Category Archives: Keeping it Real with Cap’n

WHL Draft-Eligible Players to Watch

The Western Hockey League had a banner year in the 2017 NHL Draft. Not only was Nolan Patrick in the conversation to go number one overall from the beginning of the 2016-17 season until draft day (ultimately being taken second overall by the Flyers), but three of the first ten picks came from the league and the league had seven total first round picks.

For comparison, the Ontario Hockey League, which tends to get a lot more publicity because of its geographic location, only had one player taken in the top ten picks and had just five players taken in the first round.  WHL alumnus Kailer Yamamoto, taken with the 22nd pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, has managed to stick with the Edmonton Oilers out of camp though the question remains whether he will stay past the 9-game mark, burning a year off his entry-level contract in the process.

While the Western Hockey League was typically known for a more physical and defensive-minded style of play than the junior leagues back east, as hockey has evolved, so too has the WHL. The league that gave us Cam Neely, Marian Hossa, Ryan Getzlaf and Dustin Byfuglien continues to churn out quality defensemen like Seth Jones, Ivan Provorov and Morgan Rielly, but it has also produced players like Tyler Johnson, Nino Niederreiter, and Yamamoto who don’t necessarily fit the WHL’s rough and tumble image.

NHL scouts are working day-in and day-out to find the next player that can be a difference-maker for their franchise, seeing 6-7 games a week. More and more they are also looking at advanced stats to supplement their knowledge base and provide them additional data points, though the data at the junior level isn’t always of a consistently high quality.  By the time the season is over, these scouts will have spent enough time with the players to better understand their personalities off-ice in addition to recognizing a player from a passing glance at his skating stride.

So, what players should you be paying attention to now that the 2017-2018 WHL season is underway? Who are the players making a name for themselves out West that might have their name called by your favorite team next June?  While the WHL isn’t likely to repeat last year’s draft performance, there are still some players to pay attention to as the year progresses.  Defensemen Ty Smith of the Spokane Chiefs is clearly at the top of this WHL draft class, and is a possible top 10 in the NHL Draft.  Smith is a bit on the small side, but moves the puck well and is always thinking a step ahead of the play.  What sets him apart is his hockey sense.  Smith has come out of the gates strong with 12 points in his first 11 games.

Outside of Smith, there are a few other players who might be first round material. They include Jett Woo of the Moose Jaw Warriors, Riley Sutter of the Everett Silvertips, and Alexander Alexeyev of the Red Deer Rebels. Woo is another defenseman who already is close to the playing weight he’ll need to be to compete at the next level and he’s a sound positional player.  He’s very competitive and plays a physical game.  Like Smith, he’s putting up good numbers to start the season with 9 points including an impressive 4 goals in his first 10 games of the season.  He’s also a right-handed shot, which could help his stock.

Sutter is a big right wing at 6’3” and 205 pounds. The last name, no doubt, looks familiar to you and, yes, he is from that Sutter family.  Specifically, he is the son of Ron Sutter.  What was interesting, in speaking with one scout, was that Riley’s personality and playing style don’t necessarily match the expectations you might have based on his size and family name.  He is a quiet, cerebral player who knows where to be on the ice and by the time the game is over you look down and notice that he’s had one of the best games of any of the players on the ice.  In the early going, he has 11 points in 12 games including a team-leading seven goals.  I’m hoping to get a chance to see Sutter play in person later this month.

Alexeyev is another right-handed defenseman, but he has the size that neither Smith nor Woo have at this point, standing 6’3” tall. He has an incredibly accurate point shot and, like Woo, he’s right handed.  The biggest concern with the talented rearguard is how he comes back from a knee injury that required surgery and cost him half of the 2016-17 season.  Further complicating things, an upper body injury has cost him several games this season, but when he has been healthy, he’s managed 3 assists in 4 games played.  It will be interesting to see if his draft stock slips if injury keeps him off the ice for a substantial period of time.

It is still very early in the junior season and teams and players are still figuring things out. Beyond the four players I mentioned above, there are others who may seemingly come out of nowhere.  Last year’s initial Central Scouting rankings didn’t have Cody Glass going in the first round, let alone the top 10.  As the season progresses, I will be looking to see other players that emerge as NHL talents and to see how Smith, Woo, Sutter and Alexeyev perform.

