For the most part, hockey culture has always been a step ahead in terms of toughness, respect, maturity and balance of mind. But as our nation of simps continues to stretch its tentacles, sometimes even the hockey world falls victim to the wrong kind of thinking.
Never is this meaningless bravado more evident than at the trade deadline and the offseason. These are the times when teams are attempting to bolster their rosters and have to make tough decisions regarding the on-ice personnel of the franchise. They are also the times when mistakes are made that can set a franchise back.
My two arguments can basically be summed up by the following two statements: 1) Talk is cheap, so don’t worry about making statements with your roster moves; and 2) Don’t be a simp — trade the player while you still can.
Before we go further, I want to say that I believe that most NHL owners and general managers do a pretty good job. Most front offices are doing a respectable job, and the congestion of last season’s final standings offer evidence of as much. Up to 27 teams have either playoff hopes or at least something to sell to their fans in terms of buying low and getting in on the new look of the team early, before it potentially grows into a really good squad. I think the latter depicts teams like Ottawa, Edmonton, Columbus and Florida, while the former describes almost every other team in the league. For the record, I believe Colorado and the New York Islanders offer neither in the short term, and although New Jersey certainly has playoff hopes this year, they still have some explaining to do.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk about the two dumbest lines of thinking when it comes to the magical dates of hockey buzz that are the trade deadline and the commencement of free agency.
Sign Players Based on Reality, Not Perception
First, we’ll deal with the offseason. There is a lot of rhetoric in the entire world of sports that says that a team must either resign its star players or go out and add other star players so that the team “makes a statement” of its intent to compete or shows that it has top-level ambition. I know that once a phrase gets repeated enough it becomes the de facto truth, but that does not make it true. This idea that a team must sign high ticket players in order to show that it is serious about winning is absurd. The reason to sign players to larger-than-warranted contracts is to win, not to give the impression that the team is trying to win.
This whole line of thinking misses the point, and furthers one of the most astounding false philosophies in the history of competitive sports: that perception is reality. This phrase originated as a way to basically say that there are multiple sides to every story, that what you perceive is your reality and what I perceive is my reality. Who is to say who is right? This is a legitimate issue for philosophy, science, literature and the like, but it has absolutely no place in professional sports.
Perception is not reality in professional sports. The scoreboard is reality. The standings are reality. The championship is reality. Sports are not a philosophical debate, nor a study into anti-realism. Professional sports are decided based on a set of league rules for determining a champion based on quantitative results of games that are also played according to league rules. That’s it. That’s what sports are.
I am not suggesting that sports are nothing else. Sure, teams are important to communities and people’s sense of identity. They give people the ability to blow off steam or forget about their troubles for a time. Teams offer kids the dreams of one day playing on those teams. Teams offer a boost to local economies.
But I’m arguing against this growing social media culture that seems to be forgetting that ultimately the goal is to achieve your goal. That sounds stupid and obvious, but really look at the way we analyze sports. Hockey isn’t quite as bad as the rest of the big North American sports, but we still see some of the same overused quotes. Right now, the big story in Major League Baseball is whether the N.Y. Mets, who have no money, are forced to hold onto star shortstop Jose Reyes for the rest of the season and attempt to sign him to a new contract in the winter. Mets ownership has stated that it wants to sign Reyes as proof to their fans that they are in it to win it. That’s the stupidest reason to make a move I’ve ever heard. Reyes is in the final year of his contract and has been toying with the Mets since signing an extension five years ago. He has told the team he will not participate in contract negotiations for the rest of the season, “because he wants to focus on baseball.” That’s a veiled excuse. It should read, “because he is pretty sure he doesn’t want to play for this team past the expiration of his contract.”
I digress into the Reyes MLB case study because it touches on both points I want to make regarding the hockey offseason and trade deadline. Since we are talking about the offseason, let’s look at it from the perspective of a team trying to sign a player. July 1 looked a lot like what Republicans have been forecasting for decades now — hyper-inflation. On that day, the terms of each contract were more jaw-dropping than the ones prior, and it got to a point where Brad Richards almost looks underpaid after signing with the N.Y. Rangers on July 2. In fact, after the initial day of free agency, many players have been signed to deals that are financially favorable to the franchises. So what happened on July 1?
