Glen Sather, probably in the process of trading an albatross for a diamond necklace.

As much as the Stanley Cup Final is supposed to be the great orgasmic culmination of the hockey season, the fact is that by the time it rolls around, most hockey fans’ minds have already drifted elsewhere. Most of the teams have lost the great losing. Their locker rooms are cleaned out, post-mortem interviews completed, eulogies written. Twenty-eight out of thirty fanbases are now watching- if, indeed, they’re watching at all- out of a sense of idle curiosity rather than genuine passion, their thoughts already bending towards the great summer hockey holidays: the entry draft and UFA day.

Of the two, UFA day is always the more popular spectacle. Beyond the top ten or so, most of us don’t know all that much about the fresh 18-year-olds our organizations will be picking up on June 22. They’re mostly just names, and many of them will remain little more than names for a few years yet. In contrast, UFA day features guys whose accomplishments are well-known, whose storylines have already been written. There are old veterans just hoping to get one more ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl, problem players in search of a clean slate in a new town, dutiful third liners who might be either the perfect piece on the right team or a useless piece on the wrong one. But most of all, there are the stars, the scoring forwards and top-pairing defensemen that every fanbase drools over and so rarely come available for the capture.

The tendency of the UFA market is always to inflate the value of star players who hit it. Once upon a time, in the era of uncapped salaries, this inflation would take the form of simply enormous salaries driven ever upward in a bidding war- nine million a year! No, ten million! Fifteen! Twenty! However, one of the curious byproducts of the way this CBA averages cap hits over the duration of the contract is that the primary bidding has shifted from the value of a contract to the length of a contract. Cap hits have tended to level off in the $6-8 million range for all manner of high-end players, but terms grow longer and longer. When I started watching hockey, a typical contract for an elite player in a UFA season might be five years. Now, seven is more normal, and it is not unusual to see terms that stretch into the double digits. When Lou Lamoriello signed the 27-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk to a fifteen-year deal, he was only making obvious a cap-circumvention strategy that had been in practice for several seasons previously.

In many ways, these tremendously long contracts with their front-loaded salaries are ideal for high-end players. For a star, the best possible situation is to go onto the open market once and never again. He’ll hit his first UFA season in his late-twenties, right around the peak of his skill and the peak of his marketability. His value will never be higher. Locking into a contract that reflects that value is almost certainly better than testing the waters again four or five years later, as an older, weaker man. If he can sign a ten-year-deal at 27, he’s guaranteeing his income for what is functionally likely to be the rest of his career. If he can get a no-movement clause on that deal, he’s also guaranteeing his freedom to choose his destiny, a freedom he’s probably never had in the entirety of his previous playing life. The epic contract is in every way a beautiful thing for a man in position to negotiate one.

For teams, though, the consequences of long-term deals are more ambiguous. With the ever-increasing popularity of Moneyball, the grandest popular sports narrative of the modern age, the conventional wisdom has come to be that conservative cap management is the single most important skill a GM can have. Good GMs are supposed to sign light, fleet contracts that feature reasonable value and reasonable term, not lock themselves into deals running for a dozen years and several dozen millions. Although many mainstream commentators will consider the team that outbids all others for a UFA star the ‘winner’, there is always a skeptical undercurrent who look askance at such deals, prophesying darkly that such an enormous and impractical deal will end up nothing but an albatross around the GM’s neck, limiting his future flexibility and dragging the team down.

Yet, despite the size of modern UFA contracts, they are often surprisingly mobile. When a team signs a player for ten years, the rhetoric surrounding the deal is always that the GM was so convinced of the star’s value that he really really really wanted to lock this very special man down for all time. But it often doesn’t work out that way. The Flyers absolutely wanted to lock down Mike Richards- face of the franchise, future star, next Bobby Clarke, etc etc- until they traded him three years later. They did the same thing, even faster, with Jeff Carter, who only stayed in Philadelphia seven months between signing his eleven-year deal and being traded to Columbus. Chicago ‘won’ Brian Campbell and then flipped him later to Florida, in what was essentially Dale Tallon trading with himself. Luongo, once considered the single most valuable piece of the Canucks franchise, is likely to see his enormous contract traded this off-season, as is Rick Nash, who was supposed to be the face of the Blue Jackets forever. Far from being the tremendous commitments they’re often described as, long-term contracts are frequently moved.

