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.