Sometimes, I wonder if Garth Snow is smarter than the rest of us. The thought doesn't last long because I remember the first Thomas Vanek trade and a few other exhilarating decisions like relying on Evgeni Nakobov for multiple seasons as a full-time starter and come back to reality. Still, I think there's an area where he just might be ahead of the rest of us. By us, of course, I mean the NHL hivemind circle jerk known as "conventional wisdom". In the same way Patrick Roy's revolutionary decision to pull the goalie 90 seconds earlier is sweeping the game, so, too, do I think Garth Snow's keenest observation of one particular market inefficiency should become a staple across the league.
I'm talking, of course, about acquiring soon-to-be free agents for conditional mid-round draft picks in upcoming draft year(s). Last week, the Islanders made the bold move to acquire long-time Sharks blueliner Dan Boyle in exchange for a conditional 5th round draft pick in 2015. The obvious caveat here being that Boyle is less than a month away from free agency. Why give a draft away for a player who isn't guaranteed to ever play a minute for your franchise? Let's look at some pros and cons here. I'm a bad news first kind of guy so let's just kick this off with all the reasons this is a bad call.
-The player doesn't sign with you
To me, this seems to really be the only con. You give up an asset and get nothing more than a headline and a squandered opportunity to bring in a player you clearly value. There isn't a lot to say if you're left in the lurch by the player you acquire if he decides to look at your organization and say "...I'm good, thanks, though". In the case of Boyle and the Islanders, this very thing is rumored to be happening as Andy Strickland, a St. Louis guy, sent these tweets out last week:
No negotiations between #Islanders and Dan Boyle will take place unless he decides he wants to play there. Decision expected this week.
— Andy Strickland (@andystrickland) June 9, 2014
Despite no source being cited or even hinted towards, Strickland's tweets at least lend SOME credibility to the idea that the Islanders may have completely wasted a 5th round pick in 2015. Seeing as how Boyle, at age 37, is in the twilight of his career, one can certainly understand his desire to play for a contender and a player with his track record shouldn't struggle to find suitors on the open market. Still, the Islanders identified a weakness on their team (correctly, I might add. Their defense was...tough to watch at times last season) and attempted to address it. While I think the fit between the two is actually better than it appears on the surface, if the Islanders aren't able to convince Boyle of that then they're out an asset they didn't need to give up. Tough break. Let's get more positive here and stick with this example.
-How valuable is that draft pick again?
In this particular case, you're talking about a 5th round pick being dealt away for a solid, albeit flawed and recently injured, defenseman coming off a 36 point season who can still be an effective QB on the PP. Let's focus on that 5th round pick for a second. I did a ton of research (aka I Googled a bunch of articles on the topic so I didn't have to do the work myself, holla) and despite being work done on different eras they all come to the same basic conclusions: Drafting is hard, and drafting impact players beyond the second round is really hard. Most every study I looked at showed that 5th round picks are successful a maximum of 10% of the time (successful usually defined as a player with at least 100 or 200 GP). You can look at Jamie Benn, a 5th round select in the 2007 Draft, and say "But look, AJ. Sometimes they are successful!" and you'd totally have a point. You can even look at fellow '07 5th rounder Jake Muzzin and enhance your argument. Then I'd peak at the other 28 picks and their combined 76 NHL GP (shoutout to Paul Carey!) and give you the bro nod. A less than 7% success rate. I'll take my chance with the proven NHL guy, thanks. Which leads me to my next Pro!
-Believe in your program and quell the chaos
This to me is the most underrated aspect of acquiring soon-to-be FAs. In the past, free agency has been a chaotic period of narrowing down teams quickly and having a very small window for players to decide their immediate, and sometimes long-term futures, for themselves and their families. Teams didn't want to miss on players on their list and if they had a guy taking their time, they had to move on to another player they think they have a shot to land. This a hectic and extremely important time for a player, their families, and most certainly for their agents, especially the ones representing multiple FAs. The NHL has moved to remedy this initial mayhem by stealing one of the NBA's better ideas and instituting a 5 day grace period where to-be FAs are allowed to negotiate freely with other teams and come to terms on agreements. In reality, all this does is move that chaos up 5 days because teams are still falling all over themselves to come to terms with players and move on to subsequent targets.
