20,000 GMs Walk Into A Bar . . .
. . . and they all have different ideas on how the Blue Jackets can be "fixed" through dealing by the front office. Some believe that it is the front office itself that should be dealt. We explore this dangerous territory.
Now that the sensation of The Trade has begun to subside, it's time to turn attention back to the issues we began to explore in the Order From Chaos piece I posted New Year's Eve. While that one dealt primarily with the guys who wear the skates, this one places the focus on the guys who wear the suits. Certainly, with Ryan Johansen now shopping for cowboy boots in Nashville, the accusing fingers are swinging more in the direction of the Executive Offices on Nationwide Boulevard. After all, doesn't somebody have to hang for the treason of this season?
If you haven't already guessed, that last remark came with tongue planted firmly in cheek. However, people are angry, and want answers. Fair enough. In the last installment, we tried to take a balanced look at the on-ice product, and found some obvious areas of shortcoming -- most notably along the blue line and in the backup net-minding role -- though areas of under-performance could be found in many dark corners. Here, we take that same approach to the front office moves that have been made -- and can yet be made -- that play into both the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. All of this comes against a backdrop of the core concepts that make the front office roles so complicated, yet easy to blame. I'll once again try to navigate those increasingly narrow and dangerous waters that lie between the rocks of passion and reason. It's a twisty course, so bear with me.
Understanding the Playing Field
If we're going to examine the Front Office/GM role, it's probably a good idea to understand what we are tackling. The NHL GM role is a multi-headed beast that ultimately devours most who venture into the role. The requirements are really fairly simple. Put together a team of hockey minds who scour the planet for kids -- quite literally -- who are candidates to assume one of the 690 roster spots in the best hockey league in the world, assisted by hordes of parents, relatives, coaches and agents ready and willing to provide assurance that their kid is the next "generational talent."
Obviously, I could continue with the litany of challenges that an NHL GM faces on a daily basis, but that is not the point, nor is it intended to engender sympathy for John Davidson, Jarmo Kekäläinen or any other occupant of an NHL executive office. They all know the story when their name goes on the door, and also understand that the name can -- and most frequently will -- come off the door far more quickly than it went up. Like a coach, a General Manager is hired to be fired. However, in the age of instant statistics, salary caps and ubiquitous information of all kinds, it has become entirely fashionable to ignore the complexities and nuance, and treat the entire process as just plugging formulas into an Excel spreadsheet. That's just not the case, and whether we come to praise or bury Caesar, we at least owe him a decent review.
An NHL GM must have the wiles of a poker player, the stomach of a chili chef and the ability to immediately forget deals gone bad, while learning from the experience. In the final analysis, however, the reality is that success or failure is largely dictated by a GM's ability to master the concepts of value and timing, which is where the focus properly lies. In fact, these are merely two components of the same concept, and provide the yardstick by which we can evaluate the extent to which front office action has precipitated any of the recent unpleasantness -- and the potential avenues of redemption.
Value -- The Theory
In a very cold and analytical sense, a General Manager is a curator of the assets for the organization, responsible for the acquisition, development and maintenance of those assets, which in this case happen to be hockey players. Operating within the budget restrictions of the salary cap -- competing against 29 other similarly situated individuals -- it's obvious that the key challenge is to extract the maximum amount of value from each asset. That's a relatively easy concept when trying to determine how much to ask when selling your 1972 AMC Gremlin, but an entirely different matter when determining what a 25-year-old puck moving defenseman with a right handed shot is worth as he enters his RFA season.
A fairly standard working definition of fair market value is this one:
The price at which the property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.
These couple of lines actually provide us with everything we need to illustrate the vagaries of value in the cat-herding enterprise that is an NHL roster. The key element of course is that both sides have to be "willing" and without "any compulsion" to act. While willing is a fairly low bar to clear, that whole compulsion thing is an entirely different angle. In fact, one could argue that the vast majority of decisions -- whether involving the draft, salary offers, contract term, trades or free agent signings -- are made under varying degrees of compulsion. That compulsion can be relatively minor -- such as the desire to upgrade a third line winger position in the off-season -- , or it can be dramatic, as in the need to replace a starting net-minder in the midst of a playoff rush. If a deal were consummated in either case, the value of the latter transaction would appear objectively larger to a third-party observer.
