Monday, 16 June 2014

Magnus Nygren wants to play for the Canadiens next season, or for another NHL team.

Sports fans by and large love the concept of the draft.  It equalizes fortunes in the long term, with weaker teams having a better chance at the best players at the start of a new season.  Weak sisters can in the course of a few years turn into powerhouses.  Every fan can one day cheer on a champion.  The draft is the promise of a better tomorrow.

Athletes and the unions that represent them have tolerated, maybe even accepted the draft as a necessary evil.  For a league to be healthy and to ensure franchises don't fold, it was felt in the recent past that perennial losers needed propping up by way of the draft.  So a player being told where he will live and for who he will work for the next decade or so has become something we don't blink at.  The draftees themselves have been inculcated in this system, they proudly don the cap and jersey of the team that chose them.  They immediately gush over how lucky they feel to be drafted by a great (team/organization/city) that has such a tremendous (reputation/tradition/future).  In the NFL, the kids go so far as to ritually hug league commissioner Roger Goodell, the guy who locked out their brethren, and will do so again as soon as he's legally capable.

So good Canadian kids, having grown up rooting for their hometown team, and having been browbeaten by Don Cherry on countless Saturday nights about loyalty and sacrifice and commitment to the team, surrender totally to this system, gulp freely of the Kool-Aid proffered, and dutifully submit to the whims of their new employers as to where they'll play next.

European teens, growing up in a different system, with club teams and transfers and other such esoterica, and often having no loyalty to an NHL team beyond maybe liking one on which their favourite player plays, sometimes don't buckle under that easily.  They often choose to remain in Europe, and play for their current club team, instead of obsequiously flying over to report for duty.  When the Sedin brothers were drafted by the Canucks, they caused a minor storm when they announced that they would remain in Sweden for another season since they felt that was better for their development.  Brian Burke chased after the news and supported his new draftees, but it felt hollow to the average fan, the Canucks hadn't made this decision, these inscrutable, ungrateful Euros did.

And I don't want to make this a question of nationality, it's really a question of options.  European players have options, and they often choose to use them.  Given the choice between the AHL or the KHL or SHL, many European players feel perfectly fine choosing to remain in Europe, close to home, getting the star treatment and being paid well, rather than riding buses in third-tier American cities and Toronto, getting paid a relative pittance.

Whenever an athlete is given a choice, he shouldn't be faulted for exercising this power to choose, but fans of the teams that are left holding the bag can't help being bitter.  The USFL, which competed briefly with the NFL in the 80's, caused a lot of anguish, stealing away future prodigies like Hershel Walker and Marcus Dupree before they were eligible for the NFL draft.  The fans of the Bills saw their 'Class of '84' QB Jim Kelly bolt to Houston, dominate the league, and make unflattering comparisons between Houston and Buffalo.  And their respective women.

John Elway used Major League Baseball and a minor-league contract with the New York Yankees to force a trade out of Baltimore to Denver, not wanting to play for drunken buffoon Jim Irsay's Colts and having his career and his health consequently imperiled.

Justin Schultz was a second-round draft choice of Anaheim Ducks, and continued his development at the University of Wisconsin where he blossomed.  Sensing a changing tide, and wanting to play closer to his Kelowna home, he used a technicality in the CBA to opt out of signing with the Ducks and become a free agent, eventually landing, inexplicably, in Edmonton, when he could have chosen Vancouver.

All this is preamble to examine Magnus Nygren's statements in the Swedish press that he wants to play in North America next season, but in the NHL only, not the AHL.  If the Canadiens can't find room for him, he wants to be traded to another team that will play him at the NHL level.  He goes so far as to say that the Canadiens have already told him that they "won't stand in the way of his getting traded", if they can get fair value in return.

Now the last statement isn't very controversial, it's rather sensible, but we denote a hint of naiveté in the way he couches it, if it's not just something being lost in translation.  As I said, Europeans usually deal with transfers rather than trades, I don't know if Mr. Nygren understands how complex trade negotiations can be, how trades are actually conducted, and what fair value can mean to two or multiple parties.

But he's being very logical.  He experienced life in the AHL, and found he didn't like the game, the physicality and goonery, he didn't like the system taught by his coaches, and didn't like the city of Hamilton, being taken aback by the squalor and the criminality.  So he used his options, and went back to Sweden to a higher-paying gig, in a safer, more familiar environment, and in in his homeland instead of abroad.  He now wants to return to North America, but in the big leagues, not the minors.  He'll opt to remain in Sweden otherwise, but won't mind if it means he doesn't play for the Canadiens; in fact he'd gladly go anywhere if traded.

The thing is, his statements weaken the Canadiens bargaining position with other teams, and make it harder for Marc Bergevin to extract that fair value out of another team.  They also kind of paint the Canadiens management into a corner.  What if Magnus Nygren does win a job on the team, by a slim margin?  Does he operate under a cloud in the eyes of his teammates, as the guy who extorted a roster spot while they all played it straight, went to the AHL and earned their job the old-fashioned way?

This is disappointing for me, in that I saw Magnus Nygren as a dark horse to make the team out of training camp.  He brings a lot to the table that we are short of.  He's a right-handed, puck-moving defenceman, who can play the powerplay and has a rocket for a shot.  He scratches a lot of our itches.

He would be an NHL rookie, but a mature one, in that he's 24 years old, and has played against grown men in the Swedish league for years.  As Raphaël Diaz and Alexei Emelin won an NHL job with us without going through the Bulldogs, so could he.  He was on Sweden's World Championship team this year.  He won the SHL equivalent of the Norris Trophy the previous season.

Building a team is never easy, and you have to contend with a number of different personalities, they can't all be Bob Gaineys or Jonathan Toewses, Dudley Do-Rights whose only utterance to the coach are "Sir, yes Sir!"  Some of them will have quirks, inflated self-esteem, a bit of the superstar in them.  Some will be Johnny Manziels and have all three, and much, much more, and will take their fans on a wild ride.

Montreal GM Marc Bergevin has a bit of a flashy personality, but he in his words and deeds prizes character and teamwork, preaches the 'team concept' tirelessly.  It will be interesting to see if he can get past these statements and envision his team including the Swedish prospect.  Does he see the player as unmanageable, unrealistic, a prima donna, one who'll upset the team chemistry?  Or does he see a player who can be very useful to us, plugs a lot of holes, has a lot of upside, and will be hammered into shape by his strong coaching staff and veteran group?

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