Friday, December 28, 2007

Happy New Year... You've Been Waived!

Happy New Year Marc Denis! You are going to get to ring in 2008 in a new city. Will it be in Springfield as a member of the Lightning’s AFL affiliate Falcons or for another NHL city that’s desperate for a goaltender (Los Angeles or Atlanta, maybe?)

This has become the first major trade to blow up in Jay Feaster’s face. Back in June of 2006 the GM pulled off his first important post Stanley Cup deal when he dealt a pair of Fredriks (popular winder Fredrik Modin and young goaltender Fredrik Norrena) to Columbus for Denis.

At the time the Bolts were desperate for a true number one goalie. Nik Khabibulin had left Tampa for Chicago and big money. The John Grahme experiment was a disaster and the organization was weary of trusting any of the young netminders such as Norrena or Gerald Coleman that they had in their system. Denis was young, just 28 at the time, but had several seasons of NHL experience under his belt including 3 years as the starter for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

He had 3 seasons in a row with a save percentage over .900 for a Columbus team that wasn’t very good. Tampa was willing to believe that his best days were in front of him and with a better cast of teammates in front of him he could realize the potential that had made him a number one pick and Patrick Roy’s heir apparent for Colorado when they drafted him in 1995.

Now, not even a season and a half later, Denis and his 3 year $8.5 Million contract are sitting on waivers waiting to see if any team is willing to take a chance on him. Meanwhile the team, still desperate for a true number one, turns its attention to 21 year old Karri Ramo.

With 43 games left in the season and a record that has them tied for last place in the Southeast Division the Bolts are hoping the young Finn can spark them on a playoff run that turns around what has become a disastrous season. The confident young goalie has been better than advertised as he’s posted a .929 save percentage and a respectable 2.54 Goals Against in the four games he’s played since his recall. The stellar play has vaulted him past Johan Holmqvist and into the starting role, but hasn’t translated into wins thanks to the suddenly anemic Tampa offense.

Getting back to Denis he has reached a critical stage in his career. Three teams have now decided that he’s not their answer and at 30 he’s getting past the stage where teams are willing to risk that he can improve. Before he stopped a puck on Tampa ice he was the poster child of the organization. Literally. Few fans will forget the 30 foot poster of Denis that greeted them as they entered the Ice Palace in the beginning of 2006. A year later he joins an illustrious group of players to call themselves ex-Lightning goalies. What a list of names that is from Corey Schwab to Derek Wilkinson to Zac Beirk many have strapped on the pads only to fade into obscurity.

There could be an argument made that he never had a chance. Trading away fan favorite Modin clouded a lot of fans opinions on Denis. He scored 22 goals for Columbus last season, 22 goals that could have helped out the Bolts. In addition to his offense his willingness to play a defensive role made him invaluable to a team with free spirits like Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St Louis.

Meanwhile in two seasons Norrena is showing himself to be a capable netminders. He posted 24 wins last season and despite being supplanted by the monster that is Pascal Leclaire has 4 more wins in the season than Denis (5 to 1).

This turned out to be one of the few deals that has not worked out for the Lightning. Has it set back the franchise? Possibly, but it’s also opened the door for Ramo. For the first time since Vincent and Brad Richards were coming up the Lightning have a young player who’s ready to make an impact on the team.

Paul Ranger is a nice story, but as a defenseman he doesn’t garner the same attraction as a stud goaltender or a flashy scorer. It’s nice to see a young player like Ramo perform on the professional level when given the chance.

If he can’t keep up the strong play and fades into a Denis-esque slump where he looks lost on the ice it could spell the doom for the vaunted Big Three. One of the big guns would have to be moved either for a top-shelf goaltender or to free up money to make a run at a free agent in the off-season (Henrik Lundqvist anyone?) There was some chatter about the Bolts moving St Louis to Dallas for Marty Turco earlier in the season and a Canadian paper mentioned that they had also expressed interest in bringing Khabibulin back.

