Category Archives: Keeping it Real with Cap’n

The Customer Is Always Right—Sports Fans Should Not Be Silent

Just over six years ago, on January 28, 2012, approximately 300 Blue Jackets fans braved bitter cold to hold a protest as a Blue Jackets season that held great promise spiraled into chaos.  Earlier in the month, the team had fired Head Coach Scott Arniel ending a tenure that was probably most notable for Arniel’s infamous quip after a question from Lori Schmidt in a press conference (“so just keep piling on”).  Days later it would come out that the team’s superstar and captain, Rick Nash, had demanded a trade.

The preceding offseason looked good on paper.  A team that had only made the playoffs once seemed to have finally acquired the center it had needed for so long when an offseason trade landed them Jeff Carter.  They had also attempted to address their problems on defense by adding free agent James Wisniewski.  The Nikita Filatov era ended as the former first round pick was shipped to Ottawa for the Sens’ third round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

However, there was also a conspicuous failure to address concerns about the goaltending situation.  Mark Dekanich was signed to backup Steve Mason with Curtis Sanford, out of the NHL for two years at that point, signed as the primary goaltender for the AHL affiliate in Springfield.  Sadly, Dekanich would never see a game with the Jackets due to injury.

Things quickly went off the rails and never recovered.  Wisniewski would be suspended as a “repeat offender” for a preseason incident with Cal Clutterbuck in a preseason game that meant he didn’t start his first game for the Jackets until Game 9 of the season, which was, coincidentally, the team’s first win of the season.  Carter would get injured and be out for 10 games.  Steve Mason struggled.  Management, desperate to turn things around, made trades for Mark Letestu and Nikita Nikitin.  Rumors started to surface that, grasping at straws, the Jackets might bring back Ken Hitchcock as head coach. Fortunately for Hitchcock, he instead took a job with St. Louis.  Ownership seemed to be questioning management when they brought in former Pens GM, Craig Patrick as a “special advisor.”

Just six months after they enacted one plan to right the ship, they were about to enact a new plan—blow it all up.  And, to that point, it looked like they would let the architects of the prior failed plan—GM Scott Howson and President Mike Priest—carry out the new plan.

With the All-Star Break approaching, on January 23, 2012, the Jackets played a seemingly meaningless game against the Predators in Nashville and got shellacked, 4-1.  In many ways, it was a typical Blue Jackets loss for that era.  The Preds always seemed to have the Jackets’ number.  Mike Fisher had two goals in the game, bringing his total goals that season against the Jackets to six.  Over half of his goals to that point in the season were against Columbus, to which he responded after the game: “It’s kind of a funny stat. I know I’ve got to make sure I keep going and see if I can score against some other teams.”  The Jackets were 13-29-6 after that game. One loss shouldn’t have been any different than the 28 that preceded it.

But the fact that the loss was so typical, so ordinary, was probably what set me off.  It was a Monday night.  With the All-Star Break coming up, the team wouldn’t be in town on Saturday, but, as luck would have it, I would.  I had moved to the West Coast, but I was back visiting family.  That night I was in Northeast Ohio when I went on HFBoards and posted that we needed to have a fan protest to make it known that casual losses and being dead last in the league weren’t acceptable for a team that had been in the league as long as the Jackets had.  I didn’t really expect much to come out of it, but it struck a nerve and soon it was like a snowball rolling downhill.

I was driving south to Columbus the next afternoon when a fellow HFBoards member called me on my cellphone.  One of the local radio stations wanted to talk to the “organizers.”  To this point, no one was really organizing anything.  Suddenly there was a level of expectation.  Suddenly we had to think about things like permits, PA equipment, some sort of riser for speakers, a podium, speeches, etc., on a Tuesday afternoon, for something that was now, apparently, really going to take place on Saturday morning.  In the next 48 hours, somehow a core group of six of us came together to coordinate these things.

I had never met any of these guys in person before.  One of them was a guy I had sparred with over the years on HFBoards.  One was a musician and Day 1 season ticket holder.  One was a fan who traveled up to games from Kentucky.  One was an Iraq war vet and another was a father who brought his kids to games.  Other people volunteered to help in various ways including lending us PA equipment, picking things up where we couldn’t, etc. It was the first experience I really had of how quickly you could organize something with social media and with crowd-sourcing.  The protest would have never happened without the contributions of a number of people, and I cannot thank them enough.

