I quite like THN’s blogs. I don’t read any of their other content but the blogs are worth the price of admission. Mike Smith, former GM of the Jets, Hawks and Leafs and occasional commenter on Vic Ferrari’s site, has an interesting post up right now about free agency and how teams use it. His post included this note:
My last stop was in Chicago. I am not able to go into details because of the confidentiality agreement I have with the Blackhawks. I’ll simply say that in 2001-02 we were quite active in the free agent market. It must have worked since the Hawks had 97 points and made the playoffs for the only time since 1996-97.
This caught my eye because the 2001-02 Blackhawks are one of the more interesting teams I’m aware of in terms of beating their goal differential. The Hawks went 41-27-13-1 for 96 points. They scored 216 GF and allowed 207 GA. Generally speaking, it takes 5 or 6 GD to gain two points in the standings. A reasonable expectation for the Hawks would have been 85, plus 1 for the OTL. They beat that by 10 points. They had the key hallmark of a fluke team too in that they went 20-9-0-1 in one goal games, which was best in the NHL in terms of winning percentage.
What puzzles me even more is that I can’t tell who these free agents were that the Hawks went after successfully. I honestly can’t figure out who any of them might have been – they brought back virtually the same roster that they had the year before. About the only significant changes I saw was bringing Alexander Karpovtsev back from Russia – they traded for his rights the year before and claiming Phil Housley on waivers.
I find this interesting because every so often you hear about Mike Smith and his involvement with a company selling stats to NHL teams. He’ll frequently be quoted. Often, when I read what he has to say, I’m a little puzzled – it seems to me that he talks about the wrong stuff. As I recall, he’s really into clutch performance, a topic I’ve got serious doubts about. In any event, I find it a little amusing that he’s somewhat confused as to what he did that led to the Hawks’ playoff run of 2001-02.
There’s another interesting little note in Smith’s column, relating to Curtis Joseph. I’m sure most people remember the famous story about Don Meehan bumping into Ken Dryden in a convenience store and that leading to Cujo bolting for Toronto. Smith’s version of the story is a little different:
My most interesting free agent season took place in Toronto prior to the 1998-99 season. The Leafs had missed the playoffs the year before. Big changes were blowing in the wind. A new coaching staff was brought in. But what was needed were significant player changes.
We put together two plans. The first, Plan A, the one we thought was the right one was to sign one good forward and two top-level defensemen. The second, Plan B, was to sign one good forward and Curtis Joseph. If we signed Joseph then we would trade Felix Potvin. We fully expected Plan A would be achieved. Plan B was on the back burner.
There were several top defensemen available, among them Uwe Krupp, Dmitri Mironov and Jyrki Lumme. While negotiations were going on for the defensemen, Don Meehan, the agent for Curtis Joseph, called every morning beginning July 1, between 10 and 11 A.M. each and every day.
Meehan would repeat the same mantra daily: “Curtis wants to play in Toronto and he will not make a decision anywhere else until you decide whether you’ll sign him.” Each day my response was “we haven’t decided yet.”
The decision was being made, not by us, but by other clubs. I felt the contracts being signed by the defensemen were absurd. The money got up into the $4 million per year range; the term reached four and five years. These were enormous contracts for 1998; too pricey for us.
It is often funny where you make good decisions. I decided to sign Curtis on a Saturday afternoon (July 11) sitting in a bar drinking beer at a college reunion. Nothing special about it, really. Simply put, a day away from the scrutiny of everyone in Toronto made it clear that Plan B was better, made more sense and could be accomplished.
I looked forward to my Sunday morning call from Don Meehan. I got the call while driving near Kingston on the 401. After the daily pitch was made I replied “Yes, Don I’ve decided to sign Curtis. Can we talk tomorrow?” It was quiet for several seconds before he said “Yes Michael, I’ll call your office first thing in the morning.”
Funny. That’s more than a little different than the story that was being passed around at the time. Probably closer to the truth too, unless Meehan was also waiting at businesses in Ken Dryden’s neighborhood, hoping to “bump into him”.