Travis Zajac, who played 15 regular season games last season, signed an eight-year extension with New Jersey this week. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
It was the opinion of many in the hockey industry – this corner included – that it didn’t really matter what the final result of the collective bargaining agreement negotiations turned out to be because the players would come out ahead anyway.
Well, the ink is barely dry on this one and that is, of course, once again the case. That’s because when it comes to bargaining with the collective, the owners have the advantage. But when it comes down to dealing with players 1-on-1, these so-called tough guys will always, always give in.
Let’s start with Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who was one of commissioner Gary Bettman’s most trusted advisors and most prominent hawks early in the process. Leonsis was part of the cabal, along with Jeremy Jacobs of the Boston Bruins, Craig Leipold of the Minnesota Wild and Murray Edwards of the Calgary Flames, who played hardball with the PA and crafted the first ridiculous lowball offer in the summer that galvanized the players and set the process back by a couple of months.
Then what is one of the first things Leonsis does when the lockout ends? Well, he proclaims that he’s going to allow his captain and franchise player, Alex Ovechkin, play in the Sochi Olympics regardless of whether or not the NHL and NHL Players’ Association come to an agreement on future Olympic participation.
So let’s get this straight. Leonsis is willing to allow his best player to miss at least a half dozen games in 2013-14, possibly putting his team’s playoff fortunes in jeopardy in the process, to allow Ovechkin to fulfill his dream of playing in the Olympics in his home country, regardless of whether the league allows it or not? That’s really showing ‘em who’s boss. And what happens if Braden Holtby emerges as one of the best goalies in the NHL over the next 12 months and he wants to represent Canada? What if Nicklas Backstrom wants to play for Sweden or John Carlson for the U.S.?
Perhaps Leonsis is so certain that both sides will sanction participation in Sochi that it’s a low-risk proposition to have Ovechkin’s back on this one. This way, he appeases the player by saying he’ll support Ovechkin, comfortable in the knowledge that it will likely never get to that. But for Leonsis to give Ovechkin the green light to potentially violate both the CBA and his own contract does not set a very good precedent.
Then there’s the New Jersey Devils, a team that is up to its eyeballs in debt and one of the ones that inspired the NHL to go after the long-term, front-loaded contracts. You’d think under those circumstances the Devils might be a little less inclined to hand out an enormous contract to a guy who over the course of his career has scored fewer than one goal every four games and a little better than one point every two games and missed 67 regular season games in 2011-12 due to injury. But that did not stop them from handing the maximum term of eight years and $46 million to Travis Zajac.
That will give the Devils a cap hit of $5.75 million through the 2020-21 season, to go along with Ilya Kovalchuk’s $6.7 million cap hit, which goes through 2024-25. If Zajac performs for the Devils the way he did through the playoffs last season, he may very well be worth that kind of money and term. But for him to be able to negotiate that kind of deal a full year before the prospect of free agency tells us that no matter what the terms of the CBA are, the players will always come out ahead.
Former THN editor-in-chief and TSN insider Bob McKenzie posed the following question Thursday night on the network’s season preview show: With Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky all having played in the American League or Europe, are the Edmonton Oilers the only team in the NHL whose top six forwards all played during the lockout?
And we can say that after studying all 30 rosters, the answer to that question is yes. The Columbus Blue Jackets had five of their top six – Vaclav Prospal, Derrick Brassard, Cam Atkinson, Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky – active for all or parts of the lockout, but no other team had so many of its key forwards keeping their games sharp.
At the other end of the spectrum, several teams had only one of their top six playing: Anaheim (Andrew Cogliano), Pittsburgh (Evgeni Malkin), St. Louis (rookie Vladimir Tarasenko) and Tampa Bay (Brett Connolly). A couple of teams whose top forwards should be able to hit the ground running are Detroit (Valtteri Filppula, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Damien Brunner) and Washington (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson).
Now the question is, will it make a difference? It certainly elevated the careers of a number of young players such as Eric Staal and Jason Spezza in the last lockout, but it will be interesting to see what kind of effect it has on teams early.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.