1. A worst-case scenario
Kent posed a serious question on Twitter the other day, and it really got me thinking: “Say the Flames can’t re-sign Mark Giordano next year.”
This was something I honestly hadn’t even considered to be a possibility. They recently named the guy captain, and by all accounts he loves Calgary, loves his teammates, etc. The team is also going to throw a ton of cash at him.
But yeah, let’s say Giordano makes it very clear this coming summer, ahead of the final year of a bargain deal which will pay him just $4.02 million against the cap, that he really doesn’t have a lot of interest in returning to Calgary, or worse: that he wants to “test the market.”
The problem with the latter scenario is that it gives the Flames hope, and hope leads to bad decisions in cases like this. For example, Mike Cammalleri was, I think, probably not averse to returning to Calgary this summer, but the Flames got straight-up outbid for him by New Jersey (not that it’s really worked out for the Devils in any sense, but you see the point). Essentially, a rebuilding club like Calgary would have had to make it very much worth his while to return, and they weren’t about to do that because, hey, they’re rebuilding and Cammalleri is not a world-class player.
So the question becomes pretty simple: If it’s a 50-50 scenario where he’s willing to go all the way to July 1, what should the Flames do?
2. Preparing for the worst
The fact of the matter is that defensemen of Giordano’s quality don’t grow on trees. They are more or less impossible to replace, and consequently almost never hit free agency. Ottawa thought it had two Norris-quality defensemen on hand several years ago, and made all efforts to sign just one of them. They ended up choosing very, very wrong in picking Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara, because Chara won a Cup with Boston and Redden washed out of the league before that even happened.
Now, the Flames aren’t in the same boat because Giordano, who’s arguably the best defenseman in the league over the last two years by a number of measures (most important is his league-leading relative fenwick of 6.7, well ahead of runner-up Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s 6, and also third-place TJ Brodie’s 5.8), is the only one they need to sign. Brodie’s locked up for a good long time, and it’s fortunate that their contract situations don’t line up, and also that they have the cap flexibility to spend big on both of them. This is what happens when you hold onto a few good players during a rebuild: You can pay them whatever you want and it probably won’t matter.
But if Giordano resolves to go to free agency, the Flames can’t stop him. And given the lesson learned when Cammalleri left town — that they gambled and lost an apparently valuable asset for nothing — the Flames simply cannot afford to make the same mistake again with a piece who will be even more valuable. This is a rebuild after all, and the point of a rebuild is to maximize one’s chances at getting better. If he’s not going to re-sign prior to July 1, 2016, then trading Giordano at the deadline next season is consequently of paramount importance; you cannot let a player like this walk for nothing.
3. Contingency plans
Internally, the Flames aren’t going to be as gut-punched by his loss as you’d probably think. Again, Brodie has been nearly as good as Giordano over the past two seasons, and you’d have to think that as a younger defenseman, he’s more likely to develop. There is obviously a huge drop-off for Brodie in terms of his production and possession numbers when he’s paired with someone who is not Giordano, but given the quality of Calgary’s defensive depth, this should hardly be surprising.
I’m not so much interested in what the return for Giordano would be in specific, because I’m not about to play HFBoards, but Calgary would require — and probably receive — a ransom by some would-be Cup contender. And by the way, I would trade him regardless of Calgary’s position in the standings at that time next year; even if they’re looking likely to make the playoffs by then (which I doubt will be the case, but okay sure) you still have to trade Giordano because a Cup remains extraordinarily unlikely, and the odds that you’re going to get something great back for him are much better. In sports business, you have to play the odds wisely, and banking on a Cup contingent on Giordano’s presence on the roster doesn’t seem like a good idea.
The Flames aren’t in a great position with him, and without him they are in a worse position, but it’s not so much worse that it will plunge them into the depths of being among the worst teams in the league. I’ve said before that I’m not really sure the Flames are improving under Hartley as appreciably as many people would have you believe, but they’re better than they were, say, three years ago because at least they have realized the hopelessness of their situation and are now working to improve it.
Point being: When you’re rebuilding, and regardless of win-loss record this year the Flames will be for another year or three at least, you have to position yourself well for the future.
4. Could it be positive?
But here’s the thing with Giordano: He’s a Norris-caliber defenseman right now, no question about it. Second year running that this is the case.
But he’s also going to be 33 years old when that new contract starts. How many times have we seen players in that age range go from elite to garbage in the course of, say, three years? It happens all the damn time. And given that Giordano’s never really made Serious NHL Money before, he’s probably going to want a contract that’s rich in terms of both dollars and years. Even if suitors for his services are being realistic and maxing out offers at, say, five years, that still pays him a good deal of money (at least $7-7.5 million, I’d think) until he’s 38 years old and probably not very good any more.
A thing I hate in this league, as a person obsessed with player valuation, is the idea that guys are paid for what they were worth in the past, versus what they’re going to be worth in the future. There’s basically no way that Giordano continues to be a Norris-quality defenseman for another four or five years; unless you’re Nicklas Lidstrom or Zdeno Chara, being that dominant that deep into your 30s is a physically impossible task.
On the other hand, Giordano is a super-interesting case; he didn’t even become that good until he was, what, 29? Very few defensemen peak at that time, but nonetheless I’d be more willing to bet he’ll drop off when he’s 34, 35, 36 years old.
Consequently, I’d feel much more comfortable about Calgary wagering conservatively — that Giordano will hit the same age-related wall as the vast, vast majority of his forebears than he will be to defy all the odds and remain a strong contributor that far into his career.
Obviously it’s still important for the team to re-sign him for the near-term, but if he wants more than four years I’d just as soon let someone else give it to him and then rake in whatever can be salvaged in trade (picks, prospects, young and quality roster players).
5. Hoping for the best
As I say, this is not something I think is going to happen. It, in fact, seems almost impossible to me that the Flames would let it happen. Losing two captains in three years seems like a good way to piss off the fans, but it remains a legitimate possibility (even if I doubt they’d have given Giordano the C without certain knowledge of his intentions).
The Flames should make all reasonable efforts to bring him back, and I hope they do it for their own sake. But again, pragmatism needs to reign. You can’t pay him a bunch of money until he’s 38 just because of what he meant this year and last. You can’t eschew the fundamental ideals behind undertaking any sort of rebuild, let alone one as drastic as has been needed for years in Calgary. Leadership or not, Mark Giordano’s mathematically unlikely to be what we think of as Mark Giordano much longer.
It would be nice if everyone involved — the organization, player, and supporters — recognized that. Giordano, though, is the only one who should be seeking to complete a deal that benefits him more than anyone else.