The Rest of the StoryPosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
Eric Belanger was one of four players acquired by the Capitals at the March 3 trade deadline of the 2009-10 NHL season. A veteran center with a consistent and steady résumé in the league, Belanger figured to draw the interest of clubs around the NHL as a pending unrestricted free agent. Days after the Caps’ early playoff exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, Belanger told an assemblage of reporters that his preference was to play in Washington in 2010-11. “I had my meeting with Bruce this morning,” said Belanger on April 30. “I told him I had some conversation with my agent. They’d like to have me back, and I’d like to come back. My priority No. 1 right now is to try to see if we can get something done before July 1. “I’ve talked to my agent, to say what my plan was, if I wanted to come back. And I told him I wanted to come back. And Bruce feels the same way, and I think the coaching staff feels the same way. They’d like to see if we can get something done for me to come back, and I’m pretty happy about that.” The very last question of that Belanger media scrum at Kettler came from former Caps beat reporter Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post. El-Bashir wanted to know the identity of Belanger’s agent. “Joe Tacopina,” replied Belanger. “It’s a new firm in New York. It’s Madison Avenue [Sports and Entertainment].” Yesterday, Belanger signed a one-year deal with the Phoenix Coyotes for $750,000. This came as a surprise to many after widespread reports last month that Belanger had a “one-year deal in waiting” with the Capitals. Obviously, that one-year deal – one that would have paid Belanger a reported $1.85 million for 2010-11 – never came to fruition. And with NHL training camps on the verge of opening, Belanger grabbed the Coyotes deal. In the wake of all this, Belanger and Tacopina have gone on a media blitz. Both men have been guests on Canadian sportstalk radio shows, and Tacopina has leaked the contents of a letter he wrote to Caps general manager George McPhee late last month. I spent some time this afternoon gathering some intel, and this is what I can tell you. Tacopina and Caps’ assistant general manager Don Fishman began discussions on a Belanger contract in June. No surprise there, as Belanger had stated his intention to get a deal done before he became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. One of the most fundamental parts of an agent’s job is to know the market and know how his client’s worth fits in with that market. Tacopina, who never spoke with McPhee at any point during the process, told Fishman that Belanger wanted a three- or four-year deal, minimum. The Caps countered with a two-year pact worth a total of $3 million. Remember, this was before Belanger was officially an unrestricted free agent, before he could negotiate with all 30 NHL clubs. The Caps were told that Belanger would not accept a two-year deal, that at his age (32), he was looking for his one big contract, the one that would set him up for his years beyond hockey. Belanger wanted term, and he wouldn’t take less than $2 million per season. As best as I can tell, Belanger is the lone NHL player on MASE’s client roster. So if Tacopina were able to get him that home run contract, I have to think it would look pretty good to potential clients. Washington politely declined and moved on. During the week of July 12, the Caps checked in with the Belanger camp to see what was going on. Tacopina said he had some irons in the fire, but nothing his client was ready to jump on. Washington wondered what kind of deal Belanger would take at this point. Told that Belanger would accept a one-year deal, the Caps inquired as to the dollars. Tacopina mentioned the $1.85 million figure. Washington said it could do that deal, but that it would need to move a contract in order to make it work internally. At that stage of the summer, the Caps still had a pending arbitration case with forward Tomas Fleischmann. Not knowing how much Fleischmann’s deal would be for the upcoming season – and whether they’d need to walk away from an unappetizing arbitration award – the Caps were unwilling to add salary and a contract without simultaneously taking a salary off the books. Washington also had another player on its off-season radar, namely defenseman Willie Mitchell. The Capitals were in on the Mitchell sweepstakes, but the veteran blueliner ultimately signed with Los Angeles on Aug. 25. A month passed, bringing us to mid-August. The Caps told Tacopina that things were really quiet on the trade front, and that if they had something else they wanted to do with another club, they shouldn’t wait. If Belanger had anything else on the table at that point, it probably wasn’t as lucrative as Washington’s offer. Tacopina told the Caps they’d wait. At that point, the Belanger camp opted to leak news of the “deal” to a Canadian media outlet. Which is rarely a good idea. If it was already hard for the Caps to make a deal, it certainly didn’t get any easier when the word got out that Washington reportedly had an agreement with Belanger, but couldn’t move forward without a corresponding subtraction from the roster and the balance sheet. McPhee called Belanger personally – one of several conversations he had with the player in the last two weeks – to tell him that since a trade was not in the offing, the Caps would not be able to move forward. The Caps GM did offer Belanger an invite to training camp, giving the center an opportunity to skate and stay in shape while waiting for a firm and acceptable contract offer from Washington or another club in the league. Obviously, Belanger would have preferred to make $1.85 million playing for a good team in a city he was a bit familiar with, and for a coach with whom he has a history. He and his agent chose the risk of waiting for the Caps to make a trade. The Caps did not make a deal. Belanger signed with Phoenix on Tuesday. Within hours, Washington offered the camp invite spot it had held for Belanger to Matt Hendricks. Centers Manny Malhotra (Vancouver), Olli Jokinen (Calgary), Saku Koivu (Anaheim), Matt Cullen (Minnesota) and Matthew Lombardi (Nashville) all signed on the first two days of free agency and all got paid handsomely. Thereafter, the bottom fell out of the market for pivots around the league. Rob Niedermayer got $1.15 million for one year on July 7. Dominic Moore got a two-year deal for a total of $2.2 million on July 30. Mike Modano got $1.25 million for one year on Aug. 3. John Madden got a million bucks for a year on Aug. 5. Doug Weight got $850,000 for a year on Aug. 31. Mike Comrie got a year at $500,000 on Sept. 3, and Jeff Halpern got a year at $600,000 on Sept. 7. The player agents I know would have been relentless in getting that deal signed in mid-July, and failing to do that, they would have found another deal out there. That would have been more productive than leaking information and letters, certainly as far as the long-term viability of the agency is concerned. The two-year deal Belanger turned down in June probably looks pretty good right now. Tacopina is making noise of a lawsuit (as I understand it, the collective bargaining agreement severely limits the ability of an agent to sue an NHL team) but from this perch he stands a greater chance of being sued by Belanger than he does of successfully suing the Caps.
Every July 1 dozens of NHL players gain unrestricted free-agent status. And every year those players are courted and coveted (or not, in some cases) by the 30 NHL clubs. Sometimes players have conversations ongoing with multiple clubs, and clubs are working on multiple scenarios involving multiple