Thursday, July 03, 2008

Controlling The Message

When George McPhee spoke to the media late Tuesday afternoon, many of the collected questioners were surprised at the substance of his discussion on his inability to re-sign incumbent netminder Cristobal Huet. Even more surprising, however, was just how candid GMGM was in that discussion.

"Huet’s agent, Stephen Bartlett didn’t want to get into the specifics of the negotiations with the Caps," blogged the WTimes' Corey Masisak, "But McPhee atypically was willing to oblige." And oblige he did:
He said the Caps started at the 3 years/$3.7 million and Huet’s camp started at 3 years/$5 million. McPhee said the Caps came up to $4.3 and then $4.6 and finally to $5 million per season, but Bartlett/Huet decided they wanted to test the market. McPhee said the team considered going above $5 million today, but the combination of that and the four-year term was too much.
It's not often that you hear any GM speak so openly about a failed negotiation, and it's especially rare to hear the notoriously tight-lipped GMGM do so.

So why did he in this case (and clearly this was not a heat of the moment decision as he has repeated the talking points to anyone who will listen)? To control the message.

When Olie Kolzig went on a local media tour to talk about how unfairly he was treated by the team that had paid him $42 million over a 15-year period, Caps management was relatively silent, favoring the high road to a war of words played out in the media. As a result, only one side of the story was heard and public reaction favored the player more than it might have, had all the facts been out in the open (and this wasn't the first time that the team's refusal to throw its full version of the facts into the public arena has caused some degree of consternation amongst portions of its fan base, perhaps legitimately and otherwise). [Note: I don't know any more than you do on these - I'm just assuming that the team has a different take than the parties leaving the organization.]

But all of that goes with the territory - blast players on their way out the door and see how quickly others line up to potentially be the next to go in front of the firing squad (really, Cory?).

The Huet situation, however, is different - in part because no matter how great he was for two months, no one's debating whether or not #38 should be raised to the Verizon Center rafters - and one that Caps management wanted to get out in front of for a couple of possible reasons.

To begin with, when you lose a player like Huet to free agency (especially when an agreement had been expected for more than a month), the immediate reaction is to assume that it was because the team didn't want to meet the player's monetary and/or term demands. This wasn't the case here, and a rejuvenated fan base and the rest of the hockey world needed to know that. Couple that with the announcement of the signing of the next best alternative and an explanation of why that deal made better sense for the team in both the long- and short-terms and no one can legitimately question the team's commitment to winning or its ability to attract free agents.

Secondly, the team probably wanted to expose Bartlett's questionable negotiating tactics to serve both as a bit of a public shaming and as a warning to the rest of the League. In a game full of codes and gentlemen, Bartlett's Lucy to GMGM's Charlie Brown routine will not be without repercussions.

The irony of the entire situation, of course, is that McPhee afforded Huet the opportunity to earn as much as twice what he might have had he finished out the season as Carey Price's backup, and this was the thanks he got. And this is how he dealt it - still on the high road, considering how it could have been handled. Well played, I say.

42 comments:

FAUX RUMORS said...

1) Good for GMGM to not allow Bartlett to 'play him' any further. Huet got his money of course, but the Caps didn't come out of this 'musical chairs' of goalies without anything to show for it.
2) In the end they may have been better off, only time will tell, but GMGM had to show for the sake of future negotiations that the Caps organization won't be 'played'.
3) Wasn't a huge GMGM fan before, but this coupled with his nice moves the last season or so may start to significantly alter that perception. No one can say he isn't doing his job well.

Paul Nichols said...

This whole episode shows Huet in a bad light, which it should. And it's good that GMGM let everyone know exactly what went on - because yeah, we'd all assume that the organization was maybe low-balling the guy.

Anonymous said...

Good post, JR. I have very much admired McPhee ever since he beat the crap out of Lorne Molleken in a Chicago hallway. (Now THAT was caring for your team in a get down and dirty personal way.) There are two very different audiences that he has to effectively spin this story out to -- Caps' fans and then the players and their lackeys. Not very easy to engineer a response that these two very disparate groups will understand in the way you want them to. (I sense some gentle guidance from Uncle Ted here, which is all to the good as well.)

