissioner Bettman, does not really work in the NHL's favor. But that's not the reason both Ottawa and Buffalo fell into bankruptcy. Those two franchises went down the road to financial ruin because of poor business decisions, decisions that may well prove in the case of the and quite possibly the , to be tainted by scandal and fraud and with criminal consequences. Bettman knows that. Try as he might to make the failures into a call for negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, it rang hollow in Buffalo, a city that has answered every plea for help in running the franchise by coughing up tax dollars. The good people of Buffalo (for clarification it should be noted as the city where I live) long ago ran out of the kind of corporate dollars that the NHL has courted to keep its near-Ponzi-like expansion schemes operating. Still, the people chose to take money out of their pockets in the form of ill-fated tax plans to help keep the franchise afloat. They did that knowing that it was highly unlikely their team would ever win in today's NHL. They did it knowing that their team couldn't find its way out of debt long enough to afford to put a championship team on the ice. They did it for years and they will likely do it again now that a prospective new owner, Mark Hamister is lobbying the state, county and city for additional financial relief. Bettman also took it a step too far when he actually asked for credit for the experience the NHL has had in handling bankruptcy petitions, noting that current Los Angeles ownership emerged out of a failed franchise there and that did the same with Pittsburgh. Bettman actually said his NHL was "good" at this. How can it be "good" when four franchises fall to bankruptcy under one man's watch? How can it be good when Bruce McNall, Chairman of the NHL Board of Governors for a time, goes to prison in part for his actions in Los Angeles? How can it be good that other franchises are in danger of failing despite having relatively low payrolls and decent on-ice success? How can it be good when buildings appear half empty on television despite claims of robust attendance figures? How can it be good when the commissioner oversees the move of a franchise from Winnipeg to Phoenix only to see the transplant come in 30th in attendance in a 30-team league, despite having Wayne Gretzky as the very public face of the business? Perhaps we should be more cautious of the use of the word "good" in NHL speak. After all, there is nothing good in any of the above. The only good thing about what happened in Buffalo Monday is that the commissioner had the courage to show up when nobody else did.

What next, a hit man?

Florida owner Alan Cohen has vowed to seek vengeance on the Washington for what he viewed as a shameless running-up of the score after and company thumped his team, 12-2 in a recent game in Washington. Is this guy for real? If you watched that game, you might have noticed that Caps coach Bruce Cassidy benched Jagr in the third period of that game after the outcome was no longer in doubt. It was a gutsy move on his part because Jagr was not only within striking distance of one of the most unreachable records in sport, Darryl Sittler's now legendary 10-point game, he was also one point away from a career best. Jagr had seven points when he was permanently assigned to the bench. He might have broken a record that has stood firm despite the best efforts of Wayne Gretzky and . In fact, Gretzky is on record as saying he tried several times to tie or break Sittler's record over the course of his career. The best he could ever do was eight, matching another legend, Maurice "The Rocket" Richard and several others. He wasn't ashamed of his quest. That's what great players do. Yet Cassidy got ripped by Cohen. "You can be sure that if we were ever able to get a 6-0 lead, the will act with more class than has been shown by the and their coach," Cohen wrote in an e-mail to The Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale Cohen was probably just trying to defend his team by misdirecting blame from its woeful effort, but his actions speak long and loud regarding much of the ownership in the NHL today. Like a lot of new-era owners, Cohen appears to not know or understand the game. A man who likely bought the franchise for its perceived value, not because of any avowed love or understanding of how it's played. If Cohen really knew hockey, he would have realized that his team quit and he would have never made such a silly statement in trying to blame the outcome on the opposition. He might also realize that Jagr only played 14 minutes and that Cassidy gave gobs of ice time to his third and fourth lines. He might realize that the opposing coach actually took away opportunities for his players to fatten their scoring totals, and thereby their scoring bonuses, so as to not embarrass the opposition. Cohen bought the team because it was selling at a good price, a price that came about in part because the franchise was close to bankruptcy and partners wanted to get out without losing their financial shirts. Too bad he knows nothing about how the game is played.

Another shoe?

The decision by the Boston to trade goalie to Tampa lends weight to the off-repeated rumor of a deal to come. That likely would involve unsigned restricted free agent Kyle McLaren and bring about some kind of improved goaltending in return. Though the are suffering without scoring stars and in the lineup right now (both injured), the real reason they are fading in the standings is goaltending. Grahame has been given every opportunity to be a No. 1 and he hasn't seized it. is a career backup with some flashes of No. 1 ability, but not over a sustained period of time. If Boston is to make any splash in the playoffs this spring, it needs to upgrade in goal. There's lots of talk about a deal with the New York for either or , but a more likely scenario is with the Montreal for veteran goalie .

