Defending Scott Gomez’s contract

Yes, the title of this post may seem silly, but I feel like it’s something that needs to be done.

JamesTeterenko photo, via Wikimedia Commons

Scott Gomez is overpaid now, but at the time, it was a good signing.

Before I continue, let me explain this. Scott Gomez is overpaid. Tremendously. I know it. You know it. My kids know it, and they haven’t even turned two years old and have no concept of numbers or money.

I’m just tired of everyone saying now how bad the deal was. Everyone short of Nostradamus thought the Rangers would be Cup contenders once Gomez agreed to play there. It was generally seen as a great signing, one that had New York Ranger fans excited, and New Jersey Devils fans loathing.

I hate people who now say “You know, I knew at the time it was a stupid move.” No you didn’t. You were in shock that the Rangers nabbed two of the biggest three free agents on the market at the time.

We can look at it now, and say it was bad. Many think Rangers general manager Glen Sather was stupid to give so much money to Gomez. They look back now and think “what was he thinking? Didn’t they know what they were getting?”

The Rangers did know who they were getting. But Gomez turned into a different player. But back in 2007, the signing made a lot of sense. Although some were skeptical, there were plenty of people who thought the Rangers got themselves a great player and a good deal. In 2007, the signing was totally defendable.

Remember, at the time he was a free agent, there were a lot of teams trying to sign him (rumours at the time had even the Habs making an offer). Gomez is judged based upon his contract (as he should be), but at the time, signing made more sense than it does in hindsight.

I thought now, five years after the deal and after a season where Gomez scored two goals and 14 points, would be a good time to re-visit why this deal made so much more sense back then.

It’s important to know some of the details that led up to the Rangers needing Gomez. They had lost a second-round series to the Buffalo Sabres where the Rangers were the better team, but had trouble scoring timely goals. The Rangers decided they wouldn’t sign their #1 centre, Michael Nylander, when Nylander wanted a four-year deal. New York officials thought it was too long for a 35-year-old. So they needed a #1 centre and a #2 centre (Brandon Dubinsky had only played six NHL games to this point, so there was some doubt if he could be a top-six player). There were only two centres available that were seen as being elite: Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, and the Rangers had enough cap space to sign both players, as well as re-sign Brendan Shanahan, Henrik Lundqvist and Sean Avery.

So, in honour of Gomez’s jersey, here are 11 reasons Scott Gomez deserved a $51.5 million, seven-year contract back in 2007.

(Note: Just for fun, I decided to look back at what newspapers, web sites and message boards were saying about Gomez at the time. Quotes from the articles can be found at the top of each point.)

1) He was in three cup finals in four years

The Rangers became big players on the opening day of the free-agent signing period because they believe they have an excellent chance to contend for the Stanley Cup next season.

New York Times

In Gomez’s first four years in the league, he played in three Stanley Cup finals.

Yes, that may be more indicative of the team he played with as opposed to his own skill at the beginning of his career, but it still showed him early on what it takes to be a winner. Experience doesn’t discriminate. What people do with that experience is another topic, but Gomez was quickly learning how long the road to the Stanley Cup actually is.

In total, Gomez played 72 playoff games in three of the first four years he was in the league (he was injured the other postseason). So by the time he was 23, he had played more playoff games than Saku Koivu has played in his 16-year career.

Andrei Markov has played 49 career playoff games, despite being with the Habs since 2002. Gomez was at 48 playoff games after two seasons.

Playoff experience counts. GMs want to sign guys who are winners. There’s a reason guys like Gary Roberts, Doug Gilmour, Chris Pronger, Brendan Shanahan, Hal Gill and countless others were hot commodities at the trade deadline.

It helps with the young guys when it comes time to battle in the playoffs. The leaders can calm a team down when the playoff action gets too intense. They know what it takes to win close games, even when their team is behind late.

It cannot be stressed enough how much playoff experience counts for teams wanting to make a run at the Stanley Cup. And Gomez had plenty of it.

