Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Arena Chronicles -- Part II -- How We Got Here

In Part I, I provided an overview of the current issue the Blue Jackets face with ongoing operating deficits, the reactions to the initial disclosures, and related tidbits.

This installment focuses on the historical background that got us to this point. In putting this together, I spoke with more people, dug through archived materials and did a lot of reading. My companion piece for Inside Hockey can be found here.

For simplicity's sake, I will approach this chronologically, as the sequence of events is both interesting and significant. Before that, however, we all need a reminder as to the key players in this saga. So, here are the Dramatis Personae:
  • John F. Wolfe, Columbus Dispatch
  • Dimon McFerson, Nationwide
  • John H. McConnell, Worthington Industries
  • John B. McCoy, Banc One
  • E. Gordon Gee, The Ohio State University
  • Ron Pizzuti, Pizzuti Company
  • Greg Lashutka, Columbus
  • Lamar Hunt, Owner, Columbus Crew
  • Pete Karmanos, Jr., Owner, Hartford Whalers (now Carolina Hurricanes)
  • Richard Sheir, political activist
Pre-1994: The efforts that culminated in Nationwide Arena were by no means the first foray into expanded athletic venues for Franklin County. Various arena/coliseum issues had been proposed and rejected by voters in 1978, 1981, 1986 and 1987. So there was a significant historical hurdle of public skepticism to overcome before the campaign ever started.

1994: The long and winding road begins, with three divergent interest groups commencing exploration of possibilities for new revenue-producing facilities in Franklin County. The groups lined up as follows:
  • Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority (FCCFA) -- responsible for the Columbus Convention Center, and supported by a number of key local business moguls, including Pizzuti, Wolfe, McCoy and McFerson, the FCCFA wanted an arena close to the Convention Center to attract more visitors. This bloc also envisioned a professional sports team, likely in the NHL, to put Columbus on the map.

  • Columbus Crew/Lamar Hunt -- in June, the MSL is announced, with Columbus being one of the original ten franchises, owned by Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Dallas MSL franchise. Hunt is focused on public funding for a soccer stadium to host the Crew

  • The Ohio State University -- President E. Gordon Gee and Athletic Director Andy Geiger are looking for an arena of their own, both to replace the fading St. John Arena and to provide a supplemental revenue source to fund the massive facilities expansion they sought for the athletic program.

As the Hunt and FCCFA camps were not strictly in direct competition, they quickly formed an alliance, as the prospect of the professional soccer club could serve as a catalyst for the arena as well. The vision soon transformed into an arena and soccer stadium in the area then occupied by the abandoned Ohio Penitentiary.

The same could not be said for the OSU interest. Clearly the prospect for "dueling arenas" just a few miles apart could be problematic, both in terms of economic viability and saleability to the electorate. So, representatives of what were now two distinct camps conducted a series of negotiations over the summer of 1994, seeking to determine whether a common ground could be found that would satisfy the interests of all concerned. Ron Pizzuti represented the FCCFA interests, and trustee George Skestos represented OSU. By September, the negotiators reported that no agreement appeared possible, and the race was on.

OSU had been lobbying the State Legislature for an appropriation toward the design of their facility, and the 120th General Assembly came through with $15 million, provided the university consulted with the City of Columbus over siting, operations and similar issues. At the same time, the legislature turned down the FCCFA bloc's request for $1 million to peform feasibility studies and such. The state indicated, however, that further funding could be available if local voters passed an income tax to provide local support for the proposed facilities. So, the eventual vote was truly a necessary step to gain significant state participation in the long term funding.

A disputed element involves representations attributed to OSU to the effect that they would not compete with a downtown arena, that an OSU arena would not have luxury suites or other "premium" features, and that no more than 10% of the available dates would be devoted to outside events. OSU denies that there were any binding commitments made to that effect.

1995 -- OSU kicked off the year by beginning a bold advertising campaign, vending seat licenses for the arena and promising premium events for public consumption. The Hunt/FCCFA camp cried "Foul!", and OSU pulled the campaign. Nonetheless, the OSU campaign was in full gear by this point.

