Thursday, May 21, 2009

Re-Thinking Free Agency

The other day I went through my closet as I packed up the winter clothes to make space for the summer ones. Digging way in the back, I found a sweater I'd bought a couple of years ago. It was a nice sweater, but I bought it on payday without trying it on first. It cost a ton I probably wouldn't have spent if I wasn't flush with cash at that moment and, in the end, it itched and didn't fit right. I never wore it. As I tossed it into the "goodwill" pile, the tags were still attached.

Unfortunately, a lot of NHL "premier" free agents end up like that sweater. Two summers ago, the most-coveted free agents on the market were Mathieu Schneider, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, Daniel Briere, Sheldon Souray and Ryan Smyth. Let's look at what happened to them.

Schneider signed a two-year deal with Anaheim, with a cap-hit of 5.625 million. He lasted there for one season, until Brian Burke needed cap space to sign his RFAs and dumped Schneider to Atlanta. Drury and Gomez signed with the Rangers, at deals of 5 years/7.050-million cap hit and 7 years/7.357-million cap hit respectively. Since they signed, Gomez has put up 16 goals in each of the last two seasons, and Drury has had point totals of 58 and 56. Ranger fans have shouted for one or both of them to be traded because of the Rangers' appalling lack of offense through much of the last two seasons. Souray signed with Edmonton for five years, with a 5.4 million hit. He missed almost all of the first year of the deal with injuries, but rebounded with 53 points in 81 games in the second year, although the Oilers still missed the playoffs. Smyth signed a five year, 6.25 million cap hit deal with Colorado. He missed a good chunk of his first year with the Avs because of injuries. In the second year, he had 59 points. Rafalski scored a 5-year deal with Detroit, with a cap-hit of six million. In his two years with the Wings, he's put up totals of 55 and 59 points which put him consistently among the top defencemen in the league. He's also been steady on the blueline, a plus player and helped the Wings to a Cup last year. Briere, on the other hand, signed with Philly for 8 years, with a 6.5-million cap hit. He had a good first season with the Flyers, putting up 72 points in 79 games. But this season he played only 29 games because of injury and his contract has become a millstone around the Flyers' financial neck. His team wants to move his contract because they've already committed a very large percentage of the cap for next season, and still don't have a goalie under contract.

Last summer the big names on the table were Cristobal Huet, Brian Campbell, Brian Rolston, Wade Redden, Mark Streit, Marian Hossa, Marcus Naslund, Mats Sundin and Patrice Brisebois (okay...kidding). Chicago snapped up Huet and Campbell, Huet for four years with a cap hit of 5.625 million and Campbell for an astoundingly awful eight years with a cap hit of 7.140 million dollars. Redden and Naslund went to New York, Redden for six years and a hit of 6.5 million. Naslund signed for two years with a four-million dollar hit and has since retired after putting up only 46 points. New Jersey gave Rolston just over five million for four years and the Isles handed Streit a five-year deal at 4.1 per. Hossa, the most coveted UFA last year, signed with the Wings for one year and 7.450 million, putting up 40 goals and 71 points. And, as we know, Sundin soaked the Canucks for a pro-rated ten million bucks after dithering about whether to play for months, then put up only 28 points in 41 games.

Of that crop of big signings, Streit was probably the best deal. He lead the Isles defence corps in icetime and points, with fifty-six, while solidifying his defensive game. Hossa's forty goals were also arguably worth the one-year deal he got in Detroit. But Redden and Campbell have been skewered by fans and critics for their sub-par play and crippling contracts. Huet has ended up sharing the 'Hawks goaltending duties with Nikolai Khabibulin until the playoffs, in which he hasn't played a game. Rolston's name has come up in trade rumours repeatedly, after scoring only 15 goals and 32 points in 64 games. Sundin's probably done...or, at least, has played himself out of another Summer of Mats hysteria.

