Flyers' transformation taking advantage of Predators' despair
One team, the Flyers: boldly fixed on the future, determined by the dint of strong ownership and a big bag of cash to reclaim its long-standing place among the NHL elite.
The other, the Predators: adrift in a sea of uncertainty, needing desperately to appeal to fans in Nashville, but instead driving them away because of an ownership vacuum, a vacuum that saw the team trade away the signing rights to top free agents Kimmo Timonen, the team's best player and captain, and emerging two-way forward Scott Hartnell to the Flyers.
That'll have them busting down the doors at the Nashville Arena.
Somewhere, BlackBerry god Jim Balsillie is laughing at the city's expense and, indeed, at the expense of the NHL, which waits while one of its pivotal southern markets twists in the wind.
Not that we're prone to conspiracy theories, but it's hard to imagine this isn't exactly how Balsillie imagined it playing out.
The Canadian megamillionaire made an outrageous offer to buy the Predators (in the neighborhood of $238 million when all the fine print is figured in), knowing the sum would be attractive to Nashville owner Craig Leipold and to the rest of the NHL owners.
But he also had to know the process would drag on, which has allowed him to insist through his spokespeople he would have spent to the cap if he were the Preds' owner right now. But he's not. And the NHL, not wanting to be rushed into granting ownership to a man who clearly wants to uproot the team and move it to Hamilton, Ontario, where ticket packages are being sold by the thousands, is taking its time not wanting to make a mistake.
Given the league's history of inept owners, who can blame it for performing its due diligence? But in taking time to determine whether Balsillie is the right man to join the club, the NHL is helping create the perfect scenario in which the Predators will continue to fail in Nashville and hence speed a move to southern Ontario.
The Predators need to see the average paid attendance reach the 14,000 mark this season or the team's owners, whoever they might be by the end of next season, can pay a penalty and exit the current lease with the city of Nashville (at least that's the theory, although some city officials insist it's not that simple).
As one of the most exciting teams in the NHL last season, the Predators averaged 13,815 paid attendance. This season? What are the chances more fans will come out to see a team that, at least in terms of its profile, will continue to be battered in the coming weeks? Slim? None?
In Monday's trade, the Predators exchanged two homegrown players for a first-round draft pick that was originally theirs before the Peter Forsberg trade prior to the trade deadline. GM David Poile acknowledged he is unlikely to be able to sign other top unrestricted free agents from last season's squad, including Forsberg and Paul Kariya. Why? In the absence of a confirmed deal to sell the team, Leipold will insist on a budget as close to the cap floor as possible.
The ripple effect of Hartnell and Timonen trade will continue to be felt until the ownership issue is resolved.
The uncertainty of the team's future prevented the Preds from even making offers to the two players, both of whom immediately signed lucrative long-term deals with Philadelphia. As for filling those holes, don't expect it to come in the form of quality (expensive) free agents, which means the holes will be filled by lower-grade NHL players or younger, homegrown players. Either way, the potential for the Predators to repeat their 2006-07 regular-season success of 110 points (only Detroit and Buffalo had more) is unlikely.
"There's no question that's a question that gets thrown back to me," Poile told reporters after Monday's trades. "Players really do like playing here, but the uncertainty of us not being here possibly in another year is not a big attraction to players. Like all of us, they like stability.
"It's definitely a factor," the GM added. "And it's not a positive factor."
Kariya, for instance, enjoys both the playing atmosphere and the lifestyle in Nashville. But one of the reasons he surprised many by signing with the Preds after the lockout was he believed the team's direction suggested a Stanley Cup championship. Now, with Nashville lacking the financial wherewithal to compete with other teams (and where have we seen this movie before?), Kariya will likely search elsewhere for a place to call home next season.
"Under the circumstances, it's going to be very difficult to sign our free agents because of the market, their demands, the amount of years they want and the amount of dollars they want," Poile said. "So in all probability, we're not going to be re-signing our top free agents."
And if the Preds aren't able to keep Timonen, Hartnell, Kariya, Forsberg et al, how do they market themselves to other free agents, even the ones in their budgets? In short, they don't.
The loss of Timonen is particularly galling. One of the first players drafted by the Predators, the slick-skating defenseman has emerged as a top-10 defender and will help a rebuilding Flyers team, especially vis-a-vis the development of talented Finn Joni Pitkanen.
The Flyers look to be a shining example of how the new NHL is a place where moving from despair to contention can be achieved in relatively short order. Of course, that kind of transformation almost always comes with taking advantage of someone else's despair, in this case, the Predators'.
"It seems like it's kind of the wrong ending," Poile said of losing Timonen. "But that's the way it goes sometimes in this business."
Unfortunately, one of the best-run hockey operations in the league better get used to such disappointments.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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