The angst-riddled cries have grown louder and louder and have come from all over the hockey map as we’ve gotten closer to the expiry of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement. No, I’m not referring to the league’s looming labor war – I’m talking about the increasingly nervous Nellies in Montreal, Colorado, Winnipeg, New York, Washington and elsewhere who have burgeoning young restricted free agents still without a new contract as Saturday’s CBA deadline approaches.
In Montreal, certain Canadiens fans are getting itchy seeing up-and-coming defenseman P.K. Subban stew on the sidelines. Some Stars fans in Dallas are wondering why star left winger Jamie Benn isn’t under contract yet. There are furrowed brows in Colorado over Ryan O’Reilly, in Winnipeg over Evander Kane, in Manhattan over Michael Del Zotto and in Washington over John Carlson.
To be sure, all the aforementioned names are crucial components of their teams. However, to argue that GMs of those teams are making a heinous error by not locking up their cornerstones to long-term contract extensions is nonsense. This is one of the options available to team ownership and management under the current CBA and you can certainly understand why teams would choose to take advantage of it.
Now, that’s not to suggest teams that have re-signed notable RFAs this summer have erred. I liked the six-year, $34.5 million contract Tyler Seguin signed with the Bruins. I also thought the Hurricanes did well to lock up Jeff Skinner (at virtually the same term and salary as Seguin signed for) and that Edmonton didn’t destroy their long-term competitive abilities by inking Taylor Hall (seven years, $42 million) and Jordan Eberle (six years, $36 million) to new deals. All those signings represent gambles to one degree or another, but all those players had shown enough to convince their respective GM to take that risk.
But GMs such as Montreal’s Marc Bergevin and Dallas’ Joe Nieuwendyk also are taking calculated gambles with their RFAs and you can’t automatically judge them to be fools for doing so. Indeed, if the new labor landscape – which most industry observers believe will be significantly more restrictive on player movement and salary escalation – affords those franchises more flexibility with which to improve the team, it would be wrong for management teams not to be patient and wait.
A devil’s advocate will argue a team shouldn’t risk alienating a young star by taking a tough stance on a new contract. But this devil’s antagonist will respond by saying, what choice does that young star have? Are they going to refuse to sign a new contract once a new CBA is hashed out? Look back over the course of the current labor deal and try finding RFA players who refused to sign at a price that worked for management and preferred sitting in street clothes until they got the deal they wanted. You’ll be looking for quite some time.
And don’t give me any of that “well, what about offer sheets from other teams?” talk. We all know offer sheets are about as rare as Vegan Appreciation Day at Burger King. The reality is teams have all the power in this relationship (including the power to match any offer sheet) and are likely to have even more power whenever games begin again. The option to show restraint or submit to a player’s requests is entirely theirs.
So don’t indict a team or GM because he has chosen to engage one of his key players in a long-term staring contest instead of signing him to a long-term pact. If more GMs showed some spine come players’ contract times, the NHL wouldn’t be as burdened by player costs as owners claim they are.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.
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