Meanwhile, people debated the protest online, particularly at HFBoards.  Some thought it was a joke or an embarrassment. When national hockey media started to cover it, I think some started to fear that this would make the Jackets and, by extension, Columbus, a punchline.

The Jackets, for their part, were concerned about how this would play and, allegedly, hired a PR firm out of Chicago to address the situation.  On the eve of the protest, owner John P. McConnell wrote a letter to the fans and via the press let protesters know that they would be welcomed with a cup of hot coffee on what was expected to be a blustery day as a way of the organization showing its appreciation to the fans.  A nice gesture by McConnell which pretty much wrote my speech for me since I had a 2/3 replica Stanley Cup at my disposal.  (“You offered us a cup of coffee, but that’s not the Cup we want!”)

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The night before the core group of six of us and my always patient wife met up at a bar in the Arena District to make our final arrangements as to order of speakers and what we wanted to cover.  Who happened to walk into the same bar?  John P. McConnell’s son!  You really can’t make this stuff up. We finalized our plans in hushed tones about 10 feet away from him.

The next morning, the rumors about the Jackets being awarded an All-Star Game were everywhere.  I showed up at Nationwide at least an hour before the start time for our protest.  The Arena District was dead quiet.  It was bitterly cold.  I wasn’t sure if, after all of this, anyone would actually show up.  It didn’t look good 15 minutes before start time.  Then, suddenly, people started spilling out of the various bars and restaurants in the Arena District.  Probably 10-20 people at first.  With minutes to go before the start time the courtyard was nearly filled.  With only a few days’ notice, approximately 250-300 people had showed up on a cold day.  They showed up with signs supporting the team, but questioning management.

As we kicked things off with Bush’s “Machinehead,” the Jumbotron across the street carried the news that the Blue Jackets had been awarded an All-Star Game.  It was a bittersweet moment given the state of the team, but it was the first sign that maybe things would get better.  Over the next year, Rick Nash would be traded to the Rangers in a blockbuster deal, Mike Priest would be “promoted” and replaced by John Davidson, Scott Howson would be fired, and current GM Jarmo Kekalainen would be hired to replace him.  I don’t know if we influenced any of those decisions, but I’m glad the decisions were made.

In the aftermath, a lot of people who had been skeptical about the protest felt that it was well done and that it wasn’t the embarrassment they feared it would be.  At All-Star Weekend, Gary Bettman was forced to address the protest, doing so in the way you’d expect Gary Bettman to respond to such a question:

I saw that somebody was trying to organize a pep rally. But that’s a good sign.  It’s kind of like when you get booed when you go out on the ice, it’s better than when it’s quiet. I know about that firsthand.”

It was interesting to see the Browns Perfect Season Parade last month.  I heard a lot of the same things I remember hearing when we were planning the protest about whether it should be done, whether it would be an embarrassment.  You had another element that we didn’t have—players taking to social media to voice their anger over the parade.  In the end, Chris McNeil and the organizers deserve a lot of credit.  They raised over $15,000 for a good cause–wish we would have had the time and forethought to do this.  McNeil and his fellow organizers should be very proud in what they did, bringing out over 3,000 fans on another cold Ohio day.  Hopefully the Browns ownership and management takes the frustration of their fans to heart.  Bettman was right:  having 3,000 fans show up to voice their anger beats having 30,000 empty seats in your stadium.

That is the challenge for fans of dysfunctional sports franchises.  Some would propose boycotts as a way motivate teams, but boycotts can backfire.  Sometimes a boycott isn’t an option.  Witness the situation with the Columbus Crew where, once again, a dedicated fan base is speaking up.  In the case of the Crew, the issue isn’t as much the team’s performance as it is ownership’s desire to move the team and mischaracterize the fan base in the process.  Columbus was the first team to have a soccer-specific stadium, but the old house is starting to show its age.  Instead of sitting down in good faith with officials of the City of Columbus, team owner, Anthony Precourt, is more focused on moving the team to Austin and is doing everything he can to paint a picture of a franchise that no longer has local support from fans or businesses.  While John P. McConnell did all he could to show that he heard the fans concerns, Anthony Precourt is content to thumb his nose at Crew supporters, area businesses and local government officials.