Again, bravo George! Starting to resemble a sophisticated and successful organization, eh? Finally showing a little gumption and pride.

Anonymous said...

>>Note: I don't know any more than you do on these<<

Does anyone believe that? ;)

JP said...

@ DMG: I did a little research, and must say... lately GMGM has been living a semi-charmed kind of life, though one's got to wonder how's it gonna be when there's no one there to talk to.

Andi said...

@JP: You have now put that song in my head. Karma is a bitch, and one day you will pay for that. XD

@fauxrumors: 2) In the end they may have been better off, only time will tell, but GMGM had to show for the sake of future negotiations that the Caps organization won't be 'played'.

tapeleg, are you reading this? If you're not, read it. Then read it again.

Thanks for making this point, JP. The emo'ing is really getting old and it's time someone injected mature and logical discussion into the mix. Like Tic Tac Toe said, hockey fans are creatures of emotion, not logic, but a little applied logic now and then is good for the soul.

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JP said...

@ Mike: Agreed, and Detroit's in a unique situation - D.C. is a desirable FA destination now, but no one's taking the Detroit discount (but it sure is better than being Atlanta, ain't it?).

And there was no "listening" going on - just a check of their Wiki pages - though I do admit more than a passing familiarity with those songs.

Mike said...

JP, I take it your research consisted solely of listening to Third Eye Blind?

Anyone freaking out about the Huet/Theodore swaperoo seems to be in denial about our salary cap space. $8mil isn't much, but people want all our remaining RFAs back + Fedorov and these same folks keep asking for Orpik after he already re-upped with the Penguins. The only D UFA left spends half his time injured, i.e. not a solution for a team who just put Pothier on reserve.

GMGM was clearly trying to conserve space and wanted a 2 yr deal for a goalie, but was willing to go 3 yrs. Huet doesn't budge and then goes to 4 yrs and an extra 600k per year, which essentially equals an entry level contract or raise due for a 3rd/4th liner or 2nd/3rd pairing D-man each season of the deal. For a goalie who hasn't played a full season at starter (nearly the same risk as throwing Varlamov into the fire at 4 times the pay).

Until UFAs treat us like the Red Wings, this is the reality of finding success and the bill coming due on Semin and Backstrom, then Alzner the next year while swapping in prospects for guys like Kozlov, often simply to press the reset button and save yourself a couple million dollars to retain the next guy with one foot out the door.

Once folks realize you can't have everything is when they should applaud how the team has been built. A few more legit forward prospects would be nice and Varlamov challenging in one season, but we've got a TEAM and a great farm organization. Compare that to pre-lockout.

b.orr4 said...

Well said, JP, but let's not overlook the fine work being done behind the scenes by the Caps PR department and, in particular, Nate Ewell. I don't know this for a fact, but having spent a good portion of my life in the PR business, my guess is Nate has been advising George on how to get out in front of this mess. As you mentioned, McPhee is usually not this forthcoming and this is where a good PR guy earns his dough. In any case, kudos to the Caps for exposing Huet and his agent for the frauds they truly are. The downside is that everytime I watch that Florida game and see Huet waving to the crowd, I know that in the back of his mind he was counting the days until he could get out of town.

JP said...

BREAKING:

"ARLINGTON, Va. – The Washington Capitals have signed free agent center Keith Aucoin to a two-year contract, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. In keeping with club policy, financial terms of the deals were not disclosed.

"Aucoin, 29, split last season between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League (AHL). He played 38 games for both teams and tallied 13 points (5g-8a) for Carolina and 45 points (8g-37a) for Albany. Aucoin was with Carolina for the final 27 games of last season. The 5’9”, 187-pound Aucoin has played in 53 career NHL games, all with the Hurricanes, and has scored five goals, handed out 10 assists and notched 14 career penalty minutes."

JP said...

FWIW, Sportsnet.ca gives this rundown on Aucoin:

Assets: Has proven he can rack up impressive point totals at lower levels. Doesn't mind the physical game, despite his lack of size.

Flaws:His lack of size will always set up a road block in terms of playing regularly at the NHL level. Needs to work on his defensive-zone coverage.

Career potential: Reserve forward.

b.orr4 said...

Sounds like a Hershey signing and possible injury call-up. Otherwise, I can't figure it out.

