By Stu Hackel
It’s been a very strange offseason, one that challenges 2008 with its non-stop Mats Sundin rumors, Scotty Bowman joining the Blackhawks, NHL-KHL hostilities, the Lightning hiring Barry Melrose, and the fall of Boots Dell Biagio. What the Flyers have done recently — trading two of their core players, paying Ilya Bryzgalov more than Tim Thomas, signing Jaromir Jagr, the revelations about their Dry Island – is enough on its own to make this summer bizarre. Add to that the big money paid to James Wisniewski and Christian Ehrhoff, the Panthers commandeering the free agent vacuum cleaner, the Avalanche surrendering a first round (and possible lottery) pick and more for an oft-injured, inconsistent goalie, and Tomas Vokoun misreading the free agent market and landing in Washington for a bargain price, and you’ve got a serious contender for The Summer of Madness heavyweight title.
So I guess none of us should be too surprised to hear the Islanders are doing a little courtship dance with Alexei Yashin.
This is the same Alexei Yashin – and can there be another, boys and girls? — the Islanders acquired for Zdeno Chara and the draft pick that became Jason Spezza, one of hockey’s worst all-time trades; the same Yashin the Isles signed to a 10-year, $87.5 million contract (that was reduced by 24 percent after the lockout) under which he produced 290 points in 346 regular season games, and 12 points in 22 playoff games (he was benched during his final postseason on the Island), and to whom owner Charles Wang wrote a check for $17.63 million so the Russian center would not play for his team. And now Wang is considering giving him more.
If there is one symbol of the Islanders’ management incompetence, ownership lunacy and fan frustration, it is Yashin.
Alexei is a UFA, out of a contract in the KHL, set to turn 38 in November, and trying to determine his next move. It’s obvious why he’d be in touch with GM Garth Snow: He needs a job, it’s familiar territory, he’s got a house on Long Island, his wife, the actress/model Carol Alt, is an Island girl (although she works mostly in Europe these days), and no one is wearing his number 79.
But with all that ugly baggage, why in the name of Jiggs McDonald would the Isles be interested in him?
Well, for one thing, Wang supposedly remains good friends with Yashin. It’s nice to see there are no hard feelings and that alone could mean this signing might happen. From a purely hockey standpoint, Snow looks at his depth chart, sees he could (especially if his owner wanted it) certainly make do with a third line center behind John Tavares and Frans Nielsen. The Isles have Josh Bailey, but he can also play wing. How much Yashin has left is questionable (he was 15-18-33 in 52 games for SKA St. Petersburg last season), but he might slot in at the three spot. Ideally, Snow would like another veteran to take Doug Weight’s place. Weight was a terrific leader for this young team and that’s exactly the kind of guy Snow needs. Now, maybe Yashin is that guy, but his reputation (which may or may not be deserved) is not one that makes you think he is.
And from a fiscal standpoint, the Isles are so far under the salary cap floor that the basement is a few flights up — and that takes into account the $2,204,000 they’re already being charged for Yashin’s buyout. Snow has no doubt been in touch with the reps for most of the big money free agents this summer, but he’s been unable to land any of them, Florida alone having Hoovered up most of the guys worth overpaying. Maybe the last laugh will be on the players who turned Snow down; maybe the kids are ready to blossom, the Isles will avoid the injury bug and they’ll be the surprise team of the season. But only one UFA — 34-year-old depth center Marty Reasoner – has bought that argument thus far.
Let’s face it, the Islanders are a pretty tough sell on the free agent market. They haven’t made the playoffs since Yashin left, the organization seems to spend an inordinate amount of time slagging its own arena, fighting with local politicians to get a new one built, keeping its payroll low and hoping for a brighter tomorrow that is always just around the corner. Free agents have 29 other options that might look a bit better to them.
By the way, the latest arena imbroglio is heating up as the Aug. 1 Nassau County referendum approaches on a $400-million bond issue to build a new arena, a minor-league baseball park and other projects. The campaigns on both sides of the debate are truly humorous considering that when Wang was pushing for his massive Lighthouse Project, Republicans opposed it because it would save the team and supposedly create jobs, which would make the Democrats in power look good. Now that the Republicans are in power and favor this smaller arena plan that would save the team, supposedly create jobs and make them look good, Democrats are opposed to it.
Wang himself has taken to the streets (or at least the airwaves) to push for this latest version of the project and here’s audio of Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs and then Wang debating the issue Tuesday on WFAN in New York. Political points aside, its instructive that Wang says he’s not threatening to move the Isles if this measure doesn’t pass, but he adds that he’d also be out of options. Presumably, using his own money (and he’s got a lot of it; Forbes says he’s worth $890 million) to build a new arena is not an option. That chance vanished, he says, with the Lighthouse Project.
A rally is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon to get out the Yes vote. It will featuring Islanders players and alumni plus rock legends and cowbell heroes Blue Oyster Cult (who will no doubt perform ”Don’t Fear The Reaper,” an appropriate song for the Isles if ever there was one). Wang will speak, as will some politicos. [UPDATE: Over 1,000 attended the rally, according to. Newsday's coverage, which quoted Islander players discussing how difficult it was for the team to attract quality free agents without a modern arena. Here is the story from the team website, which put rally attendance at 2,800.]
So it’s truly a big moment in this fight for the Isles’ future. One poll in Newsday indicated the citizens may vote this thing down even though most want the Islanders to stay put. And suddenly, here’s Yashin! The dastardly guy who took the money and ran, the symbol of all that has gone wrong for this franchise, resurfaces like Lord Voldemort.
“I cannot comprehend how (the Islanders) could possibly allow this to come out now, with so much at stake,” a dumbstruck Chris Botta wrote on his Islanderspointblank blog. “It is mind-blowingly inane….
“The Islanders need 100% of their fans 100% proud of their franchise so they can rock the vote, write to the newspapers, call the politicians, pressure NIFA (the Nassau County Interim Finance Authority; don’t ask). Can the Islanders really be this tone-deaf to their fanbase? I cannot believe that Snow, even if it was ‘suggested’ to him to play along, would not stand up, be a manager and say, ‘This is not the time.’ This dance could have been danced in mid-August. The Islanders could sign Alexei a few weeks from now.”
Well, Yashin has retreated a bit, telling Newsday, “I’ll look at all situations. We’ll see what is the right decision for me.” Still, he’s back in the firmament and the timing could probably not have been worse.
Just another episode in this crazy summer.