Frequent readers of this space may remember that I have a little bit of an obsession with principles of general management. Around the trade deadline and UFA day, everyone is always talking about management, but most of the conversations are situation-specific: is GM A go after Player X or Player Y? Where will Player Z land? While these questions are certainly interesting, they’re also extremely speculative, because they rely on information most of us do not and cannot know. GM A may only be releasing partial dribs and drabs of information to the media insiders in the hopes of influencing the market. Player Z might be motivated by money or climate or family concerns or any number of inscrutable private impulses. When we talk about individual cases, we’re often daydreaming.
So, personally, I prefer to talk about principles. Principles, ideally, can be learned from history and research. Discussing them requires no insider information nor speculative gossip. In other words, rather than talking about what a particular GM might do, I want to have a conversation about what an ideal GM should do. We’ve all been watching this game for many years, we’ve seen many deals come and go, the atrocious and the magnificent alike. We should be able to derive some general ideas about how hockey’s paper games are best played. We should be able to figure out the Tao of General Management. So I’m going to take this occasion to throw out what seem to me to be a few of the basic principles of how a GM should rock UFA day. Some of them, I hope, are right. Others may well be wrong. Readers are invited- indeed, encouraged- to debate these principles and offer alternative suggestions. Hockey is for arguing about.
Once upon a time, I thought there was only one good principle of general management relating to UFA day: don’t do it. The logic went something like this: A) Efficiency- getting the most wins per dollar out of your roster- is the most essential skill for a general manager to possess in a cap world; B) UFA day is essentially an auction, featuring a large group of hungry buyers pursuing a relatively small number of worthwhile commodities (yeah, I just called players commodities, but we’re all basically self-aware commodities when it comes to selling our skills). A is not compatible with B- you can’t get good value at a reasonable price when you’re in the midst of a bidding war. Shopping on UFA day means overpaying. If a good GM is one who never overpays, than a good GM should go out to the woods on July 1st and throw his smartphone in the lake.
However, over time, I’ve grown a bit more skeptical of efficiency as a principle. Assuming you are a team that can afford to spend to the cap and perhaps a bit over (i.e. dumping big salaries in the AHL when needed), efficiency is a useful principle but not a universal one. A GM should know how to maximize player-skill per dollar on some points in the roster, especially when it comes to depth players and rookies, but an insistence on maximum cap efficiency at the top positions is an extremely limiting principle. It means saying a lot of no- no to the free agent market, no to many trade opportunities, no to your own excellent draftees when it comes time for them to get their due. Every now and then, of course, a great deal on a great player will come along, but such opportunities are rare and there are 29 other managers looking for them as well. A rigorously value-conscious GM will find himself waiting a long time to fill his top slots. Given that there’s likely to be a lot of losing while he waits, he may well wait himself out of a job.
So if we assume that a GM trying to manage his team to success quickly is going to have to overpay now and then, the questions becomes: what are the principles of smart overpayment? Who should one overpay, and when, and how? Here are my working hypotheses about how GMs should approach UFA day.
- Try to avoid it: Yeah, sure, I just said that cap efficiency is overrated, but fact is that you don’t want to be shopping at an auction unless it’s really necessary. Teams, generally speaking, seem to get their best values out their own draftees. If you’ve drafted a good player and built a good relationship with him, pay him nicely on his first RFA deal and lock that shit down.
- Don’t shop for need: Every summer, as soon as their team is eliminated, fans and media start drawing up their UFA shopping list. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these lists have very similar things on them: everybody wants either a top-pairing defenseman or a big first-line center, and many teams need both. Obviously, these things don’t come up every UFA season. Sometimes there is only one top-pairing defenseman, or none at all. Unfortunately, the media hype machine and a glut of GMs convinced that they absolutely have to fill a particular hole will inflate the value of lesser players. GMs being convinced that they need to get a big defenseman or a first line center when there isn’t one available is how you get bidding wars over Mike Komisarek and Scott Gomez. There are very few teams that are so ridiculously stacked at any one position that they couldn’t benefit from another good player there. Shop for the best quality players on UFA day, not the ones that fill a pre-ordained hole. We may term this the Pat McLean Principle of General Management: get good players.
