In the worst jurisprudence blunder since the Simpson prosecutors allowed O.J. to handle his own gloves on the witness stand in the 1995 “Trial of the Century”, Rangers general manager, Glen Sather, has made a “bloody mess” of the entire Sean Avery affair.
Please understand that I’m not trying to equate the injustice of a double homicide with the incompetence of a poorly executed contract negotiation, as this would be highly insensitive to the homicide victims and their families. However, there are two scarcely mentioned (yet undeniable) links between the New York Rangers and O.J. Simpson. The first part of this irrevocable bond occurred on June 17, 1994, when just hours after the Rangers and their fans celebrated the recent Stanley Cup victory with a downtown ticker tape parade, Simpson & Co. (inside the White Ford Bronco) began their historic “slow speed chase” with the LAPD. The second (more indirect) link was that the insatiable public appetite for anything and everything Simpson-related (after the car chase), along with the accompanying “media circus”, forced Sports Illustrated to place Simpson’s police mug shot on the front cover of their next issue – a spot that SI was unquestionably reserving for the story about how the Rangers had finally ended their 54 year curse (1940-1994).
And speaking of curses (while getting back to Avery), if Rangers fans thought that the 54 year hex was a “bitch to bear”, it might be nothing compared to what awaits them after next summer. Because at that time (barring a miraculous and unlikely reconciliation), Avery, who is already known on the ice as trash-talking, vindictive, contentious and the “most hated player in NHL” (as voted on by his peers), will hit the UFA market with a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Everest, along with a venomous vendetta aimed directly at Sather and (by default) his entire organization. And the most unfortunate aspect to this entire debacle is that it could have been so easily avoided – several different ways.
The first way Sather could have avoided the Avery ordeal focuses on the root cause of the problem – which is the Rangers tight salary cap numbers. When Slats signed premier UFAs, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, for a combined $14.4 million per cap year, it put a noose around the Rangers “cap collar”, which has been tightened a notch by each additional signing - with only the Matt Cullen trade providing any slack. It’s far too early to judge the Gomez/Drury signings with so many factors to be determined down the road, such as: how well the two play on Broadway, how much longer some of the other highly paid veterans play, how well the Rangers low-salaried prospects pan out over the next few years, how the salary cap upper limit fluctuates in upcoming years, etc.
I also can’t find fault with the signings of Prucha, Lundquist and Hossa, as the cap realities in addition to the three players wanting to be part of this year’s potential Cup run, allowed all parties to come to fairly amicable, short term resolutions. There is one glaring exception here – Brendan Shanahan.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Shanahan as much as the next Rangers fan, and I’m delighted that he’s back with the team. He provides leadership, character, professionalism, team spirit, versatility, endless hustle, and even occasional goals. Occasional? I will clarify this with cold, hard facts. After his stellar scoring stampede of the first 29 games (22 goals on 141 shots, 15.6% SP), Shanahan’s scoring stumbled sharply in the next 29 games (6 goals on 116 shots, 5.2% SP). These are his pre-concussion stats. In the final 9 games of the season, he scored 1 goal on 38 shots with a 2.6% SP – giving him a total of 7 goals on 154 shots (4.5% SP) over his last 38 regular season games. One could argue that he is a streaky player who was in a slump - but for 38 games (29 pre-concussion) I don’t buy it.
Notwithstanding a fine 5 goal (12.2% SP in 10 games) playoff performance, which I admit does give me a little bit of reservation here, it would seem that Shanahan’s days as a 40-50 goal scorer are behind him. Furthermore, Shanahan didn’t show particularly good chemistry with several linemates (Prucha being the most glaring), nor with Jagr on the Power Play. Far too often Shanahan’s presence on a line caused his linemates to focus primarily on feeding him the puck for his classic one-timers – which is just fine – if he scores on them a lot more than the 4.5% of the time he did over the last 38 regular season games.
My point is that at age 38 (soon to be 39) Shanahan has become somewhere between a valuable role player and a star, and he should be paid accordingly. Given the fact (much to his credit) that Shanahan didn’t want to talk to other teams so he could be part of a potentially special Ranger squad this year, and that he essentially said he would do anything that made financial sense for the Rangers to help accomplish this goal, it seems to me that $5.3 million ($2.5 counting towards this year’s cap) is ridiculously high. At most he should have received the $4 million ($2 million salary & $2 million bonus) he earned last year, or even $3 million ($1.5 million salary & $1.5 million bonus). Had Sather paid Shanahan reasonably, he would have had another $500,000 to $1 million of salary cap room this year that could easily have been sent Avery’s way to avoid any arbitration and the ensuing consequences.