JamesTeterenko photo, via Wikimedia Commons

Scott Gomez going the wrong way as part of the Rangers.

2) His playoff numbers the few years before the contract were great.

But even if NHL games don’t wind up on ESPN anytime soon, it won’t be long before Gomez and Drury are hogging time on SportsCenter with their ability to get the puck to the right person in the right place at the right time — or to score themselves. In Buffalo’s skate-and-gun offense, Drury posted career highs last season with 37 goals and 69 points. Gomez, meanwhile, tallied 13 goals and 60 points on a team that believes good D generates O; the Devils, still running a neutral-zone trap, had only one player with more than 25 goals last season.

Lindsay Berra, ESPN The Magazine

The last three playoff seasons Gomez was involved in looked like this:

  • 2004: Five games, six points (which led the team).
  • 2005: Lockout.
  • 2006: Nine games, nine points (his five goals were second on the team).
  • 2007: 11 games, 14 points (led the team, and his 10 assists were sixth in the playoffs that year).

The Rangers took one look at that, and fell in love. A point-per-game playoff guy? Leading the team in points two out of three years? Someone who also had the aforementioned playoff experience? All after a series where they had trouble scoring? How could fans not want someone like that playing for their team?

When you add it all up, it’s even more impressive. His points-per-game was 1.16 over those three years. Out of every NHL player who played at least 20 playoff games those three years, that mark put Gomez in third place. Ahead of Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza and countless others.

More importantly, those numbers were better than these guys: Danny Briere, Chris Drury, Ryan Smyth, Paul Kariya, Todd Bertuzzi, Robert Lang, Radek Bonk, Owen Nolan and Brendan Shanahan.

That second list were notable unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2007 (more on these guys later). Gomez was putting up better playoff numbers, had Stanley Cup experience, and was younger than all of them.

3) He was seen as a great playmaker.

He is a dynamic, speed-oriented puck carrier who tied for the NHL lead in assists in 2003-04 with 56.

Larry Brooks, New York Post

He may not have scored a lot, but he sure racked up a lot of assists.

In 03-04, he had 56 helpers, which was tops in the league.

From the 03-04 season to the 06-07 season, he had a total of 154 assists, which puts him at 12th in the league during that time.

He was supposed to be one of the Rangers top centres, someone who could feed the puck to Jaromir Jagr. That was going to be his role. The Jagr-Gomez lineup had Ranger fans salivating at what could be.

He wasn’t supposed to score goals, he was supposed to set them up.

4) He was good at faceoffs

Gomez, 27, appeared in 72 games with the New Jersey Devils this past season, registering 13 goals and 47 assists for 60 points, along with a plus-seven rating and 42 penalty minutes. He led the club with 15 multiple-point games, including two three-point efforts, and was tied for second on the team with 47 assists.

He also led the Devils in faceoff percentage (52.2%)… By collecting 60 points, Gomez surpassed the 50-point mark for the fifth time in six NHL seasons.

Hispanic Trending

Many may not realize this, but Scott Gomez used to be a pretty good faceoff guy. Even now, he’s a little unfairly maligned for his faceoff numbers, even though he’s posted better numbers than Tomas Plekanec since he was traded to the Habs (to be fair, his quality of competition is worse than Plekanec).

With the Devils, he shone in the faceoff circle.

In 2006-07, he had a 52.2% winning percentage, and took the 27th most faceoffs in the league.

In 2005-06, he had a 52.6% winning percentage, and took the 11th most faceoffs in the league.

Any way you look at it, those are pretty good numbers.

You win faceoffs (especially in the offensive zone), you get the puck, it leads to more scoring chances. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it bears mentioning. Get the puck more often, you give it to Jagr more often, you score more often. Sounds easy enough. But finding a top faceoff guy is not always easy, as the Habs can attest.

