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NHL general managers love overpaying for so-called 'winners'

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If you're a so-called "winner" and about to hit the free agent market, there is a general manager somewhere out there who has a large check with your name on it.

Alex Trautwig

It is sometimes easy to look at contracts handed out in NHL free agency and point out the ones that teams are probably going to regret in a few years. It's even easier when the general manager who gives out the contract basically comes out and admits that he paid too much, for too long.

Not to continue to pile on the Washington Capitals when it comes to the Brooks Orpik contract -- because it's been done so much over the past two weeks -- but let's take a look at what first-year general manager Brian MacLellan said about the deal in the days after it was completed.

"I did not want to do the extra year and I did not want to go that high, but that’s what it took. There was another team bidding against me, and they went to five years. And it was the same thing when we did it in 2010 with Willie Mitchell. We did not go the extra years and we lost out on him, so at some point you gotta make that decision."

That explanation seems eerily similar to the words used by former Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero when he was discussing the four-year contract Rob Scuderi signed last summer. Like Orpik, Scuderi was a defensive-minded defenseman at the back end of his career, and the Penguins felt they absolutely had to have him back after letting him leave in free agency following the 2009 season. The goal was for him to solidify their defense and complement the sometimes high-risk play of Kris Letang. He ended up doing neither.

Here's what Shero said last July about the signing:

Q: Ray, was it mistake to let Rob Scuderi go?

Shero: Yes. It was a mistake to let Rob Scuderi go on my part. To have a chance to have a do over to bring Rob back is a thing I really wanted to do when he became available in free agency.

...

You always have some reservation on 34-year-old guys, 35-year-old guys, 36-year old guys. But we know Rob Scuderi. We know him. If I'm going to pass on Rob Scuderi because I'm worried about what he's going to be like when he's 38, I'm not going to get him."

The words are different, but the basic idea is pretty much the same, isn't it? They both felt they needed to correct a previous mistake. They both knew that even though they were going to pay their player more than they wanted to pay and for more years, this is the player they needed and this is what it was going to take to get him. So go get him no matter what it might mean for the future.

The Toronto Maple Leafs fell into the same trap with David Clarkson when they gave him a seven-year contract with the knowledge that a shorter offer would have resulted in him signing with a different team.

Sometimes it's OK to say "this is our best offer" and let the prize go somewhere else.

And you know what? There is a lesson here when it comes to the Penguins and Maple Leafs. Sometimes it's OK to not get your guy in free agency. Sometimes it's OK to say "this is our best offer" and let the prize go somewhere else.

This, more than anything, seems to be what gets teams in trouble when it comes to the free agent market.

There is a limited supply of talent at each position every summer. Teams get tunnel vision on their guy and feel the need do whatever it takes to get him. Cost be dammed. Worry about the future when the future comes.

If you're going after a player who you think is a legitimate superstar and a franchise player, it might be a different story. But those players are rarely available on the open market, and instead of getting into bidding wars for a top-line player who can help turn a franchise around on the ice, teams fight over second- and third-tier players.

Two years later, the winners end up with a contract that they're looking to dump, realizing it just wasn't worth it.

What can make it it even worse is when teams start paying top dollar for things that happen off of the ice or have little to do with the individual player themselves. Winners. Leaders. Players who can help change the culture or identify of a team. How many times over the past couple of years have you heard somebody attempt justify a free agent contract by citing their presence in the room or the fact that that they have been on some winning teams?

Just look at what the Florida Panthers did this offseason. They signed Shawn Thornton, a fourth-line enforcer whose hockey skills have rapidly declined, to a two-year contract with a seven-figure cap hit because he can bring "tremendous leadership and toughness to our team."

They gave Dave Bolland, a third-line center, more than $5 million per year for the next five years. One of the first things general manager Dale Tallon said about him is "he's a proven winner."

Bolland played for Chicago when Tallon was the general manager there several years back, so it could be argued that this is another case of a general manager going after a guy that he knows, trusts and feels that he absolutely has to have.

And it's true that Bolland is a "winner," at least in the sense that he's played on teams that have won Stanley Cups. But just because he played on a team that had Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, among many other quality players, doesn't mean he is going to bring some magical winning formula to a team that finished near the bottom of the NHL.

It doesn't mean he's worth $27.5 million over five years.

If he had spent the first six years of his career playing for the Calgary Flames instead of a roster full of All-Stars, would he still be viewed as a "winner"? Would he get that type of a contract in free agency if he didn't score that Stanley Cup-clinching goal in 2013, a contribution the Blackhawks valued so much that they traded him for two draft picks a week later?

Even the Maple Leafs, the team that seemed to be more enamored with Bolland's contribution than any other, was willing to draw a line in the sand and say, "you know what ... this guy just probably isn't worth that much to us."

When Capitals coach Barry Trotz talked about what Orpik is going to bring to the team, he said it's not going to be about goals or points, but attitude and winning culture.

It's not that leaders and having good guys in the locker room isn't important. That stuff does matter, and some players are better at it than others. And this is where there seems to be a culture clash in hockey when it comes to those who take a more analytical view of the game and the old-school types. Just because you can't quantify a player's off-ice contributions doesn't mean they don't exist or aren't important.

But like anything else, shouldn't a team at least try to put a dollar value on them? Shouldn't everything have a dollar value on it?

Building a team through free agency is almost always a losing proposition

It's a salary cap league, and teams can only spend so much money. Every dollar they do spend matters, and few players who hit the free agent market are so irreplaceable that there is no other similar option available for a better contract. And even if there is no comparable player, if nothing else there is always an opportunity cost at work here. Every extra million dollars you spend on a Dave Bolland or David Clarkson is one million fewer dollars you have to spend elsewhere on your roster.

Seven-figure cap hits for fourth-liners like Shawn Thornton or Tanner Glass (New York) or Colton Orr (Toronto) may be a little mistake on their own, but little mistakes can add up and can turn into big mistakes that cost you elsewhere on your roster.

Maybe a team like the Penguins could have kept a player like Jussi Jokinen, one of their top wingers from a season ago and one of the few who wasn't over the age of 35, if they didn't have so much money going to their defenseman -- a position where they actually have a great deal of depth -- who is no longer helping them.

Building a team through free agency is almost always a losing proposition, and if you know that the contract you're giving out is too much the day it happens, it's probably best to move on and go in a different direction. It's almost never worth it.