When the Colorado Avalanche and Ryan O'Reilly finally came to an agreement and avoided arbitration this month, I thought of the anxiety the New York Islanders have been fortunate to avoid with their best player, and I was reminded of a familiar threat from a familiar agency...
"I said to Joe, 'If you win, you also lose,' and that everybody would lose — the club, the player and the fans."
>>NHL agent Pat Morris, describing what would happen if Joe Sakic's Avalanche took Ryan O'Reilly to arbitration and won. [Denver Post]
Sports is a business, players' careers are (sometimes) short, their window to earn the millions is narrow. Don't ever forget that.
On the other hand: Sports is a business, a collectively bargained CBA governs the parameters, and teams' windows to win under a cap system with a collection of high-drafted (and highly compensated) stars is narrow. Don't ever forget that either.
Not many teams will succeed without a few players looking out for more than #1.
O'Reilly has had a contentious relationship with the Avalanche over the past few years, with the club recognizing his role as a top player, but the player tending to seek a share of team compensation that is beyond what they wanted to budget for his slot, beyond what they were hoping to do considering the number of high-end (but still cost-controlled...for now) players who are already or about to command top dollar.
This relationship and disagreement on value has previously led to him holding out/playing in Europe after the lockout, signing an offer sheet with then-division rival Calgary, and heading toward arbitration this month until the sides dodged the hearing with minutes to spare.
Needless to say, it created years of drawn-out drama for fans who wanted to buy into what the Avs were creating, all the while fearful an important piece would flee.
Mutually Assured Hardball
It's also included the kind of implied threat that only agents can make: "If you win this case, you'll still ultimately lose the player."
That seems to be the message from Morris' quote above: Win this arbitration hearing, and you can kiss your chances of a long-term deal goodbye.
Now granted, even when teams don't verbalize the opposite threat -- if you win this case, we'll trade you -- they still carry such a similar implied threat through every year of a contract they can, even including when a "no trade" clause is in place. Players have leverage at very few points in the process, while owners have it (as well as risk) at all other times.
Still, the CBA and cap payroll range system at least puts a general framework around how franchises can build their teams and control their asset allocation, while assuring players continue to get more than half of revenues. Like the entry draft itself, it's something the players union negotiates and something each player ostensibly agrees to when they pursue a career in a league that has a lot of revenue and brand equity built in.
(If you think stars should and could just break away and form their own league where they'd make even more millions, you might not know about the WHA, the XFL and the USFL, to say nothing of NBC and the number of items with the silly Islanders crest I have willingly purchased.)
So this setup works fairly well, generally creates some form of stability, and still allows just about every player worthy of the world's top league (as well as many who aren't) to cash in handsomely.
But there are some agents and some clients who are more bent on extracting every last dollar, something that is of course their right -- and it's not like owners don't extract every last dollar from ticket buyers -- but something that can really make for a nervous offseason and add more anxiety to a rebuild.
In the most recent instance, the Avs did not want O'Reilly to be the highest-paid player on the team. One day the Avalanche will have to pay Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon, among others (and not pay Paul Stastny, a casualty of the commitments that lie ahead). That is not O'Reilly's problem, and he has clearly never had any intention of accepting it. He's the free agent, it's his time (again) to worry about himself.
As the agents of record for many top stars, it's far from the first time Morris and Newport have played serious hardball with teams (and at least in Patrick O'Sullivan's case, it appears it backfired). It previously helped Newport and Morris land that bombshell contract for Brad Richards and the Rangers ... which resulted in a buyout (but lots and lots of money!) Morris didn't think would happen just a third of the way into the deal.
Be Grateful When Your Star is Willing to Give a Little
The point isn't that O'Reilly or Morris (as the representative of his, ahem, best interests) did anything wrong here. They're within their rights, oh the burdensome taxes, oh the expenses of multiple homes, etc., rest assured my violin plays for thee.
The point is that the CBA's cap system, while it helps create more balance and parity around the league -- and also jobs! and guaranteed contracts! -- also creates restrictions that make it harder for teams to hoard talent without the players who make up that talent bending a little to make room for, well, more of that talent on the team.
So with teams trying to lock in players -- and remember, locking them in long-term is a risk for them too -- in attempt to build a contending team for many years in an uncertain future, it sure helps when a key player flexes with his demands. It's the luck of the draw if your team's top players are willing to do that.
A year before an expected lockout and the risk of some of these rules changing or getting even more restrictive, John Tavares did the Islanders a solid in agreeing to a six-year deal that was reasonable for both sides. It was a workable deal for a budget team, and a bridge to what both sides believed is a brighter future. It theoretically created more room for commitments to more of Tavares' current and future teammates, something possibly demonstrated this summer.
In doing so, Tavares made a firm and public commitment to the franchise, with a deal that rewarded him handsomely but was hardly a reach, and avoided the prospect of future RFA and arbitration drama.
Islanders fans, thank Bossy that he did.