Morgan Hughes and others behind the #SaveTheCrew effort have done a brilliant job of attempting to disprove Precourt’s anti-Columbus narrative by getting support not just from fans, but from businesses in Columbus.  They’ve put up billboards and have developed a “community kit” complete with a corporate sponsor.  We still don’t know how the story will end with the Crew, but I applaud the creative efforts of all of those behind #SaveTheCrew and I hope it shows other fans of troubled franchises in other cities that they don’t have to be hopeless, that they can attempt to do something about it instead of just accepting the loss of their franchise.  Show them some support in their efforts even if it is a little thing like sending them a few bucks.

I don’t know what the future will hold for fan advocacy, but I think fans are better off speaking up than being silent.  For years, fans of teams were the one group without a voice.  Fans have been used as pawns in disputes between players and owners over labor matters and in disputes between owners and government officials over financing matters.  At the end of the day, the fans are a team’s consumer base and they shouldn’t be silent about an investment of hundreds or thousands of dollars any more than they would be silent if they went to a restaurant and were given the wrong food, much less if they got the wrong food every time they went to that same restaurant.  Remember the words of Gary Bettman—it is better for owners to hear your “boos” than silence. Sometimes that means you need to hold a “pep rally.”

Jackets and Oilers Are Perfect Trade Partners

There have been a lot of rumors swirling in recent weeks about the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers. Jackets GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, was recently at the Oilers-Devils game.  Oilers GM, Peter Chiarelli, was at the Jackets-Sabres game on Monday.  Darren Dreger went on TSN 1050 in Toronto yesterday and had this to say:

“But things have changed a little bit. So let’s go back to the draft in Chicago. I know Columbus was willing to consider a top pick for Ryan Murray. Now they want player-for-player, and they’re in the market for a center. Is it Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out of Edmonton. Who might it be. Right now Nuge is playing great hockey for the Oilers, so I don’t think they’re interested in parting with him. But my sense is the asking price – if it’s Ryan Murray, or for most defenseman that the Oilers have some interest in – is still too high.”

Last night, the Oilers got absolutely hammered in St. Louis, losing to the Blues by a final score of 8-3. It is the second time in the last week they have lost to St. Louis, having lost 4-1 on November 16.  In between, they managed another blowout loss to Dallas, 6-3.  While Cam Talbot isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with a 5-on-5 save percentage of 91.2 percent, he’s also faced more shots against 5-on-5 than all but two other goalies—Frederik Andersen and Andrei Vasilevskiy – not to mention facing the fifth-most high-danger chances against in the league.

No doubt, Edmonton is currently having some bad luck. The luck stat, PDO, has them third from the bottom with 96.67 percent combined shooting and save percentage.  Their shooting percentage is particularly noteworthy because they are shooting an abysmal 5.8 percent.  This is particularly interesting given that their expected goals for is top-five in the league.  This means they are not just getting shots, they are getting quality shots and for whatever reason they are not going in to this point.

So, what we know about the Oilers is that they are doing a good job in the offensive zone though they have been unlucky, and they are letting opponents get too many shots on net, which may be asking too much of Cam Talbot. If they were going to try and salvage this season, the fix has to be on defense.  Darnell Nurse has finally started to look like the player that people hoped he could be.  Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson have struggled a bit.  But the biggest problem is still Kris Russell.  It should be no surprise that Russell is their worst defenseman when you look at Corsi For Percentage as that has been a problem for Russell for a long time.

Meanwhile, Columbus’ struggles have been finding a center who can play with Artemi Panarin. An early experiment with Alex Wennberg failed when Wennberg became too passive.  There was no chemistry with team captain, Nick Foligno, who only converted to a center out of necessity.  While Pierre-Luc Dubois has shown some promise in recent games on a line with Panarin and Josh Anderson, the Jackets may not want to rush Dubois and may want insurance in case he hits the dreaded “wall” later in the season.  This is a team that is near the top of its division, a division that includes the Stanley Cup champs, despite not playing its best hockey and it is clear that management feels with an addition that the team can contend for a Cup this season.

Meanwhile, the Jackets top defensive pair of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones has been out of this world. With John Tortorella loosening the reigns and allowing Jones and Werenski to “rove” in the offensive zone, the dynamic duo has already accounted for 7 goals. You shouldn’t be shocked to learn that their possession stats are also quite good. What has been a surprise, has been the play of young Markus Nutivaara.  In just his second season, the 2015 seventh round pick of the Jackets has suddenly contributed offensively the way that Tortorella had hoped that he would, putting up 7 points and solid possession numbers.

