Optimists might have found some comfort looking at the future of hockey in the U.S. during the NHL Draft this weekend -- if only because reality had not set in.
|Is free agent Paul Kariya going to stick around in Nashville or will he go elsewhere? (Getty Images)|
Interpreting that as a positive for the game in this country would be fair, and it should have been the dominant story of what was an otherwise non-descript two-day conclave. Instead, it was overshadowed by the plight of the Nashville Predators and the problem they represent for the NHL's effort to cement itself in the American sports landscape.
Nashville's tenuous future as an NHL market hung over everything else at the draft, which was anticipated more for potential major trades than for the draft class. Few deals of consequence actually materialized, although the biggest one involved the Predators, who sent 30-year-old goalie Tomas Vokoun to Florida for a package of picks, including a first-rounder next year.
Vokoun, who is under contract for four more seasons and has been Nashville's No. 1 since the first year of the franchise in 1998, was the third key player moved this week by the Predators, although GM David Poile insisted it was not in a fire-sale mode, even after admitting that pending free agents Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell were traded earlier to the Flyers because Nashville couldn't afford them anymore.
Yet all those moves took a back seat to the turn of events concerning the team sale that took place during the first round, when Nashville owner Craig Leipold said he had asked the NHL Board of Governors to refrain from processing Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie's bid to buy the Predators until he received a binding offer from the Blackberry mogul.
Balsillie has offered Leipold at least $220 million, a significant premium on the value of the franchise, but he has made little secret of his intention to move it to Canada, a no-no in the minds of many governors and in particular, it seems, commissioner Gary Bettman. So while Balsillie has effectively raised the value of everyone's franchise with his over-the-top bid, his brazen actions -- including acquiring the management rights to the arena in Hamilton, Ontario, and launching a ticket-sales drive that has already exceeded Nashville's total -- are not helping him.
But they're not stopping him either. While Leipold's move was initially interpreted as ending Balsillie's latest attempt to get into the NHL -- he tried to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins last season but backed out when he was told the condition of sale would remain a commitment not to move -- the Predators owner said he is still interested in making a deal. Leipold's request was that the governors hold off on their due diligence of Balsillie, which seems to be a lark because it was already done early in the season when the bid was made for the Penguins.
The governors know the guy has the money, so the issue now is Balsillie making a binding offer, which he apparently hasn't because it would require the same type of non-relocation commitment as the Pittsburgh bid did. But that doesn't help Leipold or the franchise, which arrived in Nashville nine seasons ago and has sustained heavy losses, including some $27 million over the last two years.
The Predators have a good individual fan base in Nashville, but critical corporate support is almost non-existent in a market where the Tennessee Titans and major college teams eat up the sponsorship dollars, and a move for the team seems inevitable.
There was a previous offer of about $170 million from a group looking to move the team to a brand new arena in Kansas City, but the head of that group, William "Boots" Del Biaggio III, told the Nashville Tennessean Friday that he's out of the running. A local group is apparently trying to raise $110 million in equity and to borrow the rest to buy the team, but it is unlikely they'll be able to come close to Balsillie's numbers.
And in the meantime, the Predators, who were considered Stanley Cup contenders heading into the playoffs, continue to operate in a vacuum for an owner that the GM Poile said "does not want to be an owner anymore."
Their top choice, California-born Jonathan Blum, is among the highly rated contingent of American defensemen who went in the opening round, and Nashville might even find a couple of NHLers down the line from its other eight picks, but the Predators' ability to plan effectively is being compromised.
Nashville has to raise its average attendance to 14,000 per game next season to prevent a lease-breaking clause from kicking in, but it's not going to be easy, especially if free agents Paul Kariya or Peter Forsberg leave after next week as part of the upheaval.
Two Central Division rivals -- the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues -- made big splashes at the draft and are poised to be much tougher next season. The Blackhawks grabbed high-scoring winger Patrick Kane with the first overall pick and Akim Aliu, a project with some serious upside, while the Blues, who finished the season on a big roll, came away with three players in the first round. The Edmonton Oilers also had three first-round choices, and a few years down the road everyone will know who did best when the players begin to establish themselves.
For now, though, the biggest winners of the last couple of days may have been the Panthers, who solidified their goaltending situation with Vokoun, and Toronto, which upgraded its netminding by trading for San Jose's Vesa Toskala, or maybe even the Rangers and Penguins, who respectively took potential stars Alexei Cherepanov and Angelo Esposito at later stages of the first round.
But clearly the biggest losers this weekend are in Nashville.