We’ve all heard them. The old reliable hockey cliches.
“Grit”, “experience”, “leadership” “veteran”, “good in the room”, etcetera.
These, and others like them, are the buzzwords that permeate pro sports, the things we’ve always claimed champions are made of. Unlike goals, assists, and wins, however, we can’t exactly track and measure them. These are intangible qualities. Things that exist, but can’t be counted numerically. In contract negotiations, they can be used, but can’t be presented in a stats table or a pie chart.
And yet, these things bring value. And oftentimes, a price tag. Typically a large one, and typically for a player with their best days behind them. Experience usually walks hand-in-hand with age, and a proven track record that only time on ice and years as a pro can provide.
But is it worth it? Aside from reputation and rings, how do you put a price on something as priceless as “warrior mentality”? Can you say a “veteran presence” has more value than thirty goals a year?
Calgary Flames General Manager Brad Treliving seems to think so. After the Flames failed to qualify for the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, just a year removed from an appearance in the second round, Treliving seemed to be on a mission to help his young core. They lacked experience, and perhaps had yet to find their voice. Thus, the quest began for something else. A supplemental voice to the leadership group, a mentor for the younger stars. Someone with playoff experience, mental toughness, age and wisdom. It took a few tries, and as we’re about to explore, the jury is out on whether on not it has yet been a success... and the attempts haven’t been cheap along the way.
AGE: Signed at 31 years old
COST $4.5 million annually, bought out after two seasons in August of 2018. Will continue to be paid by Calgary $1.5 million a year through the 2021-22 season
TANGIBLES: 25 and 22 point campaigns in 74 and 76 games played in two seasons with Calgary
INTANGIBLES: Signed as a 31 year old, Brouwer was entering his ninth full season as a pro and coming off a playoff run with St. Louis where he recorded 13 points in 20 playoff contests. Brouwer also brought a ring, as a member of the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks championship squad. He was immediately granted an alternate captain’s “A” upon his arrival as a Flame and inserted into the leadership group. But playoff experience and and eight years of a pro career didn’t translate on Saddledome ice, as in two seasons with the club he recorded career lows of regular season production and was a non-factor in the 2017 playoff sweep against Anaheim. Brouwer was unceremoniously bought out of his contract, and continues to be on the books for the Flames this year and next.
AGE: Signed at 31 years old
COST: $5.75 million annually, traded in July of 2019 after one season with Calgary
TANGIBLES: 19 points in 63 games played
INTANGIBLES: After the failed attempt at grabbing veteran playoff experience failed with Brouwer, Brad Treliving quite fearlessly doubled down. He replaced a 31 year old Brouwer with a 31 year old James Neal, but granted him even more money and more term than Brouwer. Unlike his predecessor, Neal had never won a championship. and was joining his fourth team in six years as he was struggling to find a home in the NHL. For all the public outcry of the “Brouwerplay”, Neal actually averaged more powerplay time than Brouwer and did less with it, on-pace to underscore (and did) Brouwer’s numbers with Calgary. Rumblings of Neal being a negative voice in the dressing room only backed up his atrocious on-ice production, causing Treliving to cut Neal off after only half the time it took him to bail on Brouwer.
AGE: Signed at 31 yrs old, now 32
COST: $6 million annually, current contract extends through the 2022-23 season, with full no move clause and no trade clauses
TANGIBLES: Back to back 20 point seasons, including his final one in Edmonton and first with the Flames (79 GP EDM, 68 GP CGY)
INTANGIBLES: Treliving tripled down on the age and experience factor, replacing a 31 year old’s 31 year old replacement with a 31 year old. Already stuck with one costly buyout and hamstrung by Neal’s bad contract, the only move he could make was to swap it for another one: sending Neal up Highway 2 in a trade with the rival Edmonton Oilers for Milan Lucic. Locked into even more money and term than Neal, Lucic was coming off a tough year in Edmonton. However, Lucic brought a championship ring with him from the 2011 Boston Bruins squad, and a reputation of physicality and intimidation. Lucic is now in his second year with the team, and while he has produced on the same regular season pace Neal/Brouwer, unlike them he has backed up his playoff reputation. He notched 6 points in 10 playoff games along a five game point streak between the play-in and first rounds of the Return To Play Stanley Cup tournament.
AGE: Signed at 30 years old, now 31
COST: $4.5 million annually through 2023-24, with a no trade clause throughout.
TANGIBLES: While a defenseman’s production is harder to quantify than forwards, aside from a possibly overpaid contract, the knock on Tanev has been a history of injuries. Number Eight has never played a full 82 game season in NHL, and in fact in a span from 2017 to 2019, never played more than 55 games in a single season.
INTANGIBLES: Another signing north of 30 years and four million dollars, Tanev does bring experience, and an immediately publicized tough and competitive mentality:
"He's an exceptional defender, an exceptional penalty-killer. And the guy's a warrior. He's an ultra-competitive player."#Flames GM Brad Treliving talks about signing Chris Tanev and Louis Domingue last week. https://t.co/mgeHGLJvoM— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) October 13, 2020
Touted as a “voice in the room” for the Flames by Hockey Night In Canada’s Cassie Campbell-Pascall, Tanev racked up a career high eight shot blocks in his debut game with the Flames. In a small sample size, it seems like he has so far backed up the rep. Time will now tell us how this signing will shake out any better or worse than the other quests for intangibles.
Perhaps it shows a lack of faith in the team’s incumbent leadership group. Having only escaped the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs just once since 2015, it wouldn’t come as a shock for Treliving to have seen his core as unwilling or unable to motivate themselves over the hump. And if they couldn’t do it themselves, adding names to the roster with the experience and motivational voices might be the thing that would help them do it. The concept holds water, but it also holds a good percentage of the salary cap. None of these signings cost less than four million dollars a year, and in the case of the forwards, brought minimal offensive production. Of the four signings, two absolutely blew up in management’s face, but did not deter it. Making a full call on the other two at this point is a stretch, but what has become clear is that Brad Treliving knows what he wants to bolster his core with, and is not afraid of the cost to do so.
As much as these moves can be berated, we then have to ask where the money would be better spent? Higher regular season scorers that disappear in the playoffs? Paycheck players who refuse to engage physically or speak up in the dressing room? Or can we say it’s indeed worth a shot to chase the cliches?
Can you put a price on something, winning and experience and leadership, that is truly priceless?
Brad Treliving can, and has. Now we can only wait and see if the investment pays off with what may be the one truly quantifiable thing in the game:
Winning a championship.