This is why the concepts of time and value are really one. Value has no meaning without reference to time, as the existence or non-existence of duress, willingness, knowledge of facts, etc. all can and do change with time -- often rapidly. Offering me a winger when my key guy is on IR will elicit a vastly different response than when you come with the same offer when my guy is healthy and scoring up a storm. So, the concept of value for the GM's purpose is entirely situational and shifting, adhering to necessity, supply and demand. If I have an injuries at a position of depth, I'm less likely to overpay in the market to get help. If I'm unfortunate enough to sustain injuries to a position of existing weakness, the calculus changes entirely, with each club and each position facing different considerations.
Much larger forces come into play here as well. The salary cap is the most visible of these , as it is the universal constraint all teams face. You simply can't staff all 23 slots of an NHL roster with All-Stars in a salary cap environment, so every team has gaps. Where and to what extent they exist is as individual as the teams involved, and every GM hopes that those gaps can be effectively masked over time. High spending teams are compelled to jettison top talent to gain cap compliance, while other teams might need to overpay otherwise mediocre talent to reach the cap floor. It is the balancing effect for which the cap is intended. However, when the salary cap increases, players and agents are quick to pounce, and that space is quickly consumed with the existing talent. A prudent GM, foreseeing a big cap increase, might then be tempted to lock up young talent for a long term now, even if perceived to be an over-payment at the moment, knowing that the relative value to the entire roster will be lower than he could do if the player has another big year and the cap increases. The risk, of course, is that the player regresses, rather than progresses.
So, the reality of the process calls into question the viability of criticism based solely on dollars and term. What were the circumstances of the player, the team and the salary cap at the time of the transaction? Is it a young team trying to establish a core with developing talent and leadership? If so, an apparent premium in both term and amount might be in order. If the team is more veteran, with more high dollar deals, shorter term deals might be the ticket, providing the ability to more nimbly move in and out. Was the deal signed before a big cap increase? After? What did the franchise look like at that position at the time? What style of play is your coaching staff trying to embrace? These are all relevant questions, and can't be answered by a blind reference to a chart of salaries, ages and terms.
Notice that the definition incorporates the "reasonable knowledge of relevant facts" element by both parties. That works really well when selling your home, a transaction governed by legions of disclosure requirements, but less well in the NHL. Sure, there are safeguards for medical conditions and the like already in place, and the prudent GM will not cross the line of misrepresentation or active concealment if he ever wants to do another deal, but beyond that, it is up to each club to do its due diligence. The stats are there for everyone to see, but if you don't know that my guy has a phobia in arenas that have names beginning with the letter "B", I'm not going to go out of my way to educate you.
A final note on time and circumstance. A GM's job is -- by definition -- entirely prospective, and predominately long term. Decisions made today govern anticipated needs, abilities over the relatively long future horizon, and are not focused upon the performance today, this week or next month -- that's up to the coach. In contrast, evaluation of their body of work almost uniformly comes with the full benefit of hindsight -- how well did it actually turn out? That's life -- in all of our daily jobs we're judged on what we actually do, rather than our intentions. So, the tenuous nature of a GM's tenure is premised in large measure of the sandy foundation of good fortune. Keep the crystal ball in focus, guess right on more players than not, keep the mistakes manageable and avoid injuries in the wrong positions and times, and you're likely to survive, and might even thrive. Otherwise, that multi-headed beast eats you for lunch. The best-laid plans of any executive (or coach) are ultimately subjugated to the eternal truth that your assets are largely kids, whose performance is likely to wax and wane over shifts, games, months and years. Deciding whether to ride out the storm or pull the ripcord is is art, not science.
With the standards in mind, let's see how the Blue Jackets have done. We'll look at the trades and the drafts under the current regime, the present and future cap situation, and see what the tarot cards tell us.
