The Bittersweet Cost Of Trading A Fan Favorite
I have had the pleasure of living in two cites that have NHL hockey teams. Growing up in Chicago with the Blackhawks, and of course living here in South Florida with the Florida Panthers, has made my hockey life extremely pleasant. Except when they lose of course, which goes without saying. With that comes however a loyalty to not only the team that you cheer for, but for players that you come to enjoy and appreciate. Whether it’s watching these players develop and mature, or discovering how much you appreciate the newest addition that’s been added to your teams’ roster, the bottom line is, developing an affection for a player is common among all of us.
Over the past few days there has been some intensified discussion among Florida Panther fans about the future of Stephen Weiss, who has played his entire career with the Panthers, and who last season finally appeared in his first set of playoff games. Weiss who has been under a six year contract that is set to expire at the end of this season, will become a free agent if the Florida Panthers don’t come to terms with the lifelong Panther. The discussion seems to be split amongst the fan base about what to do and why. The NHL trade deadline is April 3rd of this season, coincidentally Weiss’s 30th birthday, and there’s a good amount of people who believe that he’ll be traded either before, or on deadline day. There’s also a number of fans who can’t believe the Panthers existing without Weiss. The Panthers have been known in the past under different leadership to hold on to players too long, and either get nothing or very little in return, such as in the Jay Bouwmeester situation. There are also those who feel that because of Weiss’s loyalty and longevity, he deserves to finish his career here. Or at least be signed to another long term deal. It is some of those same people who also felt that Weiss should have been named the Captain of the team instead of Ed Jovanovski.
I have learned in my life as an astute follower of this sport, just as in any other, that it’s a business. It’s about winning and money. Sometimes it’s only about money. It appears many times that you can’t get one without the other, and in almost every case if you don’t have the cash, you aren’t going to get the wins. It’s a vicious cycle at times, but what appears to be at the heart of this discussion (Weiss) is in relation to what the fans will think or feel if and when he’s traded. Weiss is no stranger to rumors, as his name has been brought up in conversations in at least each of the past three trade deadlines. He has survived those for various reasons. This year, I’m not so sure he will. Which gets us to the reaction of the fan base, and how it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It can’t matter because if a GM or owner worried about what the fans would think and feel before every trade was made, the Green Men from Vancouver would be running the Canucks.
In all my years (don’t’ ask how many), I have seen a number of my favorites either traded away, or allowed to walk via free agency. In one case a player was allowed to “jump” to the WHA. Yes that was when the great Bobby Hull was allowed to leave the Blackhawks and go to the newly formed WHA thanks to dollar Bill Wirtz’s reluctance to sign the NHL superstar. The Windy City from what I can remember at my very young age was in shock. One of the greatest and most exciting players to ever play the game was allowed to go play in a start up league? I remember sitting in a diner discussing it with my Mom at the time, who liked Bobby (everyone did) and almost coming to tears about it. I was just starting to appreciate him and he’s leaving? While his decision, which was up to him ultimately, didn’t immediately affect the Hawks, it did years later as they spent a good portion of the 70′s and part of the 80′s playing some very mediocre hockey. Eventually things began to turn around, and by the mid 80′s the Hawks enjoyed some playoff success again.
Much like the Panthers now, the Blackhawks then were trying to re-brand themselves and compete not only for the playoffs, but for the Stanley Cup. In 1988 Mike Keenan was brought in to help catapult that drive not only as head coach, but shortly after, the dual role of GM as well. After a very quick exit in the first round of the playoffs in1990, Mike did something that rocked the Windy City, but changed the way the Hawks would play for years. On June 29th fan favorite and crowd pleaser (to some), Denis Savard was traded to the Montreal Canadians for defenceman Chris Chelios. A native of Chicago, Chelios would bring his skill, toughness, and snarl to a Blackhawks team that desperately needed it. Again, parts of the city were aghast that Keenan was allowed to pull this off. How could he trade Savvy! Honestly it was a trade that smart hockey fans welcomed and applauded. And very soon everyone else appreciated. The Hawks weren’t going anywhere with Savard at the time, and the addition of Chris Chelios along with budding young superstar Jeremy Roenick, would make this trade appear genius. The Hawks became a force to reckon with in the NHL for almost the next decade, as they were very tough to play against, especially in their home building. Keenan added more players like Chelios, and to a man, if you didn’t play that style of hockey, you didn’t last very long on that team. Even goaltender Eddie Belfour was tough as nails, as he demonstrated often by poking players with his stick if you stood in the crease and blocked his vision. Point is, the trade for Chelios transformed the team, and allowed them to take the next step toward competing for a championship.
