The law of unintended consequences is all over this collective bargaining agreement. To be sure, Gary Bettman never thought in his wildest nightmares that the salary cap would prompt teams to essentially circumvent it by signing players to ridiculously long contracts they will undoubtedly come to regret. The commissioner probably didn’t envision that the teams the CBA was supposed to help most would be spending more on players now than they were before the lockout, either.
And it has opened up a whole new world of opportunity for players who would have otherwise been left on the scrap heap and forgotten – players such as Alex Burrows of the Vancouver Canucks.
But let’s give the young man credit. Burrows is in the NHL today and playing a pivotal role largely through sheer dint of determination and an ability to persevere in the face of seemingly unbeatable obstacles.
But he also had a bit of help from the CBA. If not for the salary cap and the constraints it has placed on spending, teams that would have been quick to write off players such as Burrows are now looking harder for them than ever in places where they never thought they would find them.
That was certainly the case with Burrows, a player then-Canucks GM Brian Burke signed to a two-way American League contract only because Craig Heisinger had followed the undrafted Burrows in the ECHL and insisted he would serve as a valuable depth player for the Manitoba Moose, the Canucks’ farm team.
Who is Craig Heisinger, you ask? Formerly the equipment manager for the Winnipeg Jets and the Moose, Heisinger was Randy Carlyle’s assistant GM with the Moose – he became the GM in 2002 when Carlyle left to become an assistant coach with the Washington Capitals – and was charged with the task of finding prospects for the AHL team.
But Burrows was not an easy sell. He was undersized and under-talented by NHL standards and was hardly lighting it up in the ECHL. He didn’t play in the Quebec League until he was 19 and was barely a point-a-game player when he played as an overage junior. He had just 13 goals and 32 points in his first pro season, split between something called the Greenville Grrrowl and the Baton Rouge Kingfish, neither of which is even in existence today.
But the Canucks signed him in 2003 to a two-way deal that paid him about $40,000 in the AHL and $20,000 in the ECHL. He could barely even play in the AHL and spent all but two games in the ECHL with the Columbia Inferno. It’s right around this time in most players’ careers they realize they’re chasing the impossible dream and either leave the game or accept the fact they’ll be career minor leaguers. But Burrows didn’t do either and instead got better and more determined to make it.
By this time, Dave Nonis was GM of the Canucks and, needing affordable players who could fill in at the NHL level, signed Burrows to a minimum wage entry-level deal early in 2005-06, just after the lockout. Not too many people were thinking about that when Burrows scored the overtime goal in Game 4 to propel the Canucks to a first round sweep of the St. Louis Blues, but he could have very well fallen through the cracks if not for the need for cheap, young, serviceable players.
What makes it all the more remarkable is if you look back at 1999, the first year Burrows was eligible for the NHL draft.
It was stinky. Really stinky.
In fact, our Draft Preview 2009 magazine chronicles the ’99 draft as the worst in NHL history. With more busts than a museum, the first round of that draft produced the Sedin twins and Martin Havlat as the only quality stars and a bevy of stiffs who barely played in the NHL, if at all.
But if you go back and do that draft all over again, Burrows would probably have gone in the top 10. With the benefit of hindsight, Henrik Zetterberg and not Patrik Stefan would have gone first overall to the Atlanta Thrashers and teams would have convinced a 5-foot-10 Swedish defenseman named Niklas Kronwall to not opt out of the ’99 draft, which allowed the Detroit Red Wings to pick him 29th overall a year later.
Of course, not too many teams were scouting the high school leagues in Quebec, so they had no idea who Burrows was and certainly couldn’t have projected him as an NHL player. And even if Burrows had somehow found his way into the QMJHL at 18, he likely would have been passed over by everyone anyway.
Does that make them a bunch of boneheads? No, because when there’s that kind of unanimity on a player, the guys who scout in the NHL are almost always right. There are exceptions, of course – Martin St-Louis comes to mind – but there are very few times that all 30 teams are wrong about a player. Guys who seem to be stuck in the minors most often are there for a reason: because they can’t play for anybody in the NHL.
It turned out Burrows wasn’t that kind of player and it took him several years to make his case, but it has been made emphatically with a 28-goal campaign. And the best thing for the Canucks is they have him under contract for another four years at what might turn out to be grand larceny at $2 million per.
And both the Canucks and Alexandre Burrows have the player’s determined spirit and the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement to thank for that.
The late bloomers have never had the chances they have now and you can count on more of them taking advantage of those opportunities.
And you can count on NHL teams using more resources than ever to keep looking for them.
This column first appeared in the May 11 issue of The Hockey News magazine.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.