How Not to Negotiate–with Darren Ferris

When last we left off, I was discussing the stalemates with Matt Duchene in Colorado and Josh Anderson in Columbus (See here). One thing I failed to mention in that article was the role for Darren Ferris in the situation–don’t do something dumb that makes the possibility of a trade for your client worse.  Now, there are things Ferris could do to try and nudge things along such as following through on the threat that Anderson would spend the season in Switzerland (even though we all know that is a horrible result for his client unless he values chocolate and watches more than actual money).  That wouldn’t have materially altered the playing field, but it would have given an impression that Ferris was serious about his threat.

The absolute dumbest thing Ferris could do is make a public trade demand.  Why is this a really bad idea from a negotiations standpoint?  Let me count the ways.  For one thing, it is a clear dominance move.  Either the other person gives into the trade demand or you end up withdrawing the trade demand.  The public is going to know that one side or the other caved.  You will note that Duchene and his agent, Pat Brisson (also agent for Alexander Wennberg), have never made a public trade demand even though Brisson sure looked excitable at this year’s NHL draft.  It now seems obvious why they didn’t–Duchene wasn’t going to risk the possibility of not playing at all and losing salary in the process to try and force a trade.  As I’ve thought about it more, given that Joe Sakic‘s pride seems to be playing a part in his decisions regarding Duchene, this was probably the right move because I don’t know that Sakic would take kindly to a demand that would make him look weak.

Now, what do we know about Jarmo Kekäläinen and how he deals with negotiations?  We know he didn’t cave to Ryan Johansen and his agent, Kurt Overhardt, when they made lofty contract demands despite the fact that Johansen was probably the most important player on the team at, arguably, the most important position.  We know that he didn’t cave to Wennberg and Brisson even though, again, the player in question was slotted to be his number one center.  This isn’t someone who rolls over simply because of posturing or theatrics.  So, how was he likely to address a public trade demand based on his history?  Does it seem likely Kekäläinen would give into such a demand or stand firm in the face of it?  The latter seems more likely.

So, we have a sense that Kekäläinen’s initial reaction would be to refuse to trade Anderson.  What about Ferris’ own position in this game of chicken?  Again, as I pointed out in the last article, his position is very weak.  This move doesn’t improve his leverage in any way.  In fact, his position is weaker than Brisson’s with Duchene because a trade demand by Duchene could spark a public outcry to trade Duchene and/or for Sakic to be fired by the owners.  We saw this exact scenario play out with Rick Nash and Scott Howson.  To be clear, the Jackets fan protest proceeded Nash’s trade demand becoming public, but Howson’s precarious position and the team’s need to rebuild worked to Nash’s advantage.

Is there going to be an outcry for Kekäläinen to be fired a few months removed from the best season in Jackets history?  Hardly.  Is there going to be a public demand for Anderson to be traded?  Maybe, but fans aren’t going to demand that the player be traded just to be traded; they are going to expect a good return.

Which gets us to the next problem–a public trade demand might make Anderson harder to trade or diminish the return.  The demand may make Anderson harder to trade because a GM is only acquiring Anderson’s rights and would still have to get Ferris to accept a final deal.  Is there a GM that is willing to cave to Ferris’ demands because they want the player badly enough?  Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  We’re talking about a player who really has only one NHL season of experience.  I’m not convinced other GMs are any more willing to give Anderson the two-year deal he seems to be after so that he can get arbitration rights as soon as possible, particularly given the player and agent’s current negotiating tactics.  Additionally, other GMs will now view the Jackets as being in a position where they have to trade the player and they will be looking to get a deal.

Colorado is the team that could be the exception since they have their own situation where they need to trade a player, but, again, the public demand creates the impression that the Jackets are giving into the demands of the player and the agent, complicating an already complicated situation.

Fortunately, if this was meant to be a public demand, Ferris botched it just enough to give the sides some wiggle room.  Indeed, Kekäläinen has already made a statement that he wasn’t aware of such demand and Ferris has seemingly walked away from going public with the demand, instead giving a vague statement about continuing to negotiate.

