In a special Canada Day edition of the Friday Grab Bag:
- Steven Stamkos snubs your favorite team
- Jim Benning gets caught tampering
- An obscure player who was traded straight up for a Hall of Famer in his prime
- The week's three comedy stars
- And we all sing along proudly with the new Canadian national anthem
Friday, July 1, 2016
In a special Canada Day edition of the Friday Grab Bag:
Thursday, June 30, 2016
Late yesterday afternoon, news broke that the Oilers had finally pulled off their long-rumored trade for a top defenseman. Details were sketchy, but the first name to emerge was shocking: all-star Taylor Hall. Next, we learned the identity of the other team involved: The New Jersey Devils. That causes confusion, because short of goalie Cory Schneider, the Devils didn't have anyone worth surrendering Hall for. Finally, we got the whole deal: Hall for Adam Larsson, straight up. The hockey world reeled. Larsson is a decent young player, but nowhere near a proven No. 1, and the Oilers had just given up one of the best left wingers in the world for him. This was, quite possibly, the worst one-for-one trade we'd ever seen.
And it held that title for all of about seven minutes.
That's how stunning the P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade between the Canadiens and Predators was; it knocked all the Taylor Hall punchlines off your Twitter timeline pretty much immediately. By the time we found out, just a few minutes later, that Steven Stamkos had signed an extension in Tampa Bay, we all reacted like distracted parents. Sure, sure, Steven, that's wonderful news, but we're dealing with something important right now.
To even call the Subban deal a blockbuster would seem like under-selling it. This was something bigger, a trade that was both impossibly simple and ridiculously complex at the same time. It involves a pair of two-time first-team all-stars, both with massive contracts, both still in their prime or at least plausibly close enough. Players like that never get traded in the NHL anymore. They certainly don't get traded for each other, straight up, without any retained salary or picks or complicated conditions.
And to be clear: This is the Subban deal. With all due respect to Weber, who has been in the "best defenseman alive" conversation for much of his career and was still playing big minutes on a very good Predators blueline, he's not the best asset in the deal. Subban is three years younger and carries a far more reasonable contract. And most importantly, he's the better player.
You could call yesterday the craziest day in NHL off-season history, but you’d be wrong. That would imply that crazy things were happening throughout the day, and with apologies to that already-forgotten Seth Jones extension, that wasn’t the case. No, yesterday featured the craziest half hour in NHL history.
And the emphasis here is on crazy, because on the surface, we saw some truly puzzling decisions being made. Some of the reviews have been downright savage, and I’m pretty sure Hockey Twitter is still smoldering from the full-scale meltdown it underwent as all the news broke. The consensus: Stamkos should have gone to free agency, the Oilers didn’t get anywhere near enough for Hall, and the Canadiens got robbed.
It’s tempting to pile on. But instead, I’m going to follow in the footsteps of some of yesterday’s decision makers and do the opposite of what common sense says I should. I’m going to challenge myself to defend the moves. I’m going to use the power of positive thinking to dig my way through to the other side, or at least try.
Consider it a chance to exercise some contrarian muscles. Let's walk through yesterday's three big stories and see if we can nail down an argument that goes against what the majority seems to be thinking.
As with any challenge, we'll start on the easy level and work our way up.
Level One: Defending Steven Stamkos
Sure, on the surface the timing of Wednesday's decision seems odd. Stamkos has had all year to work out an extension with the Lightning. Instead, he gets within 48 hours of finally becoming the most sought-after free agent in modern NHL history, and that's when he gets cold feet?
But sour grapes from certain fan bases aside, Stamkos's decision makes all the sense in the world. Remember, he's been able to talk to other teams since Saturday, so by this point he knows what the market looks like. He had a chance to test the waters, he knew what other options were out there, and he decided he wanted to stay in Tampa. There's nothing especially odd about that.
Factor in that the Lightning are a very good team with legitimate Cup hopes and could offer Stamkos an extra year, and it makes perfect sense to get a deal done. Sure, it's disappointing if you're a fan of a team that was going to be in the running, or just wanted to sit back and watch the chaos as the bidding war breaks out. But Stamkos went looking for the best possible home, and realized it was right where he'd been all along.
Whew, this is easy! I barely even broke a sweat. On to the next one...
Level Two: Defending the Taylor Hall deal
Uh, can we go back to the Stamkos thing?
OK, the degree of difficulty just got ramped up significantly here. The Oilers traded one of the best left wingers in the world, one who's still just 24 and on a very team-friendly contract.
We all knew it was possible; rumours have had the Oilers moving one of their good young forwards in exactly this sort of deal for years now. But Hall was their trump card, the one arrow in their quiver that they could reach for if they had a shot at the sort of Norris-calibre defenceman that could transform the team. Instead, they used him to get Adam Larsson, who is… well, not that guy.