Which brings us to Glen Sather, who has proven himself a master of signing and then ditching bloated contracts. In the course of keeping the New York Rangers in the playoffs in six out of seven post-lockout seasons, Sather has participated aggressively in the UFA market and yet shown a remarkable ability to weasel his way out of the bad deals he signs there. In 2007, he ‘won’ both Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, two of the most desirable players available that off-season. In 2008, he bid ridiculously high on Wade Redden. None of these players managed to live up to their salaries, but rather than being dragged down by these deals, Sather shed them. Drury was bought out and persuaded into retirement- not exactly a triumph, but an escape nevertheless. Redden was unceremoniously dumped in the minors, where his salary no longer counts against the cap. And the aging, overpaid Gomez was transformed, in what has to be one of the most miraculous feats of general management in the history of the game, into a young, cheap, and brilliant defenseman.

According to the laws of smart management, Sather should have been killed by these deals, which are objectively among the worst free agency decisions made by any GM under this CBA. And yet not only has he not been punished by the hockey gods for his utter lack of cap conservatism, he continues to play the game the same way, buying Marian Gaborik on the UFA market in 2009 and signing Brad Richards to a nine-year deal just last summer.

Sather’s way of running the Rangers goes against the spirit of the age, but it’s not entirely irrational. He sees term as nothing more than a necessary negotiating ploy, not an actual commitment to a player. Huge contracts are the cost of doing business on the modern UFA market, and there’s little point in a GM even entering the bidding if he’s not comfortable with the idea of overpaying. Sather is obviously not a great judge of future performance, but that could easily be the result of indifference rather than inability, the deliberate choice of a responsive style of management rather than a predictive one. It could simply be that he doesn’t care so much whether or not his judgments are right, because he has confidence in his ability to maneuver when his judgments prove wrong.

Cap management may well be less important than it seems, for a GM who has the budget, sang froid, and trading ability to transform an albatross into Ryan McDonagh.

Comments (7)

  1. Interesting piece. I too find the whole long-term deal trend fascinating, but more because it bastardizes the very same CBA that the GMs and Board of Governors lobbied Bettman to kill an entire season for.

    I’ve been watching the Rangers since I was 10, and during the quarter century since then, I’ve come to accept that The Big Contract is to NYC sports as The Draft is to somewhere like, say, Edmonton. For pretty much the entire existence of the franchise, fromt he minute George Lewis “Tex” Rickard founded the whole damn thing and gave it its cutesy pun of a name, the Rangers have always been corporately owned and run via the “star system.” The system is a tool – no more, no less, and I’m always amused by fans of other teams who express crazed anger and astonishment that the franchise actually DARES to use it. As evidenced by the examples you bring up (and others such as Theo Fleury, Vlad Malahakov, and far, FAR too many others during the Dark Ages of 1997-2006) the tool doesn’t always work, but it’s still a good one to have.

    Blah, enough pointless rambling – good read.

    • First of all, thanks for commenting. There’s something forlorn about a totally uncommented-on blog post.

      You’re right that the rangers have banked on star power from the beginning (Conn Smythe should have realized that). I suppose it’s a sign of the hockey echo chamber I read in that I often see that- or more accurately, the enormous contracts it leads to- criticized as a fatal flaw in the organization, when it doesn’t actually seem to be. It’s logical to see big deals as burdensome, but in practice, it’s obviously possible to turn them around just like lesser contracts.

