Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities

Two cities, two teams, two GMs and two players. Bob Gainey showed this week while he is a notch above many of his peers, most notably Paul Holmgren of the Flyers.

I touch much upon the obscene numbers of Kimmo Timonen’s contract, except to say I’m glad Gainey didn’t lose his mind and offer the same to Timonen, or Sheldon Souray. What I wanted to address was two signings, albeit one in principle only, of two developing front-line forwards in the NHL: Chris Higgins and Scott Hartnell.

If you don’t think they’re similar, think again. This season saw Higgins get 22 goals and 16 assists in 61 games, Hartnell also registered 22 goals but chipped in an extra assist for good measure in 3 more games (for 39 points). Higgins is 24, Hartnell is 25. They were both first round picks.

From all reports, Hartnell is a hard-working winger who a team can rely on to score his share of goals. Given he has never cracked 30 goals, I think it’s safe to say he projects as a 30-goal man if you’re optimistic. He may even have a 40 goal season in him. Higgins is similar. He has 2 seasons under his belt, with 23 and 22 goals, respectively. 30 goals is probably about his potential. Either guy could prove me wrong and go to 40 goal scorer with the right center, I think.

My issue is not with either’s talent, or potential. My issue is with the difference in their pay for this and future seasons. Higgins was signed to a sensible 3.4 million over two years. In contrast, 22-goal man Hartnell was signed to a ridiculous contract averaging more than double that of his equivalent (Higgins) at 4.2 million a year – and for 6 years on top of it all.

If Hartnell breaks out and scores 30 goals a year for the first 4 years and then 40 in his last 2, then he earns his money. If he stays true to form (although that might be hard playing with lesser players in Philly) and scores 20-25 goals a year, the Flyers might be looking to buy this one out by 2010. Higgins, on the other hand, is a better scenario. If he scores his usual 20 goals, he earns his money. If he breaks out, he’ll be rewarded – LATER.

Watching the Canadiens, it is clear that we need more than Higgins. His 20 goals are nice, but scoring was lacking this year, even with him around. What Holmgren has done is commit 10 percent of his budget for the next 6 years (though the percentage may drop if the league does well) to a player in the same mould in Hartnell. He has also set a dangerous precedent in his team. How much will he have left for Gagne, Carter (if he ever comes good), Richards, etc.? How about a goalie? I wouldn’t want to be going through the next 6 seasons with Biron (just ask Buffalo).

Gainey paid Higgins for what he has done. He has engineered room for adding more elements to a cast that was already head and shoulders above the Flyers. He has enough room to sign Souray if he wants, but won’t do it at any price just because he can.

Whether trading for early negotiations was a good idea is another debate. At the ludicrous prices they set, I think the Flyers threw away a draft pick. I don’t think we’ll see Gainey doing the same trick anytime soon.

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