Loyalty to Team or Player?
The UFA rush is mostly over, and if you're the type of hardcore hockey fan that reads hockey blogs in late July, you know that means it's officially now RFA season. Sure, most of the guys who don't have a big track record to go on (Sheahan, Mrazek, etc.) have already taken what they could get and signed, but this is the time of year where RFAs with a track record of NHL production but limited negotiation leverage start to make the headlines. If you're a twitter aficionado, you know full well that as soon as a heated RFA negotiation threatens to go to arbitration, you immediately get two camps - one that is angry that the supposedly selfish player won't just quietly take what the team gives him, and one angry that the team is pinching pennies over a guy with a bright future.
The most noteworthy recent case is the saga of Ryan O'Reilly of the Colorado Avalanche. He's a bright young star who is already been one of the best players in the league for a couple years despite being younger than Gustav Nyquist. O'Reilly was famously signed as an RFA by the Flames for a 2x5M deal which was quickly matched by Colorado, and this offseason he naturally wanted a raise. It was recently settled in the midst of extremely tense negotiations causing Avalanche fans everywhere to develop some very strong feelings either way, some of them decrying O'Reilly's "selfish" behavior. This is honestly a little perplexing to me, and we're experiencing it a little bit with some fan angst over Tatar and DeKeyser not yet signing, so let's talk about this topic in a little more depth.
RFAs almost never get paid what they are worth. That's essentially by design, and it's a big part of why veteran UFAs get overpaid - there's just more money available to play with for UFAs. This isn't shocking, but it's something to keep in mind as you dive into this discussion. Imagine a world where you are working for a company and you are legally bound to work only for them. Even if there was a mechanism in place to make sure you didn't get ripped off too badly, you still wouldn't be paid nearly what you could get if several companies wanted you and you could negotiate with all of them. That would seem really unfair and is typically illegal in the US, but under the CBA it's the rules of being a player in the NHL. So what we know for sure is RFAs are dealing with a bit of a stacked deck to begin with, and they will almost always be paid less than what they would make if they were a UFA. This is a simple fact, and it's one to keep in mind when your favorite player gets into a tough RFA negotiation.
Whose side to take?
So this is where we're going to get controversial. I'll answer for myself. I am a Detroit Red Wings fan, and I always will be. I watched their '97 and '98 Cup wins as a fairly young kid, and I was obsessed with that team. Literally nobody from that team is currently in a Red Wings uniform anymore, and yet I'm still every bit as obsessed. I love Pavel Datsyuk, but I'll still go to games in a few years when he retires. At my heart, I am a fan of the team first and the players second - if Kronwall gets shipped off to Arizona tomorrow, I'm not going to buy a Coyotes jersey (if they even make those). So I'll admit there's a natural reason to side with the team in negotiations.
Despite this, I think one of the worst habits of fandom is the criticism fans lob on players for being "selfish" in RFA negotiations. Sometimes people do this much more subtly by saying the player has "a big ego" or "is just taking what he can get and will bolt as a UFA" or myriad other criticisms. The implication here is that the player in question is just in it for him, and doesn't have the best interests of your beloved team at heart. They're more interested in compensation than making you happy. To that I say... so what? Would you not do the same? They happen to make more money than most of us, but in the end they're still professionals - many of which are living far away from home just to advance their career at the highest possible level. Their performance pours billions of dollars into the pockets of owners - why shouldn't they get their cut? If you did something awesome for your company that resulted in millions of dollars of extra revenue, you would be demanding a raise, right?
Why do we hold RFAs to a standard that we would never hold ourselves in our workplace? Let's say you were awesome at your job, but you've only been there for 2 years. There's another guy there with the same job - he's not very good at it, but he's been with the company for 10 years. He makes twice as much as you, but you are more productive than him. You go to your boss and give him extensive evidence that you're more productive than the guy who has been there longer and deserve to be paid as such. He offers you a 5% raise, take it or leave it. Now, most of us in a hypothetical situation where we can get notably more money elsewhere would probably start looking to leave immediately, but an RFA doesn't even have that option. He literally has no option other than hold out or try to negotiate via the media. It's a rigged system, but it's a system the NHLPA agreed to, so RFAs get burned a bit so that UFAs can get paid.
I say all this because Wings fans are getting antsy over the fact that Tomas Tatar and Danny DeKeyser aren't signed yet. Given the fact that neither are yet star players and neither filed for arbitration, there's really nothing to fear. However, let's say it gets rough. Let's say the Wings lowball Tatar (who was excellent this season) or DeKeyser (who played big minutes all season), and one of them responds by holding out or making comments through the media that imply they aren't being offered fair value. Before you're tempted to turn on those guys, think about the hypocrisy of blasting a young professional who is just trying to get paid something approximating fair market value from an organization that is so profitable that it's in the middle of building an obscenely expensive shiny new arena. You would and should do the same if you could, especially if the average career length in your physically dangerous occupation was 5.5 years.
The key here is understanding that your loyalty to the team is not incompatible with siding with the player in contract negotiations. If Tomas Tatar is traded tomorrow, I will miss him, but I'll get over it pretty quickly, because all I care about is the players in the Winged Wheel. However, Tomas Tatar works his tail off every shift and was the best player on the ice in quite a few games this season, and if his negotiation with the team drags out a bit, I am firmly on his side. It's a fact that he is going to get underpaid relative to his actual value, so if he wants to get underpaid a little less badly than the Wings want, I will be on his side. He would easily get $4M/year or more on the UFA market and would be worth every penny, but he's probably going to get half that on this contract. If Tatar waits until training camp and vaguely hints at his displeasure in the media because the Wings are low-balling him, more power to him. As long as he eventually does sign, I can support his right to get screwed a little less than normal by the RFA process and still be more loyal to the team than the players. I think it's disappointing to see fans pile on players in his and DeKeyser's situation, and I'd like to see a little more balance out of fans. If we try to keep in mind that it's a young professional versus guys in suits, I think it'll help change our perspective a little bit on tricky RFA situations.
I'm really interested in the community's perspective on this topic, so please chime in with your opinions, agreements, and/or disagreements in the comments!