A Guide to Recognizing Your Mediocre GMs: Part 1 Joe Nieuwendyk

by Jacob Saltiel
Brian+Burke+Joe+Nieuwendyk+2009+NHL+Entry+q7kqbnRh368x

“Is that tie available for a 2nd round pick and a prospect?”
from zimbio.com

(This multi-part series isn’t about the Canadiens, but as a Habs fan, you might want to know which GM’s you want Bergevin to call up on the red, white, and blue trades telephone. What follows is a detailed analysis of recent trades by rival GMs)

The Once and Future Chump

It was sad to see the Atlanta Thrashers go.

Not because it makes Tom Glavine cry silently to himself in his roomful of baseball awards or because the Thrashers were, generally speaking, a free 2 points to any team willing to ice an entire lineup against them. No, when the Thrashers moved, the the 29 other GM’s in the league lost their ideal trade partner, Don Waddell.

The halcyon days of trading overpaid veterans or just a collection of low-ceiling prospects and deceptively mediocre draft picks for talent simply by dialing the ATL area code (404) over.

Take, for example, the following transactions from the twilight of Waddell’s reign:

1) Braydon Coburn, Philly’s top-3 defenceman, actually started in Atlanta. He was traded as a prospect straight-up for 2 years of an ancient Alexei Zhitnik. This was the only year the Thrashers organization made the playoffs, and Waddell thought this might help them out.

2) For that same playoff crawl, Waddell acquired 22 games of Keith Tkachuk for a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick spread out over 2 years to St Louis. Following that off-season when Tkachuk became a free agent, he promptly re-signed with the Blues for 3 more productive seasons.

Of course, after making these trades, the Thrashers were promptly swept in the 1st round.

3) Did you know that Waddell had Heatley and Hossa at one point in the organization’s history? Well, he lost both the way one loses their car keys in the wash.

Here’s a quick account of the complicated machinations that led to Patrice Cormier almost playing regularly for the Winnepeg Jets:

– Heatley traded straight-up almost 3 years of Hossa.

 -After it became clear that Hossa wouldn’t extend his contract, Waddell had to act again. Hossa was traded to Pittsburgh for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a 1st round pick (29th). Yes. The Colby Armstrong most recently seen limping off the ice at Flambeau Field.

4) But wait! Both Heatley and Hossa had a particularly talented linemate, first name Ilya. Tired of the mediocrity and wanting to win, Kovalchuk justifiably refused to extend his contract too. Waddell’s long search for equal value was confounded by the poorly kept secret of Kovalchuk’s exorbitating contract demands, but what followed is a masterpiece in getting hosed by the crafty Lou Lamoriello.

Atlanta swapped 2nd round picks with Jersey as part of the trade, so the return for one of the best offensive players of this generation of NHL’ers, was Bergfors, Oduya, Cormier, and a 1st round pick. Oduya was probably the best player in that haul, and the 1st is nice, but REALLY?! A solid 3rd defenceman, maybe a grinder out of Cormier, and a 1st round pick for Kovalchuk? Encore, Don, encore!

But those days are over. Or, were…

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

It’s a good thing Nieuwendyk found work in NHL upper management. Judging by the way he gambles with young prospects, if he weren’t a GM, he’d defaulting on his mortgage and appearing on EducAlcool ads between periods of Habs games thrice weekly. To keep him on the rails, Dallas upper management also includes Mark Recchi (reputed M.D.) and Bob Gainey. If you’re a Habs fan reading this, you’ll be familiar with the latter’s work. The fascinating thing about the Dallas organization right now is the stark difference in aptitude between drafting and managing players.

Consider that the Stars have recently found players like Benn, Neal, and Eriksson outside of the 1st round. Whoever they have watching the kids is good at their job. That’s where the good news ends if your a Dallas fan, since a quick survey of Nieuwendyk’s moves shows that these players may not be around as long as you think- if they aren’t already gone.

