Tag Archives: free agency

Alberta’s Tale of Two Cities

By Jason Menard

Forgive a little literary indulgence here.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

As you know, that’s the opening of A Tale of Two Cities. And while the two cities to which the title refers are London and Paris, these lines also provides an apt description of the situations currently existing in Calgary and Edmonton.

The aforementioned epoch of belief is evidenced by the fact that yesterday star players like Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr have re-upped for five years apiece at less-than-market value. Why? They and their families believe in their franchise, believe in the city, and believe that the grass isn’t always greener.

And by taking less than what they would have received on the open market, they also allow Flames’ fans the opportunity to believe that their club can acquire and retain the pieces it needs to challenge for the Stanley Cup – this year and into the future.

The epoch of incredulity is taking place further north along Provincial Highway 2, where Edmonton Oilers’ fans are rivaling Buffalo Sabres’ supporters when it comes to frustration and sadness.

The Oilers keep taking hits – and yet it could be argued that they had the brighter future just over one year ago! The advent of the new CBA enabled them to bring IN a marquee free agent in Chris Pronger, they were able to trade for a number-one netminder in Dwayne Roloson, and they had talented youth who were ready for prime time. Two years ago, the Oilers made it to the Stanley Cup final and all looked promising.

Oh what a difference a year makes. Pronger, under a veil of secrecy and misdirection, bolted the City of Champions to help hoist Lord Stanley’s Grail in Anaheim, Roloson proved to be mortal, and the promising youth showed that they were about as ready for prime time as the current dismal Saturday Night Live lineup. To add salt to the wounds, the club’s heart and soul was deemed too costly and peddled off to Long Island – only to have General Manager Kevin Lowe admit now that the move, in hindsight, was a mistake.

Free agency was supposed to provide a breath of fresh air, but fans’ hopes have been choked by Michael Nylander’s alleged reneging on a verbal deal and other free agents treating the idea of coming to Edmonton like they were being exiled to Siberia.

So while Edmonton suffers through its winter of despair, Calgarians continue to enjoy their spring – and summer – of hope. And it’s a wonderful thing to see for all fans of hockey.

After all, it’s so refreshing to see two players who are not just at the top of their game, but arguably amongst the upper echelon of their profession, choosing to leave money on the table for the sake of family harmony. It’s a wonderful thing to know that there are still people out there who put a premium on quality of life instead of just quantity. And hopefully their relative lack of selfishness will inspire others to make similar quote-unquote sacrifices for the greater good of the team.

Note, I qualified that last statement with the term relative and adding imaginary finger-quotes because the level of sacrifice is all relative. Personally, I think I could live quite nicely on seven million per season, as Iginla is, instead of the eight million per season he would have earned on the open market. But a million bucks per season isn’t anything to shake a stick at – yet still he shook his head no.

After all, would any of us begrudge a player from getting all they can? A hockey career, on average, is very short, so how could anyone fault a player from taking all that’s offered them? Would you turn down that money if someone offered you that in your chosen profession? No.

There’s still time left to change the text, but it looks as if it’s going to be a season of Light in Calgary, and a season of Darkness in Edmonton. One can only hope for Oilers’ fans that this Tale of Two Cities ends with a happy ending.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

NHL Free Agency Costly for Have Nots

By Jason Menard

The silly season that is NHL unrestricted free agency is well underway. And with it comes the very thing that the new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to avoid – the establishment of the haves and the have nots.

The usual suspects are falling into place: Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, check – your penthouse suites are booked and packed to the rafters with all kinds of luxurious new toys. We’ve sprinkled a little Brière here and a splash of Drury and Gomez over there. Oh, and Dr. Detroit, yes – I think you’ll find the Rafalski we’ve recently added to your collection to be quite exquisite.

Mr. Sabres? Oh, sorry – this floor is restricted access. You’ll have to take the bus down the street to our low-rent district. Yes, we thank you for living in the same city as us, but you’re really not right for this neighbourhood.

Of course, there’s also the eclectic neighbours – the ones who have the money to reside comfortably in the ritzier areas, but lack the right taste when it comes to decorating properly. Yes, we’re talking about you Mr. Maple Leaf, with your two matching goaltenders – unfortunately, there’s too much goalie and not enough crease. And let’s not get into the overpaying for complementing pieces. You added a Blake, yes – Jeff, not Rob… $4 mill is a little pricey for that.

With a salary cap over 50 million US – about six million more than what the NHL teams were claiming represented Armageddon for their franchises – teams have the financial wherewithal to stockpile talent. And we’ve seen outrageous sums of money thrown at various players by clubs looking for that quick fix.

Danny Briere is a nice player. Not eight years nice. Not $10 million in his first year nice. Ryan Smyth, late of the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders? Good kid. Captain Canada and all that jazz. Not five years and $31.5 million worth of heart, though. Nobody has that big of heart.

But what’s happened is we’ve come to a point in time where there are again haves and have nots. There are those who are willing to pay up to the max of the cap. Heck, they’re willing to overspend the cap and demote players to the minor league ranks where there salaries don’t count against the cap.

But then there are a number of other teams who have set their own caps. They can’t – or won’t – spend to the max. They’ll return to their status as feeder teams for the big boys of the NHL. And they won’t have a chance to win.

Although I love what teams like Montreal and Pittsburgh are doing, eschewing the free agent route and preferring to build from their own farm system, one wonders how long they can do that? After all, wasn’t that the model the Buffalo Sabres tried?

Think about it. Darcy Regier had figured out where the NHL was going before anyone else. He built a team from within, drafting wisely, and adding other people’s castoffs for high-priced vets. He created a team that was perfect for the new NHL – fast, mobile, and talented from line one to four. And how was he rewarded? The heart of his team has been removed – and it’s going to take a long time for the good hockey fans of Buffalo to recover.

Sure, owner Tom Golisano could have opened up his wallet and matched or exceeded those offers. But just as one can’t blame the players for taking these exorbitant salaries, nor can we begrudge an owner who finds that the market is too rich for his blood. After all, if he sunk all that money into two players, what would happen in the coming years when that crop of talented youth reaches free agency? Even restricted free agents could be attractive as a capped-out club wouldn’t have the resources to match.

So again we come to a time where some teams can buy their way to glory, while the fans of other teams may feel that they’re unable to compete on a level playing field because of finances. Hey, I’m all for capitalism and paying full market value. But the NHL isn’t an open market – it’s a collective. Having 30 competitive clubs is good business and it’s exactly what the new CBA was supposed to fix.

Wasn’t that why we lost a year of hockey?

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Free Agency Can Cost a Lot – a Team’s Future

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.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved