Balancing best interests of team, owner makes life difficult on NHL GMs

How do you balance what's best for the team and what's best for the owner? (Getty)
How do you balance what's best for the team and what's best for the owner? (Getty)

On June 30, when it seemed like half the teams had either just bought out an avoidable, regrettable contract, were about to do so, or were reportedly considering that option, TSN play-by-play man Gord Miller tweeted out something that haunts me to this day:

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I’ve thought about this quote a lot in the week and a half since I saw it. This kind of eldritch revelation — that GMs know they give out bad contracts and do so willingly — revealed to us a dark truth at the heart of being a decision-maker in this (or any) professional sports league. A general manager’s job is to ostensibly make the team he’s in charge of better, through high-quality general management. In actuality, very few have the job security to do that to the fullest extent, and are beholden to pressure from ownership to pursue different goals than “realistically compete for the Stanley Cup at some point.”

Take Jim Benning in Vancouver. His owner, Francesco Aquilini, clearly values being competitive for the playoffs every season, rather than trying to build a team capable of winning Presidents’ Trophies and putting themselves in an ideal position to try to win a Stanley Cup.

In theory, and sometimes in practice, these two ideas are one and the same: you can’t Compete For A Cup without first Competing For The Playoffs. There are plenty of low seeds who go on deep playoff runs and, in theory, are a small number of goals away from winning the Cup. However, one must remind themselves of the arguments around the 2016-17 Ottawa Senators, who (in)famously came within a goal of the Cup Final against the eventual champions. They were a bad team and crashed back to earth the next season, but this did nothing to dissuade people from the “all you have to do is get in” narrative, even if that’s the wrong lesson to take from it.

Benning, of course, notably signed the worst contract this summer — five years of Tyler Myers with a $6-million AAV — a year after signing two other inauspiciously bad deals — four years of Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel at twin $3-million AAVs. On the surface these are atrocious contracts and will plague the Canucks’ cap flexibility for years, but in theory, by becoming harder to play against, Benning did what he knows his job is: Get back to the playoffs.

This also explains the JT Miller trade that inarguably makes the Canucks better, but also cost them a first-round pick that will almost certainly be in the lottery when this team can’t get past Vegas, Calgary, and San Jose in the division at the very least. That’s Benning in job preservation mode, plain and simple. He’s likely to get canned if (when) the Canucks miss the postseason again, and then it’s up to his successor to clean up the numerous, considerable messes he made even if there are a bunch of bright spots on the NHL roster and in the system.

For many GMs, then, it’s more about short-term gains obtained with the acknowledgement that, in the long run, contracts like those for Loui Eriksson and trades for Brandon Sutter probably don’t bear the kind of significant fruit that returns the Canucks to their early-2010s glory. That’s not to say there aren’t clear misevaluations being made about players’ quality — who, for instance, could think Beagle or Roussel do anything but make your team tread water, at best? — but some of them can be explained away through the lens of, “I’m just trying to make the playoffs to get the owner off my back.”

My long-standing theory is that about four out of every five contracts that get bought out in this league were panned on Day 1. Sometimes a guy crumbles under the weight of injuries or due to an unexpectedly steep aging curve, but for the most part, when GMs are going out in pursuit of being hard to play against, what they are actually doing is creating down-the-road cap problems.

Some of that is clearly calculated. Kick the can down the road to get into the postseason and maybe become that team that’s perceived to come out of nowhere — the first Kings Cup, even this year’s Blues, fall into that category. The misapprehension is that a lot of the recipients of these bad contracts are worth the money initially. Just because that’s market value doesn’t mean the market is properly valuing the player. Most GMs would be better off to let that contract become someone else’s problem.

Unfortunately, many may feel they can’t afford to do that, lest they lose their job a year or two earlier than they otherwise might have. You almost can’t blame them. It’s human nature to want to insulate yourself from risk. If the job is to make the team better, they can argue they’re doing so — as long as you agree that the guys they sign help even nominally — even if they’re doing so for the short term, rather than five, six, seven years down the line.

Again, a lot of this comes down to what ownership mandates. This is a gate-revenue league and most teams don’t have the finances to just absorb a full-on rebuild. That they do have the finances to basically flush $6 million down the toilet every year with these awful contracts, which need to get bought out eventually, seemingly without end strikes me as strange.

That’s not necessarily on the GMs. They know the bad contracts they give out are bad. They’re just hoping when things go finally sideways, it’s not going to be something they have to care about anymore.

Unfortunately, they also sometimes stay in their jobs long enough to reap what they sow. You might think that would change their behaviors, but these are dyed-in-the-wool Hockey Men, so of course it doesn’t.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick , Evolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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