So first off, before I get too far, I should probably introduce myself. I’m Jason Robertson, longtime listener, two-time telephone guest, and damn-near-every-time emailer to the show. I’m a university student, I support the Oilers and, to a lesser extent, the Canadiens. I like long walks along the beach, and…wait, wrong window.
Anyway, I’ve been watching and/or listening to hockey games basically since the womb, though my first concrete memories come from around 1990 or 1991. I remember my confusion upon the Oilers’ elimination at the hands of lowly Minnesota in the ’91 Campbell Conference Finals, as they were called in those days. To the best of my young recollection, the Oilers had always won, so how could they possibly have lost? (If only you knew, four-year-old me. If only you knew.) I went back and forth between Mom’s Habs and Dad’s Oilers in my youth, and still hold the 1993 Habs’ Cup run as one of my dearest early memories of hockey. The death of that â€˜93 team, culminating in the Patrick Roy trade in 1995, was the death knell for the Habs as my #1 team: they’d gotten rid of everyone I liked on the team, and this new team was kind of crap, and you’re still allowed to do that when you’re nine. Then came the Cujo-Marchant sequence that eliminated the hated Stars in that classic ’97 series – Joe Nieuwendyk probably still sees that save in his nightmares – and my loyalties were sealed, for better or for worse. Okay, mostly worse.
In recent years, my perceptions of the game have been influenced somewhat by the blogosphere (is that a word people still use?), especially the stat-heavy Oilers blogs. I’ve spent parts of the last six or seven years periodically trying and failing to make a sports blog of my own out there on the Interwebs, which may be due in part to the fact that I spend an inordinate amount of energy on rants or considered responses to points Eddie and Doug make. Many weeks, I’ve sent in pages-long comments on various topics in the NHL, which there’s no way on Earth they could possibly read on the air. So, Doug approached me recently about contributing an article here or there to the website, and I figure that’s probably something I can do, in lieu of some of the less-airable emails. I promise I won’t get bogged down too much in the advanced stats – in no small part because I don’t have the time or interest to do the math myself – but I’m sure some of the attitudes and ideas of the stats bloggers will filter down into the stuff I write, which may prove unpopular. Regardless, I hope whatever I write leads to some good discussions, and not a bunch of TLDRs in the comments.
The topic Doug and I were talking about when the idea of this column came up, actually, was the pending free-agency lunacy, which Eddie, Doug, and Adam talk about on this week’s supplemental show. Now, it seems to me that the “winners” of free agency are often awarded in the media around July 2, and secondary consideration is only given well into the season when a team dramatically succeeds or fails, or when a cap situation like the one we saw in Calgary a couple of years ago – where the team was literally unable to ice a full team due to injuries and lack of cap space – rears its ugly head. More to the point, it seems that most outlets tend to reward the team that nabbed the biggest Name Star, unless they spent more money than God on the guy, in which case, they get pasted. Me, I’d rather take the long view, but I understand that’s hard to do when there are inches that need filling and blogs that need posting, so hasty judgments will always reign. Still, if we’re going to make snap judgments, I’d at least rather consider the whole picture.
Free agency is, for all intents and purposes, an auction, and in many ways, it behaves similarly. For starters, you have your big-ticket items, the stuff everyone brought their money to try to get their hands on. These things will almost always go for an absurd amount of money, well above “book value,” simply due to supply and demand. There’s always at least one or two people who will see this as their one chance to get their hands on something dear, rationality flies out the window, and Bob’s your uncle. If you can afford it, great; you still overpaid, at least until the next guy comes along and spends even more on another, similar, tchotchke. So it is with top-end free agents, as well. Every year, some marquee name goes for crazy money, usually for a number of years, and everyone shakes their head and wonders what that gol-danged lockout was for, anyway. I mean, I love Ryan Smyth in ways that aren’t entirely healthy, but he’s not worth $6.25M for five years. That’s the same money Chris Pronger got from the Oilers two years earlier, for crying out loud, and only one of those men is going to the Hall of Fame. This year’s big ticket item is Ilya Kovalchuk, and unless he pulls a Hossa and signs for one year with a contender, he’s going to cause some team a lot of headache a couple of years down the road when they need to shed salary in order to sign all of their young free agents. That’s not to say that Kovalchuk will be a bad pick-up, as such, but the key to success in a salary-capped world is players outperforming their contracts, and anyone of any significant repute who signs a UFA contract on July 1 probably isn’t going to do that: again, supply and demand leads to overpays. Hell, anything less than meeting some pretty lofty expectations will probably lead to the guy that signed him getting fired well before the contract’s even up. Yet, I’m sure, whoever signs him on Thursday is going to be lauded for making his team better, irrespective of what it does to his team tomorrow. The way I see it, unless he wins the Stanley Cup in June, that guy’s made a mistake.
