Saturday, July 3, 2010

Drunken Sailors

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.


Habby said...

Well said. We only have Bob to thank for Gomez's contract.

Paul B. said...

"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. "

Isn't that what Tomas Plekanec should have done ?

Anonymous said...

There you nailed it J.T. Wang will meddle a fanboy contract, it will be bought out, and Kovalchuk will smile all the way to the bank.

Crosby has already cemented a place in history. If he were to walk away from the game at this moment he would live comfortably for the rest of his days, adored by fans, his opinion sought, and regardless of occupation, always be considered a hockey ambassador. Money has nothing to do with that.

Yashin? Who? So much talent, nothing. Bure? Un-huh. Tretiak? Man, he always lost when we needed him to the most:-) but he is hockey. Did he make a lot of bucks? I don't know but I think he played to win, and won respect for that.

I think that is why AK and SK are now in so much disfavor. They don't seem to play to win, but just for the money. Fans rant about Sergi not wanting to go to Hamiliton, how he didn't deserve to be cut, how he got x points in Y games. SK didn't want to go to Hamiliton because he got 10% of his salary. Would you like a 90% pay cut? With 20% of that going into an agent's pockets?

From last years playoffs I have two images in my mind. Crosby, sitting devastated, trying to explain the unexplainable. The others is of the Brothers Dim after a loss, showered up, dressed up, and already heading out to see what the town had to offer. After all, that game was over, and there is always next year. And who can forget young Gui going back to the hotel to 'nap' rather than being paid to at least support his team mates.

Quitters don't win often, but they can get rich. Owners like Wang and agents help that happen, perhaps to the detriment of players. Perhaps the best option is no-buyouts. Something where a team signs a player to more than a 2 year contract they are on the hook for the full amount regardless, and have to post a bond or something. (Most couldn't post so it wouldn't happen:-). But since the owners make the rules...

Anonymous said...

J.T. yOu raise a valid point. The inherent problem with the system as it stands is these players have one good year and they expect to be paid commensurate with other(marquee/established) players when they are benchmarked against them.

The problem is when they start "squeezing the stick" or slumping and they become less productive they expect sympathy . Unfortunately , trying and working hard and doing their best are not enough. Especially when the whole argument that allowed them to garner this large contract was because the player was productive and could be there when it counted most.

I think eventually hockey and sport in genereal is moving towards incentive laden contracts. It is inevitable. There is so much waste, when you think of in terms of the number of buyouts. I respect that only a fraction counts against the cap but , for the have nots teams it will ending up hurting for many years to come.

On another point, I am curious how the bidding really works on a day like July 1. The players are tweeting that they are still in negots with such and such a team and it becomes knowledge that this team offered .5 mil more and he got or has been offered more term from that team.

How is one team bidding against another supposed to verify what the player is actually able to command from another? The reason I ask this is simple. For Olli Jokinen contract there was no one else bidding and he admitted as much that there really was no other option. So why the heck did Sutter pay so much when he had no other option?

It seems to me that these Managers really have a lack of business sense. Look at Sather and what he does constantly. I am inclined to think that Gainey took Gomez off of his hands for PR reasons( and the Habs being the only team that had cap space at that time and who could afford him)and the fact that a FA would actually come to Montreal when it has been documented that name players had snubbed them previously. I wonder if the backroom deal included a nudge and a wink and "I owe you one" from Sather or if that was future consideration still lingering from the Balej for Kovalev deal...

Nothing surprises me with these GM's.


J.T. said...

@Paul B: Yes. I think Plekanec should have taken a little less. I'm a huge fan of his, but I can see the misery coming if he's not putting up seventy points or more points a year four years into this deal. I really hope he does keep producing because I think he's one of the players who'd really take it to heart if people start dumping on him and accusing him of being a waste of cap space.

Anonymous said...

First off, thanks JT for another great read.

The problem is not the players. It's the CBA. Without league wide collusion, it only takes one crazy salary and arbitration and every 20 goal scorer wants big money because some other guy got it. It's easy to say what the players should do because nobody commenting is being offered a 100 million contract. Ideally I'm sure a player would sacrifice a few million here and there if he could win the Stanley cup a few times but with 30 teams this is not possible. If LA offers me 10 mil for 8 years and the Islanders offer 10 mil for 9 I'm taking the Islander offer. Neither team is close to winning so may as well take the extra 10 mil and who's to say the Islanders won't be really good in a year or two? As far as what other people think of you in a few years time, who gives a F.

Anonymous said...

A thought about having to play in the minors for 5 mil a year. Is that so bad? I think Keane played in the minors for the love of the game. If they don't want to play in the AHL for 5 mil they don't have to. Also if they manage their finances and don't make a bunch of stupid investments they're set for life after a year at 10 mil let alone five. Take the money and the future (guarantied to noone) be damned. I'd love to be in Souray's position. Sure beats the crap out of Social Security. It's the owner's problem not the player's or the GM's.

