Cap era free agency is a minefield
With the salary cap, one bad mega-contract signing can poison a team's payroll
Daniel Briere's injuries and eight-year, $52 million deal make him untradeable
Teams rarely know what kind of person and teammate they are signing long-term
In yet another chapter of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for saga, we present the July 1 opening of the NHL free agency period.
Okay, we'll thumb through the chapter and skip to the denouement: The post-lockout history suggests that if you win the free agency battle, you lose.
Tonight if you make NHL general managers drink a pint of truth serum (and then gave them a two-four chaser of Labatt Blue), almost all would admit that they would love to have a cost-effective way to weasel out of the mega free-agent deals they trumpeted as franchise-changers as soon as the contracts were consummated during the past three summers. In golf, this is known as a mulligan. In hockey, it can be known as a clear-out-your-office.
Honestly, don't you think GM Paul Holmgren winces every time his Flyers cut a check to center-turned-albatross Daniel Brière, who signed for eight years and $52 million in 2007? (Montreal GM Bob Gainey must be the happiest man on the face of the earth, even if he doesn't look it, knowing that Brière spurned the team in his home province.)
The Islanders desperately wanted winger Ryan Smyth to turn from a rental into a long-term lease after they made a deadline deal to spirit him out of Edmonton in 2007, but they don't regret his five-year, $31.25 million contract with Colorado that looks ever more horribly bloated with each passing year.
In short, there have been more busts in recent free agency than there are in some wings of the Louvre.
Not that the two Sedins (Daniel and Henrik), the two Marians (Hossa and Gaborik), the two Mikes (Cammalleri and Komisarek), Martin Havlat, Jay Bouwmeester and fellow UFA friends are not appealing pieces of merchandise. They will cost money, not a player off the roster. If a team has sufficient cap space and is prepared to live with a declining cap number in 2010-11, it is as difficult to resist the siren call of these worthies' agents as it was to ignore the Lorelei's.
Just like the Rhine sailors who were seduced to their doom by the hypnotic songs of nymphs who combed her golden hair while signing -- we have reached the confluence of the NHL and Heinrich Heine's 19th century poem -- it is certain that a few GMs are going to, metaphorically at least, run their boats into the rocks with a free agent.
Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has stated often and eloquently that he and his colleagues make more mistakes at the trading deadline than any time of year, but a corollary to Burke's Law posits that in a salary-cap world, where one toxic long-term deal can poison a franchise, the most egregious errors are likely to arise from what is sometimes called "free agent frenzy."
There are two primary reasons why the start of the free-agency period, however promising, is parlous.
As Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill says, one of the traps of signing a UFA off another roster is that you really don't know what you're getting. Sure, your scouts know the on-ice player, but they probably have scant insight into him as a person and teammate. As Marge Schott once stated, to general ridicule, all scouts do are watch games. In her own befuddled way, the late owner of the Cincinnati Reds was on to something.
A typical NHL pro scout sees a game a day, NHL and minors, for most of the season, generally driving among cities, always in a rush to get to the next match. The scouts are never at practices or morning skates because they simply are too harried. There is not enough schmoozing time built into their schedules, the hours where they can pick the brains of people who are around a team on a daily basis or rummage around rink gossip and focus on the elements that might indicate if a player is merely good or also a good fit.
Another obvious trouble spot is salary, and we're not merely talking dollars against the cap. The premiums a free agent earns can throw an entire salary structure out of whack. As Capitals GM George McPhee observes, this can get noses of joint in the dressing room. If star players who have been on the team for years suddenly are earning substantially less than the free-agent bauble the GM just overpaid for, resentment can float to the surface.
The Red Wings managed the situation well last year. They signed Hossa to a one-year, $7.45 million deal, which was substantially less money than Edmonton was offering, although no more than the Wings were paying captain Nicklas Lidstrom. Hossa seemed like a godsend when he led the team with 40 goals during the regular season. Of course, he didn't bother to score one in the Stanley Cup Final.
So as a cautionary tale, we present a handful of marquee free-agent disappointments. The list is not all-inclusive and certainly open to interpretation. Was Hossa a bust because Detroit lost Game 7 of the final to the Penguins? Paul Kariya has 80 points in 93 games with St. Louis since signing his three-year, $18 million contract in 2007, but do leadership and assists make up for a paucity of goals and a mostly lost 2008-09 season because of hip surgeries?