In March, the Hunt/FCCFA bloc formally established a ten person committee to study the feasibility of a joint arena/soccer stadium project. The committee submitted its recommendations in November, suggesting that two separate ballot initiatives be placed on the ballot in the Fall of 2006, allowing time for obtaining the 20% private financing the Franklin County Commissioners were going to require as a prerequisite for a ballot initiative. This would also provide enough time for a proper campaign in favor of the two facilities.

1996 -- Activity kicks into high gear for the OSU effort and the downtown arena/stadium proponents. Early contact with the NHL (specifically Gary Bettman), gave the downtown proponents cause for optimism that an NHL franchise could land in Columbus. This led to the formation of Columbus Hockey Limited, consisting of Pizzuti, Wolfe, McConnell, Hunt and Jay Schottenstein, with some participating through companies they owned or managed. Ameritech also participated at this stage.

In the meantime, Ohio State broke ground on the Schottenstein Center on April 2. The NHL formally announced the availability of four expansion franchises on June 15. On November 1, 2006, Columbus Hockey Limited submitted the $100,000 application fee to the NHL, formally placing Columbus in the expansion team sweepstakes.

By year end, the private financing required to secure a ballot slot had been committed. Bank One pledged $35 million, in exchange for naming rights for the new Arena. Nationwide added $17.5 million to the pot, while Worthington Industries committed $5 million toward the initial arena effort. Lamar Hunt was tabbed as the manager of the combined stadium/arena effort.

As 1996 came to a close, few of the participants could have imagined the bizzare twists and turns that 1997 would bring.

1997 -- January kicked off the year on a positive note, as Columbus Hockey Limited made its initial presentation to the NHL, which, by all accounts, was well received. However, more serious decisions needed to be made -- decisions that would ultimately determine how the entire Arena campaign would be waged.

Specifically, CHL needed to decide whether to include both the arena and the soccer stadium in a single voter initiative, or pursue separate ballot measures, as the original task force had suggested. Next, they had to decide whether to go to the voters in the fall of 2007, or accelerate the process and go before the voters in the Spring.

Complicating the situation was the fact that the NHL established May 9, 1997 for the official awarding of the expansion franchises. There were fears that not having a decisive arena commitment would jeopardize the franchise bid, and further concern that a crowded Fall ballot could distract and divide the electorate. Accordingly, in early February, CHL decided to present a unified ballot proposition to the voters, covering both the arena and the soccer stadium, and to do it in the Spring. On February 18, the Franklin County Commissioners voted unanimously to place the initative, to be known as Issue 1, on the May 6 ballot. The battle was on, and only ten weeks remained to convince an electorate that had a track record of defeating similar measures. The difference this time, however, was the very real prospect of a true professional hockey team as the prime tenant.

From stage left enters Richard Sheir, a then-local political acitivist who made a living stirring up opposition to public spending projects that he believed not to be the proper subject of tax dollars. He led opposition to $200 million in parks spending in the northeast section of the state, various other arena/stadium initiatives and generally served as a thorn in the side of governments and their agencies around the state. In Columbus, he found a fertile feeding ground for a strange mix of liberals and conservatives, ranging from environmentalists/preservationists who feld the Pen site was inappropriate to anti-tax, anti-government zealots, to die-hard OSU football fans who apparently believed either than another sport could not possibly succeed, or that an NHL franchise posed an undesireable threat to Buckeye Nation.