JP said...

Definitely a Hershey/depth signing... and possibly signaling a trade on the horizon?

Anonymous said...

Or are they losing Laich or Gordon?

Mobsky said...

Ugh, for some reason when I saw Aucoin's name on the free agent list, I had a feeling we'd sign him.

DMG said...

@ DMG: I did a little research, and must say... lately GMGM has been living a semi-charmed kind of life, though one's got to wonder how's it gonna be when there's no one there to talk to.

JP, I have to say that made my morning. Well played, sir.

Joe said...

@amo

They can't lose Laich or Gordon. They are qualified. The decision on keeping them is completely up to the organization.

Christopher said...

JP,

Your posts since signing day have solidified your place as the premier Caps blogger. While all about you, others are losing their heads, your rational and well-reasoned posts have kept things in perspective. Excellent work.

Chris

JP said...

Thanks, Chris. That means a lot.

exwhaler said...

If Laich signs an offer sheet and the Capitals don't match, we'll lose him. If that offer sheet is over $2 million, the Caps definitely should lose him--he's a replaceable player, especially with Bourque and the other Gordon in Hershey.

JP said...

@ exwhaler: My position on Laich is you match anything up to that $2.6m cutoff (for compensation) and let him walk once you get there. Especially with Clark not yet skating, I don't think Laich is as easily replaced as others might think.

DMG said...

I can't imagine Laich will sign a deal for 2.6+. A first and a third round pick, plus that much money to a guy who had one solid season seems like an awful lot for a team to give commit.

jh said...

If you take the tack that Bartlett/Huet did the Caps some injustice, how many pieces were written about Michael Nylander's shady dealings when he turned around from an agreement with the Oilers to sign here? Or isn't it just the swing for the fences mentality that rules Canada Day on both the management side and player side? 30 teams throwing around money to whoever will listen makes for some strange, if not bitter, happenings.

GMGM did great by getting his next best option at terms he could live with. Most GMs would shrug their shoulders while explaining to their fan base that "they were robbed".

Ogre said...

I got semi-excited when I saw we signed Aucoin...and then I clicked the tracker on TSN.ca to find out it wasn't Adrian.

I hope he likes Chocolate.

Anonymous said...

Laich is important but if I'm McPhee I am devoting a bit of quality time to Morrisonn as well. What is Greener without Mo at his back?

Rage said...

I feel like all this JP praising is going to his head, so let me say this.

JP, you are decidedly mediocre. Everything you do is akin to warm soda; it's not bad but it's not good either. I've read better hockey coverage on postage stamps.

JP said...

Thanks for keeping me grounded in reality, Rage (and as long as you're referring to this stamp, I'm cool with everything you said).

exwhaler said...

>>>"If you take the tack that Bartlett/Huet did the Caps some injustice, how many pieces were written about Michael Nylander's shady dealings when he turned around from an agreement with the Oilers to sign here."<<<<

A ton of pieces, but that was because the situation was pretty unusual. Nylander apparently took less money to play for Washington; it was the player's decision to sign with DC, not the agent's (who sounded like a guy caught in the middle of a traffic accident); and it was reported that Nylander had signed with Oilers, not that he was going to sign, which caused some embarrassment for Edmonton. The whole thing was just wacky and had much more to do with where Nylander (and his wife) wanted to be rather than how big his paycheck was, as well as a possible communication problem between Nylander (who was in Sweden at the time) and his agent.

The Huet situation is a clear-cut situation of a player and agent wishing to get the biggest contract possible, no matter where he played. The Capitals completely met his demands after a month-long negotiation, only to have the player and agent then turn around and say, sorry, we want more. That's duplicity and it's considered pretty unethical in any kind of contract negotiations. Which is why you suddenly have a normally stoic GM detailing the entire process they just went through.

The other difference between the Nylander and Huet situations is the response of the GMs. Lowe cried foul and complained bitterly in the press, even going so far as to threaten to try to get the NHL to nullify Nylander's contract. McPhee simply explained what happened to Huet and why they felt acquiring Theodore was not only necessary but a better move for the Capitals. Although fans could walk away from that with a poor opinion of Huet, it's not like McPhee ran his former goalie's name through the mud. Which is why some fans walked away from that thinking McPhee waited too long to meet Huet's demands.