The Theory Applied -- Trades
Improving your club consistently through the art of the trade may be one of the most difficult things to do in sports. While savvy and nerves help, a GM's hand is often forced by the uncontrollable intangibles that have already been highlighted. Evaluating deals and non-deals is even more difficult, as we simply don't know all of the variables. Who was available? What did they want in return? We don't know. Fans around the NHL screamed bloody murder when Dougie Hamilton was traded from Boston to Calgary for draft picks, as their resident GM "obviously" failed to step up to the plate. However, Boston was not trading Hamilton to anybody in the East for anything remotely approximating fair value. So, appearances are often deceiving.
For the Blue Jackets, the worst comes first on the trade front, as the new front office regime tried to make an early splash, but missed the pool. I'm talking, of course, about the April 2013 trade that sent Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore to the Rangers for Marian Gaborik, Blake Parlett and Steven Delisle. No ambiguities here -- a true stinker of a deal. This one was submarined by injury and the complete incompatibility between Gaborik's game and Todd Richard's desired style of play. The subsequent unwind to L.A. for Matt Frattin and picks was equally unremarkable. Placed in an environment and used in a way more conducive to his game, Gaborik helped L.A. to the Cup. However, his production has fallen off significantly since. In the meantime, Brassard now makes $5 million in New York, and notched his first 60 point season last year. Dorsett was sent packing to a new penalty box in Vancouver, while John Moore was traded to Arizona, then released by the Coyotes before signing on as a free agent blue liner in New Jersey, where he is having a serviceable season at a $1.8 million cap hit.
So, this one was clearly not a gold star for Jarmo & Co. However, what is the ultimate impact to the current situation? Fairly little, actually. Richards did not like Brassard or his game, and if the club were paying him $5 million per today, other deals could not have occurred. The trickle down effect is substantial. The loss of Dorsett was primarily emotional, as the roster could really not absorb any more PIM. While John Moore is now contributing at some level for the Devils, this has occurred only after two teams passed on him. Could Brassard have been leveraged for a key defenseman? We simply don't know. I can't point to such a deal, and while Brassard's performance has been great in retrospect, it was very much a Come bet at the time. Again, looking at the conditions existing then, the reach for offense was understandable. Johansen was spending half of his time in Springfield, and the likes of Hartnell, Saad, Wennberg and others were not on the horizon. Context is everything.
Fortunately, that represented the nadir for this administration in terms of trades -- at least as far as we can tell today. The Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger deal was a steal by every conceivable measure, as Hartnell is on pace for a second consecutive 60 point season, while Umberger has a combined total of nine goals and 12 assists over the two years, and zero goals this year. Yes, Hartnell comes with penalty baggage, but that doesn't change the fact that this was a winning deal from any viewpoint.
Unlike some, I view the trade of James Wisniewski to Anaheim as a total win. Reasonable minds can (and certainly do) differ on this one, and everyone can trot out stats of various kinds to support various positions. However, for me, the notion that James Wisniewski was the "best defenseman" in Columbus is irrefutably rebutted by the fact that one of the top organizations in the league took a look at him for 13 games, then took him out of skates for the playoffs and traded him for a backup goaltender. While Rene Bourque has not provided what some hoped, William Karlsson has exceeded expectations and could be a very good NHL center. Throw in highly regarded Swedish center Kevin Stenlund, and this is a deal that benefitted the organization. Again, that concept of "value" is relative, not absolute, which is what the stuff of arguments at the R Bar are made of.
The other big deal was the trade that took Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Corey Tropp and Jeremy Morin to Chicago for Brandon Saad, Michael Paliotta and Alex Broadhurst. For our purposes, we'll look at this simply as a Saad/Anisimov and Dano/Paliotta trade. (We've extensively covered the Johansen/Jones trade elsewhere, including its potential pluses and minuses. And stop agonizing over every assist Joey gets in Nashville . . . )
I hated to see Anisimov go, as he is a talented, versatile player, and is enjoying a nice season in Chicago, with 15 goals and 9 assists in 46 games. The big difference is that he has been healthy all year. Such was not the case in Columbus, where Arty, for all his talent, never cracked the 40 point mark. His new deal in Chicago kicks in at $4.55 million next year, and takes him out through the 2020-21 season, when he is 32 years old. In Saad, the Blue Jackets have a dynamic forward, only 23 years old, on pace for a 60 point season, and brings a championship pedigree to the fold.