Although the local media charcterized the opposition as "ragtag", Sheir was very good at striking nerves among voter segments who perceived themselves to be disaffected. Columbus was particularly good for such an effort, as its historical annexation initiatives had ballooned the city's size to 191 square miles, with 45% of the metropolitan population residing in the city itself. Demographically, that urban core is more likely to oppose public spending and taxation not directly attributable to benefit programs. In contrast, Cincinnati and Cleveland, who both were successful in obtaining public backing for stadium and arena efforts, each occupy approximately 77 square miles, with only 22%-23% residing in the core city. (Shortly after the campaign, Sheir decamped for the more politically friendly confines of Montpelier, Vermont)

With only a short time to shape public opinion, the arena/stadium proponents made the intriguing decision to have OSU President E. Gordon Gee lead the public relations campaign in favor of Issue 1. While one can certainly appreciate the logic of appearing to present a united front, even as the framing of the Schott neared completion, this was a curious step, and one that proved to border on disasterous. Gee's tepid commercials played poorly on the public stage, and it appeared clear that his heart was not in it. When the Columbus City Council condition performance of infrastructure improvements on a positive vote for Issue 1, Gee's wife penned an acerbic Letter to the Editor in the Dispatch, which most viewed as hurting the effort.

As March turned to April, conventional wisdom had the issue as a close one, with the opponents likely sporting a slight lead. Enter Peter J. Karmanos, Jr., the Chairman of Detroit-based Compuware Corporation and the owner of the NHL Hartford Whalers. Pete breezed into town in April, professing substantial interest in relocating his club to Columbus, and apparently willing to have the team play in temporary quarters, including an aircraft hangar, while an arena plan could be formulated. In response, Hunt presented a Letter of Intent to the FCCFA, promising to execute a 25 year lease for both the stadium and arena, pay rent of $3 million, and guaranteed profits of $200,000 per year for the full term of the lease, in exchange for 100% of the revenues from each of the venues.

Of course, Karmanos vanished as quickly as he appeared, having persuaded the folks in Raleigh that he could take his club anywhere, and obtaining further concessions for what would soon become the Carolina Hurricanes. The net impact on the campaign, however, was devastating. The electorate, already skeptical over theoretical promises of franchises that did not exist or were in their infancy (the Crew had just played its first season in Ohio Stadium), now had the impression that Columbus was the rope in a tug of war game between Kansas City's Hunt and Detroit/Hartford's Karmanos. Despite the further promise of urban revitalization, polls took a nosedive. Hunt confided in Bettman that if Issue 1 failed, he was done with the Columbus effort.

Predictably, Issue 1 failed, 56.3% against to 43.7% in favor. However, amid the gloom of the election night results, two heros emerged from the ashes: Dimon McFerson and Mr. Mac. Both shared the belief that an NHL franchise, and a first-class arena, were the logical next step for a city they both loved. Even before the vote, Mr. Mac had told Bettman that, even if the issue failed, they would find a way to get the deal done.

McFerson saw opportunity in the wake of defeat. He flew to New York immediately after the election and met with NHL officials, outlining the skeleton of a plan to build an arena with private funds. Seeing merit in his approach, and already knowing that McConnell was on board, the NHL delayed the final decision on the new franchises until June 25. They warned McFerson that a signed lease would be essential for a successful bid.

With a bit more time, McFerson got to work. He sketched out the things he would need, outlined the terms of a lease, and got the wheels in motion. The framework was presented to Hunt, who did not respond. With no time for indecsion or gamesmanship, McFerson counted McConnell and Wolfe as principal allies. While McFerson finalized his effort to get necessary cooperation from the City, working closely with Mayor Lashutka, who shared the vision, McConnell set up COLHOC, another limited partnership, and JMAC Hockey, to serve as the managing partner for COLHOC, should it become necessary. By this point, Bank One had pulled out, taking its $35 million out of the pot.

On June 2, McFerson's proposal was put before the Columbus City Council. They key points were as follows:

  • City to provide street, access and other infrastructure improvements
  • City to do any necessary cleanup of Penitentiary site
  • Nationwide to get 10 year lease of development site, with option to purchase
  • Development area to be declared a "blighted area", enabling FCCFA to use eminent domain to acquire necessary parcels, which would then be leased to developers for 99 years
  • Extended tax abatement for properties developed

With some minor amendments to insure continued revenue to school districts, the City Council approved the plan. Pressed to climb on board, or at least make a decision one way or the other, Hunt, who died in 2006, demurred, predicting that the lease would result in $25 million annual losses for the term of the lease. Thereafter, he personally funded the $28.5 million cost to build the existing Crew Stadium.

