One of the interesting bits of news from last week’s shock signing of Olli Jokinen was the fact that the Flames had included a No-Movement Clause in the Finn’s two year deal. Add in Alex Tanguay’s NMC, and the Flames are in a position where 10 members of their current roster have at least some restriction on their movement.
That’s currently the most in the NHL, and I suspect that most of you don’t consider that development in a positive light.
Before I discuss this further, I’ll disclose some information up front. I currently work under a fairly lengthy collective agreement that has a good share of arcana littering the pages, although it’s certainly a better-written document than the NHL CBA. That’s not really much of an achievement, of course, because the NHL CBA is a mess to navigate, and not simply for us armchair non-lawyer types.
What I do recognize in the NHL’s labour agreement are certain principles that are at the heart of many CBAs, and the NTC/NMCs that we see in the NHL have some comparables in certain labour agreements, including mine. With that noted, let’s look at restrictions on player movements, and I’m going to look at this not so much as a fan, but as someone attempting to analyze the balance between employee rights and organizational needs.
I’ll begin with the employee POV.
1. Seniority has its privileges:
The concept of allowing a player some control over their movement as they accrue seniority isn’t some NHL anomaly. I work for a national organization that routinely moves people on an involuntary basis with relatively short notice to some pretty unsavory places, but we do enjoy certain protections from that upset as we move along in our careers.
The current NHL CBA restricts the granting of NTC/NMCs until a player would have been originally eligible for UFA status, which means 7 years from the beginning of seniority accrual, so the same principle (and the same sort of time frame) is at work as in my field.
A NHL NTC/NMC isn’t automatically granted, of course, so that’s one difference between our respective worlds. I don’t have a problem with the general concept of movement clauses, though, and I hope people recognize that most players that get them are pretty accomplished.
Whatever I might think about Olli Jokinen’s place on the Flames or the specifics of the NMC he obtained in his new deal, it isn’t like he’s not worthy of being a NHL player, or that he hasn’t had a career of some note. We aren’t talking about a Jon Sim or Tim Jackman or Jed Ortmayer here, so there is at least some fashion of meritocracy at work.
2. Stability now:
From a employee POV, I noted with particular interest a theme that Alex Tanguay kept returning to in his interview with FAN960 last week. He mentioned how it would be easier to find a good place to live based on his own past knowledge of the city and how it seemed like a really good fit for his family.
Family issues are a major factor that older players often have to account for when they have career decisions to make. In a pretty famous case, and for whatever people might want to say about the way he left Edmonton, it’s quite clear that the primary force driving Chris Pronger away from Shelbyville was an unhappy spouse.
It’s something that I see in my working world all the time, and the money that hockey players make doesn’t make that stuff disappear, no matter how much we might want it to as fans of our particular piece of laundry. To put it another way, I’m not sure I’d be that impressed if Murray Edwards took the Cal Nichols approach and advocated a player getting a divorce just so he’d want to stay in town.
Again, from a player POV, they do live a big chunk of their lives away from our scrutiny, and matters off-ice drive more of their decisions than we might care to admit. Beyond family matters, it’s certainly possible that a player has begun to establish business relationships in a city, and moving might impair those relationships. NHL careers are short, so I’d applaud any player that was trying to set themselves for life away from the arena, and if staying in one particular location is part of the business plan, that’s not a bad reason to seek that extra piece of mind.
So, from a player perspective, the rationale behind seeking a movement clause is pretty clear. From an organizational perspective, the reasons for granting them aren’t as clear-cut.
It’s easy, in fact, to argue that a team should never do it from a flexibility standpoint. So, why do they?
1. Stability now (sort of):
There’s nothing wrong with letting people know that your cornerstone players are going to be around for a while. Offering long-term deals and the perk of a movement clause to those players is part of the messaging that any business might engage in with its customers and any current or potential employees.
Who you offer those clauses to and how many of them you offer is a matter of acumen, and I’ll get to the specifics of Calgary’s situation at the end of this piece. Giving a NMC to Jarome Iginla wasn’t exactly a bad thing, though, was it? It didn’t act as an absolute guarantee that he’ll retire a Flame, but it did suggest that things would have to get quite bad before he’d be sent away.
We might be approaching that point for any number of reasons, but his presence has been at the heart of whatever stability the franchise has enjoyed, and the club has certainly not been shy about using his enduring presence as both a marketing and player recruitment tool. Players and their representatives also notice which teams are willing to offer an extra inducement, and it isn’t just Calgary that offers them up freely. Lou Lamoriello, often reputed to be some sort of evil genius, has 8 players on the current Devils roster with sort form of movement clause, and one might suspect if Kovalchuk signs there, that number will grow to 9.
2. Salary Suppression:
This is a murky area since it’s hard to put a fixed number to the savings, but there have been suggestions that a movement clause is often exchanged for a lower salary, which obviously helps the club in a cap world, at least initially.