People lost their minds. People felt desperate to keep up with the Joneses. People felt that perception was reality. The perception was that if my team is one that is going out and landing players, then my team is a player in the game, and this will translate to wins on the ice. And I agree that teams like Buffalo and Florida got better on July 1, but did every franchise out there get good value and set itself up for a solid future? Some did, some didn’t. Only time will tell for certain who the losers were on 1 July 2011, but there will certainly be some.
Last year gave us a perfect example of what can happen when a hockey team becomes obsessed with creating an image of strength, and figuring that this perceived strength will translate to actual on-ice success, and that example was the New Jersey Devils. The Devils thrived for many years playing their hard-working, trapping defensive style along with an emphasis on puck and positional responsibility in all three zones. They used this uncoined “sixty minutes of hell” philosophy to wear down opponents en route to Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003. Then, near the trade deadline in 2010, the Devils acquired the offensively flamboyant Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta, a team that refused to be simped and dealt their star winger when they felt like he wasn’t going to resign with the Thrashers after his contract expired in less than five months.
The acquisition of Kovalchuk was admirable; it signaled that New Jersey understood that it could use an infusion of scoring, and that its championship window with Martin Brodeur was starting to close. Ultimately, the move didn’t work out, as the division champion Devils were bounced by Atlantic rivals Philadelphia in the first round. Kovalchuk can hardly be blamed for the loss, but the fact remained that the experiment didn’t work out, and that could have been the end of it.
Photo courtesy VancouverSun.com
|Ah, the old saying: It’s all fun and games until a defensive-minded team ties up a ton of its salary cap for the next fifteen years on a winger that doesn’t get back on defense and turns the puck over. If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it one time.|
But that was not the end of it, and the Devils might end up paying dearly for their commitment to perception. New Jersey didn’t let the Kovalchuk thing go, and there was constant deflection from the moment the trade was made that the Devils were not simply renting Kovalchuk, despite what everybody was thinking. It seems as if the Devils were so committed to debunking the idea that they rented Kovalchuk for the 2010 playoffs knowing that they couldn’t afford him in the offseason that they went against every grain of their identity and ended up signing the Russian winger to a 15-year contract, despite the fact that he makes little effort to get back on defense or play “Devils hockey.” Kovalchuk’s cap hit is currently $6.67 million per season for the next 14 years (as always, per CapGeek.com). The Devils finished 11th in the Eastern Conference last year. What’s worse is that they now might not have enough money to keep Zach Parise on board. Parise is a RFA who has epitomized “Devils hockey” in the last few years, but now the Devils only have about $7.8 million to add four players to finalize their roster. It would still cost another team a lot of draft picks to sign Parise to an offer sheet, but unlike the situation in Tampa with Steven Stamkos, there is a decent chance that the Devils simply could not match a high offer from another team for Parise.
|Wait, you signed a lesser LW to a fifteen-year contract without checking with Zach Parise (above) first? I heard the New York Knicks were looking for a GM…|
If the Devils were to lose Parise, it would solidify their summer 2010 descent to the dark side in which they forgot who they were and ended up much worse off because of it. Quite simply, Zach Parise wins more NHL games than Ilya Kovalchuk. They play the same position, which is its own study of insanity. So what happened? Why would a franchise make a move that is so contrary to its historical mantra? Quite simply, the Devils were too concerned with making a statement of intent, with trying to prove some twisted form of ambition, with how they would be perceived, with things that are irrelevant.
There are many front offices that have largely resisted the urge to overspend or forget what their team is built around, but one that sticks out in this offseason is that of the Detroit Red Wings. General manager Ken Holland had money to blow for the first time in many offseasons when Brian Rafalski abruptly retired, and in doing so, gave Holland and the Red Wings $6 million to play with.
Photo courtesy nhlsnipers.com
|Rafalski hung up the skates, giving Detroit an unexpected $6 million hole to fill.|
Many people were assuming that the Wings would be very active on July 1. The Wings were supposed to find a way to replace Rafalski and bolster the lineup in an effort to get over San Jose and Vancouver in the west; to hold off Chicago and Nashville in the division; to keep up with Los Angeles, who acquired a true NHL star in Mike Richards from Philadelphia in late June. After all, what would the Wings be saying if they failed to make some big signings?