Feeling that they were free of Hunt's involvement, the Columbus contingent re-crafted the NHL application, submitting it on behalf of COLHOC and JMAC Hockey. Mr. Mac signed the lease based solely on McFerson indicating that it was a fair deal. To the day he died, he claimed never to have read the lease.

On June 4, 1997, McConnell submitted the signed lease and revised application to the NHL, and on June 25, the NHL formally awarded conditional expansion franchises to Columbus, Atlanta, Nashville and Minnesota. Mr. Mac took the offensive and filed a declaratory relief action in Franklin County, seeking to establish that Hunt had no interest in the franchise. Hunt countered with a lawsuit of his own against the NHL, Nationwide and COLHOC in New York. The local heros prevailed in both cases, and the rest, as they say, is history.


To those who are looking for villains, it is a difficult search. We are where we are today due in part to some villainy, true, but overwhelmingly due to some well-intended decisions and actions that did not pan out, some unforseeable intervening events, and, ironically, to the very heroism that brought the Blue Jackets to Columbus.

Sure, Karmanos was working solely for himself, and the timing could not have been worse. Business is business, and Karmanos had no reason to show any loyalty to Columbus. The locals could have done a better job of pointing that out at the time, but hindsight is great.

Hunt assumed the role of both hero and goat. He brought the MSL to Columbus, but spearheaded some bad decisions, such as combining the arena and stadium initiatives, and delayed at key times in the process. Still considered an outsider, the fact that he was perceived as the leader of the effort, combined with the confusion injected by another outsider, Karmanos, fed the already existing paranoia of the electorate.

Gee and OSU did little to help the situation, but it is also tough to characterize them as true villains in the scheme of things. As one expert phrased it -- "Columbus is a "B" market with two Class "A" facilities." Very true. Columbus is not on the prime circuit of New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco for concerts, plays, etc. It is up and coming, but still not in the "A" league. Both facilities do reasonably well in terms of attracting outside events, with neither one holding a clear advantage. It is doubtful, however, that either arena could host all of the OSU, Blue Jacket, Destroyers and other functions. So we are really caught in the middle in terms of supply and demand.

Lashutka was also right in assessing the impact of the Dot Com collapse, 9/11 and the NHL work stoppage. At a point in time when you are trying to build interest, develop cohesion and bring economic revitalization, such events stall progress and set back younger franchises far more than established clubs.

Nationwide was put in a box. Sure, it gained some concessions in terms of tax relief, and preferential ability to acquire the involved properties, but it also assumed all of the risk , not only for the Arena, but for the Arena District as a whole. The $35 million for naming rights from Bank One was significant, but ultimately represented a small part of the ultimate funding. Contrast this with the S.F. Giants ballpark, where almost half of the cost was covered by the naming rights. (The Giants also own the ballpark, unlike the Jackets). Nationwide is not a charity, folks. It needed to appropriate things like the naming rights, some luxury suites, and other revenue sources to make the initial construction viable. Without McFerson and Nationwide, there is no Nationwide Arena and no Blue Jackets franchise.

Bottom line is this: there is a very good reason that there are no other arenas in professional sports that were privately built and privately operated. Arenas are more expensive, per square foot, than a stadium. They are vulnerable to economic downturns. However, they are also essential to the modern city, as the revenue they bring to the community more than compensates for the cost. However, those resultant benefits are seen by the community and the other businesses, not private owners.

In 1997, the voters were asked to buy a dream -- an NHL franchise that may or may not have been awarded -- an Arena District that may or may not appear -- a soccer stadium for a franchise and league that may or may not prosper. The Columbus electorate is cynical on its best day, but asking them to go for so many unknowns, seemingly run by outsiders, was ultimately too much.