On the other side of the trade, many -- including me -- were reluctant to surrender Dano, who had a splashy end to last season -- as did the entire team. However, the bloom has come off the rose a bit in Chicago. Dano had a single goal and assist in 13 games for Chicago, and has two goals and 11 assist in 22 games in AHL Rockford, comparable to Broadhurst's 2-13-15 in Lake Erie. Paliotta leads Lake Erie blue liners in both goals and assists (6-11-17). Referred to as a "key piece" of the Saad trade, he could be poised to step in with the big club next year. Even the Public Relations Trade of the Year -- Jordan Leopold returned to Minnesota at his daughter's request -- had positive impacts. Justin Falk has been more serviceable than expected, and Veeti Vainio is a Finnish defenseman with some promise as well.
So, despite an inconspicuous start, the current front office has apparently done more than a credible job on the trade front, even comparing performances of those who have arrived with those who have departed. That's a long term determination, of course, but things are largely on track. Are there deals that could have been done that weren't? Despite the overwhelming temptation to scream "There HAD to be", there is no evidence for that. Similarly, there are no top defensemen who "got away" under this regime. Nikita Nikitin? Hardly. He's banished to the minors by Edmonton, with his shiny $3.5 million deal, and is generally viewed as untradeable.
The Theory Applied -- The Draft
Of course, the draft is a highly popular, but highly speculative way to improve your franchise. Long a source of considerable embarrassment in Columbus, the current administration has, by all appearances, turned that around in spades. Since assuming the reins in 2013, Jarmo has drafted the likes of Alexander Wennberg, Marko Dano, Kerby Rychel, Sonny Milano, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Zach Werenski, Gabriel Carlsson and Paul Bittner -- building up depth at defense as well as offense. Adding Elvis Merzlikins to the existing stable of Anton Forsberg, Joonas Korpisalo and Oskar Dansk has provided some measure of depth at a position that is always in demand. That creates trade leverage -- that whole "duress" thing working for, rather than against you.
The point here is that the draft is all about building assets, incrementally. It's easy to claim that the Blue Jackets (or any other team) should "tank" the season in hopes of getting the #1 overall pick, but that is a path fraught with peril. Yes, the Pittsburgh Penguins parlayed two #1 and two #2 overall picks between 2003 and 2006 into Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal, gaining a Cup. But in the process, they almost lost the franchise, and now find themselves in their own version of Personnel Hell, adding Phil Kessel to increase their PDF (Prima Donna Factor) off the charts. At least Pittsburgh has a Cup, as Edmonton has played innumerable high picks into . . . not much. The "generational player" tag is easily conferred these days, but the reality on NHL ice is different. Jack Eichel is a really good player, but has not tranformed Buffalo's fortunes.
The value of the draft is played out over years. The Blue Jackets have paid for the sins of Alexandre Picard, Gilbert Brule , Nikolai Zherdev and others for some time, and now appear to be poised to reap some of the rewards and returns that solid drafting can produce. Some of those kids will prove their value by playing with you, while others will provide return through trade. It's hard to guess which will be which, as needs change and kids change. Of the 330 first round choices taken in NHL Entry Drafts between 2005 and 2015, only a third (102) have played in more than 50% of the eligible regular season games at the NHL level since their draft year. Fewer than 10% have played in more than 75% of eligible games. Those numbers drop dramatically after Round One.
In terms of the Blue Jackets' defensive needs, the current administration has really not missed opportunities for immediate help through the draft. Since 2013, only four drafted defensemen have significant NHL minutes. Of these, Aaron Ekblad, Rasmus Ristolainen and Noah Hanifin were gone by the time the Blue Jackets picked. The fourth guy -- Seth Jones -- now resides on their blue line. So, it's early, but the draft appears to have transformed from an organizational liability to a franchise asset.
