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The New York Rangers signed Jarret Stoll, he of the drug charges and declining on-ice utility, on Monday for a one-year deal at just $800,000. It was a strange addition, to be sure, but one that makes sense.
Stoll's numbers still appear to fall in the “solid fourth-line option” range, for one thing, and being able to sign him at such a deep discount from what he got last season ($3.25 million in the final season of a three-year deal in LA) is in and of itself not a bad idea. Getting him on a “prove-it” contract also carries little risk for the Rangers because they are among the league's richer teams and, if he sucks — which he might because he's a physical 33-year-old, and they don't age well — they can send him down with no cap penalty. At that point, he'll still make his $800,000 if he wants, but he'll do it riding the bus in the minors.
Now, there have been plenty of articles written this summer about, “Hey, why doesn't some team sign [insert good UFA here] already?” It's a reasonable question in a lot of cases; why no contract for Cody Franson, Christian Ehrhoff, Brad Boyes, Curtis Glencross, and a few other guys who look for all the world as though they can provide value to someone in the league, especially because no one really signs for big money or lots of years once the calendar flips to August.
Certainly, depending upon your needs, you'd prefer to have Ehrhoff on your roster over Stoll, but the Rangers don't really need defensemen. They need — or rather, think they need — grit at the bottom of the lineup. This isn't a bad way to have gone out and gotten it. Again, such a deal carries extraordinarily low risk, and they also don't seem to mind trying to help guys who were busted carrying drugs. You'll recall they did the same with Ryan Malone last summer.
Malone, too, was a bottom-six guy whose game had clearly lost its fastball (from 2008-12, Malone averaged almost 56 points per 82 games played), the Rangers figured he might be able to reclaim something as a 34-year-old. That, obviously, didn't work out either, to the surprise of very few people, but the Rangers also didn't have to care very much. Malone had four times as many appearances at the AHL level than the NHL, and the organization has money to burn anyway.
And to circle back to why a team — any team, really — would sign a Stoll and not a Franson, the difference boils down to what you're paying for. Franson or Ehrhoff might be much better in terms of helping a team, but even at a discount for them, the going rate will almost certainly exceed the $800,000 Stoll got. You can't bury more than that in the minors without carrying a cap hit, meaning that Stoll doesn't have to be paid to not-play, whereas those guys would.
That's all even leaving aside the cap implications that come with a higher-paid player even if he sticks on the roster. As has long been argued at this point, there's a lot of tire-kicking on these guys, but teams are trying to figure out how to Tetris the theoretical contracts they'd get down into the current roster they carry. Most teams are, at this point, carrying more or less the 23-man rosters they're going to have when training camps open, not including any invitees they might be able to lure with the promise of little more than opportunity.
And that's another important consideration here. We're about 35 days out from camps opening, and at this point, you might as well gamble on waiting to see if one of these guys just wants a camp invite instead. The reason for this is simple enough to understand: You invite an NHL veteran or two, and see firsthand what he can do to fit into your system. It's something of a test drive, albeit a risky one. Because given your druthers, you'd probably rather sign Franson for example than be one of six, seven, eight teams that invite him to camp and hope he picks you for the opportunity. That is, after all, why you pay pro scouts and people like that, right?
But the realities of the salary cap world, this year especially, dictate that these ideal scenarios simply do not exist for many teams. You make do with what you can manage, and hope you get lucky in signing one of these guys.
Ehrhoff is a perfect example of both the risk and reward GMs may face here. Ehrhoff, like Stoll, is 33 and defensemen can just use all utility at that age. He's also apparently going around hat in hand saying he'll play for short money on a one-year deal for a contender. The numbers suggest that his best days are probably behind him, but that he would still carry some value if used correctly. Pittsburgh signed him to something of a show-me deal last year — devalued as he was by Buffalo's compliance buyout — and got him on a one-year deal worth $4 million against the cap that most lauded as brilliant. But he suffered two concussions, played just 49 games, and was never the player anyone expected.
Doesn't definitively mean he can't still contribute, but the risk that he can't is there looming. Would he take a contract so small as to be buried without a cap hit? Tough to say, but if you wait him out until training camp, you probably force his hand.
Which is what makes the Rangers' decision to sign Stoll now at least a little weird. Yeah, $800,000 is cheap, but could he have been gotten cheaper? Waiting until camp to find out probably goes well for you. This also leaves aside the question of whether Stoll, and not, say, Boyes or Scottie Upshall, is the guy you want filling a bottom-line role for less than $1 million. (Or indeed, even a young player from your own system, though getting a veteran you wouldn't mind losing to waivers if for some reason another team does claim him gives you a little extra roster flexibility.)
Teams in the NHL these days need to do anything they can to make sure they're maximizing the value they get on every single contract. That clearly doesn't always work out, but any efforts in that area should be pursued. Stoll might work out for the Rangers, this contract probably pays for itself in terms of goal-differential delivered. If he doesn't, it matters zero percent because they can just jettison him. They could have waited even longer to further improve that potential value, of course, but it's tough to argue with this situation.
Stoll represents a smart summer signing that, if anything, is only going to become more common as the salary cap levels itself off and teams find themselves locked into unfavorable positions. It's bad news for free agents of middling-or-less quality, but teams don't and shouldn't care.
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