On Tuesday afternoon Canucks Assistant General Manager and "master negotiator" Laurence Gilman co-hosted the mid-day show on the Team 1040, alongside Matt Sekeres (listen to the first hour of the podcast here). Gilman and Sekeres talked about the difficulty of making trades when you’re up against the salary cap, they spoke about Shane Doan, and which Canucks uniforms are the most attractive (the flying V? Are you kidding me?).
More revealingly, Gilman gave us some insight into the way the Canucks recruit players, and how they negotiate extensions with their own players. Considering the undeniable quality of the management team’s contract work over the past four years, I think some of his comments are worth examining in further detail.
To begin with, Gilman was asked about the way the Canucks go about recruiting unrestricted free-agents, and Gilman agreed to discuss the topic with one major "caveat" (a quick note: all of what follows is a live transcription, so expect it to be slightly inexact):
There are some things that we do with respect to recruitment of players that we believe are proprietary, in respect to the other 29 teams. We’re on the troll for things that other teams are doing, we don’t think we have a lock on everything smart that teams are doing.
So the Canucks have a process – or a super-fast player agent speed dialing machine – or something, at least, that they consider proprietary. What sort of black magic is this?
Gilman went on to describe the process by which the Canucks have attempted to woo Shane Doan this summer:
"We brought Shane in, we had discussions with his representative, [Gilman then notes that this situation is unique because of Gilman and Doan’s long-standing personal relationship]. I articulated our position, explained why we thought Shane would be a good fit for us, and why we’d be a good fit for him. And we asked for the opportunity to meet with Shane face-to-face particularly to give Aquilini and Gillis the chance to tell him, and his wife, what we were all about."
"We spent several hours in the Canucks office, it was an opportunity for Francesco [Aqulini] and Mike [Gillis] to open their hearts and souls and convey what we’re about – what’s the soul of our organization. We did give them some literature, there was a presentation made to them about our team and our city. In terms of the structure of the deal and the financial component – you’d be surprised – but that actually takes care of itself."
How is that for humility? In his time with Vancouver, Gilman has negotiated below market deals for the likes of Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, two Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and a grinder named Alex Burrows. This summer it was Jason Garrison, who probably left a million dollar per season (or more) on the table when he signed with the Canucks. That took care of itself? Don’t tell that to Republican voters.
Let’s quickly digress, because Gilman also gave a quick update on the Shane Doan situation. Frankly, he didn’t sound like a guy who expected to win this particular free-agent derby:
"It’s very simple: Shane Doan – and I’m not saying anything that hasn’t come out of Shane’s mouth – his number one priority is to stay in Phoenix and play for the Coyotes. But that’s contingent on a couple of things. Number one that Greg Jamison – the potential buyer for the Coyotes – can finalize the deal, [and keep the team in Phoenix]… Second, it’s predicated on the premise that the Coyotes are going to be a competitive and viable team. As Shane said to us, he wants to attempt to win every single year.
As it sits now we have the cap space available, and we’re willing to be patient… (and it’s not like we have an alternative)."
Back to the insight Gilman offered on his negotiating strategy, becasue beyond pursuing free-agents, he also talked about the importance of keeping guys like the Sedin twins around on reasonable contracts. In particular, he was asked whether or not the team could ever bring in a player who made more than 6.1 million per season, or if the Canucks are – in a counter-intuitive way – handcuffed by the extraordinarily affordable contracts the Sedins signed back in 2009:
"We have a covenant with our players, we’re going to pay them the absolute most that we can, provided that we are going to spend to the cap every year. But there is a point in the continuum whereby for every dollar we pay them over a certain amount, inhibits our ability to surround them with players that will allow us to build a Stanley Cup contending team.
We have a structure in place, but you have to look at it on a case by case basis. Henrik is our captain, Henrik and Daniel have been our most accomplished players, so it does factor into our discussions, but we could bring a guy in and pay them more…
It did start with Henrik and Daniel Sedin… we had a plan and that plan had to do with collectively building this together with them. So there had to be "buy in" from our players. More credit has to go to Daniel and Henrik than anybody ever gives them, for being willing to play here for an amount that allowed us to do what we said we were going to do.
Once they’d done that it spoke such volumes about our plan… It was natural that players were going to fall in line. We make it very clear when we sit down with [our pending free agents]: "if it’s about the money, it’s okay, you have a short window to maximize your earning potential" but, "it won’t be here because it doesn’t work for us."
There are a few points we should make here. First of all, if we take Gilman at his word then two of the most important factors allowing the team to retain their players for below market value seem to be honesty, and the team’s recent history of consistently fielding a competitive team.
Consistently fielding a competitive team is obviously important because, guess what, no one is taking a pay cut to play for the Blue Jackets. Winning is about sacrifice, whether it’s sacrificing your counting stats for the good of the team (poor Manny Malhotra), or sacrificing some of the potential thickness of your wallet, so that your club is able to sign additional talent.
More interesting was Gilman’s description of levelling with pending free-agents about maximizing their earnings elsewhere, and how he portrayed the "trust" between organization and its player when it comes to taking less to play in Vancouver.
In fact, Gilman bristled at the language Sekeres used when he described the management team as having "sold" the Sedins on taking less money, and countered by using the word "covenant" to describe the process by which Vancouver’s management team has consistently convinced their players to leave cash on the table. "Covenant," implies that the trust and the expectation of honesty between the organization and its players on this front is sacred. Could this be a major a reason for why there have been so many Garrisons, Keslers, and Bieksas for every Christian Ehrhoff?
Of course, there is some revisionist history here, I think. When the Sedins re-upped on their current deals, they weren’t considered "super-elite" players in the same way they are today. They were clearly first-line talents, but the Art Ross trophies and the hundred point seasons – those came when the twins were well into their current, twin five year deals…
Still, hearing Gilman discuss how inefficient contracts "inhibit" a clubs ability to surround their core pieces with quality role players, and how the Canucks have avoided going down that road, is fascinating. The LA Kings built a championship team by, in the words of Gabe Desjardins, being "just a little bit efficient" everywhere on their roster. It’s a model that’s very much in line with what the Canucks management team has tried to accomplish during their time in Vancouver.
That Gillis, Gilman and co. have managed to get the majority of their roster to "buy in" on that plan, and accept the Canucks’ particular "covenant" is quite the accomplishment. It’s not a Stanley Cup, but it’s still nothing to sniff at. And certainly it didn’t "just take care of itself."