Thursday, June 30, 2011

The free agency "sneak preview sale" hits Columbus

Tell me you've never seen one of these sales before, and that it doesn't
feel like the dance that Scott Howson is doing with James Wisniewski.
After Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson traded a 2012 7th-round draft pick to Montreal for the rights to defenseman James Wisniewski (turns into a 5th-rounder if Wiz signs with Columbus), we now have learned that Wiz and his agent came down to Columbus to meet with Howson and check out both the team and the town.

This whole process is somewhat odd - the trading of picks for the right to talk with a guy who's going to be an unrestricted free agent in a matter of days.  Good for Howson for keeping the downside low in case this doesn't work out.

Stepping back, though, doesn't this feel like the "preview sales" that you get emails for every now and then?  The ones where the store says, "50% off sale from Friday through Sunday, 'preview sale pricing' for our most special customers on Thursday"?  Well, it does to me...and it feels like Howson bought his way into the preview sale with Wiz.

That being said, I can only hope that he's smart about this.  Christian Ehrhoff has proven that the "preview sale" period can be a bust for the team if the player is hell-bent on testing the open market (read: see what Detroit is going to offer).  If I was in Howson's shoes (and there's probably more than one compelling reason that I'm not), here's how I'd handle the pre-UFA period negotiation with Wisniewski:
  1. Put a contract offer on the table that is just a hair higher than what he would expect to get on the market.  If Wiz's upper estimate is $5 million, for example, offer $5.25 million.  Point is, you're making it hard for him to walk away.
  2. Tell Wiz that the offer is only good until 5 minutes before the UFA period opens.  If he wants the sweetheart deal that you've already invested a draft pick in, don't allow him to even talk to other teams before making a decision on the CBJ offer.  You paid for that exclusive negotiating period, use it to your advantage.  
Wiz would be a terrific addition to the CBJ blue line,
and Howson ponied up for a chance to negotiate
with him before other teams could.
Of all people, the Detroit Lions' former president,  Matt Millen, used to employ a variation on this tactic with free agents who were in his sights.  Of course, Millen was a crappy judge of talent...but his negotiating style was worth considering.  He would bring UFA's into town on the first day that they could negotiate, give 'em the tour, take 'em to lunch and then pass the offer across the table.  The key was, that offer - generally at or above what they could reasonably expect from the marketplace - was only good as long as the UFA was in the building.  Walk out the door, and the offer is pulled.  You'd be amazed at how many UFA's bit on Millen's offer.  

It's a combination of softball (giving them a solid, perhaps slightly high offer) and hardball (forbidding them from using the offer as leverage in the marketplace).  The approach is a challenge for some general managers, especially those with few options and an unhealthy desire to land a specific player.  

The GM has to be willing to walk away from the player if they don't bite within the stated period.  Somehow, I can't see Brian Burke in Toronto pulling something like this with Brad Richards.  Howson, however, still has a few options with defensemen.  He also has demonstrated the ability to walk away from possible deals (again....and again....and again).  

The free agent signing period starts tomorrow, so we'll know what happens with Wiz sooner than later.  Let's hope Howson managed the "sneak preview sale" like the smart individual that he appears to be.

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