But Holland played it cool. He brought back a few of his own free agents in Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves and Jonathan Ericsson. Then he went out and signed two right-handed defensemen (Mike Commodore and Ian White) for a total of less than $4 million in an effort to replace Rafalski by committee, which was the only way it could have possibly been done anyway. What would have been the point of going out and getting a guy like Tomas Kaberle (who shoots left, by the way) for close to as much money as Rafalski vacated? To put it in better perspective, why pay Kaberle 70% of what you’re paying Nicklas Lidstrom? He doesn’t give you anywhere near 70% of Lidstrom’s returns.
Regarding the situation with Lidstrom, having the reigning Norris winner coming back for what many assume is a final year could have only added pressure on Holland to go out and mortgage the future for the best possible chance to win the 2012 Cup. Once Lidstrom heads home to Sweden for good, there is a real chance that the Red Wings take a step back in the central division. Therefore, there exists a strong urgency for the Red Wings to grab that one last Stanley Cup as an icing on the cake for one of the great fifteen-year runs in recent league history. But Holland and the Wings’ front office have resisted the urge to sacrifice the future by dealing prospects, unloading draft picks, and spending cash irrationally. The result is a franchise that looks like it has an infrastructure that is set up to add many more years to its already best active playoff streak of 20 straight seasons. And it’s all because they didn’t sign players to bad contracts in a frantic chase for immediate gratification. They didn’t trade away youngsters who continue to come into their own with either the big club or in Grand Rapids. They didn’t deal away draft picks for aging, overpaid players whose best years are in the rearview.
Of course, sticking with this philosophy may not lead to any more Stanley Cups for the Red Wings, but it certainly leaves them with a better chance to be at least a contender for years to come than had they abandoned their mantras and tried to leverage a champion by adding unmovable parts that don’t fit with the squad. The Wings worried about reality instead of perception, and as a result, they have a 22-man roster that looks pretty formidable for even the best teams in the league. They have only a backup goalie left to sign, and after doing so the team should have almost all of Rafalski’s surrendered cap space to hold on to. Having this extra cash allows the Wings to either chase some replacements in the 2012 offseason, or make some deadline deals this year to bring in some considerable upgrades that may have expiring contracts. In case you’re wondering, there is a better class of 2012 free agents than the one we have spent the last week tracking, and those are the players that get moved the most in late February.
Which brings me to my next point…
Trade Your Impending UFAs (If You Can’t Win the Cup Now)
If your team is able to dodge the panic bullet in the offseason, fear not, as there is still another period where the ticking of a clock can make people with authority act crazy. In the offseason, the ticking clock is the one that displays the time left on a player’s free agency. Once that player agrees to terms with one team, time has run out. There is no knowing when this will be, and that adds some urgency to every team bidding on an individual player.
But in the case of the trade deadline, the time of the clock’s expiration is known. Many teams still feel the crunch when it comes time to decide whether to keep players or rebuild, and likewise for those teams trying to decide which piece(s) to add to make a run for the Stanley Cup.
In most instances where a good team tries to bolster up, I tend not to criticize these good teams for overpaying or bringing in a rental. After all, my team has won four Cups in my lifetime, and I know how awesome it is to win one. There’s no knowing for sure whether the Boston Bruins would have won this past Cup without the trade deadline acquisition of Kaberle, although many of his detractors are probably scoffing at this right now. But the fact is they brought in a guy that was pretty polarizing amongst fans and analysts, and it resulted in a championship. I’m not sure that you can’t put a price on winning the Cup, but whatever that price may be, it is much higher than the one the Bruins paid to rent Kaberle for a few months. So fair play, and congratulations.
|Tomas Kaberle in the only place he ever wants to be: just inside the opponent’s blue line.|
But enough about the good teams who have a legitimate shot to win the Stanley Cup; let’s talk about the teams that don’t. If a team has a coveted player that is in the final year of his contract, and the team has no chance to win the Stanley Cup in the current season, then the player must be traded. This year saw two prime examples of teams that have no chance to win the ultimate prize failing to trade off sought-after pieces that were leaving the franchise in the offseason anyway.
