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Gustavsson signing makes sense - but some deals are a disaster

Jonas Gustavsson re-signing with Toronto this week- at a modest price for a short two-year term - makes a lot of sense. He’s a young player with significant potential. The Leafs have kept him in the fold, but not at an outrageous price. Two years down the road, they can assess if he is worth making a more substantial offer to.

But some player – and coach - signings make precious little sense. Reading that a CFL team had just given their head coach a contract “extension” made me shake my head. The guy may be a great coach, I have no idea, but after one decent season they have to “extend him”? Where else is he going in the CFL that they need to extend his deal?

No one wants a so-called “lame duck” coach, it seems, but I wonder why. If he’s a proven winner, a truly brilliant coach, sure, sign him for a long time. But otherwise?

It happens too often in sports: a coach gets off to a good start, or has one good season, and all of a sudden the GM thinks they have to sign the guy to a new, extended, long-term deal. The Raptors did this with Sam Mitchell a few years back, and the next thing you knew, he was gone. They’re probably still paying him- and they still can’t make the playoffs.

Mitchell was a good coach, I’m sure, like a hundred other guys. But he wasn’t Red Auerbach (the Celtic coaching legend of my youth). And this happens a fair bit- a team gives a coach an extension after a winning streak, then the team’s fortunes plummet and they fire the same guy they rewarded not long before- and they still have to pay him, of course.

I wrote yesterday about the Edmonton Oilers and the young prospects they are building around. It’s a good thing that they at least have those young players, because some of their management decisions in recent years have proven to be dreadful. They gave Sheldon Souray, a one-dimensional player, a massive deal and now the same player is miserable and wants out. How do you trade an old, unhappy (again) guy making six million a year?

Shawn Horcoff had one good season in Edmonton and they immediately signed him to a huge long-term deal. Now they can’t move him, and they’re paying him millions for the next four years. Fernando Pisani, a pretty good NHL’er, had one great playoff season four years ago. They signed him for relative mega-money- all for a one-hit wonder who has since (partly due to health reasons, in fairness) largely lived off that short-term playoff success

Why do teams still do this?

In baseball, I remember a few years ago that Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran had great playoffs. They both commanded huge free-agent contracts. Neither has since come close to being the player they were in those playoffs.

There is always a pressure, of course, to keep good coaches and keep good players. We all understand that. But how often do we hear - especially hockey and basketball in the cap world - that teams want to get rid of “bad” contracts.

What are bad contracts? In short, signing players to massive, overly generous and unnecessarily long-term deals. Some players subsequently coast, then often end up unhappy and unproductive despite their huge salaries. But the contracts are guaranteed, and no one else wants them. 

Well, who gave them the bad contract in the first place? The same team that now needs to get rid of those under-achieving players.

That’s one of the reasons why the Gustavsson deal makes sense. Burke didn’t fall in love with him just because he came to the Leafs as an undrafted free-agent last summer. Burke made a reasonable offer and Gustavsson and his agent accepted this week.

It’s the same with Kulemin. I love how he developed, but as Burke has said, if he wants insane money to go to the KHL, he’s free to go. I think he’ll be a fine player, maybe a lot better than that. But after one season that showed promise, he’s not worth 5 million a year for 7 years or whatever.

More sports teams should show financial discipline. Draft well. Develop well. Support and train your players. Pay them fairly when the time is right. But if their demands become outrageous, bring up the next young guy who will appreciate the opportunity.

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