Today, we know that the hockey operation is sound, that the Arena District flourishes, and the economic impact is far beyond anything represented to the voters. The hockey team is on the rise, is firmly under local control, and is attracting increasing interest. The time is ripe for that public-private partnership to go forward. The City simply cannot afford to lose the Blue Jackets, the Arena or the District.

Fortunately, there are lots of viable options for a solution to the Blue Jackets problem. In the scheme of things, the gap to be narrowed is not huge, and there is a will to get it done from all sides. In the final installment, I will examine these options and where we are in finding a long term solution.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

OK, Maybe A Slight Chance I Was Wrong --- Methot Signs

Per Aaron Portzline, the CBJ have reached agreement with RFA Defenseman Mark Methot, agreeing to a 2 year deal worth a total of $2.025 million.

The CBJ keep their record intact of never having gone all the way to arbitration, and Methot basically doubles his salary.

While nice to have this locked up for now, I am leery of Methot and his attitude. If he sticks around (i.e not part of a trade), I hope his performance merits the increase.

Bad News Blackhawks???

ESPN is reporting that Marian Hossa, the 30 year old winger who just signed a 12 year, 62.8 million contract with Chicago, is nursing a shoulder injury and that surgery may yet be an option. No details on the nature of the injury, but the Blackhawks say that they were aware of the injury before they signed him, and are 'closely monitoring' the situation.

I bet they are . . .

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Updated Schedule Miscellany

OK, now having had the chance to look at it in some depth, I offer the following added observations (and some corrections):

  • Actual number of back-to-backs is 12, not 7. Eyes are failing as I get older, I guess . . . Still, a big improvement over the 20 from last year. Half of these fall on Mon/Tues, and some are not "bad" --i.e. home vs. Blues, @ Chicago; home vs. Wild, @ Nashville.
  • First ten games will be a test, with San Jose, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary (twice) and Anaheim. Also have LA twice, Phoenix and Minnesota. 7 of these on the road, so 5 -5 or 6 - 4 in this stretch would be huge.
  • By the completion of Game 24, we will have 14 of our 41 road games out of the way, including our worst two stretches (the opening 7 of 10 and the 5 game trip in early November). If we are close on Thanksgiving night, we are in good shape!
  • Not great pickings for those interested in road trips (at least weekend road trips) -- isolated Saturday games in Nashville, St. Louis, Detroit, Minnesota and Sunday games in Washington and Chicago.
  • Conversely, 19 of the 41 home games fall on Friday (5), Saturday (12) or Sunday (2) -- should be great for attendance.
  • We play Detroit once in November, twice in December, then three times in April. That can be viewed either positive or negative, depending how you want to view it. Again, by April we better have a solid playoff spot sewn up!!

Again, this is a solid schedule, particularly in light of this being an Olympic year, when I would have expected more back-to-backs. Early challenges and lots of home cooking down the stretch. Promises to be fun!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Schedule Is Out!!!!

Well, the regular season schedule is out, and I have just had a chance to review it a few minutes. However, based upon quick review, it is more favorable than last year in many respects. Here are some highlights:
  • Only 7 back to backs, as opposed to 20 last year (somewhat surprising, given that this is an Olympic year)
  • Worst road trips come early -- we play 7 out of 9 on the road from October 5 through October 25, including a 3 game west coast swing and 4 game western Canada tour. Longest single trip is 5 games, from November 19 through 26.
  • Best Home Stands: We have 6 straight in Nationwide from February 4 through March 2, leading into and emerging from the Olympic break. We play 7 out of 10 at home from March 11 through 30 -- nice to have in the stretch run.
  • Interesting Visitors: Pittsburgh October 30, Carolina November 7, Toronto December 3 and Washington April 3

Generally good news, I think. More to come, but first gander is positive.

Go Jackets!!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nice Piece On Nash Signing

Check this piece out for some nice words from Rick on Columbus, the contract, etc. Good stuff!

Monday, July 13, 2009

I'm Baaaaack!!!

