Thursday, November 6, 2008

How much does a "champion" cost?

When Bob Gainey went about his eloquent description of his team captain just after the Habs came up empty in their drive for the 2007 playoffs, you know the one where he talks about how Saku Koivu eats, lives, trains, drives, pees and does everything else in his life like a champion, I don't think anyone believed Gainey when he said that Koivu would one day win a championship.

At least not in Montreal.

At the time, the idea of the Canadiens being a contender, let alone a favourite, to play for the Stanley Cup before Koivu retired was laughable at best, and there was more than one person in Montreal who believed the Canadiens might be better off when the Koivu era ends.

Of course, Koivu has never done anything to give credence to that theory. Every time he's been placed in a high-pressure situation, be it playoff hockey or a fight against cancer, Koivu has performed at his best. His 45 points in 50 career playoff games don't even tell the whole story, because in at least 90 per cent of those games he's been the Canadiens best player. By a long shot.

He was cursed to arrive in Montreal the same year Patrick Roy was traded away, marking the beginning of the darkest period in this franchise's history, and because of that his value to the Canadiens has been muddied and underestimated for reasons as stupid as the language he speaks while giving sound bites after games.

All this to say that Koivu's value to the Montreal Canadiens is very difficult to measure in dollars and cents. But now Gainey has the unenviable task of doing just that.

With Koivu coming out the other day saying he would love to finish his career in a Canadiens uniform, inspired by the four-year, $21.6 million extension given to Daniel Alfredsson with a no-movement clause that will ensure he will be in Ottawa until age 39.

Koivu is on his way to unrestricted free agency, and if he makes it to July 1 it would be the first time in his career his talents - tangible and otherwise - have been made available to the highest bidder. The one other time in his career he was due for unrestricted free agency in 2006, Gainey locked him up to a three-year extension in mid-season, one that had a lot of fans scratching their heads over the dollar figures.

Will Gainey be inclined to do the same thing this time around? I would think that has a lot more to do with Koivu than it does Gainey.

Basically, will Koivu be willing to give a significant hometown discount in order to protect his legacy and retire as the longest-serving captain in team history, one that may add a Stanley Cup or two to his resume and maybe, just maybe, one day receive consideration to have the number 11 next to Gainey's number 23 in the Bell Centre rafters?

Let's face it, if Koivu were to go to auction his leadership skills and consistently clutch play in the post-season would be very highly sought after by any team that considers itself a Cup contender. But forgetting all that, Koivu's also off to a tremedous start to the season and if he keeps it up he could exceed his career high 75-point output of two seasons ago.

At $4.75 million, Koivu is the league's 76th highest paid player, tied with the likes of Manny Fernandez and Kristian Huselius. He turns 34 on Nov. 23, which is not young, but it's not ancient either. He is a constant injury risk, but his history with injuries also means that in terms of games played, Koivu is in fact a young 34. It's by no means outside the realm of possibility that Koivu has four more productive seasons left in those legs.

Of course, a big part of this has to do with all the other free agents littering the Montreal roster, starting with Mike Komisarek and, by the looks of it early on, Alex Tanguay. It could be that Gainey's decision will come down to a choice between Koivu and Alex Kovalev, which would not be an easy decision to make because Kovalev has been pretty close to Koivu's post-season equal since arriving in Montreal, with 28 points in 29 playoff games.

But as I've already said, I think it's near impossible to put a dollar figure on the package Koivu represents, and that's why I'd have to make Koivu a bigger priority than Kovalev. If Gainey can negotiate with the two of them together and get them both to sign for less than market value, then great.

I'm not sure if Koivu would go for it, but if Gainey could get his name on a three-year, $15 million contract, I would do it and fast. Because come July 1, I would be willing to bet there will be more than one general manager out there willing to pay $6 million a year or more to have that kind of a champion in their lineup.


Sliver24 said...

I'll admit to being one of those guys that didn't always appreciate Saku. While I always saw his talent, I didn't feel he was the right player to single-handedly carry a mediocre team (which is what was being expected of him at the time). His size was definitely a contributing factor to those feelings, as was his seeming fragility. Looking back on it, I do think that I realized at the time that my expectations were unfair, but being reasonable doesn't always come into play when you're a die-hard fan of a team that’s struggling.

Right now Saku is in a perfect position for himself and for the team. He's got to be enjoying himself in a role that he filled at the worst of times (I imagine wearing the C right now is a little more enjoyable than it was in '01). As crappy as it may be to play for the Habs when they're struggling, there's no better place to play when the team's successful.

After all the sacrifices he's made over the last decade I don't see him jumping ship now, when those sacrifices are finally starting to pay off. The team is a legitimate contender this season, and with a prospects pipeline that's teeming with talent, the next half decade looks just as promising. The fact that he's been around forever gives him instant credibility with the other players on the team - young and old alike. There's no question about where the leadership lies in that dressing room.

For all those reason and more, I think Koivu will be willing to give Gainey the chance to sign him for less than he could get on the open market.

If I'm Saku, I'm willing to sign at $5 million a season, despite the $7 and $8 million contracts being handed out like candy on Halloween. What I expect in return, however, is a) that no movement clause you referred to, and b), simply put, years. Your 3-year deal doesn't cut it, at least not at $15 million. Maybe at $18 million I'm willing to talk, but if you just add $2 or $3 million to the total package, I'll give you an extra year of my time. We can worry about that jersey retirement later on...

Anonymous said...

Recent trend: Koivu has missed 6.66% of games due to injury since returning from his bout with cancer. That's right 28 games out of a possible 420 (including this season)in five+ full seasons of hockey. Pas pire. I'm tired of everyone telling me how fragile the guy is. He's no Gaborik. He will sign, and sign for less. Guy, unlike Sundin, wants to win a cup before he packs it in. Staying here, even for significantly less is his best shot at winning one. He's already a God in Finland. (and it looks like that's where he will retire to??? opinions? cause that could be a big determining factor in this whole legacy deal) Winning the cup will only add to the lore. He'll make plenty of bucks from the age of 40-60 back home. What does the current head coach of the Finnish national team make? This is cutting into my day too much so i'll wrap it up. Love him, love him... in fact, I wish he was the father of my children.