Muckler bites bullet

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

John Muckler is not a popular man in Ottawa today.

The Senators general manager pulled off a trade in which he gave away a superb forward for what appears to be a bunch of blue-line prospects, and for the most part, the fans are angry.

Muckler sent Martin Havlat to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday and, in a three-way deal, received Tom Preissing, Josh Hennesy, Michael Barinka and a 2008 second-round draft pick.

On occasions such as these, fans and media trot out the adage that has governed such matters for decades.

BEST PLAYER WINS TRADE

"The team that gets the best player," they intone gravely, "is the team that wins the trade."

Once, that was true. The problem is that the method under which the National Hockey League had operated for decades was changed last summer.

The old values are dead. Trades no longer can be evaluated from the point of view of hockey talent. The owners killed that concept.

Building a top-notch team is now a secondary concern for general managers. The primary concern is to meet the artificial economic standard -- the salary cap. Only when that has been achieved can a team start to worry about its talent.

Muckler is not alone in facing this problem. He's just one of the few that realizes it.

And he's definitely the first to admit it. If you think there were fireworks in New York on July 4, you can only imagine what it was like yesterday when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman read the brutally honest comments Muckler made to Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun.

"The system is making us change," Muckler told Garrioch.

"The system dictates that the players are going to be distributed throughout the league and that's going to bring parity. That's what they tell us. It seems to be working because every team seems to be changing players on a yearly basis. And, if you are a team that has as many elite players as we have, it dictates that you can't keep them all."

It has been suggested by newspaper columnists that the league is in a full-scale churn mode, that fans can support a rebuilding team for years only to see it torn apart by economic pressure once it gets close to the top.

But it's one thing for a columnist to write it. It's another thing altogether for one of hockey's most respected general managers to flat out admit it.

In his interview with Garrioch, Muckler went on to say: "I would just like to see the message sent for the general public to understand what is happening.

"I don't think people understand that a cap system dictates change and trades are going to be done in a different manner now.

"You are not going to see teams receive the compensation that you think they should receive. Sometimes you're not going to trade players because you want to trade players, it's because you have to trade players because you can't afford (their contract) and you have to remove that from your payroll."

FORCED INTO DEAL

Within hours, Muckler traded Havlat with those very considerations coming into play.

Muckler didn't want to give up stars such as Havlat and Zdeno Chara. But the new system forced him to do it.

In the three young players he acquired, he may be able to replace the level of talent that he lost.

But if so, that talent will emerge down the road and by then, he may no longer be able to afford the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza or Dany Heatley.

The new economic system means that on each team, a few players will get the bulk of the money and the rest will fight for the scraps.

By getting some young players for Havlat, Muckler maximized the chance that his cheap young players will be able to make significant contributions.

If Senators fans understood the new NHL order as well as Muckler does, they would be praising him, not vilifying him.


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