The Theory Applied -- Cap Management
All of the drafting, trading, signing and negotiating eventually results in a roster of contracts, which all must be squeezed into the salary cap, and continuously massaged over time. Long excoriated for being a "budget" team, more recent criticism instead maintains that the Blue Jackets have created a "Cap Hell" that plagues them today, and will do so for years. In approximate descending order of vitriol, the allegedly tangled contracts belong to David Clarkson, Jared Boll, Fedor Tyutin, David Savard, Jack Johnson, Nick Foligno, Brandon Dubinsky and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Again, the temptation to view these deals in isolation at the micro level may be irresistible, but is ultimately unproductive, as previously noted. You can drive yourself crazy (a short drive, in my case) nitpicking individual deals that appear either terrific or horrendous at any point in time. Could Foligno and/or Dubinsky have been signed for a little less? Maybe. However, after all of the organizational turmoil culminating in the Rick Nash deal, there was a profound desire to put a veteran core of reliable talent in place for the long term. That has value. Claims that the organization gave out those contracts "too easily"really have no objective support. Most deals are done well outside the public eye, and the absence of public contention does not imply the absence of private toughness. Sergei Bobrovsky has a Vezina Trophy on his mantle, and when healthy is in the upper echelon of NHL net-minders. There are very few of those guys around, and that costs money. Yes, his injury record has been problematic, but you can't sit across the table from Bob's agent and say "We predict that your guy is going to be hurt every year, so here's $5 million." On top of everything else, Bobrovsky has a tremendous work ethic, sense of discipline and is a model for both young goalies and skaters alike. That has value as well.
The David Clarkson deal was the organization's best effort to make lemonade out of lemons. They had the Perfect Storm of events when Nathan Horton went down for the count with an entirely new injury, and options were few. In Clarkson, they actually saved $50K per year, and got a player who theoretically could at least be on the ice. Stuff happens. The fact remains that Clarkson's contract does not represent cap space that would otherwise be available for other assets, so it's largely irrelevant to the issues at hand.
The remaining deals are all examples of different elements of the cap management calculus. The Johnson & Tyutin deals were deemed overblown by many at the time, but the fact is that both deals are second pair money in today's league. Both guys have, in fact, pulled first line duty for Columbus, and their relative cost is decreasing over time. While Tyutin's productivity has dropped, Johnson appears to be energized through the arrival of Jones & Murray.
The GM moves are not made in isolation. As Jarmo discussed in the press conference over the Johansen/Jones trade, while he has the final call on the deals, he is constantly reviewing the roster with the coaches and staff, and all of that comes into play. A GM ignores his head coach at considerable peril. I am sure that Ken Hitchcock gets more than his share of giggles today, when he starts the story "In Columbus, Scott Howson had this player he was convinced was the next Gretzky -- a guy named Filatov . . . " There can be little doubt that Todd Richard's preference for brawn factored into otherwise head-scratching numbers offered to Jared Boll and Dalton Prout, and likely factored into Savard's $4.25 million deal, which kicks in next year. Should it? Reasonable minds can differ, but again the answer lies in the longer view.
From here, the Boll situation was a mistake, pure and simple. A nice guy, now a mediocre fighter, he brings little to the ice. Guilty as charged on this one. However, the difference between his $1.7M cap hit and a more serviceable fourth liner is not enough to have a material difference in the big picture. Even Mark Letestu at $1.8M, with extra years of term, would not have been transformative. Similarly, the short term $1M devoted to Dalton Prout was a calculated bet on continued development. That didn't pan out, but the net impact is nil.
While the Savard deal may have appeared to be a premature fiscal leap off the cliff, the jury is (and should be) out on this one. The path of a 25-year old defenseman is not necessarily steady or predictable, and if Savard had started this season in the way he played last year, the criticism would likely be substantially muted. Time will tell. However, at the macro level Jarmo had the chance to lock up a promising young defenseman over the long term for what is second pair money today. The salary cap of $71.4 million has increased only $7.1 million since 2011, due to the re-set after the most recent labor strife and weakness of the Canadian dollar. A significant increase is in the offing, and as we all know, existing salaries expand to fill the available cap room, without a commensurate increase in talent. Here's where that timing aspect comes into play. Wait another year to sign Savard, and you might be looking at a big statistical year, coupled with a big cap increase, which translates to the price of poker going up substantially. So, signing him now for second pair money is one way of mitigating that risk. Again, can reasonable minds differ? Absolutely.