Personally, I’d rather see my team go for the small-ticket items, which in free agency as in auctions, generally fall under three broad categories:
1) Something no one knows is out there. Much like my grandfather likes to buy a broken oil lamp for $2, throw out the crappy bits, and keep the 18th-century base worth hundreds of dollars, I like it when a team signs someone unheralded but with potential to have a great impact. The poster boy for this is Jan Hejda, the shutdown defenceman for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Prior to his signing, no one outside of Buffalo Sabres draft junkies and the aforementioned stats-obsessed Oilers fans knew this guy from Adam, and now he’s doing one of the most important jobs on the Jackets for relative pennies: just $2M per year for someone who can play top-pairing defensive minutes is fantastic. I haven’t done enough legwork to know who this year’s Jan Hejda is in the free-agent market, and we may not know until well into the season, but whoever unearths that guy is going to look like a genius a few months from now; more importantly, he’s either solved a problem that needed solving or created a position of strength he can deal from to solve other problems down the road.
2) Something that’s undervalued. Being a checker in the NHL is a bit like being a rare stamp at a coin-collector’s auction. Sure, you’re valuable for what you are, but you’re not what the guys around the room are interested in. Fact is, NHL GMs value goal-scoring to a tremendous degree, and will overpay massively to get it, leaving the muckers and grinders to pick up the table scraps between mid-July and the end of September. I mean, think of how many role-players there are getting $2M or better: they’re all either “name” guys, like Pahlsson or Madden, or they’re now-former Edmonton Oilers. That’s not to say that I think they should be getting a ton of dough, merely that they’re a good place for a GM to pick up a value contract or two that will make the team better beyond the third-liner’s rather limited scoring ability. Guys who can take shifts against better hockey players without giving anything up, who can kill penalties and win face-offs and block shots and do all the little things that coaches love, they soak up defensive minutes with minimal worry, which leaves a lot more opportunity to deploy the team’s scoring stars in offensive situations.
Another place GMs can find bargains is in players who are coming off massive injuries or slumps. Injury not only leads to deflated numbers, which immediately shaves a bit off the top, but also represents a risk of future re-injury. This will scare away some teams, and a shrewd negotiator can use this to get a further discount, especially if it’s an injury known to recur like concussions or groin pulls. As for slumps, sport is a “what have you done for me lately” business, and guys who’ve had an off-year in their contract year will often wind up undervalued compared to their career norms. One of the things the stats bloggers have found – and which I’ve been able to corroborate with five years of fantasy hockey experience – is that slumps and career years tend to be driven by low and high shooting percentages, respectively, and that shooting percentages well outside a player’s established norm tend not to repeat themselves over multiple years without an underlying cause, like age or injury. Sometimes, a slump might also be due to a player simply being unhappy in his situation, hating his coach, his role, his captain, whatever. Regardless, a penny-pinching GM might exploit this by giving a player coming off a bad slump a bargain deal, for short term and low dollars, and putting him in a position to succeed. After he’s reaped the rewards of his shrewd move, this GM would then presumably let some other poor sod pay the guy what he’s actually worth. The key here, in any case, is not to spend too much, because you’re betting on your target being a diamond in the rough, but not spending too much in case he’s actually…
3) Complete junk. Sometimes a busted oil lamp is a hidden treasure. Sometimes, it’s Jeff Finger. Yeah, I’m arguably being lazy not going for something more recent, but that signing still holds as one of the best examples of what not to do in free agency. I still can’t believe Fletcher mistook that guy for Kurt Sauer.
In my view, the GM who “wins” free agency is the guy who makes his team better without completely screwing it for the future unless he’s absolutely certain he can win the Stanley Cup this year. And usually, that means the guy who bought a lot from those first two small-ticket bins, avoided the third, and stayed the hell away from the big-ticket items, especially the ones coming off career years. Of course, if it comes down to it, the guy who sat on his hands might be the true winner of the day: sometimes the wisest course of action is to avoid unnecessary spending, try to meet your needs with homegrown kids on value contracts, and fill any holes they can’t occupy down the road by trade. It’s hard to judge after just one or two days, and it’s certainly not a sexy course of action, but as a general rule, smart tends to outlast sexy. Just ask your grandparents.