“That’s some catch, that catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.– Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Last Saturday night I came home with a head full of ideas and very few answers. The Sabres had made a roster move, and despite my best efforts I couldn’t escape the manefestations of my irrational mind. Joe DiPenta was most likely a depth signing for Portland, that much was obvious. However I couldn’t get past the conclusion my rabid sports-fan brain was giving me: Darcy Regier is screwing with us.
Now of course that’s crazy. Darcy Regier doesn’t care what I think, blogger or not. He doesn’t read this site or any other like it, and he doesn’t have to. GMDR needs to do his job, and that is making roster decisions in order to field a competitive hockey team, both in Buffalo and Portland. Nothing more and nothing less.
And that’s entirely the problem. The offseason in sports is the chance for a general manager to shine. It’s when his extensive knowledge of the CBA, the market, and the talent pool combine with the monetary limitations of the franchise he works for to create an offseason agenda. Aside from the trade deadline in February, the period beginning with the NHL Draft and ending when the regular season begins is where general managers make their money.
With the advent of the salary cap, fans are beginning to pay attention to this period more and more. Being a hockey fan has become a year-round hobby, no matter how brief your team’s playoff run is. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, except for the fact that these offseason periods are becoming increasingly complicated as each season passes.
Bethlehem Shoals talked about something similar happening in the NBA last Friday, but a lot of what he says can be applied to the NHL as well. The rise of the salary cap and CBA has created two different “types” of fans: those that are deeply concerned about free agency and the cap, and those that “don’t care” or don’t focus on it.
The actual categories don’t really exist, but the illusion is there that it does. To understand the offseason fans need to have full knowledge of unrestricted free agency, entry level contracts, qualifying offers, restricted free agency, arbitration, the NHL Draft, prospect tournaments and the hierarchy of junior hockey, undrafted free agents, and rookie camp. To channel Crash Davis, we’re dealing with a lot of shit here.
For some that’s just too much work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, those that do invest themselves into the business of the NHL offseason only want to know more and more these days.
In fact one of the frustrating things about the Sabres is that they don’t want to disclose much information in the first place. There is a fundamental lack of understanding between the Sabres and their fans, one that stretches far beyond signing two particular UFA forwards a few years ago. The Sabres think they can control their message through a select number of information mediums, and that’s simply not the case. However, that’s a topic for another time altogether.
So when Joe DiPenta comes down the series of tubes, fans want to know what the terms of the deal are. Conventional thinking places DiPenta in Portland, but with the certifiable wasteland of news so far who could really say what DiPenta’s purpose was. His deal was indeed of the two-way variety, but you still need to go to other sources to obtain that information much later on. Of course teams never disclose the terms of a contract, but you have to wonder when we were going to hear from our GM about the issue.
It’s not a big deal, but when no news is bad news it is a big deal. The fundamental problem with the offseason is that fans approach it differently than general managers, despite the goal being the same. The reality of free agency is never the same as what a fan sees, and that difference simply cannot be rectified.
A general “want list” for a Sabres fan this summer looks something like this:
1) Puck moving defenseman
2) Trade away dead weight contracts, clear cap space
3) Resign RFAs
4) True #1 center
5) 5th or 6th defenseman
6) Gritty 4th liner
It’s a fairly long list, but this is a fairly flawed team. The front office promised big changes, and so that’s what fans have expected. There’s nothing wrong with that list, but the problem lies in how we want that list to be fulfilled. It’s human nature to expect that checklist be completed categorically, top to bottom. Get a big shot on the point first, then make some cap room, then work your way down.
Obviously, that’s not how it happens. The Sabres and GMDR went out on July 1 and took care of #5, and it was a solid move. But we haven’t seen 1-4 addressed since, and the longer time passes the more fans wonder if those needs will be ignored. So when guys like Matt Ellis and Joe DiPenta sign, we naturally look to peg them in the higher holes despite our better thinking.
Fans aren’t alone in this thinking, either. Whether wrong or not, it’s not much of a stretch to think of Steve Montador as replacing Jaro Spacek, despite that being the farthest from the truth. They are different players filling different roles, but the timing of Jaro’s loss and Montador’s acquisition inevitably brings that thought to mind.
The problem is something Shoals talks about as well. The offseason is a completely different animal for a fan to handle, and so it’s difficult to adapt. We’re used to a sequential, linear pattern of events: Play a game, win or lose, play another game. There is a cause and effect, a yin and yang to a season that fans of any sport understand. One game can’t begin until the first one ends.
But things like free agency are sprawling, confusing, and continuous. The process of finishing tasks can overlap, conflict, or never be apparant to the general public at all. In fact, that’s exactly the problem: fans are given very little information to work with, and so they draw their own conclusions. And after two seasons if little action, many are looking for results, and fast. So when those results take time, frustration turns to cynicism and anger. Then it turns to distrust.
And that’s how people can be completely unsatisfied by a good decision. Signing Joe DiPenta is a good deal. In fact, it’s the kind of deal that should have been made months ago, back when Nathan Gerbe was practicing on the blue line in Portland. The Pirates were decimated by defensive injuries last year, and DiPenta can provide some veteran presence on a young roster while providing an emergency callup for the Sabres.
That’s a good deal, and one that most fans wouldn’t argue with. However, a guy like DiPenta doesn’t even crack the top five as far as an offseason wish list is concerned. It’s the sort of move you want your GM to make a few weeks into August, after the big club is set and your playoff tickets have already been ordered.
It’s a ridiculous request, but admitting that is the first step, right?