Wednesday, July 2, 2008

It must be hard to keep Hummers in gas

Wow. So, here we are, just beginning day three of free agency and I'm already slightly ill every time I think about some of the deals handed out. I mean, I thought a lot of Michael Ryder, but four million bucks a year? I don't think so. Maybe he'll find some heretofore unseen level of accuracy playing with Marc Savard as his set-up man and he'll miraculously put up numbers worthy of that contract. Or not. And Ryder's not the worst example of the crazy overspending that went on on Tuesday. The leafs signing a 28-year-old bottom pairing defenceman with one year of NHL experience for 3.5 million is worse. So is the Cristobal Huet deal in Chicago that pays him more than Brodeur and brings the Hawks' goaltending bill up to a hearty twelve million.

It makes me wonder what's driving the whole thing. Is it the supply and demand theory, in which there are few quality players to fill a great number of holes? Is it player greed? Is it mismanagement on behalf of very many of the NHL's GMs? Is it the rising salary cap? Maybe it's a little bit of all of the above, but when it comes down to it, I have to think agents play a part in it all. I mean, picture the scene without them. On July 1, Mark Streit (to pick a name) is sitting at home. The phone rings. It's the Chicago Black Hawks. They say, "Hey, Mark, we really liked your work on the powerplay in Montreal this year, and we'd like to offer you two and a half million a year to play for us for the next three years." Streit says, "That sounds great, but let me think about it." He sits there for the next three hours, watching the signings on TV and realizing his opportunities are dwindling and his phone hasn't rung again. He calls the Black Hawks back and says, "Thanks, I'd love to accept your offer." Twenty minutes later the Islanders call and say, "Hey, Mark, we're interested in your playing for us this year." Too late...Streit's already accepted the Chicago deal. But what happens when the agent enters the picture? The 'Hawks call comes to him. He says, "That's an interesting offer, but Mark is one of the most versatile players in the NHL who can play both forward and D, as well as anchor your powerplay. I've had interest from six other teams, including one in your division, and the going rate is higher than what you're offering." The Hawks say they'll think about it. Half an hour later they call back and up the offer to three and a half million a year. Streit's agent calls Streit with the offer and says, "They've gone up a mill, but I'm pretty sure you're worth more. I advise waiting a little while." The Hawks call back and say they can't go any higher and they're backing out. The Isles call the agent and express interest in Streit for three million a year. The agent responds, "I've got an offer on the table for three and a half for three years right now, so no deal." The Isles look at their relatively low drawing power and their need on defence and they panic. They cough up four million a year for five years, which Streit accepts. The agent pockets four hundred grand a year for the important service of playing one team off another, inflating the player's sense of what he's worth and driving up the going rate.

Now, I admit that's probably a naive vision of how these things really work. And I in no way advocate a return to the days when teams owned players and they toiled for peanuts while the owners got richer. But I have to think that there's a problem when a bunch of lawyers and accountants stand to take a healthy portion of what they can squeeze out of a team on behalf of a player. Obviously, the desire to squeeze a little harder is there when part of the juice is going into your own glass. And when you're talking about the kind of money NHL players are making, that's a lot of juice...enough to inspire some people to do whatever they have to do to get a deal signed. JP Barry told TSN he was pushing hard for Mats Sundin to decide his future before the market opened. I don't think he would have been quite as anxious to "push" Sundin to accept a deal if he were a salaried employee, getting the same amount whether Sundin sat home next year or played for ten million dollars. But as the system stands, it must be killing him that Sundin's refusing to jump at the Canucks' twenty million, two-year offer...depriving Barry of two million bucks.

I once had a discussion with a former NHL player about the amount of influence and even control agents have over the players. He laughed and said, "You know, half of these guys didn't finish high school because of hockey. I know guys who can't read. Yet they're supposed to manage this kind of money?" I argued that players who leave home at fifteen or sixteen and make their own ways in the world have to be street-wise and hard to fool, at least to some degree. But when you think about it, the agents are the ones with the contacts, the influence and the knowledge of how the system works. When a young player, in his ignorance of all that, hires a representative, he hands over control to the agent. He also saves himself the trouble and need to learn the ropes himself. Add into the bargain the agent's desire to look out for number one, and related need to make the player think agents are indispensible, and you can see where the system of player dependence begins.

