In his office 3,000 kilometres from Columbus, Don Maloney knows what Jarmo Kekalainen is thinking.
“I understand what they are going through,” the Coyotes GM said Tuesday.
Three years ago, a frustrated Maloney navigated his way through a stalemate with Kyle Turris, another Kurt Overhardt client. After a bitter estrangement and brief reconciliation, Arizona eventually traded Turris to Ottawa, ending the saga and allowing everyone to move on.
“It’s difficult, I empathize with them completely,” Maloney said. “Time is going to determine who is willing to give in to a degree…(Johansen’s) a good player. They like him, they want him, but they have fiscal responsibilities.”
Kekalainen unloaded on Overhardt and unsigned first-line centre Ryan Johansen in The Columbus Dispatch, saying, "When training camp starts, that’s it. After that, the focus is on the guys who are there on tryouts or guys who are under contract. That’s it. That will be the only focus."
"From their side, hopefully, this should be about Ryan Johansen and his future, his long-term future and his long-term future with the Blue Jackets," Kekalainen added. "This shouldn’t be about setting a new standard or about an agent breaking records."
Then, later Tuesday night, Columbus president of hockey operations John Davidson went even farther in an interview with The Dispatch and The Hockey News.
"It makes no sense," Davidson said. "When you see numbers that are thrown at us, we shouldn’t even respond. That’s how bad it is. It’s embarrassing. And if the kid sits out, he sits out. I wonder if the agent’s going to pay him his money back that he’s going to lose by sitting out…With the numbers they come back with…are so one-sided it’s nonsensical. It’s extortion is what it is."
"What’s interesting is people talk who really don’t know the CBA or just want to see something happen. They say, ‘We’ll just meet halfway. Give him $4 million or $4.5 million.’ That doesn’t make sense. You don’t just give him an extra million or two. A lot of people say it who are writers, broadcasters, fans…they don’t understand the process. They don’t understand the CBA. It’s sitting there. It’s a document. What are we supposed to do, give in when we have rights? Give in when they have rights? Just give in? It doesn’t make sense."
Reached earlier Tuesday, Overhardt refused to get into a war of words.
"The most important thing I can do is not react," he said. "This is not an emotional situation for me or my client. Ryan loves playing on Columbus. (He) is fully committed to the organization. We’re going to ignore the noise on the outside and focus on getting a deal done."
Sometimes, the toughest thing is deciphering code. Overhardt took pains to mention that three times in our conversation, and I think what he meant is that this is not the same situation as Turris’s.
The moment Turris refused to report to the Coyotes in 2011, there were rumours he’d asked to be traded. Overhardt confirmed that three weeks after the season began, saying the dispute was never about money. To Maloney, that is an important difference.
"Kyle was a high pick, he hadn’t had success. He wanted a fresh start, he needed a fresh start," Maloney said. Overhardt worked very hard behind the scenes to get an offer sheet for Turris, and, at one point, made accusations that the NHL’s ownership of the Coyotes prevented that from happening.
At this point, there is no indication Johansen wants the same thing.
The one thing I absolutely believe from Davidson is the Blue Jackets are not willing to meet in the middle of this divide. While their offer is $3.5 million per season on a short-term bridge deal, (approximately $3 million away from Overhardt’s last pitch), I don’t see them saying, ‘Let’s saw it off in the middle.’
I’ve thought their max was $4 million, but right now, who knows?
Both Davidson and Kekalainen took pains to point more blame at the agent than the player, but there’s no doubt they want Johansen to hear everything. At 22, this is new for him, and they know one of the fastest ways to end this is by having the centre say, "That’s enough."
I don’t despise agents (after all, I use one), but what this story continues to do is put Overhardt in the spotlight. He’s not among the biggest like CAA, Newport or Octagon, but he’s got a strong base.
In 2009, client Brandon Dubinsky missed one week of training camp in a contract dispute with the Rangers. Post-Turris, there was a staredown between Ryan Kesler and the Canucks, where Overhardt refused to give Vancouver many trade options. Columbus was annoyed last season at how long it took to get Kerby Rychel’s rookie deal done. Now there’s the Johansen situation.
It’s created hurt feelings.
"He represents himself as a guy who has the team’s interest at heart as much as the player’s, but it’s completely the opposite," one executive said. "I get that’s an agent’s job to maximize salary, but in the modern NHL, a player who wants to play on a winning team…there’s a certain amount of compromise that must occur. If you are truly trying for every (bleeping) nickel, you take away a team’s ability to get assets to make you win."
The Blue Jackets and Coyotes have done good business with other Overhardt clients. Two months ago, Columbus signed Dubinsky to a six-year extension. Eighteen months after L’Affaire Turris, Arizona held on to Mike Smith right before free agency.
"We worked through the dark hours of unknown ownership to get that done," Overhardt said.
Maloney, who did that deal, said he never considered avoiding this agent like some MLB teams do with noted hardliner Scott Boras.
"It can be very frustrating at times, but he’s doing what he has to do to protect his clients," the GM said.
Overhardt is unapologetic about the Kesler situation: "When a player bargains for a no-trade clause, they bargain for a no-trade. When people say, ‘Can you give us more teams?’ that’s not what you bargained for."
And he’s unafraid of taking the heat.
"I have a job to do for my client. I’m in the merit business. If you do good job, you retain your clients."
That includes taking less money than is available, on occasion. Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa confirmed a story that, in 2011, he ordered Overhardt to take less than he could have made elsewhere to re-sign with the Canucks.
Perhaps the funniest story that came up in research was told by former client Brendan Morrison, who played 934 NHL games.
In 1999, Morrison was negotiating his second contract with New Jersey and it wasn’t going well. He briefly went to the Czech Republic but came back because you have to clear waivers if you play overseas after puck drops on the NHL season. The Devils made it known they weren’t taking that risk.
When Morrison accepted his qualifying offer, he decided to tell Lou Lamoriello he wanted to be traded. He and Overhardt agreed it would be best if the player made the face-to-face request —alone.
"We thought if we wanted to make this real, I had to do it myself," Morrison said. "(Lamoriello) was saying, ‘Now that this is signed, let’s put it behind us, we’re family.’ I told him I didn’t know if New Jersey was the place for me…I don’t appreciate the way this was handled, move me if you can."
Then Morrison started to laugh.
"I thought he was going to eat me. Oh my God, the smoke coming out of his ears, and I was so nervous because asking for a trade was not like me at all…it worked out for everybody. I ended up getting moved. They got Alexander Mogilny and won a Stanley Cup. It was a good thing personally."
Fourteen years later, Overhardt and Lamoriello combined on the first maximum eight-year contract under the new CBA, with Travis Zajac.
As for the trade demand, "At the end of the day, it comes down to the player," Morrison said. "He’s the guy who has the final say."
So what is Johansen’s choice? Well, here’s the last thing Overhardt said:
"We are going to work to try and make this work."
Tuesday, that became a little harder.