It can certainly come back to bite a team if a player underperforms and won’t waive, but the premise isn’t without merit, and I might suggest that a modified NTC and a nice term kept Rene Bourque’s compensation at a livable level. If he’d gone UFA in the current atmosphere, his actual value might have been a bit more than 3.3 million a year. In the case of Alex Tanguay, the NMC might have kept his price below 2 million. The loss of flexibility that a team trades to keep salaries lower is something I’ll come back to in a bit, but as a tool for lowering certain players’ compensation, a NTC/NMC has its place.
3. You don’t operate in the market that you wish you did…
…but in the market that actually exists.
The current NHL labour landscape includes access to movement clauses for senior players, and absent a specific change in the CBA during the next negotiations, the availability of those clauses isn’t about to end. The primary reason, in my opinion at least, that the Flames lead the league in movement clauses isn’t merely because of some mental lapses on the part of the GM in specific negotiations.
It’s also a by-product of the club’s strategy of replenishing its player base via free agency and trades for established NHLers. In other words; older team = more NTC/NMCs. Detroit has 7, and their total is only that low a number because Nik Lidstrom will never be traded under any circumstances and Hank Zetterberg’s contract rules out at least half the league on a financial basis because of the front-loaded nature of his deal.
In practical terms, they might as well have 9. Vancouver has 8. If the Hawks keep what’s left of the core together, guys like Sharp, Seabrook and Bolland may well get clauses when they hit UFA status. It’s just harder to avoid movement clauses with a mature roster.
As I said earlier, the reasons for a team to offer a NTC/NMC are rarely as clear cut as the reasons behind a player’s interest in acquiring one. From a management POV, I’d be a lot less concerned about NTCs than NMCs, and that would be especially true if I were running a well-heeled outfit like the Flames.
Being able to bury a contract in the minors isn’t something that a GM should abuse, largely because that’s a good way to become an ex-GM once the owner gets tired of setting fire to a large sum of perfectly useful money, but it’s still a option that one might like to have available if need be. Sutter might well avail himself of that option with Staios and/or Kotalik this fall. If either had an NMC, the club would be in a much dicier spot than they currently are cap-wise.
Michael Nylander spent most of this past season in limbo precisely because he exercised his right to stay out of the minors. Whether that was the right move on his part is something worthy of discussion, but he did use a tool that had been willfully offered by the Capitals, so my sympathy level for George McPhee and Ted Leonsis has its limits.
At his point, a brief discussion of the most recent movement clauses handed out by the boss seems in order. As I mentioned earlier, I suspected that the combination of term and modified NTC helped to keep Rene Bourque’s price tag lower, and I’ve seen nothing in the last week to make me feel otherwise. There weren’t many worthwhile UFA forwards that actually made it to July 1st unsigned, so it seems reasonable to surmise that Bourque might have been a sought after player that could have received offers for more than 3.3 million a season.
In contrast, Matt Stajan’s modified NTC didn’t seem to have much effect on lowering his contract compared to the market. Matthew Lombardi is an analogous player that got exactly the same salary without a NTC attached, which makes me think that while Sutter may or may not have overpaid when he extended Stajan, the NTC certainly didn’t suppress the salary of the player. It was likely unnecessary in getting him signed.
Alex Tanguay’s NMC is virtually irrelevant, IMO. He wouldn’t go to the minors on a one year deal, and if he’s good enough for teams to want to acquire him at the deadline, he’ll likely be good enough that the Flames won’t want to move him. It’s cheap piece of mind for the Flames to offer, and it might have lowered his paycheque a few hundred K. No harm, no foul, as far as I’m concerned.
As always when the recent state of the Flames gets discussed, we have to talk about Olli Jokinen. I’m in accord with Kent’s premise that Joker didn’t exactly have a lot of leverage this summer, so the NMC seems like overkill. Again, I doubt that Joker would be buried in the minors this year, but next season might be a different matter.
Cynically, I suppose one might argue that Olli Jokinen’s performance since leaving Florida acts as a de-facto limited NTC in its own right, of course. So, Bourque and Tanguay I’m good with, Stajan’s isn’t great but at least it isn’t a full NMC, and Joker’s will likely hurt more next season than this if it hurts at all, but I doubt I’d have offered it to him under the circumstances.
In fact, if I were a GM, I wouldn’t offer NMCs unless I was dealing with a franchise player and by practical definition, teams only have one of those players at any one time. It’s simply too restrictive to have 6 or 7 seven players that can’t be moved or minor-ized without getting them to waive. I have less of an issue with NTCs that force players to submit a list of preferred destinations, because at least you have something to work with as a GM.
As a last point, I can’t imagine players giving up the right to veto trades even when they request them, but if any team I ran were offering a NTC, I might insist on a player giving me a small (5 or fewer) list of places they wouldn’t go to if they decide they want out. It only seems fair that the party wishing to terminate a relationship have the onus on them to be more flexible.
To end this off, I don’t hate players, and my own life and work experience almost certainly makes me more sympathetic to a player that wants a bit of control over his life once he’s accrued some time in the league. I don’t doubt that I’m in the minority of fans on this matter, but again, I always try to remember that hockey’s a job for the players, and anyone who worked in a field where they were able to use their ability and seniority to leverage a concession from their employer would likely do just that.