Saturday, July 6, 2013

Shelter From the Storm

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present, are certain to miss the future." - John F Kennedy

One of the few, irrefutable truths in life is that there is absolutely no such thing as a sure bet. Sure, certain events seem extremely probable; I will probably wake tomorrow, alive and well in my own bed. Until the day I don't of course. Probable however is not certain and to a degree the act of professional sport (and gambling on such) is based entirely on the principle that literally anything can happen, despite the odds. To borrow the often-repeated but undeniably true cliche; "that's why they play the games" folks. Of course, now that the NHL has moved into it's offseason there's really only one game in town; building and manipulating team rosters in preparation for the 2013-14 season. Although this game certainly moves at a much slower pace than hockey, it is no less ruthless and unpredictable than the matches fans pay good money to see. You can study, analyze and debate until you're short of breath but ultimately, nobody truly knows what's going to happen when the curtains rise on day 1 of NHL free agency; sometimes not even the players themselves. In the wee hours of the morning before the market officially opens, things can and do change in the blink of an eye. Hockey is a cold, merciless business in these moments, hard choices are made and promises are often broken. When an organization and a living legend decide to part ways; you can bet that such acts of skullduggery will be performed under the cover of darkness, while much of the hockey world sleeps.

Unfortunately, we may never know the entire truth behind what led Daniel Alfredsson to sign with the Detroit Red Wings on July 5th, 2013.  By virtually all public accounts, Alfie was desperately wanted back in Ottawa this season. His relationship with the fans and the city itself has always been fantastic. As recently as June 28th, Daniel was absolutely going to retire as a lifelong member of the Ottawa Senators. The story had changed slightly by July 4th; but all signs still pointed towards Alfredsson returning to the Senators for 2013-14. As nightfall came however; somehow the specter of Alfie's departure grew from an impossibility into an uneasy sense that something dramatic was about to happen the next day. First there were reports that Alfredsson was down to Ottawa, Boston and Detroit. Suddenly, a choice was in fact possible. Rather than merely entertaining calls from general managers while his contract was being negotiated, Alfie had become a piece that could be acquired on the market. Then, ESPN's Pierre Lebrun () reported on Twitter that Daniel had "stayed up late in Sweden, but now he's sleeping on it." This prompted followers of Swedish hockey to mention a video from that very afternoon; where Alfredsson says a contract with Ottawa is "not quite done" and that he hopes it will be completed "today or tomorrow." The next time we would hear Alfredsson's name would be just past 11 AM on Friday; when it was announced that he would sign a 1 year contract with the Detroit Red Wings, in less than an hour.

The question of course becomes, did Alfredsson lie? At this point both he and Senator's manager Bryan Murray are saying that Alfie left the Senators for competitive reasons. Daniel has apparently long admired the Wings' commitment to fielding a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup every season and the presence of multiple members of the Swedish national team on the Detroit roster was not inconsequential. Although Alfie is one of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of skates for his country; he'll also be 41 years old when the Soichi Winter Olympics begin in February. For the first time in a long time, Alfredsson knows that his NHL regular season will serve as an extended tryout for his nation's Olympic team. What better way is there to prove you're the right fit with current stars like Henrick Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall than to play with them night in and night out during the NHL season? While I personally have no doubt that Alfredsson believes these things; something rings hollow about them as a rational for leaving his home of 17 seasons and the only franchise he's ever played for. The simple truth is that both Ottawa and Detroit were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs last season. With the return to full health of star players like Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, the continued development of Kyle Turris, the addition of Bobby Ryan and the re-emergence of  Craig Anderson as an elite goaltender; the Senators are likely to be serious challengers for the division title in 2013-14. Although Detroit's roster is arguably slightly deeper, the Wings are by no means favorites to finish ahead of Ottawa in a division that also contains Boston, Montreal and Toronto. If upgrading his chances to win a Cup was so important to Alfredsson, why wouldn't he go to the Bruins instead? Boston is making tweaks to a core that just represented the East in the Stanley Cup final; aside from Chicago it's hard to imagine a better place to try and snipe a cup ring next season. Finally, while it's certainly true that Detroit employs more elite Swedish players, it's not like scouts from his homeland have no reason to watch Senators games. They will find time to observe Karlsson at a very minimum; the same as they found time to see Alfie play in Ottawa before past Olympic tournaments. In short, while the move to Detroit may upgrade Alfredsson's professional life; the gains have been small and arguably not worth uprooting one's family or destroying a legacy for.

Additionally, once you examine all of the facts, it's hard to say that the reason for Alfredsson leaving Ottawa was financial. While it's certainly possible that Senator's management fumbled the opening offer phase of negotiations by presenting Daniel with an insulting 1 year, $4M contract; by all accounts they recovered nicely. Reports indicated that late in the process the Senators were offering Alfie a literal "blank check" to create his own 1 year deal. While the salary cap and a desire not to look like a pillaging raider would have prevented him from getting too outrageous; Alfredsson could easily have beat the Wings' 5.5 million dollar offer and stayed right where he was for what will likely be his final NHL season. For most hockey players, an extra half million dollars or so would have been more than enough to sooth whatever hurt feelings management's initial offer inspired. Unfortunately for the Senators, it would appear that Alfredsson is not most hockey players and it's certainly fair to say that his relationship with the franchise has been strained at times. In 1997 Alfredsson staged a holdout during contract negotiations that got so acrimonious that then GM Pierre Gauthier suggested the team would never be able to resign Daniel. Rumor has it that when the deal was finally signed, Alfredsson was actively looking for an International League squad to sign up for while he waited out the Senators 5 year, $16M offer. Of course, Alfredsson and the team did eventually see eye to eye and Daniel would go on to a long and glorious career in Ottawa; peaking perhaps with the captain leading his team to the 2007 Stanley Cup final. 

