The term ‘free agent’ is an oxymoron. There is nothing free about mercenaries who sell their services to the highest bidder. In fact, they are usually the opposite of free, in the sense that they have a special price. But what if money were taken out of the equation as a differentiator?
That’s exactly the case for free agents who are still subject to the NHL’s entry-level system. These youngsters are a rare commodity, players under the age of 27 whose rights are not held by any NHL team or whose rights have expired for one reason or another. No NHL team can offer them more than the maximum entry-level compensation, so the notion of a bidding war is removed. Unless you factor in tax rates, each team is on an equal footing in what it can offer financially. It is a free market in the truest sense.
Living in Vancouver, it was hard to hear other hockey news this week amid the commotion over the Canucks’ signing of KHL free agent Andrei Kuzmenko. At 26, Kuzmenko may not be Artemi Panarin’s second arrival, but he appears to be a good contributor to the top nine in the Canucks’ lineup and is a solid signing given there was no acquisition cost to land the player. . Vancouver fans were quick to point to the city’s beautiful scenery, restaurants and other civic attributes as reasons their team managed to convince the young Russian to sign. In my opinion, those things were pretty low on his list. In a typical season of about 200 days, a player will only spend half in the game city and half away from home. Most of them will spend off-seasons in their city or country of origin. So, with roughly 100 days times 365, you’re likely to spend a little over 25% of your time in the city you’ll call home.
If the views of a city, the weather, and the steakhouse scene aren’t the most important considerations when the world really is your oyster, what are players looking for and how do they make their decisions about where to play? From what I’ve seen, I’d call it the Five O’s. ‘O’ as in opportunities. A good view of the mountain doesn’t hurt, but if a team can tackle the Five O’s, their chances of getting a signature on the dotted line are very good.
1. Opportunity to play a significant role. The biggest thing any hockey player wants to hear is that the team plans to give him a shot, whether it’s a top-six or top-nine forward role, top-four ‘D’ role or otherwise. Most teams will embellish a bit in this department. After all, it is a sales pitch. Teams often don’t know where a player really fits into their roster until they see him in training camp and preseason, but the player wants to know the job is his and he can lose it. No doubt some will take the view that you do what you have to do to win the player over first, and give them honesty after the fact. However, with a player who is only eligible to sign for one year, it is important to balance sales work with a certain level of honesty about expectations. A player isn’t likely to re-sign in a city where he was guaranteed power play time only to end up with fourth-row minutes. If your expectations are managed, you will see it as part of the growth plan.
Each free agent courting session includes a detailed review of the team depth chart with the free agent prospect and his agent. Not just a discussion of who fills the spots now, but also who can come over from the AHL and how the team intends to shape the roster going forward. If the team has a clear vision of where the player fits, both in the current lineup and as he evolves, the player can project the opportunity for himself beyond the first year of his contract. If you’re courting a left winger and see two center left wingers in front of him plus a blue-chip AHL prospect on the way, you may be concerned about his place on the team. This is the main reason top teams often lose college and European free agents. It may be the only time that gaps in your squad are a good thing!
2. Opportunity to grow. Coaches are critical in the free agent offer process. Each team will heavily involve their head coach. It’s one thing for a management team to make promises about a player’s opportunity, but the coach calls the shots on the ice and has to be singing from the same song sheet as the front office. The coach is the person who will have the most to do with the player’s development and growth as a player, not to mention playing time and using him. The player and his agent may get a sense of the coach from his reputation and past examples of free-agent deployment, but they mostly want to be sure in meetings that the player will learn and grow with this coach. If the coach can establish rapport and early trust with the player, he can make a difference in how he feels about the city.
3. Opportunity for comfort. By this, I mean a player’s opportunity to choose a situation where his transition will be made easier by an existing relationship with friends or former teammates. It’s natural for players to gravitate towards a situation where they have some previous connection to other players or coaches, especially if that connection is unique. Kuzmenko’s signing in Vancouver would have had a lot to do with the presence of Vasily Podkolzin, a fellow Russian and former teammate at SKA St. Petersburg. A player’s comfort in a new environment can make all the difference when deciding between alternatives, and a friendly face (who speaks the language) is a huge arrow in the quiver of a team trying to hit the target. If a team has that advantage in the process, they will likely go to great lengths to get that friend or teammate in on the courtship, directly or indirectly.
Comfort can also take other forms. For players with families, family members can often be a part of the field. You want the player to know that the organization will be there to support not only him, but also his spouse and children. When you make room at the boardroom table for the player’s wife and four-year-old (and provide said four-year-old with a personalized jersey with dad’s name on the back), it packs a punch in the comfort department.
4. Chance to play with a star. Players are always intrigued and drawn to the opportunity to play with special players. We used to joke that every free agent courted by the Edmonton Oilers was told they’d play in a line with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — how many damn linemates can those guys have at once? However, it matters. If a young player foresees the opportunity to play with elite talent, that’s very attractive. Young gamers revel in star power just like the rest of us. Sizzle sells! They also know that playing with a star can improve their game. The only caveat is that if a team already has too many stars, especially at the same position as the free agent, the player may get lost in the shuffle and not get the chance to shine as much as he would in an environment where he may have a higher impact. But if you have a star, you should talk about that opportunity, since usually the free agent will take it.
5. Chance to win. Every kid dreams of winning the championship. This one is a bit further down the list for younger players and higher up the list for older players. Younger players always feel that they have a long career ahead of them and that their team will win it all at some point, so they focus less on this aspect than on their personal opportunity. They just want to see that an organization has a desire to win and has a blueprint for how that will eventually be achieved. A young player is unlikely to pick a team based solely on how close that team is to winning. An older player who has been in the league for a while and has seen how difficult it is to climb the mountain will prioritize which team is closest to winning throughout the day.
So those are the Five O’s. Sure, a great locker room, gleaming practice facility and a fancy steak dinner will all be impressive elements of the court, but at the end of the day, what matters is what should matter.
team chris joined Daily Faceoff in January after a 12-year career with the Vancouver Canucks, most recently as the club’s assistant general manager and legal director. Before moving to the hockey operations department, where his responsibilities included contract negotiations, CBA compliance, assisting with roster and salary cap management, and governance of the AHL franchise, Gear was the Canucks’ vice president and general counsel. .
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