Thursday, August 10, 2006

They're walkin'

Al Strachan from Canoe has an interesting story about a suddenly increasing strategy of NHL teams, the management walkaway after an arbitration decision.

With a salary cap in place on the NHL franchises, GM's are begining to ponder just who is worth trying to sign and who may be worth just cutting loose, should an arbitration decision not go their way. The plan then is to save the cap money for a more long term option, building the team through a mix of trades and free agency.

But if Strachan's observations are correct, that long term option will most likely not include a lot of thought in the amateur draft.

That once bible story of building a hockey team through intelligent drafting may soon be a thing of the past.

It makes for interesting reading.

Changing times in the NHL
Al Strachan
Canoe website
August 11, 2006

Over most of the National Hockey League's history, there were two walkaways.
Now, within a three-day span, there have been two more.

It's a sign not only of the changing times under the new collective bargaining agreement, but also an indication that no matter what some of the pundits try to assert, it's almost impossible to develop a team by drafting well and developing your own players.

J.P. Dumont was the most recent to be cut loose when the Buffalo Sabres walked away from his $2.9-million US arbitration award on Tuesday.

Three days earlier, the Boston Bruins exercised their walkaway rights and released David Tanabe after an arbitrator awarded him a one-year, $1.275-million contract.

As a result, both Dumont and Tanabe are unconditional free agents, available to any team that wants to sign them.

The Bruins, curiously enough, have been involved in three walkaways, both of the earlier ones involving former Maple Leafs' Bryan Berard and the ever-lovable Dmitri Khristich.

In those cases, it was simply a matter of the terminally cheap Bruins trying to cut costs. And to a degree, the Tanabe case is cost-cutting as well, but this time, there is a degree of justification and there's also the pressure of the salary cap.

The Bruins already have acquired Zdeno Chara, Paul Mara and Jason York this summer. They just signed Milan Jurcina and they also have Brad Stuart, Andrew Alberts and Mark Stuart on the roster.

General managers know that depth on defence is always an attribute, but depth and salary caps do not go hand in hand.

The good GMs have to allocate the maximum amount to the guys who will be playing regularly because that's what other good GMs are doing. You can't pay $1.275 million to someone who is there only to fill in when problems arise.

In the case of Dumont, the Sabres decided that the award was simply too high, especially after Daniel Briere won a $5-million deal in arbitration.

Dumont is 28 and Tanabe is 26. At various times in their careers, each has been viewed as a high-potential player. That potential still could be realized. Yet their clubs let them go for essentially the same reason. In both cases, they were considered to be too expensive.

Neither was drafted by the team that released him, but that doesn't matter. The point is if you try to build through the draft, the players will either become too expensive to keep, or won't have lived up to potential.

In theory, you could do it. You could select a couple of bright young stars each year over a three- or four-year period. Then as they all blossom, your team rises to the top.

But life doesn't work like that. One or two will develop more slowly than the others. One or two may have their development delayed by injury. And one or two -- or perhaps more -- will blossom and go to arbitration. The settlement will be too high for the team to handle under the salary cap.

Some misguided fans blame the arbitrators. But arbitrators simply are number-crunchers.
They look at the Chicago Blackhawks giving Martin Havlat $18 million for six years, for example, and they say, "Well if hockey professionals think Havlat's numbers are worth $6 million, then Briere's must be worth $5 million. And Dumont, a 60-point player if he'd played a full 82-game season, is worth $2.9 million."

So if your team has two or three young stars such as Briere and they all go to arbitration, there goes your plan to build through the draft.

You probably can't afford to keep them, and even if you could, the salary cap won't let you. And these are players you drafted five, six or seven years ago, so you've just wasted all that time trying to build through the draft.

You have no choice but to let them walk away.

It has happened twice in the past few days. It's going to happen a lot more in the future.

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