Ordinarily a man who has already been managing NHL teams for more than 30 years and is nearing the ripe old age of 70 doesn’t suddenly get smarter as time goes by. Often general managers and/or coaches are thought to have “lost touch” with how to perform their duties in the modernage about this time in their career. Yet after several years of making Ranger fans wonder if Sather had lost the golden touch he apparently had when building the Oilers dynasty of the 1980’s or that he simply never had it to begin with, Slats is suddenly making the type of shrewd moves that demonstrate he has learned from past missteps and is now back to being among the smartest GM’s in the league. His recent decision not to cave into the current market conditions and award MDZ a rich new contract as a RFA is the latest evidence that Sather gets it and other managers don’t.
Listen, I like MDZ as a player. I think he has the ability to be a very good top-four blue liner with the potential to annually reach the 50-point plateau. That doesn’t mean that he warrants at this time a contract on par with what other comparable young defensemen were awarded this summer.
The most recent example of a club overpaying a young defenseman is the Ducks extension with Cam Fowler. Fowler, drafted in the first round in 2010, has two seasons under his belt scoring 69 points in 158 games (0.44 points per game) and is a minus-53 for his career. Del Zotto, through 2+ seasons in the NHL, has 89 points in 204 NHL games (also averaging 0.44 points per contest) and is a career minus-5 thanks in large part to a stellar +/- rating of plus-20 this season. Fowler, despite not being eligible for restricted free agency for another year, received a five-year, $20MM contract extension on the eve of the lockout. Given that Del Zotto has a touch more leverage given his status as a restricted free agent and the fact his play in his own zone improved markedly last year and is ahead of Fowler’s at this point, a reasonable argument could be made that Del Zotto is worth more than what Fowler got.
With a healthy Marc Staal, a burgeoning star in McDonagh and an All-Star performer in Girardi all ahead of Del Zotto in the blue line pecking order but all making less than $4 million annually for the Blue Shirts, does it seem reasonable that MDZ should be paid more than those players? If Slats had signed Del Zotto to a deal similar to that of Fowler in terms of length and value then what should McDonagh expect a year from now when he is a RFA? No, Slats is wise to wait on a new deal for Del Zotto until a new CBA is executed.
One complaint GM’s have with the current system is that RFA’s are awarded quite generously in their so-called “second contracts.” For some reason GM’s have felt compelled to hand out very rich and very expensive contracts to their players just ahead of or as they reach restricted free agency. Considering the only leverage the RFA’s have is the threat of an offer sheet, it is mind-boggling that so many GM’s have relented and given out such rich contracts to players after just three years (or less) of NHL duty.
I don’t even consider offer sheets much of a threat. There are three facts we’ve learned about the success, or lack thereof, of submitting offer sheets to RFA’s. First, few have even been submitted under the recently expired CBA. Second, almost every offer sheet was matched. The one notable exception was Dustin Penner who agreed to leave the Ducks as an RFA.
In order to convince Penner to leave the sunny So Cal environment for Edmonton, the Oilers had to commit to pay an exorbitant annual salary to the big forward. Penner had one good season with the Oilers before they shipped him off to the Kings. To say Penner failed to live up to the expectations of his RFA deal would be a fair statement which leads me to number three: Offer sheets don’t work out well for the teams trying to poach a player. Between having to offer a salary in excess of the player’s value to lessen the chances the other team matches and having to forfeit draft picks as compensation there is little reward for the club offer sheeting the player.
Regardless of whether signing an RFA is smart or not, there is likely going to be a change in the new CBA regarding second contracts. In its initial proposal to the NHLPA the league expressed their desire to increase the length of entry level contracts from three to five years and consequently push the service time required for players to reach restricted free agency to five years. Clearly the owners don’t like having to pay big money to players coming off their entry level deals and are trying to do something about it.
Even if nothing changes with regards to service-time requirements for restricted free agents, the salary cap ceiling is definitely going to come down some once a new CBA is agreed to. That alone should serve to suppress the salaries of restricted free agents in future negotiations. Logic would seem to dictate that clubs will reserve more of their cap dollars for players that are closer to unrestricted free agency and will utilize the leverage they hold over RFA’s to hold those salaries down.
There are several reasons so many players agreed to fat extensions before the current CBA expired. Some took advantage of cash bonuses that will help them get by during what could be a lengthy lockout and which might be prohibited or at least limited in the new CBA. Others took big salaries now realizing there eventually could be a salary rollback or that a lower cap, a certainty when the parties agree to a new CBA, will hurt their chances to cash in on a deal like they signed before the lockout. Get while the getting is good is what they called it when I was a kid.
Getting back to utilizing the leverage GM’s hold over restricted free agents; does anyone do it better than Slats in the first place? It may stress the fans out but Sather has no qualms about waiting for the player and his representation to accept the figure he has established as their value even if it means a hold out. I’m sure we all remember the Dubinsky holdout a few years back. How’d that workout? Oh yeah, Dubinsky signed for about what Slats originally offered after Torts criticized Dubinsky for being absent from training camp.
Slats has also used arbitration to keep his RFA’s in line. Sean Avery’s feelings were hurt after the Rangers told the arbitrator that his actions on the ice were sometimes a detriment to the team. Do you remember who won that particular arbitration case? That’s right, the Rangers did.
A few years ago Nik Zherdev led the Rangers in scoring and went to arbitration with the club. He “won” his arbitration case but the Rangers exercised their right to walk away from the almost $4 million salary awarded to Zherdev. Nik went to the KHL, returned with the Flyers a year later but is now out of the NHL again. At the end of the day the Rangers got the best of another RFA.
It appears Sather has a grand plan in place and a component of that plan is to maintain a specific cost structure on his roster. He knows in a cap league you have to have a cost structure and adhere to it or face having to dismantle a talented roster as the Chicago Blackhawks did following their Cup win in 2010. Adhering to that structure means he won’t and should not give MDZ a higher annual salary than those of Staal and Girardi. That’s the bottom line. Sather will do whatever is necessary and legal under the new CBA to get MDZ to sign a deal which Slats views as fair for the club. And that is an example of smart management in today’s NHL.
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