The very next season, Alfredsson would sign a 4 year contract extension that was designed to take him to his eventual retirement with the Senators. Although the dollars were spread out across 4 years; a closer look at the numbers makes it clear that Alfredsson was really signing a 3 year contract with a 4th year at $1M thrown in to keep his salary cap charge lower. When Daniel decided to come back for another season last year, talks began to renegotiate the final year of his deal. Ultimately however, these negotiations fell through and Alfie was forced to play out the final season of his contract as written. While, obviously I wasn't in the negotiation room; I don't think it's unfair to suggest that Alfredsson felt that he was worth considerably more than $1M to the Sens last season. It also seems fair to suggest that given his popularity, years of service and general refusal to complain about playing for way less than market value; Alfredsson was expecting to be rewarded with painless contract negotiations this offseason. When management offered not only a single year, but only 4 million dollars; was that the moment that Daniel Alfredsson decided to think about life after the Ottawa Senators? Is it possible that the dispute wasn't about money, so much as respect and that by the time Melnyk broke out the check-book; Alfie had already decided that he was moving on?

Sadly, there is no definitive answer to these questions, and given Alfredsson's apparent willingness to shoulder all the blame and declare his actions the result of pure selfishness; that seems unlikely to change any time soon. Frankly, this isn't the first time Alfredsson has made public statements that reflect poorly on his image and by the end of his tenure in Ottawa, his slightest actions were being viewed as signs that he had quit or was about to quit on the franchise, by both fans and media. When a man can't skate with his children, throw a waterbottle or keep a puck for his mantle without an entire city going on suicide watch, perhaps it's time for a change of scenery; for the mental health of everyone involved if nothing else. Still, after years of admiring him from afar, it's hard for me to picture Alfie as the dishonest villain he appears to be in this scenario. I can't help but keep going back to that interview in Sweden, where Alfredsson seemed genuinely optimistic about resigning with the Senators either "today or tomorrow". In fact, that interview represents the last time I've heard Alfie sound genuine at all; his Red Wing teleconference and subsequent statements have been awfully terse and devoid of emotion. Regardless of what it was, something drastically changed about Alfredsson's outlook in Ottawa over the past 72 hours and in the end it was enough to drive him to Detroit.

One thing that is certain in the whole mess is that Ottawa's loss is the Red Wing's gain. Detroit entered free agency looking for a highly skilled, two-way forward capable of playing powerplay, penalty kill and scoring line minutes immediately. Unfortunately, this need came with the caveat that said forward would have to agree to a short term contract; to avoid clogging up the pipeline of a team rebuilding on the fly in the salary cap era. Detroit could offer some degree of money, but Ken Holland was never prepared to offer significant term and that had put the Wings out of the running for a number of the highest profile, mercenary forwards available in free agency; including their own. By signing Stephen Weiss to a 5 year, $4.9M contract, the Wings revealed that they were prepared to pay for a true, 2nd line center. The same was not true for a player who projects as winger in Mike Babcock's system however; or Holland likely would have kept Filppula instead. In the end, the pairing was a perfect match. Alfredsson brings the exact skill set the Wings' required to improve their team this season, while simultaneously not desiring a contract long enough to keep prospects like Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan and Calle Jarnkrok trapped in the minors any longer than is necessary. Although there are some concerns about Alfie's age and durability; the simple truth is that any forward both skilled enough and willing to accept Holland's terms was going to come with some wear on his tires. Although it's a matter of personal opinion; I believe that Daniel's leadership, previous relationship with Henrik Zetterberg and familiarity with Mike Babcock's system makes him a better choice than similar 1-year rentals like Jaromir Jagr, or Jarome Iginla.

In the final analysis, it will be months before we can truly judge the success or failure of Alfredsson's gambit; the Red Wings are trying to thrive in a new conference, while Alfie is hoping to rejuvenate his career in Motown and perhaps collect a medal with Sweden along the way. Alfredsson will be relied on to bring talent, determination and more than a little scoring punch to a toothless Wings attack, that was ultimately responsible for losing an otherwise winnable series against Chicago last season. As if that weren't enough; both the team and the player know that none of this will matter in the slightest if the Red Wings don't advanced deep into the playoffs. By his own admission, Alfie came to Detroit because the organization is committed to winning a Stanley Cup; a statement that will no doubt galvanize the Senators and Bruins at least to prove him wrong. Frankly, considering Alfredsson's fame, his sudden "heel turn", and the long term success of the Wings' franchise; it wouldn't be unfair to suggest that the whole world will be watching Motown for any sign of failure this season. At this point, only a fool would accuse Daniel of choosing "the easy path"; he's all in on a roller coaster ride straight into the mouth of hockey hell and he isn't coming back out unless he can help lead the Wings to Stanley Cup redemption. Welcome to Detroit Mr. Alfredsson; don't mind the swirling lightning, "we'll give ya, shelter from the storm."

- Sportsball Chic


  1. Nice article. While the rash of one year signings in the NHL still baffles me, your explanation for the Alfredsson makes sense. It will be interesting to see how the Redwings adapt to their new division and what response Alfredsson will get in Ottawa and Boston.

    1. I expect it to be... loud. :)

      The division is going to be a literal war next season; roughly 60% of the impact free agents went to a cluster of 5 teams that all made the playoffs last season (Detroit, Otttawa, Toronto, Boston and Montreal).

      People are going to get fired this summer, no way can all 5 of those teams ultimately justify the money their GMs just spend this season.

      Also, say a little prayer for Florida/Tampa Bay cause... wow. Brutal.