Sens send Yashin to Islanders, select Spezza

The New York Islanders were expected to be among the most active teams on the NHL draft day, and they've pulled the trigger on the first blockbuster of the day, acquiring Alexei Yashin from the Ottawa Senators.

The Sens receive towering defenceman Zdeno Chara, forward Bill Muckalt and, most significantly, the Islanders' first-round draft pick - second overall - which they used to select the most highly-touted North American prospect in the draft, forward Jason Spezza of the OHL's Windsor Spitfires.

"We really liked Jason Spezza," Senators general manager Marshall Johnston told Sportsnet.

"We also added a player in Zdeno Chara and another player in Bill Muckalt, and we felt at this time that this was the best for our franchise."

The upshot of the deal is that Ottawa relinquishes its hold on its one-time franchise player, who had become reviled by many Senators fans and picks up size and grit in addition to a tantalizingly talented and creative offensive prodigy with enormous potential.

With Yashin not a factor in their long-range plans, the trade has a tremendous upside for Ottawa. Spezza is not a fluid or powerful skater, but his puckhandling and passing skills are superb, and he's a bona fide sniper with an accurate shot and quick release.

Since breaking into the OHL with the Brampton Battalion as a gifted but green 15-year-old in 1998-99, Spezza has been hounded by hype, but he justified much of it with 43 goals and 73 assists for 116 points in 56 games for the Spitfires this season.

"It's close to home, and I can stay in Canada," said Spezza, apparently pleased by the prospect of playing for Ottawa.

Chara and Muckalt would also seem to be major considerations for Ottawa in the deal. Chara, a 24-year-old Slovak, is the tallest player ever to lace up skates in the NHL and looms at close to seven feet in those skates. Being an enthusiastic hitter only adds to his intimidating presence.

Chara scored twice and added seven assists and 157 penalty minutes last season.

The 26-year-old Muckalt comes by his name honestly, a mucker with enough of a scoring touch to notch 11 goals and 15 assists over 60 games in 2000-01. He should add a dimension of toughness and determination to the skilful ranks of Ottawa's forwards.

Islanders GM Mike Milbury, meanwhile, has made a deal that could salvage his managerial reputation, which has been damaged by a series of ill-advised trades, in landing an elite impact player entering the prime of his career - or he could have saddled himself with a big headache while passing up on one of the best prospects to come out of Canada in some time.

He also took a swipe at the Senators, as well.

"Mother Theresa would have a bad reputation in Ottawa."

The deal won't come cheap for Milbury's beleaguered Islanders, either. Yashin made $3.6 million in 2000-2001 and is reportedly seeking a new deal in the neighbourhood of $8 million.

Whatever appetite the Senators may have had to re-sign Yashin, one of the game's premier offensive threats when he's on his game, vanished when the 27-year-old Russian centre did a vanishing act of his own in Ottawa's humiliating first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the underdog Toronto Maple Leafs.

Even before then, Yashin, who was slated to become a restricted free agent on July 1, was on thin ice with Senators management, and Yashin hasn't exactly been pleading to stay in Ottawa.

His infamous refusal to honour his contract for the 1999-2000 season, as he pressed to renegotiate his salary, raised the ire of fans in Ottawa and around the NHL, especially since it was his third contract dispute with the Senators since his rookie season of 1993-94.

Anti-Yashin sentiment in Ottawa reached a crescendo with an Ottawa man's $27.5-million (Cdn) lawsuit against Yashin on behalf of Ottawa fans, although the suit was dismissed.

An arbitrator's ruling put Yashin back on the ice to play out the final year of his four-year contract in 2000-01, and an uneasy truce resulted between Yashin and Senators fans, who were mollified by an excellent season in which Yashin scored 40 goals and added 48 assists. But Yashin was just as quickly vilified again after his dismal performance in the playoffs.

Johnston seemed relieved at having dealt his star centre, who was a runner up for the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1998-99, when he record a career-high 94 points.

"We've turned the page," said Johnston. "Alexei was with our franchise, contributed to the early success of our franchise and we wish him the best."

For Milbury, the immediate task was to find a player who can immediately electrify crowds and galvanize his young team.

"We've got so many draft picks in our stable of young players and it's time for us to advance the cause," said Milbury. "This is a premium centre-iceman, a guy a lot of teams in the league covet and a guy we've been looking for a long time."