Ferris is playing with fire.  He has been fortunate to this point in his negotiations with Red Wings GM Ken Holland that Holland hasn’t put him on blast for his tactics in the negotiations for Andreas Athanasiou including-wait for it-threatening to take the player overseas.  Being taken to task by one of the longest-tenured GMs in the league would probably not be a positive for Ferris’ future as an agent.  As it is, being the only agent with two failed restricted free agent negotiations isn’t exactly a feather in his cap.  And, let’s not forget, just last year in the Tobias Rieder negotiations Ferris sent an e-mail that stated “I think it would be best for both parties if they just traded him.” Rieder would later re-sign with the Coyotes, so apparently he changed his mind. This is an agent who largely represents lesser talents who keeps trying to make a name for himself in the worst ways possible.

Keep in mind, Ferris isn’t exactly loved by some of his fellow agents.  When he left Don Meehan’s Newport Sports Management group, a suit followed including allegations that Ferris misrepresented ties with players and slandered his prior employer.  He later left Bobby Orr‘s agency to start ARC Sports Group.  He’s since formed Definitive Hockey Group, apparently as successor to ARC Sports Group.  When you see a guy who so routinely pulls out over-the-top tactics and who seems to constantly be looking for a new job, you have to start to question his skill as a negotiator and, frankly, his ethics.  In any event, his standard operating procedure of threatening a player will leave for Europe/Russia and demanding a trade through the press is getting old with NHL GMs.  But, for the sake of entertainment, I’d love to see him try that with Lou Lamoriello (Ferris’ most high-profile client is Mitch Marner).

Ferris needs to tow the line.  If a trade can’t be made, he needs to stop harming his client and sign the deal that has been offered.  The team can always facilitate a trade later on when the mess Ferris created has died down.  This was another misplayed bluff by an agent with a history of them.

Columbus, Duchene, Anderson and the Delicate Art of Negotiations

The first games of NHL pre-season have come and gone and Matt Duchene still is a member of the Colorado Avalanche, despite Duchene being the most visible asset on the trade market and possibly the best player available dating back to the middle point of the 2016-17 season.  Meanwhile, Josh Anderson, after having one solid campaign in the bottom six for Columbus remains one of two unsigned, restricted free agents. How is this possible?

Both instances show the delicate balance in negotiating a deal. I’m not an NHL GM, but I play one on the Internet.  When I’m not doing that, as a lawyer, I spend my days negotiating deals.  There are many different negotiating styles, but there are certain basic principles of negotiations that are important regardless of style.  Most people are at least familiar with the concept of leverage—the idea that parties in the negotiation have different strengths and weaknesses based on their circumstances.  However, there is a more basic concept that should ultimately guide parties in a negotiation, which I’ll refer to as “BATNA”—the best alternative to a negotiated agreement.  To be clear, this isn’t something I created, it goes back to the Harvard Negotiation Project and the book Getting to Yes.

BATNA is, in short, the best result you can achieve if negotiations fail. A rational negotiator won’t accept an offer that falls short of their BATNA because they are better off not closing the deal.  In the Duchene trade talks we have heard a lot about how Joe Sakic can just keep Matt Duchene.  To this point, that is exactly what he’s done.  The party line is that if Duchene has a good year, Sakic will see offers improve and so he is reasonable to hold out for a deal equivalent to what he thinks he can get if Duchene’s play improve.

However, this isn’t a fair understanding of how BATNA works. Sakic also has to consider other factors.  For example, if Duchene has another poor year, how would that impact his trade value?  If Sakic can’t trade him until next offseason (more on this below), how would that impact his trade value?  What if Duchene gets injured?  What if other comparable or better players come onto the trade market in the interim (ex. John Tavares or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins)?  What if the trade pool shrinks as some teams address their need at center internally or because a team no longer has the asset Sakic wants to complete the deal?

Sakic’s worst case BATNA is pretty bad. If Duchene has a poor season (not improbable on a team as bad as the Avalanche) or gets injured (not uncommon in the NHL), Duchene’s value could go down to close to zero.  If John Tavares and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are suddenly on the market with Duchene, demand for Duchene will decrease even if he otherwise has a good year.  If teams like Columbus find an internal solution for their current needs at center (not unthinkable for Columbus in particular because of the presence of Pierre-Luc Dubois), the market for Duchene could take a further hit. We’ve already seen Nashville’s interest diminish as they lost the depth at defenseman they needed to complete a deal.  Keeping Duchene beyond training camp is risky business.

