Public Enemy Number One
Hard feelings from a fan base toward a player that leaves a team on bad terms is not rare in hockey or in sports generally speaking. What is somewhat uncommon is when said player's new team's fan base soon feels animosity toward said player. One such case is that of Alexei Yashin, whose contract holdout poisoned his relationship with the fans of the Ottawa Senators, and whose later lack of production and eventual buyout embittered New York Islanders' fans. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let us look back over the details of "The People v. Alexei Yashin."
To say that relations between the Senators and Yashin were always strained would not be fair, nor would it be true. Yashin was the first draft pick in the history of the modern Senators, with Ottawa taking him with the number two overall pick in 1992. After playing for Dynamo Russia during the 1992-93 season, Yashin joined the Senators for the 1993-94 season, and led the team in scoring as a rookie, with 30 goals and 79 points, and finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting. After one more season in which he led the team in scoring, the first signs of trouble appeared. In 1995, unhappy with his pay, Yashin held out until December. Eventually, a deal was worked out, and though some fans were less than thrilled with Yashin's actions, things appeared to be back to normal. In fact, the Senators finally began to gain some traction, making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in Yashin's first full season back with the team.
The 1996-97 season began a streak of three consecutive years in which Yashin led the Senators in scoring, and the Senators made the playoffs in each of those three years. In 1998, he was named team captain, and his 44 goal, 94 point season made him runner-up in Hart Trophy balloting after the ensuing season. The Senators won their first division title, and the future looked bright in Ottawa.
Appearances can be deceiving, and the sunshine and roses look in Ottawa certainly was. Yashin was slated to earn $3.6 million the next season, and feeling his market value was much higher demanded another contract, threatening to sit out if he did not receive one. The Senators refused a trade demand, and stripped Yashin of the captaincy, giving it to Daniel Alfredsson. With Yashin still refusing to report, the Senators, with the backing of the NHL chose to suspend him for the 1999-2000 season. Yashin then attempted to sign with a Swiss team, but was barred from doing so, pending the resolution of his North American status.
Not willing to allow Yashin out of the last year of his contract after the holdout, the and without a clause in the CBA addressing such a situation, the Senators took Yashin to arbitration, arguing that he still owed the team the final year of the contract. The arbiter agreed, and Yashin had no choice left but to rejoin the team. On the ice, Yashin was successful in the regular season, with 40 goals and 88 points, but was not well received by fans at any stop. Further exacerbating the situation was his poor performance in the playoffs. Yashin managed only one assist in a four game sweep at the hands of the Maple Leafs, and the damage was done.
The Senators made the most of the situation on Draft Day, 2001, the Senators dealt Yashin to the New York Islanders for forward Bill Muckalt, then little known defenseman Zdeno Chara, and the number two overall pick, which they used to select Jason Spezza. With the eventual production of Spezza and the extremely rapid development of Chara, the trade is now considered to be one of the most lopsided ever. For their part, the Islanders quickly signed Yashin to a 10-year, $87.5 million contract. The price tag was reduced by the 2005 CBA, but the Islanders soon had reason to regret the deal.
In New York, Yashin's point production began to decline, and he was still ineffective in the playoffs. In four playoff appearances with Yashin on the roster, the Islanders never managed to advance past the first round. By the beginning of the 2006-07 season, there were rumblings concerning a potential buyout of Yashin's contract. During the season, he suffered a knee injury, and was less effective after his return. As a result, Islanders head coach Ted Nolan announced that he would rest Yashin until his knee was completely healed, prompting more speculation. Once he did finally return to the lineup, he contributed 13 points in 16 games, but another lackluster playoff performance was the final nail in the coffin. In 2007, the Islanders chose to buy out the contract, paying out $2.2 million per year each season, which ended just this off-season.
Shockingly, after the buyout, Yashin's agent, Mark Gandler, announced Yashin's desire to return to the Senators and said that he would "be calling Ottawa for sure." Not surprisingly, the Senators had no interest in bringing Yashin back to the team, and disappointed with offers received from other NHL teams, Yashin elected to continue his career in the Russian Super League with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. There were talks of his return to the Islanders for the 2011-12 season, but they came to nothing in the end, and Yashin retired in 2012.
For Ottawa, the Yashin drama and trade were a blessing in disguise. Chara and Spezza played key roles in the team's run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. The Islanders learned the hard way that all that glitters is not gold. Immense natural talent does little good if not accompanied with the proper attitude. With 20/20 hindsight, we can easily see that Yashin's attitude probably cost him dearly. One can only wonder, if he had it to do all over again, would he do it differently?