- Only bid on players with high tangible and intangible value: Okay, so you’ve accepted the fact that you’re going to overpay someone, and that someone is going to be a good player. What do we mean by ‘good’? On UFA day, ‘good’ has two components: talented and beloved. The most important quality of good players is, of course, skill, and the key there is to make sure to look at players’ long-term records and possession stats, rather than paying based on recent results. A player with fairly consistent boxcars and good underlying numbers is likely to continue to be good and marketable (even more so if he’s a defenseman). However, other things that contribute to durable player value is reputation and perception. A player who is perceived in the hockey community to have a great attitude, impressive work ethic, solid leadership qualities, etc. is a player more GMs are going to be willing to take a chance on in the future. No matter how much you love the player, never sign a deal without assuming that you’ll want to move him at some point. On the trade market, a smart GM shops for guys with character issues- he’s buying, and wants to buy low. On the UFA market, though, a smart GM assumes that eventually he’s eventually going to be selling, and therefore wants the players he can sell high. You want the sort of dude your peers on other franchises will covet, not the one they wouldn’t touch with a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.
- Don’t be afraid of term: Based on my totally informal observations, it seems like a lot of fans are terrified by long-term deals. Mention the notion of tacking extra years onto a contract, and they whisper DiPietro, and shudder, as though his name were only slightly less of a horror than Voldemort. Now, it’s true that giving term to goalies is a high risk proposition, but in general, one probably shouldn’t be goalie-shopping on UFA day in the first place. If you need your nets minded, wait until a week or two later and comb through the bargain bin. However, if I’m a GM in a bidding war for the skater I’ve identified as the best available, I would not hesitate to try to outbid my rivals on term rather than salary- in other words, if it’s a choice between nine million for four years and six million for six years (or better yet, four million for nine years!), I go with the latter every time. Part of this is, obviously, the fact that the terms of the current CBA mean cap hits go lower as the term extends, but the other part of it is that it seems to me that players want term more than money. A player who is a prized commodity on UFA day is often at the very highest peak of his value, and his interest has to be to lock in a deal that will reflect that utmost value. Five years later, he might be worth only a tiny fraction as much, and while UFA day is a gold mine for a few lucky debutantes every year, it’s a nightmare for guys who are starting to age out of the League. It seems like every year you hear the refrain once or twice- GM A and Player Z have agreed on salary, the issue is term. Term, however, is only an issue if you assume that it actually represents a decade-long bond between player and team. It doesn’t. A contract is not a marriage. The important thing to remember, for the GM, is that you’re not locking the player to the franchise long-term, you’re locking the player to the contract. The player is movable so long as the contract is movable, and the most important thing in keeping a contract movable is keeping the cap hit reasonable. A higher cap hit limits the GM’s flexibility far more than long term does- it restricts what he can spend on the rest of the roster while he still holds the player, and decreases the number of potential trading partners should he want to move the player. Bottom line, longer term is better for the player and better for the GM. Use it.
Following these principles, a GM can spin a massive overpayment into an asset. Even a player with a durable skills and a great reputation will inevitably see his abilities decline over the years, but the beauty of a sprawling contract with a decent cap hit is that it becomes more and more attractive with time. If you sign a guy to an eight-year deal and want to trade him after three, you’re no longer trying to unload a scary eight-year contract but a much more manageable five-year one. So long as you’re willing to move those contracts before the player’s value has utterly collapsed (or better yet, shop him in the midst or aftermath of a high-percentage season) and the cap hit is digestible, there will always be potential buyers, including ones willing to give up quality assets in exchange.
If I’m a GM, that’s how I play UFA day. What about if you are?