Tough calls, like the ones GM will be making at 12:01 pm on July 1.
Jay McKee, defenseman: four years, $16 million
St. Louis needed bodies to fill out its roster at the time president John Davidson overpaid, albeit moderately, for McKee. The Blues never expected offense from a solid stay-at-home blueliner -- he scored 17 points as a Bluenote -- but injuries and the changing officiating standard limited him to the point where the Blues are now buying out the final year of McKee's contract.
Rob Blake, defenseman: two years, $12 million
A Blake homecoming in Los Angeles seemed like a natural, but he was largely ineffectual on a team in deep rebuilding mode. He did, however, conclude a bounce-back season with San Jose this year after a mediocre training camp that had Sharks GM Doug Wilson worried.
Todd Bertuzzi, right wing: two years, $8 million
Burke, the Ducks GM at the time, was far too loyal to a player who had starred for him (pre-Steve Moore) in their Vancouver days together. Neither the money nor term was flat outrageous, but Bertuzzi, according to a teammate "was toxic in the dressing room" during his one season with Anaheim. After one season in Calgary, Bertuzzi is again on the market.
Daniel Brière, center: eight years, $52 million
Centers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have moved ahead of him for the Flyers, leaving the small pivot as the third-wheel making first-line money. His term plus cap hit make the oft-injured Brière almost impossible to trade.
Chris Drury, center: five years, $35.25 million
Like Brière, Drury walked from Buffalo two summers ago. And like his ex-teammate, Drury mostly has disappointed. He brings laudable intangibles to the Rangers' mix, but at a cap hit of more than $7 million annually, Broadway would appreciate some tangibles beyond 47 goals in his first two years. He was a poor fit as a No. 1 center for Jaromir Jagr, before Jagr left for the KHL.
Scott Gomez, center: seven years, $51.5 million
He crossed the Hudson from New Jersey and apparently left some of his game with him in the Lincoln Tunnel. Another poor fit for Jagr -- he carried the puck too much -- Gomez' copious energy and speed did not translate into productivity commensurate with the salary. He had, however, 16 points in 17 playoff games with the Rangers before being dealt to Montreal.
Ryan Smyth, left wing: five years, $31.25 million
Smyth still scores some of the most butt-ugly goals on the planet -- just not enough of them. He has 40 in two seasons with Colorado. His work ethic remains unmatched, but on a bad team that could get even worse before it gets better, he is hardly a difference-maker.
Michael Nylander, center: four years, $19.5 million
The ex-Ranger who did the best job dishing to Jagr has been a disaster with the Capitals, in part because of an injury that limited him to 40 games his first season back in Washington. But last season he had just nine goals and 24 assists in 72 matches and played in just three playoff games. Given the glorious chemistry between Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom, Nylander has no place on the team, which is why the Capitals would not be averse to the veteran bolting to the KHL. Of course, it might be tough to convince Mrs. Nylander, as her husband had an agreement with Edmonton in 2007 but backed out at the 13th hour, instead signing with Washington because his bride was not enamored with the charms of Alberta.
Brian Campbell, defenseman: eight years $56.8 million
Campbell still has plenty of time to turn this around, of course, but Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith look like they will be the No. 1 pair in Chicago for a long time. A $7 million cap hit for a defenseman who averaged just 20:28 of ice time in the playoffs last spring does not augur well.
Cristobal Huet, goaltender: four years, $22.4 million
What is it with the wacky Hawks and goaltenders? After giving Nikolai Khabibulin a four-year, $27 million contract in 2005, Chicago lavished this deal on Huet. At least Khabibulin won a Cup in Tampa Bay. Huet had some strong stretches in Montreal and played splendidly to get the Capitals into the 2008 playoffs (although he was poor in their first-round loss to Philly), but the portfolio is thin. He is a mid-range No. 1 goalie who couldn't supplant Khabibulin, who Chicago was trying to dump early last season.
Wade Redden, defenseman: six years, $39 million
Redden looked like a capable puck-moving defenseman at a hefty but not exorbitant price. At least he did in 2007 when the Senators went to the Cup final. He was horrid in his first season in New York. The glimmer of hope for Rangers president Glen Sather is the few capable games that Redden played in their first-round loss to Washington.
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