At the macro level, there is little remarkably off the chart about the way the Blue Jackets have managed the cap. They have maintained a $3.3M "gap" this year to accommodate signing bonuses to Wennberg, Murray and Jenner, just as gaps have been maintained in prior years for guys coming off of ELCs. The Blue Jackets fall squarely in the middle of the NHL in the amount allocated to their top four forwards, and are in the half of the NHL that does not have a forward with a cap hit of $7M or more. (But for Brandon Saad's cap hit of precisely $6M, Columbus would be one of nine teams without a $6M forward).
So, in reality, the Blue Jackets are steering a middle course on cap management. The high wire act of the Chicago Blackhawks seems really attractive, given their recent Cup success, but is the stuff of which ulcers are made. With fully 30% of their total cap tied to two guys, they are an ACL injury or two away from absolute catastrophe. Think Stan Bowman has had a corner on the Tums market with Mr. Kane's recent legal travails? When that goes wrong, it goes really wrong.
The Path Ahead
There will be plenty of time to debate specifics of future roster moves, etc., but the dire predictions of Cap Armageddon are worth a mention. As the Johansen/Jones trade proved -- anything can happen at any time, so I'm not going to presume to predict actual moves that might be forthcoming. However, simply to demonstrate that the Blue Jackets are not cap-crippled, there are a variety of moves that are easily within reach. ) For our purposes,we'll assume a reasonable cap increase to $76M.)
Rene Bourque departs at the end of the year, freeing $3.3M in cap space. Dalton Prout does not get a qualifying offer, and Boll is either traded for a pick or waived, eating the cap space but freeing a roster spot -- effectively a wash with Prout. Allow guys like Rychel, Hannakainen, Anderson and Milano to fill those spots, using the experience they are gaining this year. Sign Jenner and Karlsson to bridge deals, splitting a $5M AAV between them for now, and provide $3M each to Jones and Murray. Paliotta gets a $1.25M bridge deal, and could contend for a role with the big club. All of that can happen within the cap, leaving room for the signing bonus owed to Jones. A buyout of Fedor Tyutin would save $5.9 million in cap hit over the next two years, though $2.9 would come back to roost over the ensuing two years.
So, the facts simply don't back up the disaster scenarios that seem so prevalent today. As the cap goes up, clubs will need to reach to get to the floor, and inevitably overpay talent to do so. So, those deals that seem unworkable today actually become almost desirable. Options abound, and their are many that we don't even know about. The point is that the Blue Jackets do not have a gun to their head to do anything rash.
The Bottom Line
If you've been brave enough to get to this point, a few things should be clear. First, there are no 140-character right or wrong answers to this stuff, as frustrating as that may be. What is right for one organization is entirely unacceptable for another, and it all can change in a heartbeat. It is a high-stakes game of "Whack-a-Mole', where it is ultimately possible to cover all of the holes at the time.
The relevant question is not "Have mistakes been made?" The answer is undoubtedly "Yes". There always have been, and always will be. It is the nature of the beast, and the standard is closer to who is least wrong least often than who meets the ideal. Instead, the proper questions appear to be "Is the organization better today than it was when they started?" and "Can we point to any missed opportunities that directly impact the current problems? (i.e. defensive issues).
On the first question, it seems to be a no brainer. The organization has a higher caliber of talent, and greater depth of talent than it ever has. That's not the rambling of an overly-optimistic blogger, but a view shared by most seasoned observers. Yes, "brick by brick" remains, but it is an incremental improvement to what is now appearing to be a solid foundation.
On the second question, the answer appears to be "No", again with the caveat that we can never know all of the possible deals that are under consideration. However, there are no obvious star defensemen who appear to have missed the draft board or trade block at a reasonable cost, and the one that did appear -- Seth Jones -- is now on board. Crafting long term solutions for temporary problems is not the recipe for success for any organization -- in any endeavor -- and this is no different.
The great thing about the lack of absolutes is that there is plenty of room for debate. After all -- 20,000 General Managers can't be wrong, can they? Stay tuned.