At the time he was becoming a free agent, Gomez was one of the better faceoff guys in the league. He took the bulk of the faceoffs on the Devils, and was expected to do the same on the Rangers.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Look! Proof that Gomez won a Stanley Cup!

5) His three seasons before the signing were pretty good.

There’s no doubt that Chris Drury and Scott Gomez are humongous assets and have played at a stellar level for their clubs.

Steve Soldwedel, New York Post

I touched upon this a little already with some of the other categories, but it deserves its own section.

Overall, Gomez was seen as one of the better hockey players in the league in the three seasons before he signed with the Rangers.

He could set up players. He could get points. He was great in the playoffs. He was a top faceoff guy.

He had seasons of 70, 84 and 60 points for a total of 214 points (23rd in the league during that span) and an average of 71.3 points per season.

All this, while playing on a defence-first team like the Devils, without any superstar forwards.

6) It was a chance to for the Rangers to say screw you to the Devils.

That said, I like the notion of Gomez setting up pretty much anyone. As much as people were knocking him for being low on goal scoring, he’s clearly a top-notch playmaker.

Calvin, First Responder on Rangerland

The two teams have a pretty good rivalry on the go. Enough of one that Sportsnet put out a story earlier this year highlighting five nasty moments in the Devils-Rangers rivalry.

The fans hate each other (it was even used in a Seinfeld episode once). The media play it up as much as possible. And the players have talked about the hate between the two teams (Marty Brodeur straight out said he hated the Rangers in his autobiography).

Stealing one of the other team’s best players is a good way to screw over another team.

If you’re doing it just for the sake of trying to hurt the other organization, you’ll just wind up hurting yourself. But if you can address your needs and get a good player, then screwing over the other guys is an added bonus.

7) He was making $5 million a season, so a pay raise was bound to happen.

There’s been all kinds of goofy ‘the sky is falling’ stories written in the past 12 hours as people parse all of the dollars spent on free agents, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly calamitous (or sinister, for that matter) about what’s happened thus far.

For one, a lot of it was predictable. Daniel Briere, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury getting around $7-million a year was hardly a surprise…

James Mirtle

Again, when you look at all the stats, he was seen as a pretty good player. Now, we know $7.3 million was too much. But considering how good his numbers looked at the time, and some of the intangibles he brought, we all knew he was going to get a pay raise. It was just a matter of how much.

He was seen as one of the most attractive players on the free agent market. Many teams were interested in him. I don’t know if that created a bidding war, or if Glen Sather just wanted to offer the most money to make sure he got the guy he was after, but at some point, Gomez was offered a contract that would see him making an obscene amount of money.

I don’t fault Gomez at all for signing that deal. If someone is stupid enough to offer you too much money, you take it and run.

One other thing to keep in mind is what other players were getting. Danny Briere had just signed an eight-year, $52 million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. That drove the price for Gomez higher than what it might have been.

8) He was still a decent age when he signed his deal.

I’d be surprised if Gomer isn’t a point-a-game player with the Rangers.

User JDevils3 on HFBoards in a thread asking how many points Gomez would get after signing with the Rangers. The average answer was 82.2 points.

Because this was so soon after the lockout, there still weren’t a lot of 27-year-old free agents out there. Most of them were in their 30s.

The Hockey News’ Yearbook for 2007 had Gomez on the cover with the headline “Rangers load up for run at the Cup.”

Many people believe that a hockey player’s prime years are when they are around 27 years old, and last until about 30.

Plus, with the new rules in place from the lockout, most free agents were expected to hit the market when they were 27.

It was a chance to sign guys to big deals not because of what they’ve done, but because of what they could possibly do.

Before the lockout, players were given big contracts after their career years, as a reward for what they have accomplished.

Now, players are given big contracts based on a combination of what they have done, and what they could do because of their younger age.

Gomez was one of the the first big free agents to hit the market at this age (Marc Savard was the first, a year earlier).

The consensus was he should still have a many more good years of hockey left.

