"Everybody but the people who run teams base performance on how many points you get [or] how many goals. Well, we don’t. If he gets goals, that helps, but you have to look at the overall contribution to the team. Martin [Lapointe]’s a character person. He comes to play every night. He came from a winning program. And we needed at his position."
– Harry Sinden
The above quote tells us a lot about how the NHL’s financial situation got to be where it is today.
Note: Once again, I’ve culled a substantial amount of this information from Bruce Dowbiggin’s Money Players. Give it a read.
A bit of background first:
Back in 2001, when Sinden made these remarks, most players didn’t hit free agency until their early thirties, but there existed a clause in the CBA that any player could become an unrestricted free agent if, after ten years in the league, if said player’s salary remained below league average. Because Martin Lapointe had signed longer term deals through the earlier part of his career with the Detroit Red Wings, his services had remained cost-controlled in an era when player salaries were rising dramatically. Thus, at what was then the relatively early age of 28, the two-time Cup champion was free to test the open market.
The end result of this situation is that Lapointe was signed to a $20-million, four-year deal with Sinden’s Boston Bruins. Then as now, for a third-line player that had only once exceeded the twenty goal mark, this was a heck of a lot of money for the Bruins to pay (click here to see how you could make some money). Since this deal was something of a landmark, this caused a lot of people trouble.
A sign of things past:
Perhaps I should adjust this title to read "things that should have been left in the past", but the reality is, any GM that was (or continues) building a team with this intangible approach to team building was left in the dust long ago by other, more business-like (read: competent) managers around the league.
Look, knowledge of intangibles is critical to your ability to manage people in any capacity—believe me, I get it, I’m a teacher—and managing a hockey team is no different. Knowledge of a player’s habits and pastimes can be critical when you make all kinds of decisions for your team, and I don’t only mean trades. How is this player’s young family doing? How have they been fitting in socially with the other players in the room? How is their work ethic?
When push comes to shove, however, the numbers have to come first. Signing a player to a ridiculous multi-year deal based primarily on intangibles will almost certainly lead to ruin. Some general managers put more weight on numbers than others, but it’s only become more and more true that monetary investment in a player has to be tied to more concrete benchmarks.
Did Martin Lapointe turn the Bruins’ franchise around by being "a character person" or "coming to play every night"? He most definitely did not, but he can’t be blamed for that.
A sign of signings present:
There were a lot of factors that contributed to the spiraling player salaries throughout the 90’s and early oughts: players began to disclose and compare their salaries, which brought about changes to salary arbitration, the nature of free agency changed, offer sheets were introduced, and the league owners were getting temporarily fat with the money from relocation and expansion fees. There were other factors as well, but landmark deals played a big role in ramping up the salaries of not just the Gretzkys and Lindroses, but the Martin Lapointes as well.
When a GM goes hog wild for a player that doesn’t have the concrete numbers to support the financial investment, he is inflating the value of every player of the same ilk. Sure, Jaromir Jagr might have been worth 9-10 million dollars in 2001, but that deal wouldn’t help player agents of middling NHLers nearly as much as when Lapointe signed this offer.
Ever wonder how a guy like Brendan Prust gets $2.5M from Marc Bergevin and the Montréal Canadiens? This is a similar, if not causally related situation. You would think, since Bergevin also signed Colby Armstrong, a player that was an overpaid, bottom-six player, that it would occur to him that it was a bad idea to give Prust that kind of money, but here we are.
Boo hoo, my players are costing me too much:
Well of course they are, idiot. For two decades, players were well-paid on the basis of intangible nonsense, and then everyone absolutely peed their pants when a player finally hit free agency under the age of thirty, causing things to get crazy for a couple years until the league wound up cancelling a whole entire season to try and fix their mess with a salary cap.
Another eight years later, general managers still become so desperate to add one "key" enforcer or a "specialist" for the PK or faceoff dot that they continue to make poor financial decisions for the sake of a player who is willing to "go to the tough areas of the ice" or "raise the compete level".
Stop signing Martin Lapointe.