While I had originally planned to write more about the process of making final roster cuts, the recent travails of our former Stanley Cup-winning goalie, Nikolai Khabibulin, caused me to change my topic.
During the 2003-04 season many pundits opined we would have to trade Khabibulin or lose him for nothing when, as everyone expected, we would not exercise our $6.5 million option for his services for the 2004-05 season. Although he had been inconsistent in net through the first half of the season, Nik caught fire in February of 2004 and ultimately helped us capture the Cup in June. We exercised our option for ’04-05 only to have the lockout lead to the cancellation of the season.
Following the lockout we tried to re-sign Khabibulin, Martin St-Louis, Dan Boyle and Vincent Lecavalier, who was to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2006 at the unprecedented age of 26.
Team President Ron Campbell and I traveled to New York and met with Nik’s agent, Jay Grossman, after which I submitted contract offers on an ongoing basis. We never actually experienced negotiations. Rather, when we asked what Nik wanted we were consistently told that the issue was maximizing the total compensation. When pressed for a figure Grossman repeated that he wanted the maximum 20 percent of the salary cap permitted under the new CBA.
When free agency opened on July 1, we felt as though we were negotiating against ourselves. We presented offers of varying terms: three-, four- and five-year offers with different salaries in each scenario. No counter-offers were received, just a recitation of the need to maximize the total compensation and 20 percent of the cap. A month passed and Nik hadn’t been signed anywhere; however, we still weren’t receiving counter proposals.
At one point I asked Nik’s agent to call us once they had an offer elsewhere that Nik intended to accept and give us “15 minutes” to decide whether to match.
Grossman told us that wouldn’t be fair to the offering team and respectfully declined. In the end, Nik went to Chicago, signing a four-year deal that paid him $6.75 million per year.
Last week he was placed on waivers and cleared. With one year left on his contract, Khabibulin now awaits a trade, an assignment to a team in the new Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, or a possible seat on the end of the bench as backup goalie to new Hawks No. 1 netminder Cristobal Huet.
During the past three years in Chicago, Nik has endured numerous injuries and posted a record of 65-72-17 with no playoff appearances.
Meanwhile in Tampa, we finished 8th, 7th and 15th in the East and were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in ’05-06 and ’06-07.
Hearing the Khabibulin news this past week I couldn’t help but wonder “what might have been,” for all of us, had things turned out differently in the summer of 2005.
Jay Feaster is a former GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he took over in 2002 and helped build the team into a Stanley Cup champion in 2004. As he did last season, he will blog on THN.com throughout the 2008-09 campaign. Read his other entries HERE.