Invigorated from 8 days of R & R, I am ready to attack the blogosphere with vim, vigor and vengeance.

So I missed my prediction of the Nash re-signing by 2 hours . . . got the word via Twitter as I got off the plane in Ft. Lauderdale. I actually thought that there would be a few years more on the term, and a higher average, but this represents a very nice middle ground for all concerned. The contract covers the prime of Nash's career, puts him solidly in the upper echelon of forwards in the NHL in terms of earnings, and provides him with some protection from the cap dip expected next year. The Jackets can breathe a sigh of relief for awhile, have budgetary predictability, as well as room to take care of their younger players. Kudos to all sides for sitting down and getting this done. Next time, let's try and avoid the hysteria . . .

As many predicted, last week was fairly quiet on the FA front. I expect this week will bring some more activity, as just a tinge of desperation will be creeping into some quarters. Started to see that last week with a couple of goalie signings.

My sources tell me that there have been "a few" conversations between the Jackets and the agent for Phillipe Boucher. While not a long term solution, he could come in for a couple of years at a reasonable number and provide some good all-around blue line work. He is a good guy, and would fit in well with the organization. Talks are not deemed "serious" yet, but we shall see. Trade talks are also continuing, with Dallas one of the franchises in the mix.

Another week without either Malhotra or Williams signing is hopeful. I don't think Manny's pride would let him come back here, as I don't think he wants to battle Pahlsson for the 3rd line center slot. Williams is another story. I know that word on the street is that Hitch doesn't like Williams work ethic, but give him a full season with the system. Sign for 1 year with a team option for a second year. He can shoot the puck -- a skill we lack.
More on the Arena issue and lots of miscellaneous stuff as the week progresses. Good to be back!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Vacation Beckons . . .

I had been hoping to have installment two of the Arena Saga up by now, but the draft, free agency, and the Rick Nash brouhaha got in my way, and that darn work stuff did the same.

So, I am off for 8 days of vacation with the family, heading to Ft. Lauderdale, Cozumel, Costa Rica and Panama. Probably no hockey games to watch there, but we will get more than our share of sunshine.

Back online next Sunday night. In the meantime, I will Twitter any news I come across on Nash or other events.

Cheers & Happy 4th of July!!!!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Progress Reported

Per Aaron Portzline on Twitter:

"CBJ makes progress toward contract extension with Rick Nash, but no deal likely tonight"

Good to hear!! I am still sticking with my prediction for a deal by the time of the Red, White & Boom parade tomorrow.

Step Away From The Ledge People . . .

The key signings of Sammy Pahlsson and Mathieu Garon were unfortunately overshadowed last night with the dislcosure that Rick Nash was "disappointed" with the package the Blue Jackets put out as their initial offer. The responses have ranged from disdain for Nash's comments and severely taking him to taks, to roasting Howson over the coals for insulting our captain and not doing what is necessary to close out a deal. Both reactions are off base here, so before we get to the signings, let's look at the Nash situation more closely.

Up to now, the Nash courtship had been a pure love fest. Nash, his agent and Howson were all making wonderfully upbeat comments and indicating how much they all respected and loved each other, the team, the coaches, the fans and anybody else in the neighborhood. They were one step short of sending out a communique calling for World Peace . . . That is great, and is probably an indication of where everybody is in their hearts, but until yesterday, it was all theoretical. Now, numbers and years have to be matched with team goals, individual aspirations and economic realities. That, folks, is an entirely different reality. Not necessarily a bad one, but a reality nonetheless.

First, we do not know what offer the CBJ put out there, other than the reports that it was 5 years. Nash probably sees himself as an $8 million player, aso anything short of $40 million over the 5 years was probably a disappointment, particularly when he sees the Rangers paying Gaborik an average of $7.5 million. (Rick, it's the Rangers, OK? You can't use the Rangers or the Knicks as a standard here) The CBJ were probably closer to $35 million, looking at the Sedins signing for $6.1, Hossa for an average of $5.23 and Iginla making about $7 million right now. Sure, Hossa's contract is front-loaded, but overall something between $7 mill and $7.5 mill would appear to be in the ballpark.

