February 23, 2012

Fantasizing About the Vermette Trade

I admit to being a fantasy sports geek. I have played Rotisserie baseball, the original "fantasy" sport, since 1989. I play fantasy football and even fantasy golf. It has led my wife to refer to my office at home, the nerve center of my fantasy sports operations, as Greg's Fantasy World. 

Fantasy football and fantasy golf are just "pick-up games" on the playground compared to Rotisserie baseball, or "Roto" as we call it. Roto is for only the geekiest of sports geeks. You have to bring your A game in the league of hard-core nut jobs I play in or you are doomed to insufferable shame and indignation. There's a decent amount of money at stake. But "it's not about the money," as my league-mates and I remind each other often. It's about your pride and your fanhood.

The League to Be Named Later . . . . trying to think of a decent league name since 1989. 

The rules in Roto have changed several times over the years, but perhaps the most significant rule that we adopted was the in-season salary cap. This rule was designed to prevent a team from going around and cherry-picking all the talent from the owners of the bad teams who, once their chances of a championship become slim to none, might be willing to give up their stud players for 6 packs of beer, tins of dip or assumption of gambling debts. Now with a salary cap  hanging over everyone's head (and the dire financial consequences that ensue should one even inadvertently cross the threshold) , team owners have to a) shrewdly manage their cap space and b) get creative when it comes to making trades.

Which brings me to yesterday's trade of Antoine Vermette. If I were playing fantasy hockey and I had the Blue Jackets team, and I was faced with rebuilding it from the ground up, I would start by unloading bloated multi-year contracts of underperforming players who still have some trade value. That is exactly what Howson (and/or Craig Patrick) did yesterday. It is essential. There is no way around it. Lots of people are saying that Howson got smoked in the deal. Lot's of people are upset that the Blue Jackets didn't get roster players in the deal. These people either don't play fantasy sports in a keeper league or they finish dead last every year.


It might only be fantasy sports, but the economics work the same way. In either world, real or fantasy, a team laden with high-priced players that are not performing up to expectations is destined to be the doormat of the league. The fact is that, with a salary cap involved, the game is about managing resources. When you are managing resources, unloading a burdensome contract can be just as big of a win as landing a young inexpensive player who is on the verge of breaking out. And when you are in dead last place, contracts that pay 29 year-old third-line centers big money for three more years are burdensome. They must be jettisoned. In fantasy sports, we call this "dumping." In real world sports, it is called "rebuilding". They are the same thing.

Prior to the Vermette trade, the Blue Jackets had the third highest payroll (just a shade under the cap) and the worst record in the league. Even in fantasy sports, this is not where you want to be. In fact, it is 180 degrees opposite of where you want to be. You want to be the Nashville Predators, 27th in the NHL in payroll with the 5th best record. That is when you have your league-mates swinging from your unmentionable body parts. That is when you gain the upper hand in the negotiations. That is when you start sniffing championships (not that I should know since, as my league-mates will gladly point out, I have never won an outright Roto championship).

The question is: how do you get to that place? Again, whether we're talking real or fantasy sports, the path to glory is much the same  You get there by doing your homework, by scouting. You get there by being  extremely careful when it comes time to signing contract extensions. You get there by having the flexibility to take flyers on guys that might have huge upside. And you get there by not being afraid to cut your losses on a bad contract. Remember, just like in real sports, the object in fantasy sports is to build the best team for the lowest total salary that you can, so that toward the end of the season you can trade some prospects for veteran rentals who will take you to the promised land of fame, small fortunes and Yoo-Hoo showers.

To a great many hockey fans in Columbus, what happened yesterday in the Vermette trade is akin to being the victim of a car-jacking. However, the trade makes perfect sense to me and to most anyone who has taken up the challenge of playing in a fantasy keeper league with a salary cap. And it is not going to make those disappointed fans feel any better, but the Vermette trade was just the first swing of the ax. Trimming a $3.75 million salary from a payroll that still tops $60 million is just a start. The Blue Jackets have many miles to go before they can sleep.

And now, as is quickly becoming the custom on this blog, here is your obligatory Youtube clip. Don't hate me for this one.


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