Over the break I read BALL FOUR, Jim Bouton’s famous tale of his 1969 season pitching for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros.
The book is famous because it was the first one to destroy the mystique of the professional athlete. We learned guys like to drink and curse and look at women.
The book is also interesting because it takes place before baseball players won a lot of their contractual victories, so a good portion of the players in the book are constantly playing for their next contract every year. It provides a tremendous incentive for them to perform well each year, too.
I say that because last night in Raleigh, New York Rangers coach John Tortorella took Erik Christensen, picked off of waivers from Anaheim, played sparingly in New York, and without a point on the season, and put him on the Rangers top line between Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky.
Christensen played 20 minutes, pretty much what he had played the previous two games combined, and finished with a goal and an assist.
Between periods, he told MSG his agent had told him guys like him are always playing for their next contract, so he knew he had to take advantage of this opportunity.
Now we don’t know how Christensen will finish the season. And for some reason, I doubt he’s the second coming of Joe Sakic. But it did make me think about the value of short-term contracts and how they keep players sharp and desperate. The Rangers recent struggles can pretty much be tied to a distinct lack of players who are neither sharp nor desperate.
There’s value to longer-term contracts, and if you look at the NHL point leaders you’ll definitely notice quite a few of those players are locked down for a while, but Christensen is showing a one-year contract can be a powerful motivator. Especially for a player who might be out of options if his current NHL team doesn’t re-sign him.
More NHL teams should leverage this desperation to get a better performance out of marginal players. When teams are out of options, why not throw a career fourth-liner onto the top line for a few games and see what happens? Even if it just works for a few games at a time, it’s cheaper than keeping an average player for five or six seasons. Plus, marginal players are much easier to send down when their value has expired. And, they’re easy to trade for another marginal player.
Also, how is Buffalo also playing Atlanta today? The NHL couldn’t schedule them off so the Winter Classic would have the day to itself? Or, as long as the Thrashers are in Buffalo, couldn’t they have also played that one outside? They could probably get a great sheet of ice going in about 40 minutes.