No one could have saw that he would nosedive so quickly.

9) Didn’t miss a lot of games, was pretty healthy.

Gomez I think has a ton of talent, but hasn’t always got to showcase it. Some of that has been his own drawbacks, and some of that has been the Devils. I don’t think we have to worry about him only getting 50 points. I seem to recall he was injured last year at some point? Had an “eh” year and still did 60 points. With Jagr or Shanny, I think he’ll break at least 80 again.

User Levitate on HFBoards in a thread about who is better, Gomez or Marc Savard. About 67% of respondents said Gomez was a better player.

This isn’t a small reason. Too many times, teams overpay in free agency for a player who everyone knows can’t stay healthy (Tim Connolly with Toronto, Martin Havlat with Minnesota, or Paul Kariya with St. Louis). Fans love these guys can stay healthy, but they are always on the injured reserve list.

That wasn’t the case with Gomez. In seven seasons with the Devils, only once did he miss more than six games in a season. In those seven years, he played 548 games, which is 23rd best of any player during that time. The leader has 569 games. That’s an average of 78 games per season, which is great.

And to combine it with an earlier point, only one of the 22 players that played more games in those seven years had more assists, and that was Nicklas Lidstrom. This actually leads me into the next point.

10) It was a weak free agent class that year, and

11) it filled a need for the Rangers (a top centre)

Gomez and Drury Are Different:

What makes them different?  (1) as previously mentioned, these guys actually fill the needs of the team; (2) They’re significantly younger than previous free agents signed by the Rangers; (3) According to many sources, they actually want to play for NY and not just get paid by NY; and most importantly (4) these guys are not being asked to be the new face/identity of the team (we have that in Jagr, Shanahan and Lundqvist), these guys are being asked to get us over the hump- a perfect role for free agents to play.

The Hockey Rabbi

I’m going to combine these, as it will make it easier to follow the logic.

The Rangers needed a top centre. Michael Nylander, their best player at the position, wanted too long a contract. Scott Cullen and Blair Betts were not top six centremen, and no one knew what type of player Brandon Dubinsky would turn into. They did have Martin Straka, who had already talked about retirement, and would leave to play in Europe one year later.

So the Rangers had a big void to fill, and it was either going to be by trade or by free agency.

As mentioned before, these were the notable unrestricted free agent forwards in the summer of 2007: Danny Briere, Chris Drury, Ryan Smyth, Paul Kariya, Todd Bertuzzi, Robert Lang, Radek Bonk, Owen Nolan and Brendan Shanahan.

Gomez was putting up better regular season and playoff numbers, had Stanley Cup experience, and was younger than all of them. Plus, the majority of them aren’t centres, and definitely weren’t top-line centres.

Who were the better options at centre? A 37-year-old Robert Lang? Radek Bonk, who had scored 21 and 23 points in the two post-lockout seasons?

Of course not.

The Rangers made an effort to go after the top two centres that were available: Gomez and Chris Drury. And Sather somehow managed to get them both.

Remember, when there’s not a lot of great free agents, you need to overspend to get those that are out there (much like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Alexander Semin this summer).

At the time, many people loved the deal, and thought it was exactly what the Rangers needed to win a Cup.

Something to remember as well is the fact that Jagr’s main centreman from the previous season, Nylander, left the team. So the Rangers went into the offseason needing a second line centre, and when they decided not to re-sign Nylander, they needed a first line centre.

The top two available centres at the time were Gomez and Drury.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Gomez is overpaid for what he does now. His contract makes his play look a lot worse. He definitely had not earned his money since he signed on the dotted line half a decade ago.

Ultimately, you are judged upon how good you are in relation to your contract. A guy getting 50 points making $2 million is a great player, but a guy getting 50 points making $7 million is a bum.

But at times, we forget how good Gomez was, and the skills and the intangibles he had heading into free agency. It was a good signing at the time. It just didn’t work out the way people wanted.

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