Sunday, July 06, 2008

More Sabbaticals?

Last season, three star players decided that they wanted more time off instead of starting the season in training camp in September. I referred to this as a sabbatical from the NHL. Last season, Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Peter Forsberg all took them. These are star players who are good enough to be able to gain an NHL job whenever they want one and thus are not endangering their NHL career by staying away. These sabbaticals are limited to players in this class. Fringe players cannot get away with them.

After the Stanley Cup final in 2007, Scott Niedermayer was physically exhausted. He needed longer than the NHL allowed for the off season to recharge his batteries. In order to get it he "contemplated retirement" until his December return. After his return, the Anaheim Ducks wins/losses record improved considerably and he is given much of the credit.

Anaheim had another player who took an extended sabbatical. Teemu Selanne also did. He waited until the end of January before re-signing with the Ducks. From that point, he scored almost a point per game (23 points in 26 games).

Peter Forsberg's sabbatical was forced by health reasons. He had a foot operation and had trouble recovering from it. Whenever he played he was very susceptible to groin injuries due to his lingering foot problems. He came back to the NHL in time for the trade deadline and he played very well in his nine regular season games.

The sabbaticals were successful, in that the players showed that they can be away from the NHL part of the season, come back when they wanted and play well. There is no reason that more players may not go this route in the future. I think there are four candidates who may do so this year.

First is Mats Sundin. Sundin does not seem interested in signing a contract right now. He has been offered $10 million a year from the Vancouver Canucks (which would make him the highest paid player in hockey). The reports are that Sundin needs more time to decide his playing future. I think that means he will be back but not in time for the start of the season.

Another candidate is Joe Sakic. Sakic is an unrestricted free agent this summer. Publically, Sakic says that he hasn't decided if he wants to return or not, but Colorado has kept a lot of salary cap room free so they can add him later. I think that it is quite likely that later means after the start of the season.

Teemu Selanne might have enjoyed his extended vacation so much last year that he wants to do it again. Anaheim announced that Niedermayer and Selanne would be given earlier deadlines to announce their intentions for this season (than last) and it has been announced that Niedermayer plans to play the whole season, but no mention of Selanne. Does this mean Selanne will be back, but during the season again?

The final candidate is Peter Forsberg. His future is contingent on his health. He has to remain healthy to continue his career. He may opt for several months of rehab before attempting to play in the NHL again and that would amount to another sabbatical. That assumes that he is healthy enough to continue his NHL career at all (and that is far from a given).

I think the trend of NHL stars taking sabbaticals from the beginning of the season is likely one that will continue. Three players (Niedermayer, Selanne and Forsberg) did it last season with no serious negative effects. It is looking like Sundin, Sakic, Selanne and Forsberg might go that direction this season.

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