Overpaying for an unrestricted free agent isn’t always a mistake.
In fact, each of the last three Stanley Cup winners had at least one ugly contract on the books the year they won it all.
On June 23, 2017, the Washington Capitals inked forward T.J. Oshie to a massive eight-year extension at $5.75 million AAV. Oshie was obviously one of the Capitals’ best players, but the deal won’t expire until he’s 38, and has the potential to become quite onerous as he ages. At the same time, it’s tough to argue it didn’t pay off, considering that Oshie scored 21 points in 24 games in the 2018 playoffs on route to the first Stanley Cup win in team history.
The St. Louis Blues made a similar decision a year earlier when it came to Alex Steen, inking the then-32-year-old to a four-year deal also worth $5.75 million. That deal hasn’t exactly worked out for the Blues, given that Steen has been little more than a depth player for the past two seasons, but given the team’s Stanley Cup win in 2019, Blues GM Doug Armstrong probably isn’t all that worried about it.
Even the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are widely considered to be one of the best-managed teams in the NHL by nerds and hockey men alike, have a few ugly contracts. They’re stuck paying Ryan McDonagh $6.75 million a year until he’s 37 after acquiring him from the Rangers, and they were so desperate to shed Tyler Johnson’s four more years at $5 million per that they just tried to give him away for free.
All this serves to illustrate a basic truth of managing an NHL team: there are good contracts and there are bad contracts, but some bad contracts are worse than others. Opportunities to make a run at a Stanley Cup don’t come around often, so you have to strike while the iron is hot. A team can be forgiven for signing a bad contract, as long as the player in question is worth retaining and you aren’t left regretting your decision until your Cup window is coming to a close.
The Canucks, regrettably, have not signed players to this type of bad contract. They’ve signed players to the wrong type of bad contract, and that distinction has been the cause of some confusion in Vancouver since the departures of Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher, and Tyler Toffoli.
There’s been a popular talking point in this market over the past few days that states that fans can’t have it both ways, that they have no right to be upset that the team didn’t sign bad contracts on Friday afternoon if they’ve been upset about the questionable contracts the team has signed in the past. There are a number of issues with this line of thinking.
The first is that equating re-signing well-liked key pieces of a competitive team in the aftermath of its first playoff appearance in five years with signing overrated role players with no prior relationship to the team is absurd. Both the fans and the players had absolutely no attachment to the Sutters or Beagles of the world at the time that those deals were inked, and none of the players signed to bad contracts had the kind of impact that a player like Markstrom — who was named team MVP for the second year in a row — had on the Canucks’ success this season.
It also mischaracterizes the arguments that were being made at the time. No one was upset that the Canucks were signing players or spending money. Obviously there were roster spots that needed to be filled. The issue was always that they were choosing to target the wrong players at the wrong time. Most observers predicted that the Canucks would not be competitive from 2015-2019, and that came to pass despite the numerous big-ticket free agent signings. Most of those deals did not yield anything resembling a clear benefit, whereas retaining one of Markstrom or Tanev would have at least been done in the name of keeping together a roster that impressed a lot of people this season.
Most importantly, regardless of how you feel about the deals that Tanev and Stecher signed elsewhere, it’s clear that the Canucks will still have to replace those players, which looks like a tall order given the state of their prospect pipeline and current cap situation.
In a vacuum, the Canucks probably made the right decisions on Friday by electing not to re-sign either of Tanev or Markstrom, but at this stage in their competitive window, those contracts would have been infinitely more defensible than, say, the near-identical deals they gave to Brandon Sutter and Loui Eriksson in 2015 and 2016. That’s why a lot of fans are so upset: the team had no qualms about signing worse players to equally onerous contracts, and are only demonstrating restraint now that their backs are against the wall and the players in question actually have a connection to the team, the fans, and the city of Vancouver.
The Canucks are missing out on a once-in-a-generation chance to take advantage of what can only be described as a collapse in the free agent market while their two best players are on entry-level contracts. Now, not only are they unable to sign some very good players to bargain-basement deals, they also find themselves in a uniquely difficult situation with regards to the bad salary they’re looking to shed. Obviously, no one could have predicted the effect that the pandemic would have on this offseason, but it’s been clear for years that this would be roughly the beginning of their competitive window, and the Canucks failed to plan accordingly.
Imagine what the mood around Vancouver would be like right now if the Canucks had put themselves in a position to take a run at Taylor Hall or Mike Hoffman? Or sign any number of intriguing and undervalued players like T.J. Brodie or Jesper Fast? There are dozens of counterfactual scenarios that could be discussed ad nauseam, but the fact of the matter is that had they spent money more wisely, the Canucks could be in a position to totally remake and improve the middle-to-bottom end of their roster this offseason. Instead, they’re spinning their wheels yet again. They needed to get stingier defensively, and have now lost ground in their single biggest area of weakness. If losing three key players on the first day of free agency while shedding $0 in bad salary doesn’t qualify as “cap problems,” then what does?
It’s still early. The Canucks could have some sort of master plan that has yet to be executed, and all the hemming and hawing could look like an overreaction in a few weeks time. The team’s history would suggest otherwise, though. They’ve made some poor decisions, like the aforementioned contracts, and some others that have turned out fantastically, like the well-timed targeting of J.T. Miller. But they’ve never done anything that suggested a long-term vision, and they got caught sleeping in the early days of free agency this offseason. If there’s a plan, great. But the onus is on them to prove it now.
This may all seem like hindsight, but the Sutter, Beagle, and Roussel deals were all roundly criticized at the time, and while no one saw Loui Eriksson’s collapse coming, the consensus was that the back end of his deal was likely to look ugly.
It’s also worth rehashing these mistakes again, if only to underline how important it is for the Canucks to avoid making similar ones in the future. They’ve already cost themselves a great opportunity to make the best of Hughes’ and Pettersson’s cheapest years. No one around Vancouver really seems to be able to pinpoint when their Cup window is going to be, but when it comes around, they can’t let it pass by the way they did this time.