The essential problem here is that there are too many options, and presenting any one option makes it look like you have excluded others. Nash is 25, so would appear to be ripe for a 10 year deal. However, if you present that, Nash might feel you are trying to pin him down for too long. It's not only about salary, it is all about cap space. The cap will go down significantly next year, in all likelihood, so the Jackets are trying to stay close now. The might well be thinking about going lower now, and balooning toward the end. Going longer also creates flexibility. Ohlund's contract with Tampa is 7 years, $24.5 million. However, $22.5 million gets paid in the first 5 years. So, for that period, even though he will receive $4.5 million, the cap hit is only $3.5 million. That extra million can get you a third or fourth line player. So, don't let any perceived gap in numbers stress you out. I suspect that the sides are far closer than we think -- they just need to agree on the length and the cap hit features.

Turning to the intangibles, keep in mind that these types of negotiations are as ritualistic as you can get. The language of contract negotiation is almost as formalistic as diplomacy. When the local ambassador says that "We object to the actions of in the strongest possible terms", they are basically saying that the missles are on the way. Same thing applies here.

Look closely at what Nash said. Virtually everything was couched in an "if" statement, and he used "we" a lot. Example:

"If this doesn’t happen in the next week, and we can’t hit a number where we’re both satisfied and we both feel it’s fair … if they want me that bad, they’ll get it done"

He said that things did not line up as he expected, and that if a deal isn't done, he wouldn't have a problem getting signed next summer. Well, duhhh . . . hardly a threat folks, just a statement of fact.

Nash had to say something in this ritualistic dance, just as a reminder to the Blue Jackets that he might provide a loyalty discount, but still wants market value. Portzline is right -- Nash holds the cards here -- and he needed to publicly remind the Jackets of that fact. However, this was as gentle a reminder a possible. Look at what he did not say -- he did not throw out ultimatums, call the offer insulting or otherwise throw gas on the fire. To the contrary, his language was soft, direct and he even threw some tidbits out there to indicate where they are. ". . .in the next week" is a pretty clear indication that he wants to get something done soon, and get back to playing hockey. He is not taking his toys and going home.

Look at what his agent said last night, if you need any further confirmation:

“This is part of the process. . . We’ve begun, and we’ll continue to work through and reach an agreement.”

Doesn't sound threatening to me . . . Remember, it is difficult to throw the first offer out in any negotiation, particularly when options abound. Resnick will be providing a counter-offer today, and then we will have the boundaries of the playing field. Barring a demand for an $11 million dollar contract, things are likely to move fairly quickly at that point. All a part of the game, folks.

By the way, Howson gets an A- for the Pahlsson and Garon signings yesterday. They obviously had Pahlsson targeted, and got their man. Garon is a better goalie in the clutch than his numbers would indicate, and I have had him as my backup goalie for the Jackets on NHL '09 for awhile now. ;-) Seriously, though -- these are good solid moves, and the minus comes for possibly overpaying for Pahlsson a bit. A very good start to the off-season however, with the draft and Day 1 of free agency. More to come tonight.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Free Agency, Rich Nash, Phoenix & Other Musings

July 1, and a young man's heart turns to thoughts of . . . lots and lots of cash.

2 hours and 13 minutes until the annual feeding frenzy known as free agency formally begins, but indications are that this will be a much leaner meal than in years past. Economic conditions, the prospect of a drastically reduced salary cap next year, and several teams with substantial cap difficulties all point to a measured and muted free agency season.

Need confirmation? First, the NBA Free Agent season started at midnight, and you can hear the crickets chirping in the silence. Second, Calgary successfully inked a deal with Jay Bouwmeester for 5 years, $33.4 million. While not chump change, this was not the stratospheric number that many were expecting/fearing. Compare it to Brian Campbell's 8 year, $56.8 million deal with Chicago, and it seems downright reasonable. He is signing for just about what Wayne Redden signed for with the Rangers last year (and ask NY fans how that turned out . . . ) While you can debate (with some justification) whether the talent for Jay Bo equals the hype, he was the #2 overall draft choice behind our own Rick Nash, and has the perception of being a premier player. When it comes to contracts, perception is reality. The fact that this one came in within the bounds of reason is a sign that the dollars will not be flowing large come Noon.

