Damphousse passes up free agency for four-year contract
SAN JOSE - The Sharks waited all the way until June 11 to produce the biggest upset of their season.
Friday's signing of Vincent Damphousse accomplishes what San Jose could not do two summers ago with goalie Ed Belfour or last offseason with John MacLean.
San Jose finally must be doing something right to convince a 31-year-old All-Star center, who was less than three weeks away from attaining unrestricted free-agent rights, to give all that up to sign with a team that after eight years in the league has yet to enjoy one winning season.
"I've known Vinnie a long time and a guy like Vinnie is not going to stay if he doesn't think things are headed in the right direction," said Doug Wilson, San Jose's director of pro development.
Damphousse went from a rent-a-player to a central figure in San Jose with one bold stroke Friday. He's in the fold for four years at an average of $4.65 million per season, and there's a club option for the 2003-04 campaign that could turn into Damphousse's option if he meets certain performance incentives.
Something seems to have changed in San Jose. Like Damphousse, Belfour came via a midseason trade. After spending three months in Sharks teal two years ago, the All-Star goalie said all the right things, then bolted to Dallas one day after going on the open market.
MacLean came aboard early last year, but made no false elusions. He'd spent his entire career previously on the East Coast and intended on resuming it there when he gained free agency. MacLean signed a multiyear deal with the Rangers.
Then the Sharks lucked into Damphousse. San Jose couldn't put the puck in the net and he was a languishing captain in Montreal, not a good place to languish considering the ever-present pressure put on by fans and media.
The Montreal native was having his worst offensive season in 11 years and the Canadiens were not going to make the playoffs, so the team sent him packing to a destination where they figured he couldn't hurt them.
Damphousse helped to boost the Sharks' scoring output from 2.2 goals per game in their first 70 outings to 3.3 in the last dozen. He had seven goals and six assists after producing just 12 goals and 24 points in 65 games in Montreal. In the playoffs, Damphousse was the team's second-leading scorer with three goals and five points.
Not only was Damphousse good, but he made the players around him better. General manager Dean Lombardi noticed that, and was even more convinced when in one-on-one meetings with players after the season he continuously heard how much they wanted to see Damphousse back.
"That's a very close team, it's their team," Lombardi said.
Damphousse saw the same thing, and it was instrumental in his decision-making process.
Speaking by phone from his agent's office in Laval, Quebec, Damphousse said on Friday, "The first thing I saw was the closeness of the players. That's something you notice in a team going in the right direction."
Wilson was assigned to get the deal done because of his relationship with Damphousse's agent, Bob Sauve. Wilson and Sauve were teammates in Chicago from 1985-87. "The way the negotiations went with Doug it was clear he wanted to be here," Lombardi said. "There was no acting. He was sincere."
"I wanted to give them a chance to sign me," Damphousse said. "They negotiated with me really well. Doug Wilson was very good. It was classy the way it was done. There was not a time when I said forget it and I'll wait for July 1."
It also saved the Sharks from having to go to Plan B: trading one of their potential young stars for an established player.
During a 13-year career that began after Toronto made him the sixth overall choice in 1986, Damphousse has scored 347 goals and 929 points in 1,005 NHL regular-season games. He's added 29 goals and 71 points in 93 career playoff appearances.
In accordance with his signing, Montreal owns San Jose's fifth-round pick in the June 26 draft, gets a first-rounder in 2000 and a second-round pick either next year or in 2001.
"Looking back it's one of the best things that happened to my career and myself," Damphousse said.
And likewise for the Sharks.