The art of walking away
In talking about the Sedins’ contract extension talks this morning, Jason Botchford (Vancouver Province) mentioned something interesting:
The Canucks’ bargaining strategy hinges on two things: The belief the twins were honest when they said they are willing to take less to stay in Vancouver, and the fact Gillis is willing to walk away.
Without a deal nearing the middle of June, it’s clear Gillis believes life can go on without the twins. He wouldn’t have let it go this long if he didn’t believe he can reload without the Sedins.
It’s neither ideal nor his first choice. Both the trade market and the free-agent market are rife with landmines — bloated contracts and question marks. Yet Gillis is willing to take a calculated risk he can quickly rebuild this team without the twins.
It’s a strategy which has worked in another sport. In New England, the NFL’s Patriots have established themselves as the most successful team in sports since the advent of the salary cap. They’ve done it because they were willing to say goodbye to stars when the money didn’t make sense. When the demands got too much they kissed-off key players like Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Deion Branch, Adam Vinatieri and Ben Coates. The Pats didn’t miss a beat.
This is something that’s briefly crossed my mind before – letting marquee free agents walk away for nothing – though to be honest, it’s not anything I’ve given any serious thought to. Especially for a team like the Canucks, whose prospect pool is limited, letting assets leave – especially two of their best ones – without getting anything in return can be crippling.
Mike Gillis took a big gamble with the Sedins this year by not trading them at the trade deadline even without having an extension for them already in place. If he had, however, then what message does it send to Canucks fans? Or to Luongo, who’ll be in the same position next season? Gillis felt – as did most of us – that his team had its best chance to win with the Sedins in the lineup instead of, say, a couple of young players and a couple of draft picks for next year. It’s the same gamble St. Louis took by hanging on to Keith Tkachuk. Ditto Minnesota and Marian Gaborik, Montreal and Saku Koivu, and Anaheim and Scott Niedermayer. The hope, of course, is that these players all re-sign and their respective teams retain their assets.
Botchford’s piece made me think about this differently. In a salary cap world, cap space is as much an asset as players, prospects and draft picks. Much like the Red Wings let Mathieu Schneider walk away a few years ago, and then signed Brian Rafalski. Closer to home, it’s like letting Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison walk away last season, and using then using the cap space to sign Pavol Demitra and Mats Sundin.
It’s true that free agency is a gamble and I’d never aim to build my team by bidding on players. But given the choice of overpaying players or using cap space more effectively and wisely, I’d opt for the latter. The Sedins may be good value at, say, $6 million per season (combined $12 million), but if they insist on $7 million ($14 million combined), are the Canucks overpaying them and can they spend that $14 million more effectively somewhere else? To put it another way, is $14 million better spent on Henrik and Daniel, or Mike Cammalleri and Marian Hossa, or Hossa and Marian Gaborik, or Hossa and Jay Bouwmeester, or… well, you get the drift.
It’s not good to lose your best players to free agency – and I’m not suggesting the Canucks should let the Sedins go – but if the alternative is to hand out bad, big contracts and handicap your team for years to come, maybe it’s not so bad after all.