So yes, this one is a lot tougher to defend. On the surface, it looks like the Oilers panicked here. After years of failing to make the sort of tough but necessary moves that would improve the blue line, they finally screwed up their courage, took the plunge, and then overshot the runway by a mile. After all those years, they worked up the nerve to talk to the pretty girl across the street, then stepped right into an open manhole cover.
Yes, I know I'm using too many mixed metaphors right now. Give me a break, I'm clearly stalling.
Tomorrow is a big day in the NHL. It marks the start of the new year on the hockey calendar, meaning a boat load of players will see their contracts expire and officially become free agents. That means Friday will likely be the busiest day of the year in terms of transactions, as teams scramble to sign players available to the highest bidder.
It’s going to be a long day. To help you prepare, let’s walk through some of the key questions and answers heading into the annual free agent frenzy.
So free agency is a big deal in the NHL?
Well … sort of. It used to be, back in the 90s and early 2000s. Back then, lots of teams were struggling financially, but a handful were swimming in money and could throw around huge contracts. Rules around free agency were tighter then, and most of the players who reached the market were over 30. But given all the small-budget teams struggling to hold onto talent, that still led to plenty of big names making it to free agency most years.
Fast forward to 2005, and everything changed. The new collective bargaining agreement brought a salary cap to the league, leveling the playing field between haves and have-nots. But it also significantly loosened free agency rules, lowering the age limit to as low as 25. We all assumed this meant the market would be flooded with young stars in their prime. Instead, teams made it a priority to lock up their best talent to long-term deals. Star players like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and pretty much anyone else you’ve ever heard of have never been unrestricted free agents.
The modern-day market is packed with an assortment of castoffs, has-beens, declining veterans and – every once in a while – reasonably talented players who aren’t really stars but are close enough to get a ton of money thrown at them.
Nobody good every makes it to free agency. Got it. Who’s the best of the options this year?
Well, until Wednesday it was Steven Stamkos. He’s one of the best players in the league, and at 26 is still in his prime.
But you just said…
I know. It’s weird.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Free agency opens on Friday, as teams will be officially allowed to sign players on the open market, and fans around the league should be excited.
No, wait, excited isn’t the right word. What’s the one I’m looking for? Terrified. That’s the one. You should all be terrified.
That’s because, despite the occasional success story, NHL teams tend to be terrible at signing free agents. They can’t help themselves. And it rarely takes long for the initial excitement of a big signing to give way to the realization that a team has just handed out too much money for way too many years.
As we count down to Friday’s deadline, let’s take some time to look back at some cautionary examples of how quickly a big deal can go bad. Here are my picks for the five worst unrestricted free agency signings of the last two decades.
5. Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya, Colorado, 2003
The deal: The two friends (and former Ducks teammates) shopped themselves as a tandem deal, eventually signing cheap one-year contracts with the powerhouse Avalanche. How cheap? Selanne took a pay cut to $5.8 million after declining a $6.5 million option in San Jose. But that was nothing compared to Kariya, who took just $1.2 million after making $10 million the year before in Anaheim. Both players could have made much more elsewhere, but they were chasing their first Stanley Cup rings, and joining Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and an already loaded Avalanche team seemed like the best way to do it.
Why it made sense at the time: Are you kidding? Go back and re-read those details – it was foolproof. When the deals were announced, hockey fans everywhere pretty much threw up their hands and conceded the 2004 Cup to the Avalanche.
How it ended: In what may stand as the NHL’s greatest example of a can’t miss move somehow missing, both Selanne and Kariya were busts in Colorado and the Avalanche lost in the second round. That latter part wasn’t a huge shock – while the Avs still had most of their big names from their Cup years, they’d lost Patrick Roy to retirement in the offseason, and winning a title with David Aebischer never felt like a safe bet. But the real surprises were Kariya and Selanne, neither of whom cracked 40 points. When Steve Konowalchuk is outscoring both of your sure-thing signings, it’s safe to say that something has gone terribly wrong.
4. Ville Leino, Buffalo, 2011
The deal: Coming off a career-best 53 points, the 27-year-old winger landed a six-year, $27 million deal from the Sabres.
Why it made sense at the time: After years of drifting into small market status, the Sabres had a rich new owner and were ready to spend some of Terry Pegula’s money. (They also gave Christian Ehrhoff a 10-year, $40-million deal.) Leino had just posted a career year while helping the Flyers make it to the Cup final, and it was time for the Sabres to make some noise.
How it ended: Leino was a massive bust in Buffalo; his eight goals and 25 points in year one ended up being by far his most productive season as a Sabre. He missed almost all of year two of the deal, then went the entire 2013-14 season without scoring a single goal before being mercifully bought out.
(By the way, Leino wasn’t close to the worst contract handed out during the summer of 2011. That honor would go to a deal you’re probably expecting to see on this list: Ilya Bryzgalov’s $51-million deal with the Flyers that led to a massive buyout just two years later. But that one wasn’t technically a free agency deal, since the Flyers had acquired his negotiating rights and signed the deal before he reached the open market on July 1. )