Now more than ever, players are interested in winning. Blasphemy, you say? Here’s what I’m not saying: that players in previous eras did not try to win as much as those in the current era. That is not my point at all. My point is: as the world has moved on, athletes have become more likely to leave a franchise that treats them well in exchange for a better chance at winning a championship. Sure, money plays a factor in these deals for a lot of players, but for prime time players the offers are largely the same. It’s a lot of money to go to Team A, or a lot of money to go to Team B.
This season, the Dallas Stars sat on center Brad Richards the entire season, only to eventually finish 9th in the west because they couldn’t win a game on the last night of the season against the city that they used to play in. Had they won that game, they would have had to defeat Vancouver, San Jose, and then the winner of a Detroit – Nashville series to win the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and advance to play the Bruins. There was no chance this was going to happen. None. To make matters worse, Richards had given every indication that he was not going to sign a new contract with the Stars. When one party in a relationship says it likes the idea of “testing the waters,” it’s usually a good time for the other party to trade the other one in.
|Everyone knew 2010-11 was the last season for this. Everyone but Dallas Stars brass.|
In the east, the Florida Panthers were holding onto goalie Tomas Vokoun, who had given no indication that he wanted to continue with the losing club. Vokoun played last season at the age of 34, and had already been making solid money. There was every indication that Vokoun wanted to play out the rest of his days with a playoff team, and yet the Panthers failed to deal the keeper. And this situation was even worse than the one in Dallas, because Florida did not have the excuses of ownership limbo or competing for the last playoff spot to offer as reasons to hold onto Vokoun. Quite simply, there was no reason to hold onto Vokoun until the end of his contract. None at all. There was no upside. The Panthers finished last in the eastern conference with Vokoun. How much worse could it have been without him?
|“But I don’t wanna trade Vokoun; we’ll only get pennies on the dollar.” Okay then, take nothing instead.|
It is true that when every other team believes that a team has to trade a player, the result is lowered value for the team that is “forced” to trade a Richards or Vokoun. But if the player is drawing attention from multiple teams, then the holders are not forced to trade them to any one team. Even if the value for those players is lower than it “should have been,” stubbornness is a terrible reason to refuse to get something in return for an asset that you know is departing anyway. And make no mistake about it, Dallas and Florida knew these two players were leaving, because remember, players want to play on winning teams now. Especially players in their thirties. So, what does it matter if you can only get one prospect or one or two draft picks? That’s more than what you will get if you just sit around and wait to miss the playoffs or get smashed in the first round by holding onto these guys who are dying to get out. For all of these reasons, I think the failure to trade Vokoun was one of the most inexplicable failures to boost a franchise that I’ve seen. He was not coming back. He didn’t fit in with your upcoming offseason plans. You finished last in the conference anyway, and got nothing for him except freed up salary, which you don’t use and would have had anyway by trading him. Find me a worse theoretical non-trade in hockey.
Perhaps the biggest problem that leads to these teams consistently failing to trade players who are upcoming UFAs and want to play on winning teams is that the front office members are too close to the situation. Of course, this is naturally how it has to be. If a person works for a team, they are closely aligned with that team. But this creates subjectivity, which is another way to say that the natural tendency is to plan for your team’s future with emotions involved. It’s impossible to be an emotionless robot, but perhaps teams should start bringing in some more objective consultants who know a bit about the game, but have no dog in the fight (besides this single-job paycheck).
Every general manager and owner has a tendency to see his team’s situation or brand as better than it is, which takes us back to that perception versus reality thing. The front office’s perception is that their organization is on the way up and is a great place to play, so that is their reality. Players who are free agents get to take a look at every team, and they get to perceive teams’ situations the way they will, and that becomes their realities. This failure to see their own overrating of themselves probably plays a role in why certain non-contending teams are unable to come to grips with where their teams really stand in the pecking order. This leads to holding onto a pipe dream of resigning a player who up to this point has not signed a contract extension.