I wouldn't want to go back to the golden era of hockey when it comes to player representation, if only because the owners were the ones raking in the lion's share of the gold. The thought of Maurice Richard selling fish line from the trunk of his car to make a living after hockey is sickening, after what he contributed to the success of the game. It's pitiful to think the likes of Doug Harvey were blackballed because they dared to stand up and try to create a union to protect themselves. And it's sad to imagine Bobby Orr losing his life savings at the hands of the unscrupulous Alan Eagleson. Those pioneers paved the way for modern NHLers to have rights, and to reap the benefits of their skills. And for what? So Jeff Finger can take home three and a half million dollars a year? I don't think that was what those guys had in mind.

I think the problem stems from a sense of distrust between team managers and the players. The managers and owners think the players are holding them hostage with their giant contract demands. The players think the owners are screwing them over, lying about profits and keeping the lion's share for themselves. In this system of distrust, no one ultimately benefits. As salaries keep ballooning, today's players get rich, but the system they're part of does nothing to contribute to the long-term sustainability of the league. The owners shell out the cash now, but complain about losing money at the same time. It's only a matter of time before the whole thing comes to a head in another labour which the league can ill afford. And who's sitting in the middle of this cold war? The agents.

There are a few notable examples of how things can work when there is trust between the player and the owner. Look at Martin Brodeur. He wants to win, and knows the team can't pay gigantic salaries to a few it it's going to support a balanced roster. So he takes less money...albeit still in the multi-millions...than he's worth to make sure management can afford to build a strong team around him. Sidney Crosby has arguably done the same thing. Their agents know what the players want and they carry out the paperwork to make it happen...which is what an agent is supposed to do. But those examples are few and far between.

It all just makes me wonder what the Rocket and Bobby Orr would make on the open market, if Michael Ryder makes four million a year. And I wonder what they'd think when they signed that deal?

1 comment:

Topham said...

Agents play their part to be sure, but the salary cap ultimately drove this year's fiasco.

By taking a very significant jump in what happened to be a year with very little talent in free agency, teams had a lot of disposable income to spend on lesser players.

In an environment where you get $56.7 million to spend, it is hard to fault teams that do this. They are merely redistributing the earnings to the employees.

I think the thing that irks people is that players with lesser talent like Commodore, Finger or Malone are cashing in huge. But I don't think it is either the players or the agents faults. They are fortuitous with their timing, that's all. Johnnies on the spot.

It is certainly favourable from the fans' point of view that the owners are spending their money and not all sitting on the minimum cap. If that were the case, we would be headed for a strike in short shrift, I can guarantee. The way it is now, the players as a group are hauling in their share of the earnings. The distribution by talent is off, but that's a function of timing.

The one issue i would criticise most harshly is the length of the contracts being handed out. Long contracts are great if you can lock in a player at a salary of good value. Only a few years ago, the DiPietro deal looked crazy, but with the rising cap, 4.5 a year for a top 15 goalie looks very good indeed. But overpaying for a lesser talent, while OK in any given year if we're talking about team finances and cap room, is a risky proposition. It is gambling on the cap, as well as the player.

Take Malone – 7 years, 4.5 a year (as far as the cap is concerned). If his production goes down, it is a bad signing, regardless of the cap. But even if he plays to expectation or better, he will be a bad signing if the cap comes down. Imagine a $45 million cap, would you want Malone taking 10% of all your pay structure? A GM also has to deal with the fact thaat every player can find out how much his teammates are paid. How would Ryan Craig feel about taking a huge cut because Malone is signed for big money. He might look elsewhere. In terms of man management, long contracts make for headaches.

As the Canadiens go, Gainey is very cognizant of this. Higgins and Komisarek were signed for shorter terms at fair value for the time. Same for Kostitsyn. He is said to be bucking the trend, but in fact, he is setting a trend. What Gainey is doing is the most sustainable way to operate in this salary cap environment. Whereas, after Paul Holmgren is fired, we'll all see how inane his contracts were.

Very good post, just thought I'd add with some thoughts I've been having.