Friday, December 15, 2006

Chapter 01

Silver chalice: $48.67
Thirty-five pound base: market price, updated every 13 years
Professional sports franchise: $43,375,500
Custom engraving: priceless.

There’s a trick to running a sports franchise, part science and part alchemy; which is as much as to say, you’re always a genius until you aren’t anymore. Currently, the Florida Panthers are run by a genius named Mike Beginner. [OK – really. That’s the name I used for the game. Again – don’t sue me. –NF]

He started in life as a goaltender on Long Island, dreaming of a chance to represent his hometown team in the National Hockey League. It didn’t work out quite as he’d hoped. Playing hockey on roller skates doesn’t translate well, and he couldn’t earn a scholarship to a Division I school, and couldn’t afford the tuition to attend one and then walk on.

Plan B has worked out quite well so far; but on this day, the “genius” feels rather at a loss. He is sitting at a makeshift desk in the chilly bowl of Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center, three weeks after the Florida Panthers claimed their first-ever Stanley Cup. With him are the assistant General Manager, David Thomas, and the head coach, Jacques Martin. On the other end of Beginner’s cel phone is his head scout, Darwin Bennett. Surrounding them are myriads of chiming phones and faxes, the glow of laptop computers, and the personnel of the other 29 NHL teams debating their picks in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

The Panther’s next draft choice will be the 41st overall. Thomas and Bennett are leaning towards defenseman Gabriel O’Connor, a player they’ve favored for several weeks as the team’s scouting picked up steam; Martin, finally freed to consider the future after nearly ten months of day-to-day preparations, is more of a fan of winger Kellan Tochkin.

Beginner’s choice is Maickol DeLuca, a rough-and-tumble winger unearthed by scout Mike Yandle on a swing through Europe; recommended as a strong two-way forward much in the mold of current Panthers stalwart Nathan Horton. Beginner is trying to solve a problem that won’t happen for five years – Horton, Anthony Stewart, Kenndal McArdle, and Michael FrolĂ­k will be their top four wingers, as long as he can figure out a way to pay everyone. He’s looking for someone who will be willing to do the unglamorous third-line work, a player with the necessary speed and love of physical play to mark the opponent’s best scorers, not worrying about their own goal-scoring numbers. Given that he’ll be on the hook for at least $12 million per year for the other four, he won’t be able to simply sign a proven free-agent for the job. It has to happen from within the organization. The four players already mentioned were all first-round Panthers selections over the past decade, as were center Stephen Weiss and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.

There is little time remaining for the debate. Seven minutes ago, the New York Islanders took centerman Alexander Lechenne with their own pick, putting the Ottawa Senators on the clock. They took barely any time of their own before making their own selection: with the tenth pick of the second round (40th overall), forward Aiden Harris of the Barrie Colts. Beginner shrugs to himself. If O’Connor had come off the board he could have pushed DeLuca a little more strongly. Two years prior, he had done so for defenseman Ryan Wilson, now a highly promising player, but it’s not something he does often. “I have to trust the people I’m working with,” he confides later that day. “If not, they can’t trust me and they won’t be able to do their jobs.” Besides, he also recalls the 2005 draft, when then-GM Mike Keenan bowed to his own assistants and chose McArdle. He’d not been a fan of the choice at the time, but was impressed by Keenan’s willingness to be persuaded, a quality that few in the press would credit given the popular image of Keenan as a martinet and taskmaster in his previous NHL jobs.

Current-GM Beginner kept it in mind even as McArdle shuffled back and forth to the AHL affiliate in Rochester for the next two seasons; even as he posted a horrible five points in forty-two games in 2007-08 and suffered a beating in the local press. Beginner thought about it when no fewer than five teams inquired to his availability in trades over the years. He decided to be persuaded as well by Rochester’s head coach, Randy Cunneyworth, an NHLer himself and one of McArdle’s warmest advocates in the organization. He turned down four of the deals and convinced the fifth team, Edmonton, to accept instead another former first-rounder, Rostislav Olesz, who had been so badly dismayed by the retirement of center Joe Nieuwendyk in 2006.

McArdle eventually repaid the patience by posting 26 goals and 24 assists in 54 games during the recently-concluded season, and adding 23 more points in the Stanley Cup run. Even as Horton’s development into a top-flight player meant that Todd Bertuzzi could be traded, so McArdle’s progress marks current starter Paul Kariya as a valuable bargaining piece. It’s long odds that his five million per year salary will fall to the Panthers once the new season starts on October 5th, against the same Flyers whose home arena plays host to the current crisis.

Finally, with time winding down, Thomas asks, “What do you think?”

“I think that whatever we don’t already have on the blueline, we can get when we deal Paul,” Beginner replies carefully. “We already have Wurzer. We won’t be able to take DeLuca later, but there are still good defenders we can have at sixty.”

“We can’t afford Paul,” Thomas replies. “Obviously we can’t afford a player of equal value coming back. And we don’t really have leverage because everyone knows it. We can’t play him until the deadline and wait for someone to really knock us dead with an offer.”

Bennett, who expected O’Connor to be gone in the first round, agrees. Mario Wurzer, the Panthers’ first round pick (30th overall), was also expected to be a higher choice, but the first round had been dominated by forwards, starting with the consensus #1, center John Tavares of Belleville, a teammate of Florida’s own Bryan Cameron (2nd round, 2007). Beginner, in fact, had already filled out a card with the name of centerman Leo Riddell of the Guelph Storm, and then sat amazed as the seven teams before them had also all gone with forwards – not only leaving them the talented puck-moving defenseman from Austira, but Riddell as well. The Panthers simply handed in a new card with Wurzer on it to end the first round, and then handed in Riddell’s card to begin the second, as they held Toronto’s pick as well as their own.

But now comes the troublesome 41st pick, originally Vancouver’s, which wound up in their hands via the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Branislav Mezei. These were the tough choices. “Anyone can write Jay Bouwmeester’s name on a card,” Beginner had remarked a week prior. “The only hard part is hoping that you don’t hear your guy’s name before it’s your turn.”

As a last check, Beginner called Yandle, who clinched it. “If O’Connor’s still there, I’d wait on DeLuca. Besides, there’s also Gilodi.” That was Samuel Gilodi, a 6-foot-6 defense prospect and teammate of DeLuca’s that Yandle had recommended as a sleeper. Rated only 175th in the draft, Gilodi figured to be there even if DeLuca was not.

“If we get Gilodi, I don’t see what we do with him, Wurzer, and O’Connor,” Beginner says. But in the end, he yields and Gabriel O’Connor of Halifax becomes the latest draftee of the defending champion Florida Panthers.

Three picks later, the shrewd Lou Lamoriello takes DeLuca for the New Jersey Devils, and at #57, the Red Wings startle everyone by grabbing up Gilodi. Perhaps they hope that Mezei, himself 6’ 5”, can help mentor the youngster, but in any case, the diamond in the rough has been dug up right under the Panthers’ noses. Sometimes, you clench your teeth and your guy’s name comes out in spite of it all. But Jacques Martin at least gets a consolation prize. With the final pick of the second round (60th overall), Beginner takes Tochkin.

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