New NHL a poker game

AL STRACHAN

, Last Updated: 3:10 AM ET

Leave it to Bob Clarke to shake up the managerial love-in that has long afflicted the National Hockey League.

But donít be deluded into thinking this was just another Clarkeian lightning bolt destined to grab a headline or two and disappear ó like his shots at the Lindros family or his own coach.

This time, Clarke has stirred some normally placid waters by having the nerve to act as if the purpose of running a hockey team is to win games, not friends.

Clarke offered $1.9 million US for one year to 22-year-old Ryan Kesler, a 10-goal scorer last season. Finally, on Thursday, the Vancouver Canucks matched the offer, forced to pay Kesler twice what they originally had offered.

ďThis just isnít done,Ē sniffed some GMs, mightily upset that they may be forced to think once in a while.

But this much is certain. By next season, some of these GMs will be doing the same thing. In fact, if it werenít for the fact that this yearís free-agent market is all but depleted, a few of them would jump on the bandwagon right now.

This wasnít an isolated Clarke brain warp. This was a calculated stratagem that will become a standard part of NHL life.

The point has been made before, but it deserves being made again and again because it hasnít sunk in.

This is a new National Hockey League. Economic factors trump hockey factors. You donít trade a defenceman for a forward any more; you trade a contract for a contract.

What Clarke did was totally within the rules and merely a precursor of what is to come in the NHL. Itís just as important to beat the other teams on the economic front as it is on the ice.

Years ago, in the old game, smart GMs used to put their competitorsí feet to the fire by making deals.

The Montreal Canadiensí Sam Pollock, for instance, virtually handed Ralph Backstrom to the Los Angeles Kings in 1971 because the Kings were in a tailspin and threatening to finish last. If they did, they would get the first draft pick.

Pollock owned the first pick of the California Seals, the team the Kings were threatening to supplant. So Backstrom boosted the Kings; the Seals finished last and Pollock used their pick to take Guy Lafleur.

Or this one: In 1973, the Boston Bruins, who were almost as good as the Canadiens, finally were on the verge of solving their goaltending problems. They were going to draft sixth, and all of the five teams in front of them ó New York Islanders, Atlanta, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal ó were comfortable with their goaltending.

It seemed certain that the Bruins were going to get hotshot rookie John Davidson, make a run at the Canadiens, and have a very good chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

So Pollock traded his pick to the St. Louis Blues, who definitely did need a goalie, and by the time the Bruins got their sixth pick, Davidson was gone.

Those two were classics, but GMs have pulled off variations of those moves ever since. In the new NHL, however, those games will be replaced by economic games.

Is a team close to the cap? Then make an offer that pushes their GM right to the brink. Force him to give up a player he wants to keep.

Can a team afford to keep its nucleus in place only if each player settles for $4 million? Then bid $5 million for one of them. Or maybe $6 million.

It requires some nifty planning of your own. And some skills that might be better suited to poker. A bluff can be as devastating as a genuine bid.

But this is what the NHL has become. The Collective Bargaining Agreement was designed to allow every nondescript team to put the boots to successful teams such as the Flyers. Now Clarke has kicked back ó using their own rules.

They donít like it, but it wonít be long before theyíre doing the same thing. Itís the new NHL.


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