March 09 2014 10:14AM
Don’t try to bully a bully.
That’s the statement Brian Burke made to his fellow hockey executives this week while stubbornly clinging to Michael Cammalleri despite the knowledge that the pending unrestricted free agent is almost assuredly moving elsewhere come July.
In Burke’s mind, something is not always better than nothing. Especially when that something means you will be perceived as weak or easily manipulated.
Burke, who admittedly lacks a patient bone in his body, also is minus a give-a-crap molecule when it comes to what hockey fans might think of him versus the way other general managers—acting or otherwise—view him and his hockey team.
"I think an organization has to have a reputation at the trade deadline that you're not going to give people away," Burke told those gathered at the Saddledome all day waiting to hear how high a pick was brought in for Cammalleri.
"The fact we didn't give him away is something next year's deadline and 10 years down the road people will remember.”
They’ll remember, but will it really matter? The Flames are still stuck with an asset that depreciates by the day.
The next opportunity Burke will have to peddle Cammalleri will come after the season ends. Maybe some team will want the opportunity to secure his negotiating rights exclusively before July 1. But how much will they pay at that point, with no guarantee they’ll be able to sign the soon-to-be 32-year-old who is looking at cashing in for maybe the final time as a free agent?
It’s a risk Burke — whose constant suggestion Cammalleri might somehow choose to stay on in Calgary is so steadfast that some might even start to believe it — is willing to take. Pride is more important than practicality, apparently.
Generally I’m all for people sticking to their principles. But in this case, in the early stages of a massive rebuild where every extra draft pick provides the opportunity to add a prospect or the flexibility to make a future trade to help the team, it makes no sense to swallow a sandwich you don’t really want just to keep your frenemies from finishing it for free.
It’s tough not to respect Burke, mostly because his gruff and inflexible nature demand it. His live hit on TSN during which he rightly grumbled to James Duthie that the TradeCentre host was putting words in his mouth was absolutely priceless.
But there is a contradictory element to his post-deadline answers that leads you to believe by reading between the lines that it wasn’t a case of sticking to his guns with Cammalleri’s price — which dropped during the day as the market dictated the returns on rentals to be far less significant than years past — it was a matter of time. Caught up in negotiations at the higher price, he was stuck without a seat in the game of free agent musical chairs.
His belief in the importance of draft picks takes the legs out from under his argument against giving Cammalleri away.
"If you look at how championship teams are built, they are built largely through the draft," Burke said, going on to suggest he considered second- and third-round picks extremely valuable, and proving it when he picked up one of each by trading away goaltender Reto Berra and winger Lee Stempniak, both of whom had expiring contracts.
Cammalleri would surely have fetched no lower than a third-rounder as a starting point. The Edmonton Oilers got a third and fifth by shipping Ales Hemsky to Ottawa. That beats the goose egg that was certain to follow in the summer.
Burke knows that his shot of signing Cammalleri — which will mean giving up money, term and maybe most importantly a blueprint for success somewhere within that long-term picture that the player has confidence in — is next to zero.
His saving grace was the unexpected return for Berra and Stempniak, and the fact that the on-ice product is full of rookies that are so intriguing to watch that they’re looking far into the future, well past the summer’s certain loss of a certain winger who once scored 39 goals in a Flames uniform who will walk away for nothing.