Friday, July 22, 2011

On Wishful Thinking and the Need for Players to Buy In

Earlier this week, the biggest free agent of the 2011 offseason put pen to paper on a new NHL contract. Steve Stamkos signed a 5 year $37.5M deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning, which brings him in at a very friendly cap hit of $7.5M for a team operating with an internal salary cap. At only 21 years of age, Stamkos has already established himself as a premiere goal scorer in the NHL, having put up 51 and 45 goal seasons in the last two years respectively. Through 243 NHL games he has scored an impressive 119-113-232 and is now arguably one of the top 3 players in the league, yet with this new deal he won't be paid as such. In terms of the annual cap hit, Stamkos comes in at a tie for 7th in the league along side Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik. In fact, Stamkos accepted a deal that will pay him less than his teammate and captain Vincent Lecavalier, who has only scored 78-113-191 in the same 3 years that Stamkos has been around. Clearly Stamkos has bought into the fact that in a salary cap system, for teams to be competitive, top players need to share the wealth. This is something that the Oilers will need to recognize in the coming years as this rebuild comes to fruition, and especially IF their top prospects do indeed develop into top players as fans in Oil Country are all hoping they will.

Stamkos is of course not the first NHL superstar to take less than market value in a new contract for the good of the team. The Detroit Red Wings have instilled this philosophy into their players for years and have thus been able to ice highly competitive rosters year after year. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and arguably Nicklas Lidstrom as well, are all playing under cap friendly contracts in order to allow Ken Holland to maintain a certain level of talent throughout the rest of the roster. In Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby could have easily demanded the maximum salary allowed under the current CBA during his negotiations in 2007, but instead opted to accept a lower number to help build a Championship winning team. Crosby accepting his reduced deal made it easier for the Penguins to re-sign Evgeni Malkin the next year as well. In Vancouver, the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler are all playing for less than their numbers warrant and that certainly helped in adding significant pieces to the team that just played in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Whether Oilers management will be able to impart this "team first" culture onto their players remains to be seen, but it will be tested in the coming year. On July 1st 2012 two important pieces to this rebuild in Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth are set to become unrestricted free agents. These two players are currently putting a combined $10.32M dent in the salary cap, and while one will very likely accept a home town discount on a new deal, the other is due for a raise. When Ryan Smyth requested a trade back to the Oilers he made it abundantly clear that his intentions were to play in Edmonton beyond his current contract, and that desire coupled with Smyth's age and recent production will likely see his cap hit come down from the $6.25M it currently sits at. With Hemsky the future is not as clear. He recently indicated that he was happy with the direction the team was headed in and that he may not be all that interested in testing the open market. If this is the case and Hemsky does re-sign it will be interesting to see where his new deal comes in. If Hemsky does buy in to this philosophy, he'll need to accept a deal that won't handicap the Oilers and their ability to re-sign Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi the following summer. In recent history the the first overall draft pick has received a significant raise in their second NHL contract, with 4 of the last 5 (Stamkos, Kane, Crosby, Ovechkin) signing large deals with an average annual cap hit of $8.0M, the one exception is Erik Johnson who's cap hit actually dropped after his entry level deal. If this trend continues, which it likely will when John Tavares re-signs with the Islanders, it can be expected that Taylor Hall would also see a good raise in pay with his next contract.

The Oilers have been building a roster of young players with a lot of skill over the past few years, but with high skill comes the potential for high salaries. While top end talent is certainly important, there are many other pieces that go into building a winning franchise, and Oilers management will need to maintain the flexibility to be able to add those pieces when the time is right. If this young nucleus is to stay together for years to come, both the players and management will need to work together to make it financially possible within the NHL salary cap.

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