In fact, if it ever came down to prioritizing between Avery and Shanahan (in this stage of their careers), I’d choose Avery. The Rangers went 17-6-6 with Avery in the lineup. In games that Avery played and Shanahan didn’t, the Rangers went 8-3-4. In games that Shanahan played and Avery didn’t, the Rangers went 25-24-4. Certainly a stingier defense and sharper goaltending were big factors in the Rangers surge to the playoffs, but Avery was perhaps the biggest single factor in the Rangers remarkable turnaround last season.
As Larry Brooks of the New York Post wrote it in this article - Avery added “a jagged edge to a team that had been way too smooth for its own good the first four months of the season”. Avery, at age 27 and in his prime, got under the skin of his opponents - drawing far more penalties than he took. He displayed never ending energy, hustle and grit – while proving that he also had plenty of speed, skill and scoring ability. He kept himself in control (just enough) to be an extremely effective player without overly rocking the Rangers burgeoning boat along the way. And on top of all this, he played with an assortment of injuries that would have kept many a tough competitor out of the lineup.
Let’s face it, when the Rangers trashed the Thrashers in that four game playoff mercy killing, was there any Ranger more valuable than Avery? In addition to his offense output of 1 goal and 4 assists, Avery had the Thrashers top line so uncomfortably pestered that they looked as though they were skating in circles the entire series in search of insect repellent. No doubt, Avery has become a player whose intangible value is almost immeasurable. And for the first time in his career, Avery has built a connection with the fans, his team and their city. They love Avery, and in turn, Avery loves playing for them. This nomad had finally found a home.
Now all of this is not to say that Avery wasn’t in need of an attitude adjustment when he first arrived with the Rangers – a procedure that quickly and somewhat surprisingly was deemed a success (much to the credit of Shanahan). However, as we’ve discussed, attitudes weren’t the only thing in Rangerland that needed adjusting. Just like piano strings have to be tuned every once in awhile, I’d say that Sather’s purse strings (as well as his priorities) could have used a fine tuning before July 1 – with some purse strings being far too loose while others being far too tight. Had Slats been tuned in time, Avery could have been rewarded for his outstanding efforts from last season, and the ugly events of the past week could have been avoided.
But even after the fiscal mistakes (detailed above) were in the rear view mirror, Sather could have driven the dangerous Avery (and all his personal baggage) to safety, if not for the second of his three mistakes – not settling before the arbitration hearing on the obvious $2 million compromise. This is something that everybody with at least one marble rolling around in their head knew was going to happen anyway. The Blueshirt Bulletin summarizes its best in a post entitled: Why Bother?
Why didn’t both parties meet around the $2 million range – given that the numbers submitted at arbitration were $2.6 million by Avery and $1.3 million by Sather? Perhaps it was mutual stubbornness by two people with a history of having rather contrary dispositions. Right now it is unclear if either side offered the $2 million compromise and other side refused. If Avery was the one to refuse, then most of the blame would point at him. However, Sather’s reputation for playing hardball with his RFA entrants, make him the odds on favorite in this blame-game derby.
Still, despite these “comedy of errors”, the real damage had not yet been done. The third way this fiasco was avoidable would have been if Sather had used a more long-sighted, diplomatic approach throughout the arbitration process. Had he done so, Slats wouldn’t have pushed the volatile Avery into feelings of shock, resentment and disbelief. The handling of Avery, both on the ice and in negotiations, is as delicate a task as handling Nitroglycerine. Done properly, and Avery becomes a powerful weapon capable of helping you win wars. Done carelessly, and Avery can blow up in your face.
I realize that Avery and Sather both signed the arbitrator’s $1.9 million peace offering and that both sides are now talking “nice-nice”. But Avery’s initial reaction to Sather’s overly harsh treatment of him during the arbitration process is proof that Slats had already dropped the Nitro, and the inevitable explosion will come next summer.
Ordinarily the story would end here because we all know what happened and why it happened … or do we? It turns out that up until now, we’ve only been presented with a partial picture of the events surrounding the arbitration process. However, brand new evidence from a strange, yet somewhat familiar, source will astound even the hardened hockey fan.
The source I speak of is now a part-time European scout for the Rangers. He is a Finnish man with a somewhat Czech-ered past, including a stint as an actor in both Finland and the Czech Republic. Having a hard time making ends meet, he once appeared in a Finnish porn film – getting a good “bang for the buck”. This scout, who is extremely affable, has a magnetic personality – especially when it comes to beautiful women. He understands the English language quite well when heard or in writing, but he barely speaks a word of it. He is very popular with the Rangers brass when he comes to New York – not the least of which is because of his reputation for knowing how to find all the best European hotspots and parties in Manhattan. So when he comes to town, it’s nothing for Ranger employees to “put him up” in their guest houses. Wait a minute…guest houses? It couldn’t be….. could it? Remember, I said he was Finnish, so you know that we’re not talking about Kato. His name is actually Reijo – Reijo Raitinen.
