So I was reading Thomas Drance’s piece on the Canucks over at Sportsnet the other day and I couldn’t help but play the video of Benning talking about the Gudbranson trade.
What really struck me was how he describe the trade coming together:
“…it came together fast…they called us…they asked us about Jared…they brought up Eric’s name…”
Now, if you’ve ever been involved in any kind of business negotiations, you might recognize this as somebody that took a very passive approach to making this deal. Florida clearly had the entire negotiation process mapped out. They decided how they wanted it to go, and pulled every trick in the negotiating book to make sure it did.
But listening to Benning talk, it suddenly became clear that the Panthers pulled off the perfect crime. Benning was had, and he didn’t even know it.
So let’s take a look at how you get away with plunder…
1. Understand your mark
When it comes to any negotiation, this is perhaps the second most important thing to really have a good grasp on. The first should be your absolute bottom line, what is sometimes called the BATNA or Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Identifying your BATNA is critical to ensuring that you don’t accept a deal that is worse than your best alternative.
Understanding BATNA is negotiating 101. To be a good negotiatior, you need to not only understand your BATNA but that of the opposing negotiator as well. But to be a great negotiator, you need to not only understand your opponent’s BATNA, but also what your opponent thinks their BATNA is.
Florida had just signed Gudbranson to a one year extension at $3.5 million. There were quite a few snickers in the analytics community when the deal was announced, as this was seen as a rather rich deal for a defenseman performing at a bottom pair level. And I say performing quite deliberately. The general perception might be that he is better than that, and he may have been deployed as more than that, but the fact remains that the results while he was on the ice were what you might expect from the 5/6 defensemen:
But the perception that he was more than that extended not only beyond the hockey pundits but also to Gudbranson and his agent. I mean, he was a third overall pick, after all. So Gudbranson wanted to be paid like a top 4, if not top pair, defenseman and he had, apparently, been looking for a long-term extension in the $5 million range.
Sure, there’s a chance he might develop further into that top four role, but his ceiling is middle pair at best. The Panthers, however, were confident they knew what they had and weren’t willing to overpay for it. So they kicked the can down the road a year, and signed him to a short term deal that was still very tradeable. They kept their options open. They didn’t degrade their asset.
But they knew they had move fast if they wanted to maximize that value. There were some big contract extensions on the horizon, and they needed to ensure that they weren’t seen to be in a difficult spot up against the cap and need to to make a trade.
They also knew that their best alternative to a negotiated agreement was to wait it out until next year’s trade deadline. That certainly wasn’t the preferred option, but it was the bottom line.
Vancouver’s BATNA in this case, was clearly to do nothing. They are, or at least should be, a team on the rebuild. They should be looking to maximize performance 2-3 years down the line. They should be developing their prospects and building through the draft. Heck, that’s exactly what both Trevor Linden and Jim Benning said they were going to do after the trade deadline.
But when Florida set their sights on Jared McCann, they also had some understanding of the psychology that might be driving the decision making in Vancouver. While Vancouver’s BATNA may have actually been to do nothing, that’s not where the front office was at. Here is a team and GM with a history of valuing certainty over potential. A team desperately looking to bolster their blue line. A team that had recently created a logjam at centre ice and looked poised to take another centre at the draft. A team, in short, that was undervaluing an asset.
Florida understood that, and thus set about luring their mark.
2. Set the trap
Now, there’s two ways to approach a trade in the NHL. You can cast a wide net, letting everybody know player X is available, and try to create a bidding war to drive up the price. Maybe you even send out an email to the infamous GM mailing list, announcing it. Or, you can take a more targeted approach.
Separate the weak from the herd.
Not unlike, say, a panther might do it.
And that’s what happened here. The Panthers clearly identified the Canucks as a team that would be interested in Gudbranson, and as a team that was apparently undervaluing assets that Florida was interested in.
So they made that call.
3. Dangle the bait
Now here’s another good negotiating strategy: don’t lay all your cards out on the table. You not only want to leave yourself some room to maneuver, but also make sure your counterpart has some room to move. Or at least feels like they do.
So if you’re the Panthers calling to inquire about McCann, you slow play it and sometime during the conversation you casually let it slip that Gudbranson might be available for the right price.
I can only imagine Weisbrod’s reaction on that call.
I’m sure the incredulous excitement on the other end of the phone was palpable even 4,500 km away, but at this point you wait. You’ve just answered their every prayer. From the Canucks’ perspective you’ve just brought a hard-nosed, tough-to-play against, future-captain-material, young defenseman into the conversation. Now, you need to let them come to you. Let them think this was all their idea.
4. Create a sense of urgency
But just because they think it’s all their idea, doesn’t mean they actually have control over the process.
On the contrary, you need to control the bounds of the discussion. Especially when it comes to the time constraints.
Research has shown that time pressure can influence the quality of decision making. Decisions made under time constraints become less objective and more influenced by intuition. And the really interesting finding is that even just the perception of not having enough time can influence the quality of the decision. So even if you have the same amount of time to make a decision, if you feel like you don’t have enough time, your decision is more likely to be less objective.
Again, the Panthers played this one perfectly.
They had the Canucks drooling over Gudbranson and let it be known that if there was a deal to be made, it had to be done now, now, now because other teams would be interested. I’m sure the idea of shopping him to the Oilers was brought up more than once. You could hear it the interviews after the trade that Benning was concerned they had to move fast to get a deal done. That was no accident. That as wall part of the well-crafted negotiation strategy.
5. Extract value
Once you’ve set up the deal and let your mark think it’s all their idea, and then short-circuited their cognitive defenses by cranking up the time pressure, you’ve won. The deal is going to get now, now you’re just haggling over price.
This is where you want to try and anchor the value of the transaction, preferably on both ends.
So you need to anchor the expectations on what it would take to let a heart and soul guy like Gudbranson go. After all, he was three overall and McCann was 24th. Clearly there will need to be another pick thrown in. Maybe even a second.
Never mind the contract status, or expansion draft eligibility. Stick to the element that highlights the difference in value on your terms, and keep dropping hints that reinforce the time pressure in order to head off any objective evaluation to enter into the decision-making process.
And if you’re really good at creating that sense of urgency, and cranking up the pressure, you might even convince somebody to drop 46(!!!) spots late in the draft, just to make it happen.
6. Know when to walk away
Finally, there comes a point in every negotiation where you’ve gone as far as you can and if you try to go any further, you risk scuttling the entire deal. Depending on the relationships and cultures at play, pressing for more and more can eventually come across as insulting or otherwise reach a tipping point where your counterpart starts to have a negative emotional reaction to the entire process.
It’s never a good idea to find the tipping point by tipping something as far as it will go.
So once you’ve surpassed what you consider a fair value, you have to know when to walk away with the spoils.
And sometimes, you have to know when to run:
* references to real life events in this post are for illustrative purposes only and definitely did not happen. Nope. Definitely not.