However, the Hawks did it again. In August of 1996, due to another contract dispute, the Hawks traded fan favorite, and the heart and soul of the team, Jeremy Roenick to the Phoenix Coyotes for Alex Zhamnov and Craig Mills. This was my favorite player ever, and I flipped. I was livid. If you think I’m negative and insensitive now, you should have heard me then. Once again, it was about money. Money the Hawks didn’t want to pay JR who was only 26 years old at the time, and about to hit his prime. Alexi Zhamnov in my eyes could never do anything right. When he scored a goal, I tried to figure out a way to see if it could be disallowed. When he took a penalty, I tried to see if there was a reason to give him a misconduct for the balance of the game. That’s how furious I was. The fan base was angry and it started another dark era for Chicago, as the Hawks struggled for years with even more fan favorites being traded away.
The three situations in Chicago are similar as much as they are different to the Weiss situation now. Hull and Roenick were about money. Savard was about winning, and his style of play which Keenan felt was too soft. Trust me it was. The spinnaramma’s were nice and cute, but that’s not how Keenan built his teams. The Weiss situation is really about both. On the financial side the cap hit for Weiss is $3.1 million dollars. He is actually making $4.1 million this season. He’s the number one center on this team, and only by default (more on that later). His contract has been very affordable, and his production has pretty much been in line for someone making that kind of money. In the past four seasons he’s hit 57,49,60 and 61 points, all as the team’s top center. While he hasn’t always had quality wingers on his side in three of those years, last year with Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg as his linemates, the production was evident, and without some bumps and bruises that he played with, his numbers could have been higher if he were 100%.
As for his status on the team, through no fault of his own, Weiss is the top center because no one else has been worthy of it, and because no one else was acquired to fill it. Therefore, Weiss has been thrust into that spot, which to be fair to him, isn’t the right choice. He’s honestly better as a number two guy, and on most playoff teams in the league, that’s where you’d find him. Let’s be honest, and I know for some it’s hard because of your affection for him, but his loyalty and longevity don’t parlay into deserving the captaincy, as well as another long-term contract. That may be a tough pill to swallow for some, but portion of the teams future hinges on what happens here.
Weiss as mentioned will be 30 in April. If he were to test the free agent market one wonders what he would find. Difficult to figure since the cap hit and this year’s salary are a million dollars apart, but let’s just look at a few players in the $5 million dollar range or above since I’m sure Weiss expects a raise: Jason Pomminville, Jeff Carter, Tomas Plekanec, Bobby Ryan and James Neal. The first three are close to Weiss’s age, while Ryan and Neal are younger. I did that on purpose so you could compare the costs of that group based on their performance, as well as potential.
So the question becomes then is, as Paige put it a few days ago, do we move on, or do we keep him and re-sign him? If we sign him, it can’t be for more than $4.5 million, and to me that’s a stretch. And it cannot be for a long-term deal. The point production is right where it’s going to be over the next two to three years, at least on this current roster. Which is 50-60 points tops. How much is that worth? And please forget about longevity and loyalty. This isn’t and can’t be about that. If we’re talking about the Panthers being fiscally responsible, this is where they need to show it. In a few years, players like Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and even Quinton Howden will need to be signed to contracts that will keep them here long term. It’s players like that who are the future of this club. That’s not even mentioning Jacob Markstrom, as well as what to do with Peter Mueller after this seaon and Drew Shore as well. While much of this is premature, you have to plan so as not to handcuff yourself down the road. This financial planning is also why I’ve been against trading for Roberto Luongo. That contract could cripple our flexibility.
If the Panthers can put a package together that includes Weiss and another player, and even a draft pick, it’s possible that the return can yield a younger player that can be the goal scoring sniper the organization has been dreaming about since the days of Pavel Bure. No matter what happens in this situation, there will be those that aren’t happy. Whichever “camp” you’re in about this, you need to ask yourself a couple of questions. 1) At what point is too much money too much money? 2) If you’re a team that is trying to build a Stanley Cup contender, who is the player you build around and lock up for the next 5-6 years? If you don’t have him, then don’t you need to go out and get him?
This subject is a delicate one, and everyone has their opinions. The risk is two sided. Signing him to a long term deal could cause future salary cap issues and constraints, as well as making him untradeable. You risk losing him to free agency if you can’t strike a deal which allows him to leave for nothing in return. Neither situation is good, but the result cannot be based on years of service or feelings. It’s not about the gold watch, it’s about the chance of creating an opportunity to improve long term success. The Florida Panthers are in that position now. They haven’t had any “assets” to work with in years.
This is a chance to make a difference for the future, albeit at the expense of a fan favorite, but sometimes you have to do the unpopular to achieve the success you want.
Thank you for reading. We welcome your comments and opinions.
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