According to Raitinen, Sather was very thorough in his preparation for the Avery arbitration hearing - gathering documentation on Avery’s entire career. Contrary to popular belief, Slats put together a fair, reasonable outline that effectively stated the Rangers case without being overly harsh to Avery. Sather intended to use the information contained in the outline to create a brief for the arbitration proceedings.
The night before the Rangers had to present the Avery brief to the arbitrator, Sather and a lower-level, but trusted, assistant were having coffee at local bistro. All of the Avery documentation was in Sather’s briefcase when Slats and his assistant went to the men’s room to answer nature’s cappuccino call.
Both men were standing at the urinals when Sather (with one hand holding his briefcase) used his other hand to loosen his own belt. It is at this time when Sather endured the executive embarrassment of eternity, which began when Slats’ slacks slipped (try saying that 3 times fast). Then, while trying to grab his trousers, Sather’s hand hooked his Hanes – accidentally pulling them down. And when I say that Sather “dropped his briefs”, I mean that Sather really dropped his briefs – as the Avery documents came tumbling out of his briefcase and all over the grungy bathroom floor. Bottomless, bewildered and berserk, Sather frantically put the papers back in the folders. However, in his haste Slats placed the papers from Avery’s “Pre-Rangers” folder into the “2007 Arbitration” folder and vice-versa.
Completely pressed for time now, Sather handed his “2007 Arbitration” folder to his assistant, who then couriered them to Cam Hope, the Rangers Assistant General Manger of Hockey Operations. Then against all hope, Cam wrote the final arbitration briefs from misplaced documents out of the wrong folder. The Avery briefs presented to the arbitrator said (among other disparaging verbiage) that Avery was “a reasonably effective player as well as a detriment to the team”. This statement is absolutely true - from 1999 to February 4, 2006. Shortly after February 5, 2006 (the day he was traded to the Rangers) we all know that Avery was an extremely effective player who was a major asset to the team.
By the time of the arbitration date, July 30, the briefs had already been submitted to the arbitrator. Sather had since discovered the mistake, but it was too late - they had to proceed with what they had previously written. As Sather and Hope (soiled briefs and all) stormed into the hearing, they replaced Simpson detectives, Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter, as the latest version of “Dumb and Dumber”. Of course, the ultimate irony in this fantastic farce is that it was never a case of premeditated mediation mangling (as commonly believed), instead it was a case of unplanned underwear undermining.
You may ask how did Reijo learn the details of the “Brew House Brief Bungling”? Apparently the night of July 30, while “hanging” at the Rangers corporate offices, he heard three mysterious, loud thumps. Quite concerned, Reijo had a secretary call the police. After detectives investigated the incident, they discovered no signs of burglary or foul play. Instead, the sounds actually came from Sather himself, who had pounded his fist on desk three times in anger over the day’s events.
You may also ask how do I know Reijo? Well, it turns out that we have a mutual friend – the girl he costarred with in that Finnish flesh flick. She and I have what you might call a ….uh-hum….professional relationship.
How will all that transpired affect the Rangers in the short-term? Ironically, it could help them. With Avery playing like man possessed next year (trying to earn a big UFA payday) and the Rangers having a very strong team already, a little luck and some timely tinkering by the otherwise competent Sather could result in another ticker tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes next June. Certainly, the Rangers are considered contenders for the Cup, but in all likelihood their chances of winning it are relatively low. As good as they are, the Rangers still have a number of holes to fill, and the very competitive nature of the NHL, makes it difficult for any team to win it all.
As for the long-term consequences of the Avery affair - fear not, I have no doubt that one day the Rangers will again “Skate the Cup”. The only problem I have with this prediction is that of timing - given that the Rangers big day might well be the same day that O.J. and his posse of PIs make good on their 1994 promise and catch the “real killer”. Which leads to my final word of warning to Ranger fans - don’t hold your collective breaths while waiting for the next Stanley Cup. With the “Avery Curse” soon to be hanging over the Rangers heads, this wait may “last a lifetime”.
Everything written after (and including) the paragraph that begins “Ordinarily the story would end here…” is completely fabricated – a figment of my “slightly-warped” imagination. To the best of my knowledge Slats' slacks never slipped, and every fan’s favorite Finnish house guest, Reijo Raitinen, does not actually exist – but it was sure fun partying with him!
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