One final thought

Kudos to the Tampa Bay . We criticized them in this space last week for putting too much of the load on . In acquiring Grahame for as little as a fourth-round draft choice, the bought quality insurance for their playoff bid. Away from the pressure of having to carry a team, Grahame may well develop into the goaltender many thought he could be. At $550,000 it's also a very good price point for a No. 2 who could still grow into a No. 1.
Who's he?
of the Phoenix is hardly a household name, even in Phoenix. But the right wing had seven goals and 13 points at the halfway point of the season, numbers that put him in the upper echelon of rookie scorers. He's got a good solid shot and an ability to muck it up in the corners, though he could spend a little more time learning the day-to-day things that make up grunt work in the NHL. His scoring exploits have kept him in the top 10 in rookie scoring, but the like him because in addition to his points, he can make effective use of his size as a grinding-type forward. That's not bad for a kid who signed as a free agent after being drafted in the third round (Colorado) of the 1999 Entry Draft, the 93rd player taken overall.
Five things you should know
1. Keep an eye out for . The rookie scoring race is never decided in the first half of the season as many of the early stars hit a wall in the second half. The Buffalo winger has just recently been recalled to the big club after starting the season in the minors and now has three straight multiple-goal games and appears to have the talent and the ice time to make a run at the rookie scoring title. He's also playing with experienced players who know how to get him the puck. That matters. 2. Both Minnesota and Buffalo are strong defensive finishers. The and are two of just five NHL teams (Rangers, Ottawa, and Phoenix are others) yet to blow a lead in the final five minutes of a game this season. Buffalo, however, is near last place in the Eastern Conference because of its ability to blow a lead in the second period and the early portions of the third. 3. The St. Louis are sure to miss injured forward (broken leg). He's one of a handful of players this season who have scored at least two goals on both the power play and penalty-kill units, while registering an overall plus/minus rating of at least plus-2. 4. If the Phoenix can get a handle on their first-period play, they could well have a better record. The have scored the fewest first-goals in a game this season (14) while opponents have scored 29. The minus-15 differential is the largest of any team in the league. 5. The Vancouver are still trying to figure out why the Buffalo listed them as a debtor in their bankruptcy file this week. There are reports that it is in part due to money owed former forwards and , both of whom were traded to the , but if that were the case, the players would have been listed by name. It remains to be seen if the ever lent money to the , a situation not outside the realm of possibility, as former owners for both teams were once very close.
Thug Watch
Look for the NHL to review the (Toronto) hit on (New York ) that took place Monday night. The hit was very close to being from behind and left Barnaby sprawled on his back on the ice. Over the years, these are two guys the NHL likely wishes would knock themselves out, but the league is also said to be keeping a close eye on Tucker because of his low-knee hit on in the playoffs last spring. If the league can determine that Barnaby, a known diver, was not faking the consequences of the hit, a suspension could be coming Tucker's way.
In the next 48 hours
  • Look for Vancouver coach Marc Crawford to break former coach Harry Neale's team record for most wins with the franchise. Neale had 142 wins, Crawford is at 141.
  • Detroit forward is two goals away from one of the most exclusive marks in the NHL, 700 goals.
  • F.Y.I.
  • Detroit captain is not only starting to skate with the team again, but general manager Ken Holland tells FOXSports.com that the veteran forward will also start traveling with the club as well. It's not that Yzerman is close to returning to playing form, but he is recovering from his off-season knee surgery to the point where he wants to be more a part of the team on and off the ice. That way if he is able play again this season, it won't be a long period of time re-establishing himself as a team leader in the locker room.
  • That five-minute overtime in regular season games is starting to produce more winners. NHL stats show that nearly half the games (48.7 percent) that have gone into the extra session have produced a winner. That's said to be up over 11 percent from two seasons ago. Detroit and New Jersey each have won six overtime games this season. Florida has lost eight in an amazing 20 overtime games this season.
  • Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
    Tagged: Bruins, Sabres, Red Wings, Canadiens, Islanders, Rangers, Penguins, Blues, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Canucks, Capitals, Coyotes, Panthers, Wild, Sergei Samsonov, Kyle McLaren, Joe Thornton, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Rick DiPietro, Nikolai Khabibulin, Matthew Barnaby, Alexander Mogilny, Darcy Tucker, Jaromir Jagr, Brad May, Petr Cajanek, Michael Peca, Ales Kotalik, John Grahame

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