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Dominik Hasek Ready to Sign Deal in Ottawa
By BRIAN PIKE, MOP Squad Hockey Editor
Jul 6, 2004 - 2:51:00 AM
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At a news conference scheduled for this morning, the Ottawa Senators are expected to make one of the off seasonís worst kept secrets official and announce that Dominik Hasek has signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent. Hasek spent part of last season with the Red Wings after a one-year retirement, of course, playing just fourteen games before a groin injury ended his season. Hasek was scheduled to earn $6 million last year, but he returned a large portion of his contract after his season ended early. Hasek and his agent have been speaking with Senators GM John Muckler, who was Buffaloís GM for much of Hasekís stay there, for some time now, and perhaps the only surprising part of this process is that Hasekís deal has taken this long to finalize.
Muckler traded away Patrick Lalime, Ottawaís top goaltender last season, to St. Louis during the entry draft weekend just over a week ago, making Hasekís signing even less of a surprise. However, now that itís about to become official, pundits like myself can offer their opinions on whether or not signing Hasek is a good move.
So is signing Hasek a good move? No, probably not. Hasek is 39 years old and turns 40 in January. Heís coming off the second major groin surgery of his career. Hasekís biggest strength as a goaltender is his flexibility; at the top of his game, he could twist and contort into all sorts of bizarre positions, and coupled with his determination and absolute confidence that he could stop any shot, he was the best. The problem is that at his age and with his history of groin trouble, that flexibility simply isnít what it once was. Though he is by all accounts in good condition after having surgery in May, whether or not Hasek is still physically capable of being the goaltender he once was is in doubt.
That said, as troubling as questions about Hasekís physical state are, those doubts are nothing compared to the concerns about Hasekís mental state. Hasek has always been a bit of a nut, the quintessential flaky goaltender. In his NHL career heís done it all; heís butted heads with coaches, reporters, teammates, and management. His past is well documented, and Muckler is very familiar with most of it, having experienced a good portion of Hasekís antics first-hand from their days together in Buffalo. This past year has been particularly bizarre, however, even by Hasekís standards. Hasek retired in the summer of 2002 after winning the Stanley Cup in Detroit. After spending a year at home in the Czech Republic (during which time he played forward in a recreation hockey league and was nearly indicted for assault after injuring another player with his stick), Hasek informed the Wings last summer that he wished to return. Thus began the well-documented soap opera that was Detroitís goaltending situation in 2003-04, with Hasek, Curtis Joseph, and Manny Legace splitting time in the nets until Hasek declared himself unable to return to Detroitís lineup for the rest of the season. Hasek declared this, mind you, not Detroitís training staff, not any physician, but Hasek himself. Detroit didnít think twice about letting Hasek become a free agent this off-season.
Now, John Muckler is not stupid. In fact, heís quite bright; heís been in hockey for a good long time, and heís very good at what he does. So why is he bringing in a goaltender thatís well past his physical prime and is more than a little nuts?
Because despite all the concerns about Hasekís groin and his age, despite all the questions about Hasekís head and his reasons for wanting to return to the game at all, and despite the fact that Hasek has only played fourteen professional games in the last two calendar years and isnít likely to get in another one anytime soon with a lockout on the horizon, Hasek isnít as big a risk for Muckler as you might think.
Hasek comes fairly cheap. Expect his base salary to be in the $2-3 million range, with bonuses for games played and a substantial bonus should the Senators win the Stanley Cup with him in goal. Obviously, the extra cash will help motivate Hasek to play as much and as well as possible, but the low base salary will also allow the Senators to simply cut Hasek loose if things donít work out without losing much money, leaving them free to pick up another goaltender before the playoffs.
Ottawa also has a goaltender in Martin Prusek who is primed for more ice time after spending the last two seasons as Lalimeís backup. Prusek is more than capable of splitting time in the regular season with Hasek, allowing the Senators to save Hasek for the playoffs. Even better, Prusek is a young Czech goalie whoís style is quite reminiscent of Hasekís, and though Prusek may or may not have the stuff to eventually become an NHL starter, Hasek could very well help him along the way.
As much as Hasekís mentality is a concern, it also works in the Senatorsí favour. Hasek is an extremely proud man. It was obvious several years ago when he nearly retired, but decided not to let his career end on a sour note caused by his recurring groin problems. The lack of a Stanley Cup in his career irked him; he decided that he wanted to retire a champion. Why Hasek returned last summer is still something of a mystery, but his pride is forcing him to return next season. His rather unceremonious exit from Detroit is another sour note in Hasekís career, and once again Hasek simply will not let his career end on such a note. Hasek was clearly not overly enthused about playing last season; he didnít train particularly hard last summer and his lack of preparedness certainly contributed to his injury problems. However, Muckler knows that a Hasek with wounded pride is a motivated Hasek; his pride will compel Hasek to do everything in his power to ensure that next season, whenever that may be, will not be a repeat of his last season in Detroit. Hasek also knows that this may well be his last chance in the NHL; because of their past relationship he can count on Muckler to give him a shot, but if Hasek falters Muckler wonít be giving him a second one.
Thus, Hasek is motivated, he has a decent safety net in Prusek, and he comes cheap, so the risk Mucklerís taking by signing him is small, or at least smaller than it looks at first glance. On the other hand, the potential reward in signing Hasek could be enormous. Even if Hasek isnít at his elastic best, Ottawa is a pretty good team, significantly better than the Buffalo squads Hasek played on when he was winning Hart and Vezina trophies in the Ď90s. With the firepower and defensive prowess Ottawa currently possesses, Hasek doesnít have to carry the team on his back in order for it to win. Hasek likely wonít be adding to his collection of individual awards next season, but if he can recapture just some of his former magic heíll be better than at least half the goaltenders in the league right now.
Not only that, but Hasek still has such a mystique about him that can only help the Senators, particularly in terms of drawing fans. The Sens have had a rough off-season, firing head coach Jacques Martin and dealing off Radek Bonk and Lalime, all significant parts of the team for the past few years, and fans in Ottawa badly need to see the Senators do something positive. Even at 39 years old, Hasek is still a draw, heís still one of the best goaltenders the game has seen in the last twenty years, and he can still inspire confidence in the team in front of him. Heíll also be one of the few Senator players who has won a Stanley Cup before, and such experience can always come in handy in such a situation. While Hasek doesnít make the Senators instant Stanley Cup favourites (to earn that status they would have to add a big scoring centre and a gritty forward or two), a healthy Hasek brings them closer than Lalime was likely to. At the very least, if Hasek makes it to the playoffs, he can scarcely have a worse meltdown than Lalime did in the final game of the Senatorsí first round series against Toronto.
So is signing Hasek a good move? No, probably not. Signing Kevin Weekes, whoís ten years younger and entering the prime of his career, may be a better move, or at least it would be a safer move. But signing Hasek may well turn out to be the smarter move. More importantly, itís just the kind of move that Muckler likes: one that has the potential to be extremely worthwhile, yet the damage done should Hasek falter will likely be minimal. Itís a low risk, high reward deal that will have Muckler looking like a genius if Hasek takes Ottawa to a Stanley Cup, and Muckler certainly won't be the first to take the blame if he doesn't.
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