On the other hand, David Savard and Jack Johnson have struggled and it isn’t the much maligned Johnson who has struggled the most, it has been Savard. Tortorella finally had seen enough and scratched Savard last week against the Rangers.  Savard was back in against Buffalo on Monday and both he and Johnson were significantly better.  If that pair can get back to playing at the level they did last season, the Jackets have a better shot of making it deep into the playoffs.  Don’t listen to rumors from out-of-town reporters that throw around Savard’s name.  It seems highly unlikely a team weak in depth on the right side is going to give up on Savard just because of some early-season woes.

The one regular defenseman I haven’t yet mentioned is Ryan Murray, who has spent the season paired with Nutivaara. As has been the case for most of Murray’s career, his role on that pair has been to be the “responsible defenseman” freeing up Nutivaara to roam in the offensive zone. He’s quietly excelled in this unheralded role, managing a positive Relative Corsi, but, more interestingly, the highest expected goals for percentage of any Blue Jackets defenseman.

The Jackets are blessed to have a seventh defenseman who is ready to take on a regular role. Gabriel Carlsson played for the Jackets during their playoff series against the Penguins and showed some promise playing a similar role to what Murray is currently playing.  And, while he still needs some work, Carlsson’s possession numbers aren’t bad in the limited minutes he’s been given.  The problem is that Carlsson won’t crack the lineup as long as the other six defenseman are on the roster and the AHL isn’t going to give Carlsson the development he needs at this stage, though it is a fine temporary solution to get him playing time.

Additionally, both Johnson and Murray will be free agents in the off-season. Murray is still a restricted free agent, but after taking a bridge deal on his last contract, he’ll be looking to get some real money this summer.  Meanwhile, the Jackets have another prospect in Vladislav Gavrikov who will be in Russia through the end of his current contract in the summer of 2019, but will then likely be looking to make the jump to the NHL.  With the Jackets re-signing Cam Atkinson and looking ahead to extending Werenski and potentially Sergei Bobrovsky in the summer of 2019, they may not be able to commit to Murray long-term.

Enter the Oilers and frequent trade rumor candidate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Nugent-Hopkins is having a great season from a production standpoint, despite finding his line mates changing with some frequency.  He’s on a pace to have his best season to date with 17 points including 8 goals through 21 games.  That’s roughly a 30-goal pace and nearly 70 points. On the flip side, his possession stats are not particularly stellar.  He has a negative Relative Corsi For Percentage and Relative Expected Goals For Percentage.  I do have to wonder how much of that is based on the line mates he is playing with to this point in the season.  He’s spent the most time out there with Milan Lucic (who has lost a step) and Ryan Strome.  At times they have had him out there with Lucic and Zack Kassian.  All of those players are negative possession players.  Kassian has only 3 points, all assists, to this point in the season.

With Leon Draisaitl counting $8.5 million against the cap and Connor McDavid’s new deal with a $12.5 million annual cap hit kicking in next year, it has been clear for a while that Nugent-Hopkins was the odd man out. Paying $6 million for your third line center or playing an $8.5 million center as a wing is not exactly the best use of resources when McDavid is already getting $12.5 million against the cap.  Using Nugent-Hopkins to land a defenseman to round out the top 4 and send Kris Russell down to anchor the bottom pair would be a wise move for the Oilers, but one they need to pull off sooner than later if they have any hope of making the playoffs this spring.  While I think there is a good argument that the deal should be one-for-one given Nugent-Hopkins’ $6 million cap hit, I think it is likely the Oilers want something more and that may be the hardest part for the Jackets.  I’d keep Sonny Milano or Boone Jenner in mind as a possible second piece in a deal.  Milano might fit the Oilers’ game plan better than he fits with Torts’ system.  Jenner is another possible cap casualty for the Jackets who is going to be coming off his bridge deal this summer.

While a deal makes sense for both sides and both sides seem to be investigating the possibility, that doesn’t mean it gets done. The Jackets hold the cards here in the respect that they are near the top of the standings and don’t need to make a move right now, particularly as long as Dubois and Panarin are playing well together.  If this deal doesn’t happen, there will be other options for the Jackets.  I’ll look at some of those options in my next column, barring a trade in the meantime.