The Marisa Miller Conundrum
Let’s put this in gentlemens’ terms. It’s going to be hard to draw a perfect parallel, since there is the dynamic of a franchise owning a player’s rights, but we’ll give it a try. Ladies, if you can’t put yourself in a man’s shoes, then substitute the female names with male ones, and it should all make sense.
So you’re a man somewhere between the ages of 26 and 35. At the current time, you have convinced all-world supermodel Marisa Miller to date you. In fact, it’s going alright, and you’ve got half a mind to propose.
Photo courtesy FHM
|Marisa Miller: Sure, I’m the worldwide #1, but I have every intention to stay with your team, regular schmoe. What’s that, sign an extension? Well, not today, but…|
But here’s the thing: for some reason, whether it be for work, school, something, there is a point in time coming where the two of you will have to be in separate halves of the world for the foreseeable future. This point in time is coming in, say, three months. You know from previous experience that the odds of maintaining a successful long-distance relationship are about 7 to 1. Those odds are made worse by the fact that she is Marisa Miller, and you’re you.
|Oh, hi incredibly mediocre boyfriend that struggles to compete for the playoffs. Don’t be silly, I’m not going anywhere. I look terrible without makeup!|
Okay, so now you’re getting a little antsy, and you bring up the topic of marriage. Never mind the fact that Miller is married in real life — for the purposes of this experiment, she is not and has never been married. Upon your prodding, she admits that she is unsure of the whole idea, and would need more time to decide were “someone” to pop the question to her today. Again, you know that if three months pass, you are not getting a “yes.”
Here’s a wrinkle: because you are known to currently be dating Miller exclusively, female interest in you has picked up. You get word through backchannels that Alison Brie and Adrianne Palicki have let it slip that they would very much like to get to know you. Again, insert whatever names you want. The point is that you now have two lesser-known, younger-but-currently-less-hot professionals that want to play for your team (a.k.a. date you), and remember that this hypo has an American author, thus the particular names.
|Adrianne Palicki was wondering if you were free next Saturday night.|
|Alison Brie: If he’s cool enough to land Marisa Miller, of course I’d be interested. Photo via.|
Now, the flipside to this wrinkle is that their interest in you, rightly or wrongly, is based on you being able to lock down this supermodel that they admire. If Miller dumps you, this interest will disappear. If you try to cheat, Miller will dump you. If you let the three-month period expire and your relationship with Miller ceases to continue, the interest from the other women will disappear.
Quick: what do you do?
Here’s what you do if you’re a simp: you ride out the three-month period with Miller despite being given every indication that she is not interested in signing a long-term extension (engagement) with you. Then when that period ends, you throw up a hail mary of love, Roy Williams-style, and propose to a woman who has no reason to want to accept. One of you is leaving; she is embarking on a big upturn in her career / life. In other words, she’s going to test the waters.
|Yeah, it’s a $3 million bra, but I might stay with you, middle of the pack team — I mean boyfriend. Let’s just ride this out, and we’ll decide on a new contract in the summer, okay?|
You get rejected, and now have no leverage to turn your previously good position into any assets at all.
Here’s what you do if you’re objective and looking to build a future that will always be relevant: you trade Miller, a highly coveted partner, for the chance to see what happens with two younger potential partners who are interested. I know this isn’t exactly how it works in the real world of relationships, but in some ways it kind of is. And it’s the best I could do to parallel the situations of hockey front offices with impending UFA players.
By waiting the Marisa Miller situation out, the guy ends up with nothing and has to start from scratch. By not trading guys like Brad Richards or Tomas Vokoun, the Stars and Panthers get absolutely nothing in exchange for the players leaving, which the teams should have known was going to happen anyway.
|Alison reminds you that the trade deadline is coming, and you ain’t winning the Cup with Marisa this year. Whatcha gonna do?|
By making the tough decision and cutting ties with Miller, the guy ends up keeping his dignity and parlaying that into an opportunity to see if he can’t build a winner with Brie or Palicki.
|Adrianne: “No, but really though. Hi. I’m from Toledo.”|
Comparatively, by trading players that either aren’t coming back or will have diminishing returns for prospects and/or draft picks, a team gives itself a chance to build something with players that it would not have otherwise had if it did the weak thing and let the UFA hang around and bolt upon the expiration of his contract. The Toronto Maple Leafs did a solid job of unloading Kaberle and Kris Versteeg to competing rivals Boston and Philadelphia. Sure, Versteeg wasn’t an impending UFA, but he is going to be a RFA after this upcoming season, and there wasn’t much of a chance he’d be a Leaf after that. They traded Marisa Miller in for a shot at future success. Kudos.
