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Vanek pt. 2: we're a hockey team, we're not here to please fans

So let me see if I’ve got this straight, John MacKinnon of the Edmonton Journal: on a week when Kevin Lowe is being beaten up by several hundred thousand hockey fans for taking Michael Nylander’s agent at his word and not waiting for a signed piece of paper, you’re now seriously suggesting that he should have just trusted that nice Darcy Regier when he was told over the phone that the Sabres would match any offer for Vanek?

Despite denials from Lowe on Friday, this looks like another attempt to convince an increasingly agitated fan base, and rival NHL teams, that the Oilers will be bold in their efforts to plug roster holes big enough to drive a convoy of Hummers through.

In the wake of an underwhelming foray into the unrestricted free-agent market (they did sign goalie Mathieu Garon), including the botched attempt to sign centre Michael Nylander, this offer caper smells like a “nothing-to-lose” gamble that the Oilers’ bundle of unspent free-agent mad money would finally do some productive talking.

But how bold is it to make a pricey play for a 43-goal scorer like Vanek when you know you won’t succeed? Which Lowe knew in this case, since he and Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier spoke Thursday night before the offer was submitted.

“I guess he didn’t believe me,” Regier said by telephone. “I gave him all the reasons why he shouldn’t do it and why it would be fruitless.”

Leaving aside MacKinnon’s touchingly naive faith in self-interested ass-covering statements by NHL general managers, Regier doesn’t explain why it is Lowe’s business, or any GM’s, to smooth the financial arrangements for a competitor. The fan cares about wins; wins are zero-sum, so front-office collusion, for better or worse, can’t possibly help everybody, and it doesn’t look very much like it has been helping the Edmonton Oilers. Ownership cares about keeping player salaries down, which is not a zero-sum game, and which is furthered by collusion. (As for ticket prices, you all know from Econ 101 that those are set by supply and demand independent of production costs, right?) This distinction between fan interests and owner interests, which ordinarily does not create open contradiction, is nonetheless inherent. Since the Journal is in fact an owner of the Oilers, its employees can perhaps scarcely be faulted for attacking Oiler management from the standpoint of an owner; but why pester the newspaper reader with an argument that almost explicitly has nothing to do with his own values and interests?


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Comments (5)

William Newman:

I seem to have a defective spectator-sports gene myself, so I could easily be wrong, but it looks to me as though fans don't just care about wins, they also like the impressive quality of play by ultratalented athletes who fanatically devote their lives to the sport. You write "the fan cares about wins; wins are zero-sum" as though the fans are indifferent to overall salaries. But is that so? What if you were to push salary caps enough to make the effect dramatic? In a world where total player salaries of each franchise were capped at $2M, would fans be equally happy as long as the winning proportions stayed the same?

Almost certainly not, assuming that much of the top talent would flee the league (I don't think fans care what the players are paid as long as they're the best players). Though I have to admit that when the Eskimos win the Grey Cup, the championship of a league which probably doesn't have any of the top 100 football players in the world, it makes me pretty goddamn happy.

I knew I couldn't be the only person to read "a world where total player salaries of each franchise were capped at $2M" with "the CFL"!

I think the general point still stands, which is that Lowe had to have a pretty good idea, even if Regier didn't tell him, that the Sabres would match.


Well, let's talk briefly about incentives. Suppose - and this is big supposition - that the Sabres were going to make any decision on whether or not to match based on a reasonable analysis of the costs and benefits of doing so. For example, if Darcy Regier was offered the choice of foregoing four first rounders for the right to pay Vanek fifteen million dollars per year for fifteen years, suppose he'd decide not to do it.

With that in mind, which of the following does Regier have the incentive to tell Lowe:
1. "Well, Kevin, if you throw enough money at our only remaining star forward, we'll let you have him. Just so you know."
2. "We will match any offer you extend, so don't even bother."

I'm still not sure Vanek was worth the four first rounders, but this "Regier told Lowe in advance that he'd match so Lowe shouldn't have bothered" line of argumentation is pretty dumb.


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