Before writing about Daniel Alfredsson, I wanted to take some time to think about the most stunning move of 2013’s NHL Free-Agent Extravaganza. Spent some time re-listening to his Detroit conference call and re-watching Bryan Murray’s media gathering in Ottawa.
Here is the Alfredsson quote that stands out:
"I didn’t really see myself making a change, if you had asked me a week ago," he told reporters.
Murray himself called his former captain a perceptive person, someone he could talk to honestly about the team. And there is zero question Alfredsson is being honest when saying he wants to compete for the Stanley Cup.
He announced his return to a Swedish reporter on June 28. He informed the Senators about his decision to leave on July 4.
Between those dates, the Red Wings signed Jakub Kindl to a four-year extension, made Anthony Mantha the first of their draft picks and bought out Carlo Colaiacovo. Curtis Lazar led Ottawa’s draft charge before the team signed Nathan Lawson to a two-way contract.
No offence to any of them, but those moves did not change either team’s Vegas odds on winning it all in 2014.
So, what really happened here?
The answer comes in Murray’s explanation of the negotiation timeline. He met with agent JP Barry last Saturday in Manhattan. Here is the GM’s description:
"That was the one and only meeting where money was talked about. It was just a comment about what we could do and not do. One of the numbers that was at me, I said, ‘That’s not really the number we can go to, it’s not a fair number I don’t think.’"
That number is believed to be $6 million. Initially, it was a two-year request, although that would change. The Senators are believed to have offered a one-year contract in the $4 million zone.
Oh, man. You can totally see how things fell apart right then and there.
First, let’s look at it from Murray’s perspective:
There is no way he meant it as an insult; it’s probably the same way he’s negotiated for almost 30 years as a general manager. Undoubtedly, he’s thinking: "We are not a cap team. We’ve got an internal budget. If we do that, we’re in trouble."
Last summer, Alfredsson was entering the final season of a four-year deal that carried a cap hit of $4,875,000. It was one of those backdiving contracts that Commissioner Gary Bettman loved so much, with an actual cash value of $1 million for 2012-13.
An extension was discussed. The Senators resisted, and their reasoning was legit. Since it would qualify as an over-35 contract, it would not come off the cap unless there was some sort of long-term injury. There was the threat of another lockout, and whether restrictions would become more severe under a new CBA.
Alfredsson was unwilling to commit beyond that season, so the team decided to wait. No problem here. Understandable move.
Now, let’s look at it from Alfredsson’s point of view:
He always took less than market value. Always.
Late in the 2003-04 season, he signed a five-year extension with Ottawa worth more than $30 million. (With the 24 per cent rollback out of that lockout, his average would be $4,816,951.) At the time, Alfredsson was a member of the NHLPA’s Executive Committee.
Among the union, there was internal disappointment. His worth on the free-agent market was greater. There was grumbling that he did not "raise the bar." Scott Oake even asked Alfredsson about it for an old Hockey Night in Canada "Headliner" feature.
The captain didn’t care. He was content with his choice.
In the first three seasons of that contract, Alfredsson had 279 points. He had the ability to opt-out after the fourth one, but Ottawa stepped up and signed him to a another four-year extension worth $19.5 million. (It was technically a buyout, which added an extra $700,000 per year in cash to the first three years of the new deal.)
Even at 36, Alfredsson could still have made more on the open market. Over those two contracts, Senators who made more money (on an average annual salary basis) were Sergei Gonchar, Dany Heatley, Erik Karlsson (last season), Alex Kovalev, Wade Redden and Jason Spezza.
Clearly, Murray expected that trend to continue. Again, there is no way he meant it as an insult. I don’t know how this message was relayed to Alfredsson, who was probably dining at Sjömagasinet in Gothenburg at the time. (Look it up… fantastic restaurant.)
But, you can just imagine his reaction: "Daniel, they said your ‘ask’ was unfair."
Moments of regret
This is what I’ve learned about players taking less money in a cap system (and not just in hockey, but when I used to cover basketball): you cannot ever disrespect them for doing it because there will be moments when they regret it.
Sometimes it happens when you’re playing hard and think someone who makes more than you isn’t. Sometimes your peers will call you a sucker for doing it, while others say it angrily because they feel your value is a ceiling on theirs.
And sometimes, you feel the team takes advantage of you. When Alfredsson heard his ask was unfair after almost a decade of team-friendly cap hits, he probably powerbombed a Volvo.
The fact he ducked the Senators until saying goodbye is the tell. By that time, Eugene Melnyk’s "blank cheque" was too late. When you go into the Cone of Silence for that long, you’ve begun thinking.
No question the Senators’ initial refusal to consider his salary request made him look harder at the team’s internal cap. Boston and Detroit are big spenders. Think that was a factor?
Ask any free agent out there, once you begin thinking about other places — What’s it like in Boston? What’s it like in Detroit? — it becomes a runaway train. Look at Roberto Luongo. Once you’ve checked out mentally, it’s tough to return.
The Canucks are taking a beating right now, but one thing they knew they had to do was take care of Alex Burrows. In 2009, he took a big-time below-market deal. As they mapped out their future, they knew rewarding him was a priority.
The Penguins are stocked with players who take less money and make sure those bodies know how grateful the organization is. Watch what the Kings do to reward Dustin Brown, who has one of the team-friendliest deals in the NHL.
The Senators didn’t lack appreciation for Alfredsson. Go to ottawasenators.com and the first thing you see is a "Thank you" page, very classy considering the circumstances. But, it shows how careful you have to be. For just one moment, they slipped. It will never be the same.
After the Bobby Ryan trade, you can debate if the Senators or the Red Wings are the truer contender. But there is one thing you can’t debate: this should never have happened.