So, what does this tell us about free agency? A couple of things are obvious: one, that you can't guarantee that a guy who had a great year or two with one team or while playing for a contract will continue to do so with a new team and a new deal. And, two, that free agents are almost always overpaid. That's going to happen in a high-risk, seller's market. But another thing a review of the last two free-agent frenzies seems to prove is that a free agent, even a prime one, will not save your team or make it an instant contender if you don't have a strong foundation already.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Of the teams remaining in the playoffs, Detroit has made the most impressive addition of free-agent pieces. Signing Rafalski and Hossa has helped them stay strong, without a doubt. But those guys, even as good as they are, are just supplementary players to the likes of Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Datsyuk. Chicago's doing well despite their free agent acquisitions, rather than because of them. Their own young players are carrying the team while Huet hasn't played and Campbell makes errors like the one on the winning goal in game two the other night. In Pittsburgh, the free-agent signings of Matt Cooke, Ruslan Fedotenko, Miroslav Satan and Pascal Dupuis for a grand total of 8.6 million for this past year filled the Pens' need to give Crosby and Malkin someone to whom they could pass. Those guys were filler, not vital pieces of the puzzle. And Carolina didn't sign any free agents worth mentioning. Instead, they made a couple of smart trades for pieces like Jussi Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen, Joe Corvo, Patrick Eaves and Erik Cole (again). They used their assets in intelligent ways to upgrade their lineup.

So, none of the final four teams standing this season depended on free agency to make them into contenders. Those who did, like the Rangers, consistently fail to do well in the post-season. The evidence seems to indicate that a team can succeed by using free agent acquisitions to supplement their existing team infrastructure. But expecting more than that, and overpaying to get it, is almost always a cause for future regret.

That's why, when Bob Gainey is looking to fill out the roster this year, I hope he doesn't break the bank for a huge contract for Jay Bouwmeester, the Sedins, Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik or, God forbid, Martin Havlat, while ignoring the free agents he already has. Paying big money to bring a star onto a team that has little else going for it won't do much to change the team's fate...except hogtie it financially when the cap drops in two years.

I'm not saying he should stay away from free agency altogether, but rather use it to supplement his team. Sign Mike Komisarek, then go after Francois Beauchemin. Replacing Komisarek with Beauchemin won't improve the team. But keeping Komisarek and replacing Patrice Brisebois with Beauchemin would. Sign Saku Koivu, then make an offer for Antropov to upgrade the centre position overall, instead of just marching in place by replacing Koivu with a marginally better player.

Gainey would be better off, based on the evidence of past free agent signings, to give his money to the guys he has in-house now, rather than let them walk and try to replace them on the overpriced open market. We saw that with the Streit situation. He could have had Streit, reportedly, for a little under three million dollars a season if he'd re-signed him mid-year. Instead, he waited until the Islanders were offering four and decided Streit was too expensive. As a result, the Habs had to put up with another year of Brisebois, the complete failure of the powerplay for most of the year and the desperation signing of Mathieu Schneider to replace Streit.

I have to think players like Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Chris Higgins will be better next year. So I think supplementing those guys with affordable talent instead of making a big splash on the free-agent market would be the smarter way to go. The worst thing that could happen is for Gainey to face July 1 with a pocketful of money and some flashy players on the market who'll be willing to take it from him if his offer's sweet enough, because no player out there this summer is going to take an average team and make it a winner by himself.

That's the recipe for ending up with a closetful of expensive sweaters you'll never wear and find yourself dumping in the goodwill pile two years from now, when you can't return them and they're out of style.


punkster said...

J.T., another good one. I love it when your articles begin with the personal, segue to the hockey lesson and seamlessly circle back to the personal. Gives them a Keillor-esque flavour. And yes, I agree with the cautionary approach to the FA frenzy. A bird in the hand...and all that.

Tom said...

Nice writeup. Wouldn't it be nice if the GMs understood such simple and effective logic?

NailaJ said...

I was going to say the same thing as punkster!

saskhab said...

My only caveat here is to say this: This year's free agent crop looks a lot stronger than in past years. Maybe it's optics, but none of those guys listed before looked like even franchise-lite players... at least this year with Hossa, the Sedins, Niedermeyer and even Bouwmeester and Gaborik there seems to be players you can build around.

You are right that you need to be a fundamentally strong team to begin with. Philly made all those moves a couple years ago, and it's largely been the emergence of young guys like Richards, Coburn and Carter that have propelled them to consecutive playoff appearances after finishing last. Also, Kimmo Timmonen was a huge addition for them that summer, and Scott Hartnell was a solid pickup as well (both were essentially UFA signings). The Flyers did pick up their #1 d-man that offseason, so it's hard to believe that they "lost" on free agency that summer because of the Briere contract.

The Bruins got their #1 center and #1 d-man after 2006 in free agency, but it wasn't until the young group behind them came into their own that the UFA dividends started to pay off.

I generally find that it is GM's who think their job is on the line that make the worst mistakes come July 1. Unfortunately, our team might have one of those... like Gainey's 2001 blunders in Dallas.