State of the NHL: The Blue Jackets are Actually Good But Have Yet to Show They are Great

The Columbus Blue Jackets had their best start to a season after 10 games with their win a week ago, but they have yet to notch a quality win in the early season.  The Jackets’ losses have come against Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis.  Except for the Blackhawks, these teams all sit at the top of their respective divisions.  So, the Jackets can take some comfort knowing that the teams they have lost to are no slouches.

However, that is where the real issue lies for the Jackets.  In the past, being on a pace to have 113 points would have been enough, but management didn’t go out in the offseason and acquire Artemi Panarin to simply make another playoff appearance.  Nor did they attempt, in vain, to acquire Matt Duchene just to make another first round exit.  Management saw opportunity with the Capitals moving players because of cap issues and the Penguins losing some of their depth as a result of expansion and their own cap issues.

It looks like management was right.  The opportunity is certainly there for the Jackets to take over the Metropolitan Division.  Yet they currently sit in second place.  The team that has taken advantage of the opportunity presented by the Penguins early season struggles and the Capitals seeming decline, to this point, has been the New Jersey Devils. So, where do the Jackets fit in the pecking order of the NHL?

As a starting point, it should be pointed out there are good reasons to believe that the New Jersey Devils hot start is a mirage. For transparency, the stats you will see below are coming from Corsica.hockey, which is an excellent resource.   The Devils have a league-leading PDO of 103.77. That stat, as you may recall is the “luck stat” which takes team shooting percentage and adds it to team save percentage. An average PDO should be around 100 because basic math tells us that every shot on goal is either a goal or a save. So, a PDO of 103.77 is above the norm. There are teams that put up PDO’s above 100 and those teams are typically teams with excellent goaltenders—ex. Washington has finished recent seasons with a PDO above 100 and it isn’t too surprising when you consider who their goaltender is. It is also important to keep in mind that while PDO should typically be around 100 that there have been teams that have gone a whole season with an elevated PDO and there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between regular season PDO and playoff performance. So, the Devils could go on a magical run and win the Stanley Cup, but it isn’t likely when we start to look at other team stats. For one thing, it isn’t solid goaltending that is boosting the Devils, it is an elevated shooting percentage of near 10%. Nothing about the Devils’ lineup suggests to me this is sustainable. The Devils also don’t look good when we look at “possession” stats. They are in the bottom 5 in Corsi For Percentage and Fenwick For Percentage and rank 21st in Expected Goals For Percentage. (Sidenote: I find it interesting that Greg Wyshynski, devout Devils fan, hasn’t tackled the Devils early season luck with the same fervor he did when attempting to proclaim the Jackets weren’t for real a year ago. I’m sure it is just an oversight.)

So, what teams are good when we start to look at luck and compare it to performance? Interestingly, we get different results depending on what metric we choose to look at. So, it is important to understand what each metric measures. Corsi For Percentage divides the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots for a team versus the shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots against a team. Fenwick For Percentage is similar to Corsi, but excludes blocked shots with the argument being that blocked shots are generally not from high danger areas and/or are not true scoring chances and so they should not be factored into the calculation of a scoring chances stat. Expected Goals For Percentage gets far more complicated because it factors in things like shot distance, shot angle, shot type, etc., but for those of us who criticized Corsi for failing to account for these things (i.e. twenty shots from the point are not the same as twenty shots from just outside the crease), Expected Goals For Percentage is, arguably, one of the better metrics we have as to how much a given team is pressuring its opponent rather than being pressured by its opponent…assuming the math that goes into calculating the stat is correct because, again, this is a more complicated statistic that looks at various factors and the more variables that enter the equation, the more room for error. Also, it is important to keep in mind that I’m looking at these stats for teams playing 5-on-5. The low percentage for time on ice for special teams can result in statistical anomalies which are ultimately less important than how a team performs 5-on-5, which accounts for the bulk of their time on ice.

If we start by looking at Corsi For Percentage in the NHL, it is interesting to note that some of the teams at the top of the standings are in the middle range for Corsi For Percentage—Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are all clumped together between 13th and 17th. Indeed, some of the teams struggling the most at the moment are doing well in this traditional possession stat. Carolina, Edmonton and Montreal are your top 3 teams in Corsi For Percentage. Those teams are also near the top in Fenwick For Percentage, while St. Louis enters the top 10 at 8th (not surprising giving the high number of blocked shots St. Louis has), Pittsburgh is 12th, Los Angeles is 15th and Tampa is 18th.

