Wednesday, March 04, 2009

UFA Dump

As Hit And Miss As Any Other Trade

Unrestricted free agency as we know it today was born out of the 1994-95 Owner's Lockout. Prior to that point, the stipulation as to ages for free agency weren't as clear as they are today.

The idea of restricted and unrestricted free agents has since played a major role in days like today for over a decade. Pundits love free agency because it gives them a good clue as to some of the players that might be moved at the deadline. Players love it as it gives them leverage to make salary demands.

I don't think the GMs like it though. I wouldn't if I was a GM. The UFA environment on trade deadline day can be a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario for GMs. Any number of supporters will line up behind the idea of keeping a star. Another segment is drawn to the idea that if there is something to be had, it is better than 20 games and gone for the given player.

The Canadiens and their unrestricted free agents

GMs of the Montreal Canadiens are no strangers to this dilemma. Last season Gainey was both praised and reviled for dealing Cristobal Huet for a second round draft pick. The year before, it was the same when he held onto Sheldon Souray.

In all the Canadiens have 9 times dealt an unrestricted free agent after the turn of the new year, lest they be lost for nothing. Rather predictably, only one of the trades in this category can be qualified as outright wins:

1) Craig Rivet and a 5th round pick for Josh Gorges and a 1st round pick (now Max Pacioretty)

In retrospect, several are losers, considering the player sent the other way:

1) Eric Weinrich for Patrick Traverse
2) Mark Recchi for Dainius Zubrus and a 2nd, 4th and 6th round pick
3) Vincent Damphousse for a 1st, 2nd and 5th round pick

If you're not getting a player...

If you're not getting a player for a star UFA, chances are we will be here in 5 years writing about a bad trade. It's just odds. If you get a player, you can still lose (Traverse). But if you trust your scouts, a player is a better bet. A pro player has already shown what he can do against other pros – there are far fewer unknown quantities. I would suggest the Rivet trade as proof of what good pro scouting can do.

The Mark Recchi and Vincent Damphousse trades illustrate the problem with thinking that a lot of draft picks are value for a star player. The chances of getting another player like Recchi or Damphousse in the draft is not worth the gamble (even in the first round). When you consider that Mark Recchi has played 9 seasons since that trade, won a Cup, had 7 20+ goal seasons and even a 91-point campaign; you'd be lucky to select a player at number one and replicate that.

In general, first round picks can be reliable. Beyond that is a crap shoot. Getting 3 extra picks allows for more long-shot picks on draft day – but as these trades showed, those kinds of picks are called that for a reason.

Holding vs. trading

I hate the cliche "Trade him, or we'll lose him for nothing." First of all, it's not true – you have the player for 20 more games, plus playoffs if you are there. Secondly, if you're team is never able to attract or retain players once they get to a certain level – then you are in bigger trouble than you know. The Montreal Canadiens for all their griping about losing money, have never been a poor brother in the NHL, though they acted like one in 1999.

The value of holding the player must be weighed fully against the value of trading. That player for 20+ games vs. the package coming back. In the Rivet trade, the package was very good – a functional NHL defenceman and a first round pick that year. It turned into a bigger win later as Gorges showed he fits in better than Rivet did at the end. Presumably the package offered for Souray that very same year was not as good, so Gainey weighed and opted for 20 games with his PP point man.

No playoffs

If there is no chance of the playoffs, as was the case in 7 of the 9 trades (1999, 2001, 2003), then the weight of the player being around for 20 games takes a lot less meaning, of course. Those 20 games would be either for the pleasure of the fans, the hope of re-signing or some kind of good will to the player. These scenarios certainly make it more forgivable to talk about losing for nothing, and for making a trade for anything, anything at all.


If the team is firmly in the race for the playoffs, as was the case at the deadline the past two seasons. These assessments change quite dramatically. In these cases, trading a major star ahead of the "real season" indicates a GM is wavering in earlier plans.

Consider that in the playoffs, there is an expanded roster size and more roster flexibility; and all salaries are already paid to boot. Keeping a major piece (someone that the GM (at least, previously) thought was a major cog in the machine makes much more sense. 20 games + playoffs certainly isn't nothing. Considering the playoffs are the first time of year a team gets to play for a trophy (well, one that anyone cares about) – it seems to me that keeping once valuable pieces just in case has value in itself.

Current Canadiens UFAs

On that note, I look to players others are floating as possible trade bait from the Canadiens as possible trade bait – simply based on contract status:

1) Saku Koivu
I wouldn't trade a guy who rescued the team while nursing a broken foot

Offer to change my mind: None.

2) Alexei Kovalev
Trading Kovalev during his least productive season is asking for egg in the face

Offer to change my mind: Winger who can score, as well as carry the puck.

3) Alex Tanguay
Gainey acquired Alex Tanguay for good reason (did he not?). Trading him now would raise serious questions about our GM's one-year plan (let alone 5+ year plan)

Offer to change my mind: Jere Lehtinen.

4) Robert Lang
Injury rather settled this issue

5) Tom Kostopoulos
He's one of those value for money kind of guys. I think he's easily signable.

Offer to change my mind: Only an upgrade – no sideways maneuvering.

6) Francis Bouillon
Has more value to this franchise as an interview target than any 6th round pick could return. I also think he can be re-signed and I'd encourage that.

Offer to change my mind: Only an upgrade – no sideways maneuvering.

7) Mathieu Dandenault
Wants to be traded. Want to trade him. Would be hard to low-ball me here.

Offer to deal him: Someone who can skate.

8) Mike Komisarek
The most interesting possibility. Everyone needs a defenceman. Everyone reads stats. Komisarek could return value. But as a rental?

Offer to change my mind: A young defender who knows his trade – it would take a Rivet:Gorges type revelation. Not impossible.

9) Mathieu Schneider
I don't think Gainey would turn two trades only to upgrade his draft picks – seems like a lot of work...

Offer to change my mind: None.

10) Patrice Brisebois
Get real

Offer to deal him: It's been so painful to get to 1,000, I want it to end right. End is the operative word.

As you can see, I wouldn't be an exciting GM either. Unlike Waddell who is, I care about winning a few games. I'm glad Gainey seems to be of like mind. Frankly, with all the prospects we have (a few who are sure to be logjammed or busts), I don't see the need to take a loss on a UFA at this point. Plenty of trade bait lying around as it is.

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