Now, let’s look at the case of Josh Anderson and his agent, Darren Ferris. Anderson had a nice year, but trailed off as the season moved on.  He has no arbitration rights.  He would seem to justify a deal less than Connor Brown, who just got a deal for $2.1 million/year over three years.  It’s unclear exactly where the parties are at other than a report that suggested the Jackets have given Anderson two options—a one year deal at his qualifying offer and a three year deal of “less than $1.9 million” (which sounds like agent speak for $1.85 million).  That second option sounds pretty close to market.  Yet, Anderson continues to hold out and his agent is now threatening that his player will play in Switzerland and then the Olympics.

When we look at Anderson’s BATNA, it becomes obvious that this is either a bluff, or an incredibly foolish move by Ferris. Anderson’s salary in Switzerland is likely to be a maximum of $500,000.  Even Anderson’s qualifying offer is higher than that.  And what does Anderson gain by spending a season in Switzerland? Nothing.  He still won’t obtain arbitration rights.  What if he has a poor season in Europe, in a subpar league, or gets injured?  What if Milano, or Abramov or some other Jackets prospect simply takes Anderson’s roster spot and makes him expendable?  The bottom line is that the Jackets negotiating position won’t get worse, but Anderson’s certainly could.

Sometimes pride can get in the way of making a deal. This is almost always a bad idea.  As an attorney, I may come to hate the attorney on the other side, but it is my job to do what is best for my client regardless of those feelings.  Sakic and Ferris need to think about the best interest of their “clients”—the Colorado Avalanche and Josh Anderson.  Sakic needs to make a move on Duchene now rather than risk finding his return further diminished.  Ferris needs to get his client a deal that keeps him in the NHL and doesn’t waste hundreds of thousands of dollars for nothing.

Another piece of negotiating advice that a former partner who practiced in the bankruptcy arena once gave was “always give the other side enough money for cab fare home.” What does that mean?  It means that when you are the party with superior leverage, it is important to afford the other side some amount of dignity in “defeat.”

Jarmo Kekäläinen is in a position to potentially resolve both of these issues in one move, but to do it he will have to give the other sides money for cab fare home. For Sakic, that will mean giving him something that he previously asked for in negotiations and was denied—Anderson.  In the most recent 31 Thoughts column by Elliotte Friedman, he stated:  “It is believed, for example, that Colorado asked for [Anderson] in Matt Duchene talks, only to be rejected.” The status of the negotiations between Columbus and Anderson have created an opening for the two parties to re-engage in discussions of a trade that would include Anderson.  Sakic, in turn, will have to accept Ryan Murray instead of Gabriel Carlsson.  I get why Sakic wants the younger player and I don’t think it has as much to do with perceived skill as time horizons for being competitive and control of the player through contract, but he can’t expect to get a Anderson AND a player on an entry-level contract.  It seems likely that a pick would be a part of the deal, with the possibility that a pick might come back to the Jackets to even things out.  I’d also consider the possibility of adding a player like Dean Kukan given the lack of organizational depth on the blueline for the Avs.  Sakic can crow that he got “4 assets” as he initially set out to do (even if he also sends an asset back) and he can proclaim that the moment that the deal came together was when Anderson was added.  People will praise Sakic for holding out to get what a better deal though no one will ever know for sure what other deals were passed up along the way or pulled off the table.  Sakic will get the left defenseman he needs and a player who could put up 20 plus goals if moved into the Avs top 6, essentially replacing Duchene’s production from last season.  He’ll have both on reasonable terms for years to come.

And what of Darren Ferris? He may well end up signing the exact same deal that Jarmo already offered his client in Colorado, but the public will be none the wiser since Jarmo has never gone public to say what that offer was.  He may not like dealing with Jarmo, but he should also respect the fact that Jarmo didn’t make a fool of him in the newspapers, which he certainly could have.

Meanwhile, the Jackets shore up their depth at center, while giving some of their depth on defense. Defensive depth is always something that can be added at the trade deadline (particularly the bottom pair), so it is a reasonable trade-off.  Is it a lot to give up?  Yes.  Is the team closer to being a contender after the trade?  Also, yes.  The longer the Anderson situation plays out, the more this option could and should be considered by the Jackets.  The question then is whether Sakic can see a trade with this sort of framework for what it is—the best offer he is likely to obtain that minimizes the negative effects of his best alternative to a trade.