Looking at Expected Goals For Percentage, we see Edmonton still on the top, St. Louis is 6th, Pittsburgh is 15th, Los Angeles is 18th, and Tampa is 19th. So, what is going on? Well, part of what is going on is luck. Just as with New Jersey, St. Louis, Tampa and L.A. all see PDO’s near or over 103. You can give L.A. a bit of a break when you factor in that L.A. has Jonathan Quick in goal. Do we really feel that’s the case in Tampa and St. Louis? Tampa’s shooting percentage is particularly troubling when you compare it to their Expected Goals For Percentage. It doesn’t seem that their shot quality is what is driving their team shooting percentage which is over 10%. Also keep in mind that we still have relatively small sample sizes and we may find that all of these teams are better possession teams than their stats would presently suggest.

You’ll notice I didn’t mention the Penguins above when talking about PDO. Why? Because it is something that should have teams in the NHL very worried. The Penguins may be an average possession team, but they have also underperformed…and still find themselves near the top of the Metropolitan. Their backup goaltending woes are well documented resulting in a sub .900 save percentage as a team. What has received less attention is their woeful 4.53% team shooting percentage. Does anyone believe that a team whose goaltending tandem is anchored by Matthew Murray will finish the season with a sub .900 save percentage? Does anyone believe a team that includes Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have a shooting percentage below 5% for the season? Highly unlikely in both cases, meaning that teams in the Metropolitan have to expect the Penguins will make a big push at some point.

So, where do the Blue Jackets sit? The Blue Jackets have the 4th highest Corsi For Percentage in the league, the 4th highest Fenwick For Percentage in the league and the 2nd highest Expected Goals For Percentage in the league. Is that luck? With a PDO of 101.15 and a two-time Vezina trophy winning goaltender, any luck accounting for this is nominal. They’ve done this while having a Power Play ranked 30th in the league and a Penalty Kill ranked 7th.

So, why do I still feel the Jackets aren’t great? Because of their failure to beat teams like St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Tampa and because of their repeated failures at putting in a full sixty minutes. The Jackets still haven’t beaten a quality opponent a month into the season. Each time they have had the chance they have either come out flat-footed or slowed up when they got a lead. This was most evident in the loss to the Blues.  The Jackets, after yet another slow start, found themselves down 2-0.  To that point in the game, they had given up a horrific 19 shots and had only registered 10 of their own.  As if a switch was turned on, the Jackets suddenly started dominating possession and registered 15 shots to 6 from the Blues in the remainder of the second period.  Lines that had not been clicking earlier suddenly produced shots.  Players who had been content to skate on the perimeter were getting into the slot and taking quality shots.  It became crystal clear that the Jackets had not been outplayed because the Blues possessed superior skill, but merely as a result of being outworked.

This is a consistent storyline from the early part of this season though it is often more apparent on the individual level or when looking at the power play.  I have gone over and over the struggles of Alexander Wennberg, who found himself on the top line largely by default.  Since being removed from the top line, Wennberg has suddenly found the ability to shoot that has so often escaped him, putting in 4 shots on goal in his first two games after being removed from the top line. The moribund power play has been more focused on getting Artemi Panarin a one-timer than simply crashing the net and creating scoring chances. Much was made of coach John Tortorella essentially playing three lines earlier in the week and the message it was sending to the fourth line, but I think the message was being sent just as much to the top three lines, who waited too late to put effort in against the St. Louis Blues. The game against Boston was the equivalent of a bag skate and the team was fortunate to get two points. While they finally came out strong, they nearly gave away the game by resting on their laurels, giving up three straight goals to allow the Bruins to take the game to overtime and, eventually, shootout. It is hard to complain about a 7-3 victory, but the Jackets performance against Florida was as troubling for the play in their own end early in the game as it was encouraging to see the likes of Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand continuing to show their potential.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that, while the Jackets are clearly very good, they will have to put in a full 60 minutes (or more) of effort to become a truly elite team and they have done so rarely to this point in the season, which explains why they have struggled against other successful teams. They cannot expect the Penguins to continue to struggle forever. If they are going to grab the opportunity to take the Metropolitan Division, they need to do it sooner rather than later and they will need to do it by beating not just the teams below them, but the other teams at the top of the standings. To do that, they are going to need to put in complete efforts night in and night out without taking periods or games off. How they do against Tampa this weekend will be another good test as to whether they can do that or whether they are merely a good team.

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.