When Business and Talent Collide

As the Blue Jackets join their brethren in finalizing rosters for the season, some mystifying things can happen.

This time of year drives me absolutely nuts.  Many would argue that's a short drive, but the source of my irritation remains -- the series of contortions that teams go through to protect marginal, but veteran players, at the expense of more deserving talent.  To be sure, some are effectively mandated by the waiver structure when it threatens to do precisely what it is designed to do -- i.e. prevent hoarding of talent in the minor leagues and allow for dispersal of that talent in a relatively organized fashion.   It has it's flaws, but overall the system largely works to prevent the kinds of abuses you saw when Montreal and Toronto almost literally had every kid in Canada locked up under contract.

That meritorious system sometimes results in curious applications in individual cases.  Thus, Scott Harrington and Lukas Sedlak remain on the rosters at the present time, when they otherwise would likely be back in Cleveland, and two others would be manning their spots.  They are in sort of a nether world, as their waiver status will not change.  Management must either work a trade or two to either move these players along (or create openings for them), or wait until a sufficient volume of players are put on the waiver wire, in hopes that the club can sneak a player through.  It is an exercise of hockey voodoo available only to those donning the proper decoder rings.

This system can also lead to unintended side effects.  There is a natural tendency for some to become overly possessive of their players, and resist surrendering them tooth and nail.  This leads to an inclination to overvalue some older players, while perhaps unfairly undervalue younger players.  If multiple situations like this arise, a logjam can develop and some forced unpleasantness can arise.  While “wait your turn” sounds reasonable in the abstract, it is less reasonable when it is applied to you, particularly if you are a former high draft pick who has been waiting in the wings, doing your work, and expecting to be rewarded.   This can poison the well water, resulting in trade demands, etc.  That’s in part why the ELC/RFA/Arbitration/UFA structure is the way it is — helping prevent a young star who perceives he has been slighted from simply bolting from the offending organization.  It is a system that is not dissimilar from the jury system — it works not because it is fair, but rather because the biases tend to equal out.

I think it’s a fair statement that fans want the best 20 players on the ice every game.  Period. There is a grudging acceptance that sometimes the waiver process and its related offshoots sometimes prohibit that, but only because there is an arguable business necessity for the process.  That level of acceptance disappears quickly when moves are perceived to be arbitrary, capricious or simply contrary to common sense.  As Exhibit A, may I offer the case of Sonny Milano vs. Josh Anderson?

Milano, 20, is the insanely skilled young forward taken as the Blue Jackets’ first pick in 2014.  He was returned to juniors for a year to add some structure and discipline to that skill, and posted 14 goals, 17 assists and 31 points in his premier season in Cleveland, and added another 4-4-8 in the playoffs.  Along the way, the maturation process continued, culminating in training camp, where he was frequently the best forward on the ice.   He tallied three points in his four games, including a goal, exceeded only by Sam Gagner.  His +/- of +2 equaled Cam Atkinson and Brandon Dubinsky as best on the club.  He was fast, creative and responsible — not to mention entertaining, and characterizing him as the best prospect forward in camp would not be excessive praise. His PIM/Points ratio was 0.67 (penalties in minutes divided by points earned).

Anderson, 22, was the Columbus 4th round selection in 2012.  He, too, returned to juniors for a year before moving to the AHL, where he notched 7-10-17 in his debut year, then upped the ante to 18-21-39 last year.  He, as most of the team, had a good playoff run, with 7-5-12.  His PIM/Points ratio was 4.47 and 2.56 for his first and second years, respectively.  It’s a matter of personal preference as to which style of play you prefer.  However, clearly his camp has been disappointing.  In six appearances, he has zero points and 4 PIM.  He does lead the team in hits (16), more than double the next player (Foligno, 7).  However, that has not translated into measurable on-ice benefit.  He currently holds the Pre-Season Green Jacket at -5.   While numbers are important, optics also matter, and his on-ice look is that of the reincarnation of Jared Boll — no offense or puck handling, marginal defense, and darting around to hit things for no apparent reason.  Again reasonable minds can differ as to perceptions, but I don’t think that perceptions of who the better player is can.

However, as we sit here today, Sonny Milano is back in Cleveland, and Josh Anderson is still wearing a Blue Jackets sweater.  As with traffic accidents, everyone is going to look at situations differently.  From where I sit, however, the optics and the facts do not come close to aligning.   This was not a move compelled by waivers, as both Milano and Anderson are exempt.  Milano’s salary cap hit is a relatively nominal $185,000 — approximately 0.2% of the salary cap. So, on its face, the move lacks the indicia of objective justification.

At this point, it’s important to note that there could well be deals in the works that will alter the landscape and bring Milano into the fold as a major piece.  We don’t get visibility into that world — and with good reason.  The job is hard enough without having thousands and thousands of rank amateurs — like myself — drooling over your shoulder at every move.  We just get to see — and register our reactions — to the results of those endeavors.  Some parts are easier to digest — we gave up Player A and Draft Pick B for Player C.  In a number of years, when we see what Player C & A did in their careers, and who Draft Pick B turned out to be, we can provide a more informed evaluation. (Though it won’t stop us from opining.)   Other parts are not so easy.  For instance, we likely won’t ever know if the other team would have taken less for Player C, or that Player D was offered for an entirely different package.  Even if we did, by the point we do learn it, it’s irrelevant.  Consider how Edmonton fans likely felt when it was disclosed that the Oilers’ scouts had voted 9 - 2 in favor of drafting Ryan Murray with the first overall pick in 2012, but that Steve Tambellini had vetoed the choice, opting instead for Nail Yakupov.

Certainly, eyes rolled in Columbus when the rumors started flying that Milano had been traded, possibly in conjunction with Bobrovsky — a rumor that was either ill-founded or changed rapidly.  What was the thought process insofar as Milano was concerned?  Was he a piece required by the other side in a massive deal?   Did management perceive his development as plateaued? Did he demand the trade?   Again, we don’t know, but memories are long, and perceptions linger, particularly when the Kerby Rychel drama follows so closely at hand.

The ability to work behind the curtain is a necessary privilege of the front-office function.  They simply can’t do what they do effectively in the blazing light of day.  However, with that privilege comes responsibility, and that includes understanding the optics that your actions might create, and the context in which they arise.  The Blue Jackets are coming off of a horrific season, with a history of turmoil with first round draft picks. They created more controversy by not taking the “expected” pick in June, whether or not you approve the pick itself.  The dialogue is all about speed and skill, and when a talented first round pick appears to have finally been patient, done the necessary work, and earned his shot . . . it’s not there.  What is Milano thinking?  What are others behind him thinking? These decisions have ripples.  Are the Blue Jackets figuring that Milano has three years left on his ELC so can “afford” to wait?  Are they hoping that Anderson has a breakout year?   If so, those are scary lines of thinking.

Again, there may be perfectly sound and reasonable bases behind the whole scenario.  We just don’t know.

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