To beat a dead horse, trading Neal and Niskanen for Goligoski established that Nieuwendyk criminally underrates his own assets. Niskanen isn’t exactly a throw-in either, and even if Goligoski scores 30-40 points a season, it’s hard to justify giving away a power forward like Neal who was just entering restricted free agency without getting back a high pick in return. It’s not just the obvious mismatch in talent that makes this trade bad, but the subtleties of the CBA’s that seem to have escaped Nieuwendyk.

Trading away Brad Richards and his expiring contract at the deadline a couple of seasons ago might have returned a similarly talented young player. Nieuwendyk didn’t do that, opting instead to gamble that his team could make the playoffs as a low seed. Of course, the Stars went on to miss the playoffs and Richards escaped to New York in a clear violation of the sports management principle that one shouldn’t build a team to finish in 8th place, but to win it all.

And, well, if you’re going to set lofty standards for your organization such as “finish just outside of the top half of the league”, you shouldn’t, y’know, miss by 2 points.

***

The negotiation with Jamie Benn compounded this perception of Nieuwendyk’s lack of comprehension of the salary cap. With Benn refusing to sign a contract coming out of his entry level deal, Nieuwendyk managed to thread the needle between keeping Benn’s salary down- $5.25m/year when the player has no leverage isn’t exactly a bargain- and buying Benn’s expensive unrestricted free agency years. In fact, Nieuwendyk signed him exactly to when he’d hit the market (2917), meaning that unless Benn’s ability falls off a cliff, he’s going to get really pricey. In the simplest terms, Nieuwendyk failed to use his leverage over Benn to any effect. One imagines Benn’s agent hanging up the phone and saying “Really?”

Two other recent moves, Ryder and a 3rd for Cole and Steve Ott and Pardy for Derek Roy were at best moving sideways, at worst silly. Ott, a grinder who scores in the mid-30’s had value to any playoff team and it’s not implausible that most playoff teams would have wanted him last off-season. The return? Impending unrestricted free agent Roy, whose last two seasons were marred by injury or mediocrity. It’s not that Roy’s a bad player, but Ott was signed for more years and, as demonstrated yesterday, the Stars were forced to trade Roy away because of their iffy playoff status and fruitless contract negotiations. A 2nd round pick and 23 year old prospect Kevin Connauton isn’t a terrible return, but that he had to make this trade so soon shows a certain aptitude for painting oneself into a corner.

Bergevin’s gem of a trade with Nieuwendyk led to the Stars taking on the last 2+ years of Cole’s contract- after Cole surely played his best hockey of that deal last year. It’s hard to imagine Ryder being worth less had Nieuwendyk simply waited for the trade deadline to move the productive forward, let alone that Bergevin sampled a 3rd round pick in the deal.

So, when Jagr was dealt to Boston for a 2nd (possibly a 1st) pick and two prospects, it was time to roll the laugh track. Not because an expiring contract on Jagr wasn’t worth the conditional pick, but because Nieuwendyk called the two players he received in return prospects. Lane MacDiermid and the aptly named Cody Payne are goons who can’t really be considered prospects since, if they develop appropriately, they might play 7 minutes a night. In a league where, any year now, staged fighting, and hence the goon role, might be disappearing.

Hold The Line

Whichever hockey team you cheer for (not you, Stars fans), pay close attention the next time the words ‘Stars’ and ‘trade’ appear on your web browser/Sportscentre newsticker. Gamblin’ Joe might have just brilliantly solved a salary cap crunch or created an unstoppable line- for a rival team in your division in your division.

Until this effect becomes too obvious, let’s hope the media keeps confusing Nieuwendyk’s talent as a player and a manger. Perhaps some of this is unfair to Joe. Perhaps there are extenuating circumstances. Perhaps an internet leak revealed to many other GM’s in the league incriminating photos of Joe involving inflatable animals, mezcal, and individuals in clown get-up not named Mrs. Nieuwendyk. After all, Tijuana isn’t that far away. Perhaps not. Perhaps his reign is characterized by poor evaluation of the value of his own players and how the salary cap works.

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