If we can learn anything from NHL free agency, it's that panic and greed make uncomfortable bedfellows. Players in the primes of their careers can see the end, if not near, then at least within spittin' distance. They want the most money they can get because the bodies that buy them a life of privilege don't last for long. Who can blame them, if they peddle the remaining use of those bodies to the highest bidders? Most of them are trained for little else, and must make the most of their physical tickets to financial security.
On the side of teams, there's pressure to get better and do it as quickly as possible. General managers know their time is finite too. They want a winning team on their resumes, and they aren't overly concerned with consequences that will inevitably arise on the watches of their successors.
When those two tides; the greed of self-preservation and the panic of being the guy who comes up empty on free agent day meet, they create a perfect storm of overpayment and almost-certain future regret.
Remember June, 2007? Sheldon Souray had just scored 26 goals for the Habs and set an NHL record for powerplay goals by a defenceman in a season. He wasn't the hottest in his own end, but he could fight, he was a strong leader on the team, and oh! That shot! We saw him once break a defenceman's stick on its blurred path directly to the back of the net. And, what about the time he put the puck right through the twine? Back then, he could have picked his dream job. Bob Gainey offered him big money to stay in Montreal. Souray says other teams offered him more. In the end, sentiment and money combined to lead him home to Edmonton. He was a local boy who remembered the glory days of the team and thought the modern incarnation operated on the same plane.
Flash forward three years into a five-year deal and Souray has cleared waivers, after suffering two injury-plagued seasons and a feud with management that's culminated in aspersions against his character on the team's part and irreparable public bridge-burning on his. Now, he'll either spend the remainder of his contract in the minors, he'll be forced to go to Europe for work, or the Oilers will bite the bullet on half of his salary for two years after they put him on re-entry waivers. None of the likely outcomes of his impasse with the Oilers will be his choice. The bright hope of free agency has become a bitter disappointment for him AND the team.
The thing is, Souray's not alone. The list of guys who've signed their dream contracts only to have them turn into nightmares is long and sad. Brad Richards in Tampa. Jason Blake and Brian McCabe in Toronto. Alexei Yashin on Long Island. Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden with the Rangers. Christobal Huet and Brian Campbell in Chicago. Mathieu Schneider in Anaheim. All of them have either been dumped by the teams that signed them with great expectations, or know their teams would love now to get rid of the contracts if anyone would take them. It's only a matter of time before guys like Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Daniel Briere and Vincent Lecavalier top their teams' "get rid of" lists.
General managers, in this set-up, have the high road staked out. They're just trying to make their teams better, after all. If they make a mistake on a big signing out of the panic of being left without a chair on musical free agent day, the fans are later supportive of dumping the player in most cases. The player's the one who gets the grief for being overpaid and a disappointment.
Scott Gomez is a good example. He's a fine player. He's smart, courageous and skilled. He also signed a contract that priced him about two million dollars a year higher than his stats say he should make, relative to the market. When he did so, he surely thought about his long-term future. I wonder if he considered the constant second-guessing he'd face about his salary, and how it would make him defensive about those questions? I wonder if maybe, when he's home in Alaska, he feels a little bit uncomfortable when his old friends jab at him about his wealth? It might seem a small price for him to pay for setting up his future security, but it can't be fun to be made feel he's not earning the money he makes. And he's one of the lucky ones. He landed with another NHL team willing to take on his monster deal. Others will follow the Souray path and the humiliation of being waived and passed over.
Now there's Ilya Kovalchuk. The Islanders have reportedly offered him ten million dollars for ten years. It's impossible for that deal to work out in the player's favour, outside of the actual money. There's no way a player who's already 27 years old can produce enough points to keep fans and management happy enough for the next ten years, to justify that kind of salary. Maybe he just wants the money. Maybe he doesn't mind the idea that he'll inevitably become an albatross around that team's salary cap when its young players need to be paid well too. They'll want to get rid of him, and he'll be hurt if he cares for things like respect and dignity.
Because as much as players say "it's a business," I think most of them don't believe it in their hearts. Hockey, after all, is all about heart. Management expects players to sacrifice their bodies, accept pain and injury and perform through illness and fatigue. The bosses, in their clean offices, expect no less and consider the millions they shell out to be appropriate compensation. The players want to give what's expected, but human frailty sometimes prevents that. In their hearts, players think their limitations will be understood. That's the line between their definition of business and that of the managers. Players think doing their best is enough. Managers, who feel they're not getting their money's worth, say otherwise.
That's why a smart player with bargaining power should think about taking a little less term or a little less money. It's not like they won't be set for life with a million dollars less in the long run. But it might help them avoid a lot of bitterness when the biggest deal they can score turns sour, as so many of them do. In the NHL, five years is a lifetime and, unless the timing and the player are exactly right, long deals become outdated long before the player is ready for that to happen. All because panic and greed collided on the first day of July.