This climate is perfect for our own Scott Howson, who is the epitome of patience. Make no mistake, this free agent season will be frustrating for the fans, as we may not see much early action. However, the opportunities abound for some bargains from the teams that have overspent. When all is said and done, either via free agency or trade, I expect that we will see five new faces in the lineup come the start of the season -- 2 defenseman, 1 center, 1 winger and a new backup goalie. My gut tells me that Manny is gone, as the perception gap is just too great, and another club will be enticed by his faceoff record. I have a hunch that Jason Williams might find his way back into the fold, however. He is a good shooter (which we need), and his stock is not sufficiently high, compared to the other forwards available, to attract a huge dollar deal. I think we may see two existing faces move on via trade, but I am now way out on a limb. Expect a backup goalie early in the process.

The Nash Watch -- Contrary to the aspirations of every Toronto Maple Leafs fan, the early indications are that Rick will be staying put. Howson was in Toronto yesterday, doing a big presentation for Nash and his agent on the direction of the club and his role going forward. Everyone is saying all of the right things, and the Jay Boumeester deal did not launch the price out of the ballpark. Nash likely has two offers sitting on his table right now, one shorter term (3 -5 year) one long term (10 year or so). Howson seems willing to pony up the cash, and Rick loves being the big fish in the relatively small pond. Nash is not a glitzy, grab the limelight guy, and the microscope of Toronto has little lure for him. Besides, the organization in Toronto is a train wreck right now. Not the situation you want to dive into. Number 61 stays.

Phoenix Phollies -- Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of both the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox, has put up a $148 million offer to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and keep them in Glendale. Gary Bettman and the NHL are backing this play, and are falling all over themselves in praising Reinsdorf and his ability to turn the franchise around. Not so fast . . . First, Reinsdorf is banking on Glendale renegotiating the lease -- something they have refused to do thus far, even after the NHL put big pressure on them. Secondly, and most importantly, Jerry's offer is $64.5 million short of the Balsillie offer. Keep in mind that whatever the NHL likes, this is a bankruptcy court proceeding, and Judge Baum's primary duty is to look after the best interests of the creditors. Sure, the City of Glendale is a prime creditor, but the Reinsdorf offer is taking a lot of cash off the table. Expect pressure to up the ante significantly to get court approval.

Draft Overview -- Scott Howson showed his acument and flexibility during this one, ultimately gaining a defenseman that nobody figured would be available to the CBJ without them trading up substantially from their original slot at number 16. Who knows how things will ultimately turn out, but the crop he brought in looks solid. The pundits give him full marks for the draft, and I have no reason to disagree.

The Draft Party at Nationwide was well attended and fun. Great job in having Umberger, Boll and Mason around and so accessible. The formal autograph lines were massive, but that is to be expected. Mike Todd did a nice job keeping things flowing, and the locker room tours, etc. were a nice touch. A few irritations to note for future events: 1) Put in at least one more food area on the floor, or open up a couple of the concession stands. Lines were ridiculous until late in the game, and many folks left early for that reason. 2) The broadcast coordination was reallly poor. The broadcasters did a great job, but the cutting back and forth to the live feed from Montreal was awful, and folks missed some key moments. 3)Why did we show the first period of Game 4 vs. Detroit on the big screen over and over? It looped back at least twice. Why not show the third period, which was the most exciting period in Blue Jackets history?

USA Hockey -- Thumbs down for snubbing R.J. Umberger, who has shown that he is a big game player over the past two years. He may yet get invited, as injury or lack of interest dwindle the ranks, but this was a bad miss for USA Hockey.

Stay tuned, more to come.