A nice way to circumvent the Free Agency crazies is to acquire the player a month in advance, fly him out to your location and start hard-selling your vision. Sticking with the Boyle example, why not have Boyle and his family fly out to New York, sit down with owner Charles Wang and GM Garth Snow and discuss the team and where it's hopefully upward trajectory. Bring along former teammate and recent Islander Nabokov, a guy who was also skeptical when his rights were acquired via waivers by the Islanders and ended up enjoying his experience so much he re-signed there, and have him vouch for the "Islander Experience"? Make a note of players who have left the organization going out of their way to say nice things about your team, such as this except from an article talking about Thomas Vanek's deadline deal to Montreal:
It wasn’t that Vanek didn’t enjoy his time on Long Island; he genuinely did. After first staying in a hotel, he moved into an apartment complex and brought Ashley and their three sons in from Buffalo. They had all the makings of a new life a short train ride from Manhattan. On the ice, he was as productive as ever and helped form a dynamic line with Kyle Okposo and John Tavares, at least until Tavares’s season-ending knee injury at the Sochi Olympics. Vanek looked at the Islanders’ prospect pool and saw a bright future. He still does.
Yet, when push came to shove, he couldn’t bring himself to sign on the dotted line. The next windfall would have to wait. "I’m sure people will look at it and say, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’" Vanek said after the story broke in early February. "As I’ve told Garth before, it’s like a breakup: ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ And it really is me wanting to explore this."
Vanek wasn’t an Islander much longer. On March 5, mere minutes before the trade deadline, he was sent to Montreal for a second-round pick and prospect Sebastien Collberg. Before leaving Long Island, he made it clear that the door would remain open should the team want to take a run at him in free agency. "I like it here," Vanek said about being traded. "This would be a place I’d consider if it gets to July 1."
No chaos, no choosing between ten teams all at once. Just a guy and his family enjoying a free trip to New York to get an in-depth look at what life would be like should he choose that as his ultimate destination. Talk about the upside of playing with current superstar John Tavares and the legacy of mentoring stud defensive prospects Calvin de Haan, Griffin Reinhart, and Ryan Pulock. Talk about how the recent signing of G Jaroslav Halak (more on that later) and how his addition coupled with Boyle's and the return to health of Tavares should mean a 15 point bump in the standings in the significantly weaker Eastern Conference. Which leads us to the final, and best, Pro.
-The player signs with you
Again, sticking with the Islanders for now, you look at New York's May 1 trade of a 2014 4th round draft choice to Washington in return for G Jaroslav Halak, who subsequently signed a 4-year, $18 million deal 3 weeks later. The team was able to successfully sell Halak on their upward trajectory and despite being a goalie who would have been in demand when the market opened, he opted to stay in a place where he was wanted for the long-term. While the Islanders could have waited for the opening of free agency to make a splash, they decided to not take the chance they did last year, when Snow struggled to procure interest amongst the top free agent goalies. The team filled it's biggest hole and only gave up an asset that historically has a 90% chance to fail and even managed to sign what would have been the second-best FA goalie to a middle of the road salary for a starting goaltender. All in all, that's a pretty big win for the Islanders.
I know, I know. Enough with the Islanders, AJ. We get it. You like a bad Eastern Conference team and want to talk about them. Why should I, as an Avs fan, care what Garth Snow is doing?
The Part Avs Fans Care About
Because, fellow Avs fan, I think the Islanders are actually on to something here. They've actively tried to fill roster holes (see how I broke that up so you couldn't be all pervy about it? I know you well, MHH) in unconventional ways because convincing people to sign with your team can be kind of difficult. Using this off-season as an example, I would lovelovelove if the Avs called up Glen Sather after his team loses in the Cup Finals and says "Eeeeyyyy Glen, baby, how about a 5th for Stralman?" and they agreed on a 5th and a 4th if he signs with the Avs. Say the Rangers agree to it and then the Avs get to work. Then Josh Kroenke agrees to fly out Stralman, his wife and 4 kids (thanks, Google!). They take a nice tour of the city with local guide Peter Forsberg (push the Swedish thing, cause why not?) and head off for a nice dinner at Elway's. When he and the family arrive, they sit down with Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy and they lay out all the details of why Stralman is the guy we need and then casually mention the possibility of more than doubling his current salary ($1.8M) and how a deal that takes him into his 30's would be something to really consider.
This is the crux of the argument for the Avs selling any free agent on playing in Denver for the next few years. Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy, two of the 10 greatest players in NHL history, are telling you that you are a key piece of one of the NHL's most exciting young rosters in the league. Believe in your program. If you can't rely on those two guys to seal the deal, then what the fuck are we all doing here in the first place?
I think the Avs, like most teams in the NHL, are overlooking an opportunity to get to work on their off-season a little ahead of schedule. I'm not saying the Avs should do it every single year but certainly when you have an opportunity to land a player that fits your exact needs for an extremely reasonable price, it makes a lot of sense and to see teams consistently pass that up just strikes me as teams being too stubborn to take a big swing (or in the case of Stralman, a medium-sized swing). Besides, at the end of the day you can always trade that player to another team with interest and recoup the pick, a la the Islanders (noticing a trend?) with Christian Ehrhoff in 2011.