Canucks in tough spot with Bertuzzi's contract

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:03 AM ET

The debate is raging in Vancouver. Someone must be sacrificed to the hockey gods to appease them after the Canucks missed the playoffs. Who is it to be?

Coach Marc Crawford has been on shaky ground for a long time, but general manager Dave Nonis ignored the advice of his confidantes and kept him on. He may not feel comfortable doing so for much longer.

Nonis himself probably is safe for a while. He inherited Crawford and likely will be given a chance to make amends with his own man behind the bench.

Markus Naslund is seen as too great a talent to discard haphazardly, but there are many fans who think Todd Bertuzzi has to be shipped out.

The problem with that solution is that it's easier to say than to do.

Thanks to a sweetheart deal approved by former general manager Brian Burke (one of the main reasons Burke was let go) Bertuzzi will earn almost $5.3 million US next year.

If there's one lesson GMs have learned from their first year of exposure to the salary cap, it is that to be successful, you must get value from your high-salaried players.

The Boston Bruins, with Alexei Zhamnov, Brian Leetch and Glen Murray all earning more than $4 million, did not. The Chicago Blackhawks, with Adrian Aucoin at $4 million and Nikolai Khabibulin at $6.75 million, did not. The New York Islanders, with Alexei Yashin at $7.6 million and Miroslav Satan at $4 million, did not.

So why would a GM take a $5.3 million player when he's a gamble, as Bertuzzi certainly is?

And if a GM were to say, "I'll take Bert's big tab but you've got to take back a couple of $2 million stiffs I'm trying to unload," why would Nonis do it?

He'd be getting rid of a player who has shown that he can be great in return for two players who are nothing more than excess baggage, and saving only $1.5 million or so in the process.

In the new NHL, hockey skills rank a distant second to contractual status when it comes to making deals. And with the legacy of Bertuzzi's contract that Burke left behind, Nonis is shackled.

FREE AT LAST

Even though Bryan McCabe is the highest-profile Group 3 (unrestricted) free agent on the Maple Leafs, the team will have to make some difficult decisions regarding other players in the same boat.

Or they might have their decisions made for them if the player goes elsewhere while the Leafs dither.

Chad Kilger, for instance, has been one of the bright spots in the team's otherwise mediocre season, but his contributions have not gone unnoticed around the rest of the league. If the Leafs want him back, they'll have to go far beyond the $475,000 he received this year.

Eric Lindros would like to return, but under the new collective-bargaining agreement, contracts with games-played bonuses are something of a millstone.

The Leafs were expecting half a season from Lindros but they got only 33 games. If they can get him at a bargain-basement price, fine, but he won't be high on their list of priorities.

Jason Allison and Ed Belfour will almost certainly be allowed to makes deals elsewhere. Aki Berg probably will return to Finland and Alexander Khavanov will go on the open market.

And there's Clarke Wilm, a much more useful player than he was allowed to be in Toronto. He earned the mandated minimum of $450,000 and probably can command more that that -- but not a lot more -- in another market.

The Leafs also have a Group 6 free agent that some fans see as a player of the future. That's John Pohl.

Because he's 25 with three pro seasons but fewer than 80 NHL games, he's unrestricted. Considering the changing priorities of general managers, a fast forward with some scoring skills becomes more attractive than he might have been in the clutch-and-grab era.

WILD AFFAIR

Still on the subject of contracts, which is, unfortunately, a way of life in the new artificially regulated NHL, there's an intriguing situation brewing in Minnesota.

The Wild, a team which understandably doesn't want to spend much money because it may have an unsold seat some day, must try to come to terms with Marian Gaborik.

He's winding down a three-year deal that paid him roughly $3.2 million a season, but anyone who has seen him play knows that he is an elite player along the lines of Ilya Kovalchuk ($6.5 million).

If the Wild doesn't come up with a long-term offer Gaborik likes, he can elect to go to arbitration and get a one-year deal which, based on his performance this year, would be lucrative.

Had he not missed the first 17 games of the season, he would have been a 50-goal scorer, and even in the new NHL, such people don't come cheaply.

Furthermore, if he elects for arbitration, he becomes an unrestricted fee agent the following year and it's goodbye Minnesota.

Said Wild GM Doug Risebrough: "Players have to make a choice between balancing financial, personal and team objectives. If you're going to have success, players have to make sacrifices in those areas."

Translation: "We're going to try to convince him to play here for a lot less than he's worth."

Naturally enough, Gaborik has had his differences with Wild coach Jacques Lemaire.

"Gabby found a way to play with the new rules that is different than the style I want all the guys to play," Lemaire said. "He's strictly offence. I've tried to make him a two-way player, and I think he can do it. But I don't think he wants to do it."

There's probably some truth to Lemaire's observations, but then again, think back to the previous item. One-goal scorer Clarke Wilm, who is excellent defensively and would delight Lemaire, is playing for the minimum.


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