Flame Retardant: You May Be Smarter Than Your Team’s GM

On February 28, Calgary Flames’ General Manager Jay Feaster made a huge splash in the hockey headlines by signing Colorado Avalanche holdout RFA center Ryan O’Reilly to an offer-sheet, giving the two-way pivot $10 million over two seasons.

Bubbles – Flames Advisor

On the surface, it was a hockey move meant to help Feaster’s club, a playoff bubble team at best struggling near the bottom of the conference standings, a team which has lacked a top-line center option for well over a decade. Upon closer inspection, it may turn out to be one of the most asinine personnel moves in the history of the National Hockey League.

Draft Pick Compensation

According to rules specified in the NHL collective bargaining agreement, Feaster’s offer sheet, if unmatched by Colorado, would cost the Flames a first and third round selection in the 2013 entry draft. This is problematic in and of itself in that the 2013 draft is considered to feature the strongest top 10 since the heralded draft of 2003. As is stands right now, the Flames would have a lottery selection in this draft with the chance to draft first overall and likely no later than sixth or seventh. For a team (let’s not kid ourselves) with virtually no chance of making a deep playoff run in the spring, the Flames need to build for the future. Their best bet is to rebuild, to trade extremely marketable aging stars like Miika Kiprusoff and Jay Bouwmeester and (especially) Jarome Iginla for a horde of young talent and draft picks and build for a sustainable future success.

Instead, Feaster decided to roll the dice and make a run for the seventh or eighth playoff spots over the next two seasons, still an unlikely goal to accomplish even with the addition of O’Reilly. Colorado’s leading scorer last season, O’Reilly is a very good two-way center, with the upside to top 60 points while playing very good defense. O’Reilly is the ideal second line center for a contending team, but seriously, he far from an impact player and Calgary is far from a contending team.

Yet Feaster and the Flames’ brass found it reasonable to mortgage the future to tread water now. It seems silly, but it is far from as catastrophically idiotic as it would have been had the Avalanche not decided to match Calgary’s offer on March 1.

Waiver Rules Would Have Cost Flames O’Reilly

It came out soon after Colorado matched the O’Reilly offer sheet that, due to O’Reilly’s play in the KHL during his holdout, that any team aside the Avalanche which signed the center would have to pass him through waivers in accordance with the rules of the NHL collective bargaining agreement.

In layman’s terms, Jay Feaster and the Flames would have first lost a likely lottery first round pick in a potentially star-studded draft, then a third round pick in addition in order to acquire O’Reilly. Then, the Flames would have to pass O’Reilly through waivers. Quite simply, there is no way in hell a player of O’Reilly’s pedigree would pass through waivers unclaimed.

Essentially, the Flames would have lost a lottery pick and third rounder for O’Reilly. Then they would have lost O’Reilly for nothing.

Let’s be honest, we all forget things or miss things at our jobs once in awhile. But overpaying for a player and then losing him for nothing? In professional sports general manager terms, this would be equivalent to a zookeeper forgetting to shut the cage door of the tiger exhibit.

Feaster Singlehandedly Turns Lose/Lose Scenario Into Lose/Lose/Lose Scenario

So, this is how it turns out: the Avalanche matched the Flames offer. O’Reilly was not signing with the Avs anytime soon, and you, the Flames, have given your divisional rival with equivalent talent, the Avalanche, their leading scorer from last year back.

The only argument for this not being an abominable decision is that the alternative would be giving up your first and third round picks next year for absolutely nothing. Is there any way imaginable that this cannot be arguably one of the biggest blunders in sports management history?

I suggest we change the hockey lexicon altogether. A bad trade for no reason can remain a Milbury, but a horrible signing should heretofore be known as a Feaster. We can also use it as a verb which practically applies to everyday life, as in: you really Feastered when you bought that car with no engine or wheels for $7,000 because you liked the paint-job.

Avalanche Screwed Up As Well, Just Not As Badly

Colorado GM Greg Sherman has a decent argument when he explains why he decided to match the Flames’ offer sheet for O’Reilly. Sherman wanted his 2011-12 scoring leader back and he certainly did not want to capitulate to the player-swiping tactics of a divisional rival.

Even so, the Avs are also not exactly contending for the Stanley Cup this year. With Calgary’s high draft pick as well as their own likely high pick in a strong draft, the Avs could have fortified their nucleus around budding stars Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene to quickly become a sustainable contender for years.

More importantly, Sherman should have also known the waiver rules attached to O’Reilly’s signing. Had he used Feaster’s mistake to his advantage, he would have had many options at his disposal.

  1. Blackmail the Flames: The Avs could have agreed to trade O’Reilly’s rights to the Flames, which would have precluded having to pass the center through waivers. The Flames would likely move a prospect or two Colorado’s way in order to avoid the humiliation of giving up so much for O’Reilly and then losing him for absolutely nothing.
  2. Watch the Flames go down in, well, flames: The Avs could have done nothing, and watched a division rival implode upon themselves. Down two draft picks and losing O’Reilly for nothing, their entire management would likely lose their jobs. This might lead to the jettisoning of current players, which would make the Flames worse, which would make their first round pick (now Colorado’s) even more valuable.
  3. Make a deal with Columbus to take O’Reilly off waivers and then trade with the Blue Jackets to re-acquire him: Oh, this would be genius. With the first waiver selection, Columbus would have the first shot at O’Reilly. If the Avs called Columbus and offered, say, their second rounder and a pair of third rounders, they would then have an additional high first round draft pick (Calgary’s) and their player back. This scenario would not only blow up the Flames front office, it would also be Karmically satisfying and funny as hell.

In Conclusion

We, the hockey fans and writers and pundits, like to think of NHL general managers as brilliant hockey minds. Some of them are. Lou Lamoriello, Ken Holland, Peter Chiarelli — many have sustained a great deal of success over a great deal of time and deserve our respect. And then there are the Mike Milburys of the world, trading Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha so he would have the right to draft Rick DiPietro over Marian Gaborik.

At the 2012 entry draft, Islanders’ GM Garth Snow reportedly offered all of his draft picks to Columbus for the right to move up two spots in the first round and select Ryan Murray, who as it turns out might not even be the second best player in that draft (I would argue Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk should’ve went second). This was unfathomably dumb.

More unfathomably dumb was the Blue Jackets’ rejecting the deal. With a pair early selections in every round of the draft, Columbus could have fortified their prospect pipeline for years in the future. As it turns out, Murray is likely to be a good defenseman in the NHL, but he is out for the season with injury and falling behind developmentally as defensemen like Jacob Trouba, selected ninth the same year by Winnipeg, pass him by.

Mistakes continue to occur at the highest levels of NHL offices, and then smart people like me point out the stupidity and then… oh, man. I think I just locked my keys in my car.