Josh said...

JP, When I first saw that we signed Theodore and not Huet, I started getting that feeling of dread. Then I started thinking that it really made sense in light of what Huet and his agent said and did. I knew coming to your blog, I'd get a level-headed, intelligent, accurate assesment and I really thank you for your great work.

Also, one the things that really pisses me off, is that Huet kept talking from the time he got here about wanting to be the Clear-cut number 1 goalie. GMGM gives him the deal he wants, and he signs with a team that has a starting goalie..unreal. I reallh hope the Bulin wall reverts back to his 2004 form and gives the Win-Now Hawks no choice but to play the better goalie. If they don't trade Nik, they could really be in for a tought time, and that my friend is some Karmic justice I'm looking forward to.

JP said...

@ exwhaler: Well put, though in fairness to Lowe, he thought he had a signed document, which is more than GMGM thought he had at any point. Basically, here's Nylander and Lowe.

@ Josh: Thanks, and I agree.

exwhaler said...

Oh...and Ted likes you, too. http://www.tedstake.com/?p=2465

Anonymous said...

I think we also forget that Johnson is still here. He played very well last year. I honestly think he is dependable starter if Jose falls flat. Lets just hope the loss of his partner Kolzig has not brought some bitterness to his dedication.

exwhaler said...

@jp--From what I remember (can't watch Youtube at work), Lowe thought he had a signed document but he didn't. He simply assumed he did because Nylander's agent faxed him that Nyls had agreed to the deal. He didn't have any legal document and he didn't have anything with the player's signature. To me, that's a botch job on his part (always, always have a legally binding document in hand before treating a player as signed), and his public raking of Nylander was an unprofessional attempt to deflect some criticism. Which shouldn't be surprising how he treated Pronger's wife when that player left.

JP said...

@ exwhaler: It's nice to be liked, but don't say that too loudly, lest Rage come back around and smack me down again.

@ anon: Not sure on Johnson as a #1, but if this was 2001-02 we'd have a sick goalie combo:

Jose Theodore: 30-24-10, 2.11, .931 (Hart, Vezina)
Brent Johnson: 34-20-4, 2.18, .902

JP said...

And you're right, exwhaler - Lowe was at totally at fault. Guess I meant his reaction was somewhat proportional to what he thought he had. Still overboard, though.

FAUX RUMORS said...

1) Speaking of Lowe: Find it amusing that Brian Burke, the guy who gave a washed up Todd Bertuzzi 8 million is blaming Lowe for the escalation of NHL salaries.

Andy said...

Can someone please explain to me how Detroit and New York (Rangers) can afford to make all of these signings with the salary caps, while the Caps are struggling to resign the Brooks Laitches of the world? How are those teams not over the cap?

Jeff said...

It looks to me like the Caps lost Huet because GMGM didn't just accept Bartlett's first offer, which was a very fair offer and one that I'm sure GMGM knew he would ultimately be comfortable with anyway. Instead, he decided to screw around and low-ball Huet, so Huet walked. The fault should be on GMGM, not Huet.

exwhaler said...

@Andy--Detroit actually has some cap space because they manage to convince some players to sign at a discount (see what happens when you win a few Stanley Cups?). Plus, Zetterberg is still on his first professional contract, which he signed in 2005. That deal ends next off-season, which is why they wanted Hossa for only one year.

The Rangers, on the otherhand, have a ton of guys going UFA--Jagr, Straka, Shanahan, Avery, Mara, and Malik.

exwhaler said...

@Jeff--except that McPhee did not get Huet's $5 million request until a month after his initial offer (which was more than a $1 million raise over what he was making with Montreal). After that the Caps made two fair offers based on Huet's career before agreeing to his terms. Then Huet suddenly changed the terms, using other teams to try to start a bidding war for his services. It was Huet who screwed around, and it was his choice. The fact is that the Capitals agreed to Huet's demands before free agency. I don't know a GM who will blindly grant any player their initial contract request, unless your name is Glen Sather.

Anonymous said...

Huet's agent is also Brian Rolston's agent. He pulled the same shit with the Wild. Bartlett sucks.