There were other teams that did a good job of realizing who they were, including the Panthers. Dale Tallon, Michael Yormark and the boys in Florida were able to unload Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen, Michael Frolik, Dennis Wideman and others in order to set themselves up for this summer and beyond. But that one question remains: why not Vokoun? It doesn’t matter if the offers weren’t “good enough,” because the fact was that Vokoun was leaving for free this summer. Get something while you can.
Not All Overspending Is Warrantless
There were a few teams that have overspent this month for good reason. In general, I believe that you should always be looking for value as a consumer of anything, including hockey players. But in the case of our beloved Florida Panthers, they were kind of forced into signing players to inflated deals just to reach the salary cap floor of $48.3 million. The team is currently at $49.8 million with only one player left to roster. When we look at it that way, paying Scottie Upshall $3.5 million this season doesn’t look nearly as bad. It looks almost necessary. Who else were they going to pay that money to? The answer is likely to a player who is even less deserving of it.
|Easy there, Tallon. I said you did a good job overall. Just don’t get the Vokoun thing.|
Another team that turned heads in the past two weeks is the Buffalo Sabres. Some people have been using that patented line to say that the Sabres are signing all of these big-time players to bigger-time deals in order to show everyone that they are serious about chasing the Cup. I think it’s probably more that they are actually chasing the Cup. And when we look at the makeup of the squad now, there really isn’t much room to criticize the moves of this offseason. Most of the bad deals that they have on the books date back to before Terry Pegula bought the team this winter (see Ales Kotalik, Tomas Vanek). On top of that reprieve, Ryan Miller is a week from his 31st birthday. Miller is in the prime of his career, but that won’t last forever. There are another few years where the Sabres may boast the best goaltender in the game, and they wanted to go out and acquire the requisite offense to support their 2010 Vezina winner. Again, these were solid deals because they were based on reality, and not perception.
|Buffalo Savior: Terry Pegula is the Buffalo Sabres new owner, and he gives a damn.|
The last team I’ll touch upon before bringing this entry to a long-awaited close is the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jackets lost some players this offseason, including Upshall, Commodore, Mathieu Garon and Jan Hejda, but they added a couple big-time players as well. Right before the month of June ended, Columbus acquired the rights to defenseman James Wisniewski, who was on the radar of many good teams in the NHL. The Jackets were able to sign Wiz by throwing a slightly front-loaded six-year contract his way that averages $5.5 million per season. Adding Wisniewski helps the team win hockey games, but it also aligns with the one instance in which making a perception signing is allowable — when a team needs to add fans. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still stupid to run a team based on trying to conjure up perceptions of ambition rather than building an actual on-ice winner, but teams like Columbus and some of the southern teams do actually need to create some interest. Of course, the best way to do this is to win, but signing a guy like Wiz does both.
|James Wisniewski and his awesome white stick got PAID.|
Prior to acquiring Wisniewski, the Jackets were one-half of Philadelphia’s blockbuster June 23rd when they traded for Flyers center Jeff Carter. I’ve been critical of Carter in the past based on the length and terms of his contract, but on a team that is mired in fifth in its division in terms of franchise prestige, Carter is a relatively solid offensive pickup. Carter has eleven years left on a contract that carries a $5.27 million cap hit, and a known full no-trade clause from 2012-13 to 2014-15, but I’m not sure the Blue Jackets had the option to continue to sit back and fail. There have been whispers about the team being forced to shut down operations in Columbus for a little while now, and the last thing the front office wants is to engineer a team that had to move or contract. Never mind the fact that they’d all be out of jobs; it’s an embarrassing failure to be at the helm for that sort of thing. So in the case of Columbus, well done for giving off the perception of trying to win. Now, it’s time to merge perception with reality.