Sunday, March 8, 2009

9: A Problem Like Kariya

In the midst of all the personnel changes, one change might have flown under the radar: Bobby Ryan changed his number from 54 to 9. Perhaps not the worst thing in the world, but Kariya has always been a sensitive subject for Ducks fans. Arthur, you and I have been saying, since before we won the cup, that we need to bring back Paul Kariya. I like Bobby Ryan as much as the next guy, but in my mind 9 will always be Kariya's number. He did so much for the franchise, and I still can't believe he gets booed at the Ponda Center. Is it time for us to welcome Kariya back with open arms, and how do we get him back in a Ducks sweater?

["Off the floor!  On the board!  Paul Kariya!"]

First, let me say that it takes big brass balls to put on the number 9. Howe and Richard made it hockey's most sacred numeral; people used to joke that Wayne Gretzky was so good that he had to paste two of them onto his sweater. Bobby Ryan dons it to honor his hero, Mike Modano, and I respect his desire to take on the pressure that comes with the number, even if I personally feel the number slights a former Duck.

Okay. Paul Kariya. There are two Paul Kariya moments that are heavy on misinterpretation in the Ducks fan community. First, there's the general perception that he held out and always wanted more money, and second, there's the perception that he walked away from the Ducks. Let's introduce some unbiased facts into both of those situations.

THE HOLDOUTS: The notable holdout happened in 1997, when Kariya clashed with then Ducks GM Jack Ferreira. Contrary to popular belief, the actual dollar figure meant nothing to either Ferreira or Kariya. The point of contention in their negotiation was the term of the star forward's contract. Kariya was interested in a one-year contract, while Ferreira was determined to sign him to a seven-year deal. The NHLPA urged Kariya to continue holding out, as they believed they could drive the market price up to 8 figures for other superstar players.

Kariya acquiesced by December in order to begin training for Nagano. He accepted a two-year deal at roughly 9M a year, pro-rated to 5.5M for the holdout year. He donated 2M of that salary to charity, presumably to show that the holdout was not about money. In the summer of 1998, Jack Ferreira was slowly squeezed out of the Mighty Ducks front office until his duties consisted of nothing more than player scouting. Most attribute his unofficial demotion to his performance during the holdout.

KARIYA BECOMES A UFA: Daniel, as you would say to many (or any) of your ex-girlfriends, "Let's not forget who broke up with who here." The Mighty Ducks made Kariya a free agent in 2003, when they declined the same 10M qualifying offer that they had given him the previous year. Bryan Murray, the Ducks' General Manager at the time, stated that Kariya was clearly disappointed, but that the GM intended to negotiate with Kariya, the free agent. He went on to say that 10M was just too much for the organization. At the time, Murray was operating under a self-imposed budget of around 45M. Financial commitments were a touchy subject in the 2003 offseason as both players and managers prepared for the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. As a result, a number of inflated one-year deals and uncertain long-term deals were signed.

Now, only Kariya and Murray know why Kariya was "disappointed" (as Murray put it) that the Ducks did not tender the qualifying offer. Both sides admitted to regular phone contact in the offseason, but any "facts" emerging from those clandestine conversations are unreliable. Neither side denies that they talked about moving forward and doing what it took to get back to the Stanley Cup Finals. However, nothing either man said or did during free agency substantiates the popular theory that Murray acted in good faith of a verbal agreement to sign Kariya for less money as a free agent. On July 1st, Murray had told the press that the Ducks were "restructuring," and Paul Kariya had nothing to say, at all.

The Dynamic Duo signed with Colorado where Kariya took a pay cut to 1.2M because, at the time, CBA rules mandated that anyone paid below the league average would enter Unrestricted Free Agency at the expiration of his contract. This guaranteed UFA status for Kariya during the potential (and eventual) lockout. Bryan Murray signed Sergei Fedorov to a long-term deal at the previously unaffordable 10M a year.

NOW, those are the facts.

I've always been willing to welcome Kariya back with open arms. He gave everything for this squad, and I don't blame him for wanting to try a one-year contract (and, presumably, free agency) when they refused to protect him in '97. Don't forget that he came back after the holdout to find himself sustaining yet another concussion in a Ducks uniform. It took that concussion to convince Gauthier to finally buy Kariya some protection by trading for Haller and Grimson.

And I'm supposed to believe that after the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, Murray is talking 'pay cut' to an eager Paul Kariya, while the guy is recovering from another major concussion, a dislocated shoulder and various broken bones? I want to see some Ducks fans boo this guy when he's playing with his kids and can't remember their names. The organization took more from Kariya than it ever gave him. He'd have died in a Ducks uniform if he didn't buy that specially designed helmet.

It would be tough to bring him back now. He's still making 6M next season, and he's coming back from surgery on both hips. We couldn't trade straight up unless the NHL institutes salary eating this offseason, and even if the Blues placed him on re-entry waivers, someone else would pick him up before we did. His injury means he's lost some speed, but I'm sure he can still be a powerplay machine. And the man still has the deadliest backhand in the history of the game.

I think fate will decide. It's a bit of serendipity that, like they were in 2003, both Kariya and Selanne will be UFA's at the end of next season.

[Gretzky and Kurri officially passing the torch]

I think a straight trade, Pronger for Kariya, might not be a bad idea. Mostly because whatever you lose in Power Play production you'll be getting back, more so. I also think there's a chance the Blues might void Kariya's contract at the end of this year since they have an option. If that were the case, we could get him back as a UFA this offseason.

More importantly, I'm angry by the way Kariya gets treated when he comes home. The only reason we were a somewhat respectable team early on was because of Kariya. Even when we were still that Mickey Mouse organization starting out, you had to respect the guy's skill. The fact is, we were built on all the work he did, and then the work he and Selanne did together. They were the Dynamic Duo. They needed each other. As has been shown by their break up. They've still been great players, but haven't really reached those 120-point seasons they became famous for in their all too brief tenure out here.

I think Anaheim fans need to suck it up and show Paul the respect he deserves. Anaheim fans are being pouty stereotypical Orange County elitists who think that everyone on their team should do exactly what they want regardless of how disrespectful it is to the person involved, in this case Kariya. I suppose the more I think about it the less I like Bobby wearing 9. It's Kariya's number, and it should stay that way. It should be an unspoken rule. I don't care if it's because he was a Modano fan, in fact that's less of a reason to wear it when playing for our team. If we don't retire Kariya's number immediately after he retires, I might lose all respect for us as a hockey organization. You've got to give credit to the people who shape your organization, and Kariya may not have won the cup here in Anaheim, but he's the reason we were eventually able to do it.

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