By Jason Menard
Seems somewhat fitting that our national holiday marks the official start of NHL unrestricted free agency. After all, there are few things Canadians are more passionate about than hockey – and there are few things that stoke those flames of passion more than speculating about trades and signings, especially when it comes to your favourite franchise.
In large part, though, this silly season is much ado about nothing, but you wouldn’t know that by staying abreast of the action. Yes, big name players will sign astronomical contracts. Yes, pundits and analysts alike will wring their hands in consternation, lamenting the loss of sanity of various general managers and increasing their hyperbolic commentary to the point where it would seem like we’re discussing the advent of the apocalypse.
But in the end, very few of these deals will pan out. More often, the overinflated contracts that are signed will soon act as an anchor, dragging down the franchises fortunes. It is then that fans will realize how heavy a piece of paper can be.
Compounding this problem is the advent of the relatively new collective bargaining agreement, complete with its salary cap. Gone are the days where a club can simply spend its way into contention. Now, forethought, budgeting, and roster creativity rule the day.
And the best thing about this new system? The right players get paid. Players entering, or firmly in the midst, of their prime get the lion’s share of the money. Unlike the NFL, rookies are subject to a wage scale, so that an unproven player won’t be commanding a salary eight times greater than a seasoned vet. And older players get their due as well under the system.
So, if it all seems to work out, where’s the problem? Simply put, you can’t legislate ou stupidity. There will always be an owner willing to choose a quick fix as opposed to looking-long term. The problem with that is that the path of least resistance isn’t always that way. And the ramifications of a bad financial decision now can impact your club for years.
We saw evidence of this at the NHL trading deadline in February. Smart clubs hoarded first round draft picks, knowing that success in the future will be built upon a continual infusion of young talent coming into the season. After all, if you’re going to pay your stars the lion’s share of salary cap allocation for your club, then you’re going to have to have solid, performing players on their entry level contracts.
The desperate or foolhardy teams peddled off draft picks for grizzled veterans. First rounders were discarded like yesterday’s trash, when they are the treasure that represents the coin with which future success will be purchased.
Even on draft night, we saw that some teams still don’t get it. The Toronto Maple Leafs discarded their first and second-round selections for an aging goaltender who may or may not be the answer in net. It’s a similar song with different lyrics from last season when they also obtained a more-established goaltender – but the price then was potentially the goaltender of the future they are now looking for, Tukka Raask.
Arguably the top three free agents on the market are Buffalo’s Daniel Briere and Chris Drury and Montreal’s Sheldon Souray. While it’s hard for the fan’s hearts to say, the head suggests that unless you can resign them for a reasonable cost, then it’s probably best to let them go. Although these are outstanding players, their value to a club may not be what the going market rate is.
But value can be defined in many ways. What Drury brings to a franchise in intangibles can’t have a price tag put on it. Conversely, Souray’s big shot and power-play goal-scoring can be dazzling, but that ledger needs to be balanced by his less-than-stellar defensive play.
In the end, some owner will look at these players not as aging high-end vehicles, but as bright, shiny new toys. They’ll be blinded by the imperfections and see only the positives. Unfortunately, the fans will be the ones paying for this blindness.
After all, it may be free agency, but it can come at a tremendous cost – a club’s future.
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