All of those rumors make for good internet and idle chat room gossip. The only the only thing that is known is that when the calendar turns to 2008 Marc Denis, once the hope of the organization, will be wearing a new uniform.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The End of the World? Nahh just more fodder for the interwebs....

We are less than 15 hours away from baseball’s Armageddon or 15 hours away from a furious sounding that ultimately means nothing. At 2.00pm on Thursday December 13th, 2007 George Mitchell will release his long awaited report on the use of steroids in Major League baseball. The inquiry (or witch hunt depending on what side you’re on) has taken 20 months. Mitchell and his band of merry investigators have conducted countless interviews often meeting a less than shocking lack of cooperation from players.

What information is going to be released tomorrow? Reports on state that Mitchell places blame on the owners and the players association. They also state that he is going to recommend several changes including adopting state of the art testing procedures and educating players on performance-enhancing drugs.

Nobody cares about that information. Everyone wants to hear the names!

The common fan already knows that owners turned a blind eye towards the growing problem in the late 80’s and 90’s. They continued to sign the big checks as the players transformed themselves into linebackers. Could the players association have stopped it early on? Of course they could have, but why should they? There were no penalties and the free agent contracts kept growing at a staggering rate.

That’s all in the past and like Mark McGwire we’re not here to talk about the past. Let the rest of the media gnash their teeth and lament the loss of innocence in America’s Pastime. Will anything about the game change?

Ultimately no. The names will be released and there will be outrage in the media and sheepish excuses issued by the players. Some will say it’s a misunderstanding and others will issue carefully worded apologies through their agents. Then slowly it will fade to the background. Baseball won’t banish anyone and no one will stand up and admit, “Yes I took steroids, HGH, performance enhancing drugs, etc. so that I would be a better player and make more money”.

Will we be shocked by the names on the list? Only if Jason Tyner Ben Zorbist are on there. In this day in age should any professional athlete be above suspicion? No. Every GM should be losing sleep tonight thinking about how to spin the news if their top players are named. Imagine Andrew Freidman having to step up to the podium to answer questions about Rocco Baldelli receiving shipments of HGH and Stanozolol while he was rehabbing his various injuries over the past two seasons. Admit it, it’s not that hard to picture.

That wasn’t meant to drag Rocco through the mud. The popular outfielder fits the profile of players who’ve already been named. Rick Ankeil, Jason Grimsley and Jay Gibbons were all players who allegedly purchased the substances to help recover from major injuries. The point is that this is a very real case scenario that at least one team will be going through tomorrow. It’s going to be a public relations nightmare.

The release of the names will make good copy for a few days, especially now during a slow sports period. Experts will appear on your TV and scream about the sanctity of the game and the tarnishing of records. Then playoff football will roll around and baseball will take a back burner. The College Bowl Season, Super Bowl and College Basketball will draw more attention away and by spring training the Mitchell Report will be nothing more than a footnote. After all aren’t we still supposed to be outraged at Michael Vick and Don Imus?

So far this off-season it doesn’t appear that teams are shying away from players that have been linked with illicit drugs. Jose Guillen signed a 3 year $36 Million contract on the same day Major League Baseball announced he was going to be suspended for receiving $20,000 worth of steroids and HGH in 2003-05. On Wednesday The Houston Astros traded their entire AAA roster for Miguel Tejada whose name has been associated with steroids more than once. (ed note – the trade was for Luke Scott and 4 prospects).

There are also reports that Major League Baseball won’t punish any of the players named in the report. So the athletes can mumble their explanations about tainted vitamins or doctors’ prescriptions and talk about moving forward while they line up their next multimillion dollar contract.

In the end, batting averages and ERA’s will replace horse tranquilizers and estrogen injections on the front page. The airwaves will be filled with complaints about the Rays bullpen instead of cries to purge the records of the steroid abusers.

The demise of baseball has been predicted before. As always baseball will survive this. Just like it has survived the Dead Ball era, gambling scandals, drug scandals, work stoppages and Dane Cook promos. Like Terrance Mann said, “This field, this game: it’s a part of our past…It reminds us of all that was once good and it could be again.”