Mikael Backlund contract negotiations are all about leverage

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.

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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.

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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.

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  • BendingCorners

    Rough guess: 5.9×7 or 5.3×8, structured to make a buyout or trade unlikely. That probably leaves two or three wasted years at the tail end but so does Gio’s contract.

  • Off the wall

    Nice review Pike. It seems as if Treliving has the RFA deals figured out well.

    I believe you’re correct in the assumption that Backlund has a lot more leverage in these negotiations.
    He’s in Group 3, UFA status, which rightfully gives him options. Go elsewhere get a big final payday or remain with the Flames and have some security.

    Looking at it as unbiased as I can (not entirely possible) I have a good feeling Backlund wants to remain a Flame. He’s etched out a niche for himself here and he’s well liked by teammates and the fans (unless you’re WW)

    In fairness to Backlund and given Treliving’s history, we might assume he provides Backlund with a Modified No Movement Clause or something along those lines. It still provides options for Treliving and gives Backlund a reason to sign, perhaps less $ but more security.

    I think Treliving has grown as a GM, and his Brouwer NTC faux pas taught him a valuable lesson. I doubt he repeats it with regards to Backlund’s contract unless his options are limited by Backlund’s agent.

    Either way I believe it’s in our best interest to sign him now.
    He’s still got a lot of odometer left on him and being in Selke conversation is proof that he’s one of the best two way centres in the game.

  • Burnward

    Anyone else afraid of getting Plekanec’d?
    I keep thinking about how easy it will be for Backs to revert to a “strong defensive” game and quit working for offence. At 6 per, can’t have that.

    • HOCKEY83

      Not a chance Backs is getting what Monny and Johnny are getting. It will be a mil less or more per year. Probably 6 years for close to 5 or slightly higher. If he demands anything more than that he will be traded or just let go to UFA

  • Skylardog

    We are already starting to see the decline of his play. It is not immediately evident, but is starting to show up in his stats.

    At even strength:
    2016/17 = +7
    2017/18 = -7 on pace for -11.7.

    This is despite a better defense core, playing for the second year with a kid that is taking his game to new levels, and a goaltender that is having an amazing season. Smith is top 3 in the NHL in save%, yet Backs is on pace to be on the ice for 58.5 GA compared to 48 GA last season. Where would he be if Smith was not in net? On pace for -20? And don’t assume the problems started when Frolik went down. Backlund is even since Frolik went down. The issues on scoring and keeping the puck out of our net began about 8 games into the season.

    He is near impossible to replace. But any contract over 4 years will become an albatross beyond year 4. The only win for the Flames is a trade, and he is worth a bundle right now.

    Hate every moment of that thought, but it is the move that will have the best outcome for this team in the long run.

    And as for those who say it will ruin a potential cup run this year if we trade him, we are not going on a run with the coaching deployment issues or special team failures.

    • freethe flames

      This probably the most realistic set of numbers; add the first 3 years with likely a NTC and then the last 2 years with a limited NTC. However if they are not close by say February 19th BT has to consider trading him. Losing him for nothing is unacceptable.

  • SydScout

    This is the kind of thing that (I reckon) Pike does best. The lad gets too easily slammed on here by some, so I hope they step up and pay dues where they’re deserved. Great analysis, made me smarter….which is admittedly that not hard.

  • canadian1967

    I’v Seen others complaining on here as well.

  • Glensgel

    I wonder how the Stajan contract talks are going? Have not heard anything on his situation. The team could handle Backlund walking but if Stajan hits the market look out!

  • Vinnsanity12

    The NHL continues to transition into a young man’s league. How many contracts have been signed recently where the player was in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and they were given the moon based on their past, but they in no way were able to perform up to a level to justify their new deal. Backland has a lot of hard miles on him and IMO anything more than a 4 year deal would be a disaster. If he is expecting 7 or 8 years, see ya later, time to move on. There have definitely been nights this season where Backland has been a step behind, and it’s not going to get any better.

  • RKD

    Looking at some comparable contracts not players, Nielsen signed in Detroit for 6 years at $31 million, Johnson 7 years at $35 million, Backes 5 years at $30 million, Kesler 6 years $41.25 million, Dubinksy 6 years $35.1 million, etc. One thing is clear no one signed for less than 5 and no one took less than $31 million. Though Backs has a history of 2 or 3 years deals this time I’m thinking he’s looking for 6 years plus. I don’t see him making more than Johnny or Mony. If they aren’t going to settle on a deal then they better get a king’s ransom in a trade for him. He’s been highly coveted by other teams before.