      Every time one of the general management holidays comes around, I like to look for themes and principles according to which it should be done. Once upon a time, I used to think not signing huge deals was one such principle of good GMing. Lately… not so sure.

  2. Gaborik might actually be worth the money, at least for the next few seasons. He has a rare skill even among NHL-level players – one of the blessed few pure snipers in hockey – and having that kind of rare talent gets you the big bucks, for sure. It’s paying that kind of money to Gomez or Drury or Redden that makes remarkably little sense, because there are usually nearly-as-talented players who can do just as well in those roles, much more cheaply, giving one the freedom to splurge when a Gaborik or Kovalchuk comes available.

    Gonna be hard to justify the Richards contract in a couple of years, but as you observe, Slats will likely convince some other GM to justify it, and turn his chicken feathers into chicken salad.

    Also, I have an excuse to link this video. Thanks, Down Goes Brown and Bloge Salming!

    • See, here’s the thing – citing Drury and Gomez as “not worth it” is Hindsight Fallacy writ large.

      Check this out: Suppose you are a GM and I’m a pro scout. Say I tell you about a young, in his prime 27-year old center who’s a strong playmaker, quick on his skates, defensively responsible, and capable of playing 20-22 minutes a game in all situations. He’s worked well with a variety of wingers, and has already won two Stanley Cup rings in three finals appearances, AND is only one season removed from an 80+ point season.

      Obviously, I’m talking about Scott Gomez here. My point is that, at the time, The Rangers needed a player like that, and Slats would have been foolish not to sign him, given that Michael Nylander was aging and Matt Cullen wasn’t working out as well as the team had hoped he would. Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, so given the circumstances in ’08 and where the Rangers where then, it certainly did make sense. I won’t blast Slats for that one.

      Redden, whose stats were in decline for two straight years and had an alleged reputation for…um, certain activities? Blast away!

      • Gomez had one freak 30+ goal season, and the rest, he was a good passer and a decent enough defender. One All-Star season to that point. Barely any appearances on any leaderboard – he led the league with 56 assists in 2004, a way down year for scoring, and was top-ten one other time. Yes, worth signing. Sure, anyone could use a player like that. But seven years, $51.5 million? That was a bad idea the moment it happened. That’s game-changer money for a guy who’s not a game-changer, and who is only going to decline shortly into the contract. Drury was a better player, albeit older, and signed for much less than that.

        • I was no fan of the money, certainly, but the market is the market, no? Given the scarcity of talent, Gomez was going to get $7 mil from somebody that year. Reminds me of the Holik signing – everyone remembers that the Rangers signed him for $9 million but forgets that New Jersey and Toronto offered $8.5 mil each. But, as usual, the Rangers (unuustly) got the blame for screwing the market.

          Money is also no problem for the Rangers, of course. Imagine Slats didn’t sign Gomez – the New York media would have crucified him, saying he passed over the chance for a good young center that could have been had “for ONLY money.”

          FYI, Drury didn’t sign for much less – his contract was actually about the same: $7 mil per

  3. I think your reference to Moneyball is fairly accurate but in some ways misleading. Yes moneyball was about getting cheap players for cheap contracts and getting better than expected performance (using particular stats like OBP). This isnt moneyball, technically, though. Moneyball is the exploitation of a market inefficeincy, an undervalued asset that is overlooked.

    In essence, moneyball is anything that is not the norm in a sport that can be used to exploit the weaknesses in the norm. The utilization of longterm contracts to attract top talent (and the ability to shed these contracts later) is the new market inefficiency. by addind another year or two onto a deal, you can effectively price certain teams out of the market for talent. Many teams will balk at given one player 7 years instead of 5 but the salaray doesnt change, only the term, and in most cases, spending on high-priced talent is a win now move anyway so those extra two years could be dealt with later.

    however, NY also has a few things going for it when it comes to attracting players; somethibg which Minnesota, Nashville, Edmonton will never have…

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