Sunday, 17 August 2014

UFA Kevin Hayes causes a minor stir in the dog days of August.

The reaction to the Kevin Hayes pursuit is hitting all the notes that the Justin Schultz situation did two years ago.  On one hand there are detractors who rightly point out that this player is not a guaranteed superstar, just a prospect, no better than a hundred or so NHL prospects already under contract, at least.  Plus, Mr. Hayes only had his one great season, his breakout year, last season as a college senior, playing against a lot of eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen.

What this narrative fails to point out is that those other, better prospects are already locked up by other teams, they were snapped up at the draft, and a lot of teams never had a shot at them.  Kevin Hayes is now an unrestricted free agent, who can sign with anyone, he'll be found money to the team that signs him, an 'asset' dropped in their lap.  It'll be like adding an extra first-rounder to an organization's prospect pool.

Further, this asset is close to matured.  Contrary to a Mike McCarron or Nikita Scherback, who'll need a few seasons of development in the lower levels, Kevin Hayes is 22 years old, fully grown, pretty much ready to go.  He may need some time to adapt to pro hockey by playing in the AHL, but it will be comparatively short.

Finally, adding Kevin Hayes is virtually risk-free, since he will have to sign an Entry-Level Contract, which is by necessity a two-way deal.  Its salary, its bonus structure, all are governed by the CBA, and if the player doesn't pan out, there will be no cap hit to speak of, he'll toil in the minors until the contract runs out.  The only cost to the team will be to spend one of its 50 contracts-limit slots on him.  Everyone agrees that's not much of a drawback at all.

We see this rationale every spring when undrafted college free agents hit the market.  This year, players like Christian Folin probably entertained offers from twenty teams of more, with the kicker that there was no real 'bidding' war, with the ELC's specifying most of the contract parameters.  Players were left to choose teams based on how they felt they would fit there, in terms of their chances of cracking the roster, geographic location, sytem, etc.  (The Canadiens did relatively well in this gold rush, snapping up Daniel Carr and David Makowski.)

I'm not sure when these undrafted college free agents first hit public consciousness, when they first garnered attention as opposed to being considered minor-league fodder, the dregs of pro hockey, but for me it was in the eighties, when the Red Wings made a big splash signing two of them the same season.  At the time the Red Wings were a pitiful team, they'd been at the bottom of the standings for years, and must have decided to try this avenue to improve.

They won the bidding war for Ray Staszak, a big, fast, high-scoring college player who reporters explained might be comparable to Bill Barber.  And at the time, there were no limits on contracts, no salary cap, but also no set entry-level deals, so there was in effect a true salary auction, and the Red Wings paid through the nose to sign him.  There was a lot of pressure on him to produce, since he was as a rookie earning more than most pros were at the time.  Unfortunately, he never developed as envisioned for them.

The other guy they signed, the next-best player available, was a two-way smart player named Adam Oates.  I remember thinking his name didn't really fit for a hockey player, it wasn't a cool hockey name like Ray Staszak, and so what if he's a passer.  Those guys are everywhere, you can get a Pierre Mondou anytime at the draft.  Sure enough though, this would be the guy who would justify his big rookie contract with the Wings and go on to even bigger and better things.

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