by Clark Groome
A couple of weeks ago, former Flyers’ winger Simon Gagne created something of a flap when he lashed out in print against his former team.
Now a free agent, Gagne was quoted in the French-language La Presse as saying, “All summer, the Philadelphia Flyers kept hinting that they wanted to offer me a new contract, and I even told my agent not to negotiate with other teams.”
The Flyers, in the meantime, decided that as much as they like Gagne, who played the first 10 years of his career and then returned at the end of last season after two years away, it was time to go in a different direction.
Clearly there was a communications breakdown. Maybe Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren had said something that gave Gagne the impression he’d be back. Maybe Gagne, widely viewed as one of the classiest players ever to play for the Orange and Black, heard what he wanted to hear.
Either way, the kerfuffle his remarks caused raise an interesting question: How does a team – when dealing with a popular, positive and loyal player – make the decision to re-sign him or not?
The Flyers aren’t the only local team to face this issue. The Phillies have two important parts of their history – Roy Halladay and Carlos Ruiz – becoming free agents after this season ends Sunday.
With Gagne’s remarks as the catalyst, I asked Phillies president David Montgomery how these situations are dealt with. He said, “Let’s talk about Chase Utley. We’ve done that contract.”
“He’s having a healthy year,” Montgomery said. “When Chase is healthy he’s a premiere player, so his stature as a player has gone up as opposed to the last two years when he wasn’t available for major portions of the season.”
Montgomery said Utley’s good health and his ability at second base were the two major, but not the only, reasons for his re-signing.
The other thing teams do when making a decision about a player is factor in the intangibles.
“In Utley’s case,” the Wyndmoor resident said, “His intangibles are he’s a special teammate. He’s a great influence in the clubhouse. We are making a transition to younger players. To have him set the example about how to play the game, you can’t have a better one.”
But that’s not all.
“And when the player, on top of that, expresses, as Chase did, that he wants to be one of those one-team players, that weighs heavily on your thinking.
“If he’s a popular player, one who can help generate more fan support, that also plays a part in it. Yes, liking Chase Utley as an individual is certainly part of it, [but] you have to have a justification that is stronger than just sentimentality.”
Clearly the decision about whether to re-sign a player is a complicated one.
“What often times the fans don’t see is the context in the decisions we make,” Montgomery said. “For example, one of the things we had to factor in [in thinking about re-signing Utley] was we have a pretty good second baseman coming through the system by the name of Cesar Hernandez. When you commit to Chase you’re making a decision about how quickly somebody else [moves up].”
He also said, “One of the real frustrations as somebody who works for a club or runs a club is when fans think they are more concerned about winning than we are. There is just no way. You’re living it. You’re dying it. It’s your identity. Every second of every day we are thinking about what we can do to improve the club.
“Sometimes fans just think we are too much about the business side. The business does well when you win.”
The last point Montgomery made was, “You can’t sit in this seat and think just about the short term or just about the long term. You have to think both.”
So what this says about Simon Gagne not being in a Flyers’ uniform is that Holmgren must feel that the leadership Gagne brought is available elsewhere and that the best hope for the team now and for the future is to give some of the younger players a shot. We’ll see if he’s right.
The Phillies have their own challenges ahead. Should Ruiz and Halladay be re-signed? Will they be?
What Montgomery made clear is that these decisions are made only after considering many different factors in determining what is best for the team. Only time will tell whether the decisions are the right ones.