Two of the first casualties of the Predators' sale were recorded yesterday, and they were big ones. Captain Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell, who had spent their entire NHL careers with the Preds, were traded to the Philadelphia Flyers yesterday in return for the Flyers' first-round draft pick. Give GM David Poile credit: At least he got the draft pick in return, instead of zilch.
Both players were restricted free agents, meaning the Preds had first rights to negotiate with them before July 1. After that, they go on the open market. The trade, as Poile admitted, was a recognition that the team was unlikely to resign their expensive free agents (Paul Kariya included).
And why was that, given that Kariya, Timonen and Hartnell all liked playing in Nashville? Timonen's agent, in fact, said his player wanted to come back and would have negotiated with the team until the deadline if necessary to work something out.
It all goes back to the Canadian that Nashvillians have come to hate, Jim Balsillie. Balsillie's offer to buy the Predators won't be approved or rejected by the NHL until after July 1. That means that, during the critical signing period, Craig Leipold is still the owner. Leipold, who shelled out for free agents the past two seasons and says he lost millions, has no interest in opening up his checkbook now. After all, the NHL could well reject Balsillie's bid and leave Leipold holding the bag for any fat free agent contracts he signs now. But without an open checkbook, the Predators couldn't re-sign players like Timonen and Hartnell, whose value in the marketplace was much greater than their old salaries in Nashville.
Balsillie has said he intends to spend the money to put an excellent team on the ice. But even if he means what he said, if the league doesn't approve the sale in the next 60 days, most of the best players on the market are likely to be gone, leaving the holes left by Hartnell and Timonen (and, presumably, Kariya) unfilled.
And it's hard for many people here, even those who aren't hard-core Preds fans or who don't put much stock in conspiracy theories, not to wonder whether this isn't all as Balsillie hoped. He's already begun selling options on tickets for 2009 in Ontario. If the depletion of the team erodes attendance this season, Balsillie can break the Predators' lease with Nashville next spring (or in 2009, depending on whose reading of the lease language prevails. Look for this to wind up in a court near you.)