Free agency is awful and should be avoided at all costs.
To clarify, I don’t begrudge players who exercise their rights as free agents, nor do I mind that the age and accumulated experience at which a player can opt for free agency has been getting progressively younger and shorter. I have, and always will be, on the side of workers getting paid.
But from a franchise perspective, free agency is bad news.
There is no day on the NHL calendar more hazardous for a team than July 1. Organizations might hit or miss at the draft, but picks are marketable and have currency, they can be traded. Even prospects once selected have a shelf life (some longer than others) in which they can be moved. The trade deadline at times leads to grievous error, but it is often a swap of expiring deals, worth a third of their original value, and obligatory throws-ins, like second round picks. In one form or another, it’s an exchange of money and at a reduced rate.
But free agency differs from other ill-advised NHL traditions in that it more often leads to damaging deals that hamper a team’s ability to compete for years. July 1 gives GMs the opportunity to throw escalating dollar and term figures at players who will either start their new deals on the wrong side of 30 or will soon count themselves among hockey’s elder statesmen. The desire to improve their team, a somewhat free market, and an incrementally increasing salary cap, all push prices higher. Because the only assets teams give up are money, cap space, and flexibility, free agency is a steal for GMs who only think short term, not long term.
In this context, the winning team almost certainly overpays to get their man. But that’s part of why it should be avoided. In any bidding war, you have to know when to step aside. Free agency should be avoided because GMs can’t be trusted to make smart decisions.
Why not hire a smarter GM and save your billionaire owner more money than a municipality bent on securing a pro sports team?
The list of GMs who were once considered smart but recent hirings, bloated re-signings, terrible trades, and general misguided July activity, have caused that status to be revoked, is a long one. Smart GMs don’t trade P.K. Subban or Taylor Hall for bad returns. Smart GMs don’t re-sign Ryan Kesler. Smart GMs don’t lose decent defensemen to free agency because they insist on trying another year with the same expensive, underwhelming tandem in net. Smart GMs don’t regret trading for Kris Russell because they avoided the move in the first place. Smart GMs who have created their own roster problems don’t get celebrated when they signed a new deal with their captain on the eve of free agency because they operate in a state without income tax. Smart GMs don’t watch Roman Polak get walked on every other goal against San Jose in the playoffs and then think “he should play more hockey. He should play more hockey for our team”. Smart GMs don’t hire Michel Therrien.
There are no smart GMs. There are only Jim Bennings and those on their way to becoming Jim Bennings.
There are numerous reasons for this, not the least of which is possessing excellent sporting ability in your 20s is in no way preparation for the job of running a modern professional hockey team in your 40s and 50s. I’m recalling Brett Hull and Joe Nieuwendyk in Dallas but Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy (who seemed poised to do something regrettable with their own young stars this offseason), are a comparable current example. However, these limitations can be overcome with time, training, and occupying various hockey ops positions at the junior, minor, NHL level, a sort of apprenticeship program.
Unfortunately, none of that can save them from one of the primary reasons they make mistakes. These are emotional men who make rash decisions in the moment to shake things up, trade for players they like on a personal level, and ostracize athletes who are skilled players, but different in some way. This is why Pete Chiarelli moved on from 24-year-old Taylor Hall and seemingly replaced him with the less-good Milan Lucic (a player he’s known for years). Lucic might do great things in Edmonton, especially if he gets to play with Connor McDavid, but that doesn’t change the fact that Chiarelli made an ill-advised trade for the sake of trading and brought in a player he has a personal relationship with to mitigate the damage. He’s not the only GM to make this mistake.
Most of the year I am in favour of spending money. I want the Sens to be able to secure RFA talent like Mike Hoffman. I want Ottawa to be able to sign players like Hoffman for the prices that kind of talent commands and for a long time. I want Pierre Dorion to flash the cash when it’s needed to develop and re-sign homegrown talent, to invest in hockey ops, and to pay the coaching staff more than bargain bin prices. But no GM can be trusted with the kind of money that’s needed to sign marquee free agents, and that’s why, for one holiday weekend a year, I’m glad my team lacks the kind of money required to land big name free agents.
It’s not that I don’t believe in Pierre Dorion. At this point, there isn’t enough info available on what kind of a GM Pierre Dorion will be. He may be great, he may be awful, he may be some muddy middle ground but it’s too soon to tell (I do like that he seems to conduct his business behind closed doors and not through the media). It’s that GMs across the league have shown a willingness to make bad signings every year.
Things as they are have basically insured the Sens don’t drop $42 million paying Kyle Okposo to not play with John Tavares until he is 35 or Loui Eriksson $6 million to play when he is 36. Can you imagine if Bryan Murray was still Ottawa’s GM and the trio of David Backes, Milan Lucic, and Andrew Ladd hit free agency? He would have refinanced the Canadian Tire Centre, sold off the largest parking lot in Eastern Ontario, and leased Spartacat to the Nepean Junior Wildcats so he could make an offer to at least one of those guys.
Many were glad that new GM Dorion seems to have moved on from the top-6 forward crushes of old GM Murray to focus on improving Ottawa’s defense. But would landing the best available defenseman be worth it? Jason Demers, whose $5.5 million annual salary has been declared a Good Deal by hockey twitter, is one of the marquee signings of a successful offseason for the Florida Panthers. However, I absolutely believe if Ottawa had the money to make that same deal, Sens fans would still find a way to complain about the money or the term or both. We both refuse to acknowledge the economic limitations placed on management by ownership when making our free agent wish list and then moan about current market rates. Sens fans are nothing if not predictable.
Further, with Methot and Phaneuf already taking up space in the “Over 30 and more than $5 Million Lounge” the Sens really can’t afford to add another member. Instead, we should take Dorion at his word when he said he was interested in adding a depth defenseman to shore up the blue line. That the team hasn’t yet signed someone for the role, and given Development Camp comments designed to push prospect Thomas Chabot in training camp, it seems likely there will be no new faces on Ottawa’s blueline. That seems a reasonable place to start evaluating Dorion, not for his failure to land one of the big names.
But what about the hidden gems? Sure, it’s possible to pull a Clarke MacArthur out of another team’s trash, but for every deal like this, there are 10 Matt Martin signings. What about those low risk signings like $800,000 for Patrick Wiercioch? It’s possible a fresh start (which I think was best for him at this point) works out, but on the other hand, he was signed by Colorado and Patrick Roy seems like the sort of coach who will absolutely destroy him for every defensive failing. Regardless, there just aren’t that many guys available who actually prove worthwhile. Last year the Leafs found some hidden gems only to find they were neither hidden, nor gems. Ditto Montreal with Alex Semin. Maybe it works out, but often it leads to trades, buyouts, and regret.
And that’s the crux of the problem with free agency: the youngest guys available are in their late 20s, many are in their 30s, all have established NHL track records that will increase their value, and the often limited talent pool creates competition and drives salaries up. On top of that, virtually every one of these guys is looking for a long term deal. While some of these deals will undoubtedly prove to be good value, too many of them will lead to diminishing returns and salary headaches. Since GMs don’t listen to the analysts teams have hired anyway, I’d rather my team be broke than flush with cash on Canada Day.
Don’t agree? Remember a team is still going to add Kris Russell in the coming days.
 Perhaps after the disastrous P.K. Subban trade and the ludicrous decision making that led to not only hiring Michel Therrien but choosing him over Subban (in part because he’s your friend), the term for managerial incompetence should be changed to “Marc Bergevin” to reflect this new and enjoyable reality.