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Mike Smith's Blog: The ins and outs of building through free agency

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The start of the Stanley Cup final signals to the non-playing clubs “it’s time to get started on next season.” Managers have met with their players, staff as well as the scouts. Next season is here, now.

Managers have also met with their owners. How do those conversations go? They are partly about last year and, hopefully, more about how next year will be better. The secure GM will likely say: “We’re simply not good enough, yet.”

The less secure GM may say: “Our young players are not yet ready to carry the club.” This is said rather than the more truthful, “our young players are not good enough,” or “the coach won’t play the young guys.”

Oh, don’t forget the injury excuse: “Our players were injured at crucial times of the season,” will be floated.

Whatever the discussions, it is the time to make changes to next year’s roster.

Every team will make four or more roster changes between now and next Christmas. Some may make as many as eight or nine. Several players’ contracts will be up, “thankfully” and they’ll be released. Others will be traded. And some will just sort of fade away.

The new CBA has been successful in creating, while not in excess, a healthy supply of free agents. The growing number of “Powerball lottery” contracts for players entering restricted free agency for the first time results in older players, either free agents or those making too much money, being more readily available.

The art is to pick the right ones, the ones who want to play and play well, not just be paid well. All managers make judgment errors signing players; the good ones make fewer.

I have had different free agent signing experiences as a manager. While in Winnipeg, we did not place much, if any, emphasis on free agents. To put it simply, Winnipeg had no money to spend on the older free agent.

We depended on drafting well, getting our picks signed and trading. I believed we could bring European players to Winnipeg who were signed to entry level contracts lower than equivalent North American talent.

Teemu Selanne’s 76 goals as a rookie was a good example. But, it was a slow process doing it that way, a process the Winnipeg ownership soon abandoned after my departure. How did they abandon it? Trading Teemu Selanne was a good start.

My last stop was in Chicago. I am not able to go into details because of the confidentiality agreement I have with the Blackhawks. I’ll simply say that in 2001-02 we were quite active in the free agent market. It must have worked since the Hawks had 97 points and made the playoffs for the only time since 1996-97.

My most interesting free agent season took place in Toronto prior to the 1998-99 season. The Leafs had missed the playoffs the year before. Big changes were blowing in the wind. A new coaching staff was brought in. But what was needed were significant player changes.

We put together two plans. The first, Plan A, the one we thought was the right one was to sign one good forward and two top-level defensemen. The second, Plan B, was to sign one good forward and Curtis Joseph. If we signed Joseph then we would trade Felix Potvin. We fully expected Plan A would be achieved. Plan B was on the back burner.

There were several top defensemen available, among them Uwe Krupp, Dmitri Mironov and Jyrki Lumme. While negotiations were going on for the defensemen, Don Meehan, the agent for Curtis Joseph, called every morning beginning July 1, between 10 and 11 A.M. each and every day.

Meehan would repeat the same mantra daily: “Curtis wants to play in Toronto and he will not make a decision anywhere else until you decide whether you’ll sign him.” Each day my response was “we haven’t decided yet.”

The decision was being made, not by us, but by other clubs. I felt the contracts being signed by the defensemen were absurd. The money got up into the $4 million per year range; the term reached four and five years. These were enormous contracts for 1998; too pricey for us.

It is often funny where you make good decisions. I decided to sign Curtis on a Saturday afternoon (July 11) sitting in a bar drinking beer at a college reunion. Nothing special about it, really. Simply put, a day away from the scrutiny of everyone in Toronto made it clear that Plan B was better, made more sense and could be accomplished.

I looked forward to my Sunday morning call from Don Meehan. I got the call while driving near Kingston on the 401. After the daily pitch was made I replied “Yes, Don I’ve decided to sign Curtis. Can we talk tomorrow?” It was quiet for several seconds before he said “Yes Michael, I’ll call your office first thing in the morning.”

The top forward we signed was Steve Thomas. Gary Valk was signed at training camp. All three played crucial roles for the team. It also helped that Tomas Kaberle and Danny Markov unexpectedly made the team as rookies and performed like veterans. During the season, Potvin was traded for Bryan Berard.

The Leafs had a new team, one that made it to the Stanley Cup semifinals.

Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets and associate GM with the Maple Leafs. He also served as GM for Team USA at the '81, '94 and '95 IIHF World Championship. His Insider Blog will appear regularly only on


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