Thursday, July 21, 2011

Don vs. Dean: Could History Repeat?

News of Steven Stamkos' signing with the Tampa Bay Lighting effectively turned the stalled negotiations between Drew Doughty and the Kings into the NHL's biggest lightning rod of free agency controversy.

During the time when both Stamkos and Doughty remained unsigned, I was thinking a lot about the role of their mutual agency, Newport Sports, in having the negotiations go on as long as they did. After all, on the surface of things, these deals should be relatively painless to do. Both players are Top 5 draft picks with demonstrated talent in their first 3 pro seasons. Both players like their teams and they have long careers in front of them. And the GM's of both teams have been clear these guys are critical pieces of the development plans for their respective franchises. So why is this so hard?

Reason one: Money
This isn't about just the money the player makes, it's about the cut the agent gets. Money is the reminder that hockey is a business, and sometimes a nasty one at that. Anyone who thinks players are the sole drivers of financial demands in contract negotiations has never seen Jerry Maguire. This is a big payday opportunity for the agent as well as the player.

Reason two: 2012 CBA Negotiations
Rules around RFA contracts are expected to be a big topic of discussion in the next collective bargaining agreement between the NHL Players Association and the team owners. If a player does a deal too long at this stage of the game, he risks getting stuck with a contract that doesn't work as well under the new CBA. Likewise, the team risks giving away too much to soon when a new CBA might give them different negotiation options. No one knows at this point, so there is a risk either way, for both parties.

Reason three: Salary Cap
Both GM's have an obvious desire to keep reasonable contracts for their young players who, while gifted, still have plenty to learn from the NHL. Assuming both do continue their careers and continue improving at the same pace, the paycheck they get now is just the tip of the iceberg. Once they become unrestricted free agents, the dollars just go up more. The contract term also comes into play here because a GM has to predict future raises for the rest of the team, not just the player under consideration in this discussion. Giving away the farm to early in a player's career only ensures they're disappointed later with smaller salary increases.

So there a plenty of reason why this process isn't easy in the best of situations. But in the case of the Doughty negotiations, there is an X-factor -- the history between Don Meehan and Dean Lombardi.

According to The Los Angeles Times, Don Meehan teams with Mark Guy in representing Doughty, and it's Meehan who's done the most public gum-flapping about the status (or lack thereof) of negotiations with the Kings. Hockey is a small world and both these guys have been around the block a few times, so they are bound to have tangled before, right? The Queen did some digging, and sure enough they have.

When Dean Lombardi was general manager of the San Jose Sharks, star goalie Evgeni Nabokov, then a restricted free agent, held out on contract negotiations and missed the start of the season, along with several other key RFA's. It was the second time in Lombardi's tenure with the Sharks that he'd dealt with holdouts, but this one was a deal breaker. Eventually a 2 year deal was reached (San Jose wanted a longer one), but the damage was done and Lombardi was dismissed as San Jose GM.

If you're wondering who Nabokov's agent was -- it was none other than Don Meehan.

Given the history between these two men, could this scenario play out again in the Doughty negotiations? Logic says no for a couple of reasons. The Nabokov holdout occurred before the 2004 lockout year when the CBA was different and the player arguably had more negotiating power. Nabokov was also only 2 years away from UFA status (Doughty is not), which was a factor in the length of contract in that negotiation.

Then again, Dean Lombardi has frequently stated, to the press and at Kings fan events, that Doughty is our guy, if anyone comes after him with an offer sheet we'll match it, etc. So it's clear the Kings need Drew Doughty more than he needs us. He can afford to wait, and his agent has a past history showing he can too. Truth be told, the ball (and most importantly the leverage) is in Doughty's court. I have every confidence he still wants to play, but time is on his side, not the Kings.


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