Brad Treliving has been general manager of the Calgary Flames since the spring of 2014. He came into the job with a reputation for being a tough negotiator – a reputation he built during his time as assistant general manager in Arizona, where he had to make the most of limited resources. He’s taken that shrewd approach to building the Flames.
How Treliving has behaved in past negotiations, and how he both exploits and responds to leverage, can tell us a lot about how the negotiations for Mikael Backlund’s new contract are going to go.
Thinking about leverage
Looking at past contract situations and speaking to agents, leverage for a player generally increases during the life cycle of their pro career. Coming out of their entry-level deal, they might have the ability to sign an offer sheet and after their second deal they might have arbitration rights, but generally speaking the restricted free agency years are when players have little power and smart GMs push hard to keep cap hits down. The only “real” pressure point that players have during this period is time: they often wait it out and try to let the looming deadlines of training camp and the start of the regular season pressure the team into making a deal.
But the power swings towards the player in a big way once unrestricted free agency is involved. Players can leave and go anywhere they want, which makes both the trade deadline and beginning of free agency big time pressures on the GM. While “buying” UFA years usually pushes cap hits up, teams have a tool they can’t use during RFA negotiations: no-trade and no-move clauses. By the time a player approaches their UFA years, they’ve spent a lot of time in their NHL city and might not want to leave; offering a measure of security is possibly the one “big” leverage point the CBA leaves with the team.
While sources tell us that the outright negotiations for Backlund’s contract have yet to start in earnest – reportedly talks to this point have been about player fit and team philosophy, not numbers or term – it’s arguably only the second time where Treliving has a lot less leverage than the other side.
A brief history of negotiations
Looking back at Treliving’s time in Calgary, there’s a pretty big disparity between the deals he’s made to re-sign unrestricted free agents and the ones he’s made with restricted free agents.
Unrestricted free agents:
- Paul Byron, 2014: He was a pending RFA but had arbitration rights, so rather than deal with having a contract imposed on them by a third party the team didn’t qualify him and then negotiated their own deal. Byron was still a fringe player and had limited options on the open market, re-signing with the Flames after three days as a UFA.
- Karri Ramo, 2015: He was coming off a decent year working in tandem with Jonas Hiller that included the first playoff series win since 2004. While his options weren’t likely extensive, he signed effectively right before he hit the open market and got a raise out of it (from $2.75 million to $3.8 million) while the Flames didn’t need to expend resources to find a replacement.
- Mark Giordano, 2015: The team’s captain and perennial Norris Trophy vote-getter – he finished top 10 in each of the two seasons before he signed his extension – Giordano wanted to stay and the team wanted to keep him. He signed 10 1/2 months before hitting the market, but signed a market value contract until he turns 38 with a full no-trade clause through most of it. The term probably got the cap hit down, but the no-trade clause probably got the deal done as early as it did. (It should be noted that Ritch Winter, Giordano’s agent, partnered with Brian Burke on the Business of Hockey MBA program at Athabasca University in early 2015 so there’s an obvious good relationship there.)
- Kris Versteeg, 2017: Coming off a season where he found a good fit in Calgary, Versteeg re-signed three days before hitting the open market and got a raise (from $950,000 to $1.75 million) and a modified no-trade deal out of it.
- Michael Stone, 2017: Coming off a short playoff run after a trade from Arizona, Stone re-signed the day before hitting the open market. He took a slight pay cut (from $4 million to $3.5 million, though that might’ve happened on the market anyway) but got a three-year term and a modified no-trade deal out of it.
Everyone had other options at the time, aside from maybe Byron, but everyone got something from Treliving in exchange for re-signing – usually a raise, an extra year or two to keep the cap hit workable, or a no-trade clause. Since Giordano had arguably the most leverage – the Flames faced losing a Norris-caliber defenseman and their captain, while Giordano faced the uncertainty of leaving his adopted home town and little else – he got paid handsomely and for a long while.
Restricted free agents:
- T.J. Brodie, 2014: Brodie re-signed nine months before his contract expired. His deal gave him a hefty raise (from $2.125 million to $4.65 million) and bought three UFA years, for which he received a modified no-trade deal. He would have been eligible for arbitration.
- Mikael Backlund, 2015: Backlund re-signed 10 days before his contract expired, getting a raise from $1.5 million to $3.575 million. His deal brought him up to the beginning of his UFA years, but didn’t buy any of them. He would have been eligible for arbitration.
- Dougie Hamilton, 2015: Hamilton signed two days before his contract expired and four days after the Flames acquired him. His deal gave him a solid raise from his entry-level deal (from $925,000 to $5.75 million) and bought two UFA years, for which he received a modified no-trade deal. He was considered a solid candidate for an offer sheet – the trade return for the Bruins was a little bit more than they would’ve received for an offer sheet – so time pressure was on Hamilton’s side. (It’s worth noting that Hamilton and Backlund share the same agent, J.P. Barry.)
- Micheal Ferland, 2015: Ferland re-signed just before training camp. He was coming out of his entry-level deal and while he was definitely an NHLer, he had absolutely no leverage and Treliving seemed content to just wait him out. He got a slight raise (from $612,000 to $825,000) but only a two-year deal.
- Sean Monahan, 2016: Monahan re-signed a month before training camp and got a raise from his entry-level deal (from $925,000 to $6.375 million). He was considered a decent candidate for an offer sheet, which added a bit of a time pressure, and he got a modified no-trade deal in exchange for signing away three UFA years.
- Johnny Gaudreau, 2016: Because of a CBA quirk, Gaudreau couldn’t be signed to an offer sheet. As a result, Treliving drew a line in the sand and waited him out. He signed before the regular season began and got a raise from $925,000 to $6.75 million – and he got a modified no-trade deal for signing away a UFA year – but he definitely should’ve gotten a higher cap hit given his production.
- Ferland, 2017: Unlike his previous negotiation, Ferland had filed for arbitration and there was a time pressure involved. He signed before his hearing and got a bump from $825,000 to $1.75 million. His deal brought him right up to his UFA years, but didn’t buy any.
- Sam Bennett, 2017: Bennett had minimal offer sheet leverage as a bottom six player and no arbitration rights, so Treliving seemingly tried to wait him out. He eventually signed before training camp and got a raise from $925,000 to $1.95 million. He’ll be an RFA when his deal expires.
Treliving’s favourite tactics to negate leverage are to wait the other side out, or to give them term and/or modified no-trade clauses in an effort to keep cap hits down. With Backlund one of the best centers available in free agency – especially if John Tavares re-signs with the New York Islanders – waiting him out isn’t an option.
Bringing it back to Backlund
The leverage Treliving does seem to have is that Backlund likes Calgary and has thrived here. Like Giordano, Backlund’s stuck around and matured with the team as it’s progressed through the rebuild. It’s natural to want to see things through. While the allure of a big payday is always there, remaining in a good situation is also a big lure. Backlund’s major leverage is leaving town, getting paid big, and the Flames needing to figure out how to replace him. Given how much Backlund does for the team, that’s a tall order.
The Feb. 26 trade deadline looms large and there’s work to be done if Backlund is sticking around. But when a philosophical fit is found – the player and team see eye to eye on a player’s role, importance, and the team’s direction – a deal can come together very quickly. It took Treliving and Barry four days to hammer out a new contract for Hamilton; Backlund has a much clearer role and set of league-wide comparables, so when it comes time to talk turkey it might not even take that long.