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On GMs and Agents: When it's personal, it's unproductive

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Player agents have many tasks. Deciding which teams their clients should consider based on whether the GM is nice shouldn't be one of them.

"Is it true you were a meanie to player agents?"
"Is it true you were a meanie to player agents?"
Bruce Bennett

The Washington Capitals had a very strange and disappointing 2013-14 season, marked by a shuffle of goaltenders and multiple players requesting trades. As it turns out, one of the goalies who requested out was traded for a pending unrestricted free agent ... who is now the Islanders' starter for the next four seasons after signing a four-year contract.

Coincidentally, the Capitals also finished the season in the rare situation of seeing the contract run out on their longtime GM George McPhee, who was either a symptom or perhaps a cause of the franchise ennui. Whether symptom or cause, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis decided McPhee had to go after 17 seasons with the club.

As Oilers fans often plead: Fire everyone to remove all doubt. So the coach, Adam Oates, was canned too.

Can A GM Play *Too* Tough with Agents?

There's any number of reasons why a GM is fired after so long at the helm, but one of the dynamics with McPhee (leaked in the days before he actually walked the plank) raised some eyebrows:

Katie Carrera in the Washington Post, after the season but before McPhee was fired:

According to multiple league sources, that can be attributed partly to what they describe as McPhee’s adversarial relationship with player agents, whose grievances include his refusal to communicate with them directly and limiting their postgame access to clients.

When a key free agent or a player with a no-trade clause — one who can name what teams he will play for — is available, the Capitals intentionally aren’t on the list, one NHL agent explained.

"It’s hostile," another agent said. "Why would anyone encourage their client to play there when the organization intentionally makes it incredibly difficult to work with them?"

For all the bashing New York Islanders GM Garth Snow takes from fans, talking heads, and even random columnists from other towns, it is extremely rare to see an agent ripping him. In fact, on the contrary, several have gone on record praising some aspect of his "fair" and "tough" approach to contract negotiations.

Maybe Being Overtly 'Tough' Isn't Such a Good Idea

If it's true that Snow began his job determined not to repeat the mistakes of his most infamous predecessor, then it makes sense Snow would go this more guarded route rather than take the Mike Milbury "Burn All Bridges, Publicly and Loudly" approach to player and agent relations.

In retrospect, Milbury's 'Burn All Bridges Loudly' may not be the best approach.


Granted, every agent is out for number one first, so any agent who even matter-of-factly praises Snow's approach in the media can be assumed to ultimately be playing an angle. Nonetheless, rare is the Swiss agent who thinks his 20-year-old client has been neglected by Snow after a lucrative year in the NHL and a half season of prime minutes in the AHL.

With the caveat that one should apply a mere grain or two of salt to all agent-speak -- as well as to all pillow talk in an industry where old boys' network back-scratching and petty sniping are common -- I'd bet there are a few reasons agents have been willing to put in good public words for Snow.

No Dirty Laundry, No Ill Will

One of Snow's undeniable strengths, or at least a core business belief (you might disagree that it is a strength*), is message discipline.

It's a strength for internal and external PR, anyway; not so great for fans and media looking for juicy entertainment and cathartic rants at agents/players during a losing streak that show a team employee "cares."

As Snow said in an interview on Sportstalkradio1240 earlier this year:

Since I've been manager, we haven't made a habit of hanging players out to dry. For our coaching staff, if you want to make a statement, we do it behind closed doors. The players appreciate it and I think it's a big reason why we've been able to retain our own players like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Travis Hamonic.  When things go poorly, they know the coaches won't throw them under the bus. That loyalty is a two-way street.

This premise puts Snow's most unflinching critics in a bind: Either the players are insane for committing long-term to such an organization, or there really is something to "in the family" approach Snow takes ... or the organization isn't as undesirable as the most brilliant of Islanders critics imply with their generalization of the moment.

Immediately after the Jaroslav Halak trade, Halak's agent Allen Walsh -- who has long been active and vocal about his clients on Twitter and elsewhere -- spoke of mutual interest in reaching a deal. Walsh has a history of clients with the Islanders, and even when they end up parting ways (e.g. P.A. Parenteau), Walsh has kept it a functioning relationship, with no dirty laundry aired.

(Note that this approach is not unconditional for Walsh; he was quite vocal in his criticism of the Canadians while Halak was still with Montreal. Further, Walsh was outspoken in criticism -- plus denials -- of Capitals coach Adam Oates after Oates revealed what Walsh said should be a private conversation.)

Whatever Walsh's true feelings on Snow, on the surface that mutual respect with Snow has stood the test of time, and multiple clients. They continue to do business together.

It's A Business...Until It's Personal

Which is why the anonymous agent quotes about McPhee are intriguing, and quite possibly the piling on of a man they didn't like after they knew they'd no longer have to deal with him.

it's frankly insane for any agent to put a team on his client's no-trade list just because the GM can be an ass.

In fact, there's one reason in particular I'd call them shocking: It's in most agents' best interests to maintain smooth relationships with NHL GMs, and not inadvertently get their players on a blacklist. It's in a GM's best interest to think long term, and not burn any bridges that could limit future acquisition capabilities.

In other words, just as it's bad business for a GM to toss his players under the bus, it's frankly insane for any agent to put a team on his client's no-trade list just because the GM can be an ass to agents. In the pursuit of his client's best interests, an agent must be willing to put up with such crap.

One thing that strikes me about this scenario is how agents, who are by definition supposed to look out for their clients first, are human just like the rest of us. (Cold, robotic, unfeeling humans, yes, but human nonetheless.) In short, they can still let their own needs and wants get in the way.

The point here is that, sure, it's not good for the player if the team makes it hard to work with his agent. But it's also not good for the player if the agent lets that get in the way of actually presenting the player with one of the few employers (there are just 30 teams, after all) out there.

Put yourself in a player or agent's shoes and consider once again the anonymous sentiments about McPhee:

...attributed partly to what they describe as McPhee’s adversarial relationship with player agents, whose grievances include his refusal to communicate with them directly and limiting their postgame access to clients.

When a key free agent or a player with a no-trade clause — one who can name what teams he will play for — is available, the Capitals intentionally aren’t on the list, one NHL agent explained.

What kind of crazy talk is that? You can't hang around the locker room, you can't get McPhee on the phone, so you intentionally steer your client from a team that is one of only 30 (or, usually fewer) options with money and potential? Unless they left other much more relevant gripes out of their anonymous statements to Carrera, this sounds like something else.

The bad-mouthing of McPhee -- again, 17 years into his tenure -- seems timed to kick a man on his way out. It seems a product of the kind of pile-on that occurs only when people in the industry are pretty sure a guy is already a dead man walking.

But if it's true that McPhee's approach to agent relations kept some of them from actually facilitating their players signing in Washington...well, lucky for those anonymous gentlemen they didn't have to put a name to their quotes.