Jessica and Stephan said...

Well said. As always, you write a very sensible blog. A great read as always.

V said...

JT, you're right to say the nature of the NHL market contributes to the liklihood some people will be paid more than they are worth and that situation may be a hardship for some of them.

The market also contributes to a very large gap between the highest and lowest salaries - very similar to what is happening in our world generally. This is a more disturbing trend that creates real hardships for a lot more people.

The salary cap may gradually make this situation worse - you will have to take more and more money from someone to pay the most highly paid. In most industries, the loser is the solid but not spectacular 5-10 year vet. They are increasingly replaced by bright, young and lower paid people. In the NHL, expect more 28-35 year old people to be prematurely forced from the game - many without another career to fall back on.

In the face of that, I think most of the superstars will be happy to take the money and be thankful their talent (and other circumstances like contract negotiations at just the right time with the right team) insultated them from this part of the business.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you nailed it with just your "Drunken Sailors" title, J.T. How giddy does one get when faced with whatever the market shoves at you with a dollar sign at the end? It's not hard to imagine that from the myriad of individual experiences that bring these guys to the big scene, not too many will supply the serenity to look ahead and consider the consequences that you describe. And just how many guys have really done it in recent history I wonder? Did Brodeur get a trade-off, other than ugly rings (they sure qualify)? Raymond Bourque with the B's? Hard to say. In a game that's all about the collective, guys probably think "one for all" before "all for one", don't they? Hmm... What's the peer pressure there? "Let's up the ante for all our buddies"? Would the Huets and Sourays reconsider? Probably not, once the career is over the hump because of age and injuries, as it sure beats union retirement wages or social security as brought up by the previous anon... My guess is that the post lockout NHL and the CBA have created an economic environment which evolves quickly before us. Perhaps that Pleck's signing is as much as we'll see for an act of selflessness, for now anyways...

V said...

Anon - not sure it is the NHL lockout or CBA that has created the current high economic situation.

I think these are in reaction to broader trends that we see in many other industries - there are superstar actors, basketball, soccer, baseball players, authors, etc. that make mega-bucks vastly out of scale with what the 'average' person in their industry makes (let alone the below average performer). And in most of these cases, the amount they make is not in proportion to their relative skill level - other circumstances contribute to the dispartity.

The salary cap is a mechanism for reducing the impact on this - without a cap, there would be players making $12 to $17 million a year in the NHL right now and some team payrolls would be over $100 million.

There is a good book that touches on this whole topic. It's called The Black Swan - The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

Anonymous said...

@V - The CBA is to blame . There is no doubt ! Why ? Because the have nots( teams) have to spend to the floor ...that and the GM's cannot be saved from themselves.

Every team must sign someone who would be perceived as overpriced because it takes them to the floor.

Kovalchuk is a game breaker. But we see time and time again that a good team game can overcome a game breaker. Sometimes a signing or trade at the deadline is as much about the splash. Jersey is fiscally responsible ( Lou is cheap) and you new this guy was unlikely to sign there long term.

Gomez is an okay player and great passer. But I am not a big fan. He has the same desire to go end to end like Lafleur but without the same finish and more often than not loses the puck . I would be more happy with two middling to good players that allow you wiggle room for years to come.

re Pleks- nice player , nothing flashy. It must occur that the Habs need a guy to produce points during the season. There is no one else. The overall product is watered down. He may never be able to go head to head and come out ahead on a consistent basis vs the other marquee centers in the conference ( or get them to the cup) because I don't think he has it in him. The bottom line is sometimes you have to sign a guy because there really is no one better.


Anonymous said...

In a cap world every dollar a star player makes above and beyond reasonable value takes money from others on his team. The team that overpays for Kovalchuk will be taking from the other players on the team for a long time. Not good for team chemistry. Let him go to the KHL. His best years are mostly done.

Anonymous said...

What we are seeing now from the GMs, especially the ones like PG is that young, up and comers should be signed to three and four year contracts with mid-range money and multi-year security. AK wasnt given a lengthy contract and isnt really suffering due to an inability to reach his potential. He will become UFA after this year and his contract will come off the books. The Hamrlik deal is absurd but will also come off the books next year.

Plek's deal is for acceptable money with a lengthy but not overly long term. From the team's standpoint a million less a year would be better but from Pleks it represents a home-team discount. Wise move from both parties.

Players like Pleks, Eller, Subban, and Boyd become the must haves in the new NHL. Cheap performers with short deals and lots of upside.

The older veteran deals like Hamrlik and Souray become lodestones around a GM's neck. I think we are starting to see the end of those.

The biggest error in the current CBA is the inability to renegotiate an albatross of a contract. Neither party can open the contract to make it more appropriate for changing market conditions and player's abilities. The next CBA will contain a provision to fix this.