Senators Alphabet: Y is for Yashin
Y is for Yashin, as in Alexei Yashin, Ottawa's talented and controversial first-ever draft pick. Yashin came to Ottawa in time for the 1993-1994 season, joining the highly-touted Alexandre Daigle as the twin pillars of Ottawa's future. While Daigle received a lucrative rookie contract which heightened expectations for the phenom from the QMJHL, Yashin quickly stole Daigle's thunder. Yashin put together an impressive 79-point rookie season and was a Calder Trophy finalist, losing to a 21-year-old rookie netminder from the New Jersey Devils.
As the 1990s continued, Daigle faded and Yashin emerged as one of the NHL's brightest stars. Yashin was almost a point a game player (0.98/GP) during his time in Ottawa. His best three seasons in a Sens uniform were his first (83-30-49-70; -49 in 1993-1994) and his last two (82-44-50-94; +16 in 1998-1999 and 82-40-48-88, +10 in 2000-2001). 1998-1999 was Yashin's best year for the Senators. At the beginning of the campaign he was named team captain - the first full-time Russian captain in the NHL - and produced career highs in goals, assists, and points. He finished second in Hart Trophy voting and was named an NHL Second Team All-Star.
If 1998-1999 marked the height of Yashin's on-ice achievement, it also marked the beginning of his most difficult season in hockey. In 1998, Yashin agreed to donate $1 million to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, the financially-troubled NAC's largest ever donation. At the time, Yashin said the arrangement reflected "the kind of connection I have with the Canadian people, and especially with the people in Ottawa". However, when the NAC realized that the terms of the donation included paying his parents as consultants, Yashin canceled his donations. Just like his previous contract disputes, it was all about the money. Yashin planned to spread his donation out in equal amounts over five years. He would receive a $100,000 tax deduction on each payment of $200,000. According to the NAC, $85,000 of each payment was to be given to Yashin's parents for "consulting services" in addition to $15,000 a year to an Ottawa-area fundraiser who came up with the idea. Some suggested Yashin had little knowledge of the deal's particulars, but the fallout harmed Yashin's already tarnished reputation. While Yashin's relationship with management deteriorated in the off-season, it was a culmination of an already strained relationship.
Yashin's contract problems with the Senators began in his first season with the club, when Daigle received a lucrative deal and Yashin didn't. Both players received five-year contracts, but Daigle made three times as much as Yashin. Yashin outplayed Daigle that season, as he did every year they were teammates. As Bruce Garrioch wrote, "Had they given Yashin all the money in the first place, they would have never had a problem with him. Instead they opted to give it to that piece of garbage Daigle ... and you can quote me on that" (thanks Bruce, I will). Early in their careers, Senators management pushed Daigle to be the face of the franchise. Bilingual, Daigle seemed like the kind of player who could both grow the franchise's fan base and help carve out a place for the Senators with existing sports fans. Yashin recorded 28 more points than Daigle in their rookie seasons, yet the franchise pushed Daigle for the Calder Trophy.
Yashin's first contract dispute came at the beginning of the 1995-1996 season, when Yashin held-out, trying to force the team to renegotiate his contract in hopes of becoming the organization's highest-paid player. Yashin's holdout turned many fans against him and subsequent holdouts confirmed their opinions.
His third contract dispute with the team would be the most destructive. After his highly-successful 1998-1999 campaign, Yashin refused to honour the final season of his contract. Instead he demanded $23 million over the next two seasons, a hefty improvement on the $3.6 million he was due in 1999-2000. This was a difficult period for the club financially as well. Then owner Rod Bryden was pressuring the Canadian government for financial assistance. The optics of taking that money and then meeting Yashin's contract demands were terrible for the club. When Yashin refused to report and honour his existing contract after the Sens stripped him of his captaincy, they suspended him for the rest of the 1999-2000 season, with the full support of the NHL. Yashin responded by looking for a European club to play with, but the IIHF suspended him from playing until his dispute was resolved (think Radulov and the Predators, this wouldn't happen today). The case went to an NHL arbitrator in the off-season. Yashin was denied free agent status and required to play the final season of his contract with the Ottawa Senators.
While Yashin returned to play one final season for the Senators in 2000-2001, Daniel Alfredsson remained the captain. After a disappointing playoff loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, management decided it was time to move on. The 2001 NHL Entry Draft saw the Sens make the biggest trade in franchise history as well as one of the most lopsided deals in recent memory. The Sens sent Yashin, their former captain and most productive star to the New York Islanders for Bill Muckalt, Zdeno Chara, and the 2nd pick in the draft (Jason Spezza). Isles GM Mike Milbury moved quickly to sign Yashin to a lengthy, 10 year, $87 million contract providing Yashin with the term and dollars he had longed for. Yashin never again produced at the levels he did when he was with the Sens and declined considerably post-lockout. He was eventually bought out in June 2007, for $17.63 million, two-thirds the amount remaining on his contract. Paid out over 8 years at $2.2 million a year, the Islanders are still paying Yashin's salary for another three years.
Yashin's departure brought the Sens several years of Zdeno Chara's services and Spezza, the man who would replace Yashin as the team's number one centre. Spezza not only matched Yashin's offensive contributions, but he wears the same #19 and will mostly likely wear the captain's "C" when Alfredsson retires. Spezza has now suited up for more games and seasons with the Sens than Yashin. The valuable return has mitigated some of the negativity surrounding Yashin.
The protracted battle with Yashin helped shape the Senators in other ways. If the relationship between the star player and the organization had been more peaceful, perhaps Daniel Alfredsson would not have been elevated to the position of captain so early in his career with the team. Maybe if Yashin had played to 1999-2000 season without complaint the Sens would have signed him to a lucrative extension and wouldn't have been able to afford extending players like Alfie or Marian Hossa during a period of financial difficulty for the club. Yashin's contract disputes and the NAC deal were poorly received by the community. It's not surprising then, that over the course of the past decade the team has valued players who demonstrate a commitment to the community.