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It never got as bad as it could have, but it's tough to be convinced it's not still bad.
Arbitration is a cutthroat and nasty process that often leaves both sides feeling hard done by, so it was no surprise that Ryan O'Reilly and the Colorado Avalanche settled on a contract that will carry a cap hit of $6 million for the next two seasons.
We're told now that everyone looks good in this situation. The Avs came up from their initial arbitration offer, O'Reilly came down from his. The definition of compromise is when both sides are unhappy, you see. But that's a fairly fatuous view of things, if we're being honest. The Avs lowballed — to a ludicrous extent at just $5.525 million — because they wanted to keep his cost down and it's in their best interest to do so. O'Reilly went beyond what he's worth by a hair or three, asking for a $6.75 million AAV, and it's in his best interest to do so. In arbitration, as with just about any negotiation, you don't ask for what you think you're going to get, you just try to maximize the wiggle room so you get closer to what you really want. Simple stuff, really.
The big knock on O'Reilly this whole time was, weirdly, that he's not a team guy. You can kind of see where those who feel that way about him are coming from, to an extent. He stayed in the KHL last season even after the NHL restarted — but only because the Avalanche offered him just $3 million to come back, which was flatly absurd. Then he wanted to be paid more than Matt Duchene, which is apparently some sort of unforgivable crime.
But all that talk should be over now, both because it was absurd to begin with and because he can say, “See? I took less money than I wanted to better fit within the team's salary structure.”
This flatly ignores that the team's salary structure is silly, though. Over the past however-many years in the NHL, a number of teams have tried the, “No one gets paid more than (Player X)” rule, and with some justification. Most famously, it worked in Detroit for quite a while, because their “No one gets paid more than Nick Lidstrom” rule, which made sense because anyone arguing they should be paid more than the second-best defenseman of all time wasn't coming in talking sense to begin with. That Lidstrom kept taking hometown discounts to help himself and his team simultaneously was a nice thing to do.
But the Avalanche's rule is apparently still, “No one gets paid more than Matt Duchene,” which seems a little silly. Matt Duchene might not be the second-best center in his own division, as you'd have to put him behind Jonathan Toews and perhaps Paul Stastny at the very least (and it wouldn't be hard to hear arguments for Mikko Koivu and David Backes either, all things considered). Is O'Reilly as valuable to Colorado's, ahem, “success” as Duchene? Yes. But the thing is, Duchene is probably underpaid, as is Gabriel Landeskog. And look, the Avs are a team that generally don't want to spend a lot of money, as is their prerogative, but when it comes at the cost of a strained relationship with a difference-maker like O'Reilly, one has to wonder about the wisdom of the hardline.
You can't compare deals made this season, with the salary cap higher than it's ever been (discounting the partial lockout season, when teams could only spend $60 million but that was equivalent to $70.2 million against the cap) to those made when Duchene signed his extension in the summer following that work stoppage. Given the contracts to Toews and Patrick Kane, it seems the dollar value of deals for star players might actually be increasing commensurate with their actual on-ice value, and if Duchene cashed in early, it shouldn't be O'Reilly who has to pay for it. If Duchene had a better eye for negotiating, maybe he works out an extension this summer instead of last and pulls more money. He's certainly worth it.
The point, though, is that people think this deal has sown seeds of contentment and amiable feeling that could sprout into a new deal as soon as next July 1.
Wouldn't that be something? O'Reilly locked up long-term, just to prove the Avs really do like him as much as Joe Sakic is all of a sudden swearing they do?
It's not a sign-and-trade situation, Sakic crosses his heart and hopes to die. They really value him now, Sakic says with the full assurance that his pants will not catch on fire. There was never any animosity from either side, he said before not-being struck by lightning. So all of you trying to make a big to-do out of it are just misinformed.
And it's easy to believe Sakic that Colorado wants to have O'Reilly under contract for many years to come. At least, it would be if everything the Avs have done in the past 18 months or so in any way reflected that they didn't want to trade O'Reilly, or that they valued him, or that there wasn't animosity between the two stemming from the post-lockout decision to keep playing in Russia and then sign a reasonable two-year offer sheet (insofar as you have to overpay at least a little with an offer sheet, and certainly not related to the whole debacle that would have resulted had Colorado not-matched) advanced by the Calgary Flames, an Avs division rival at the time.
But we can't take Sakic at his word here, because if this were a sign-and-trade situation, it wouldn't really behoove Colorado to say, “Yeah, we still want to trade him at the earliest convenience.” When guys are clearly on the market, they don't pull as much as they could if a team has to come sniffing around of their own volition. That's basic business.
This deal makes it pretty easy to see him with the team for the entirety of the coming season, of course. And as for the contention that they wouldn't have signed him to a two-year deal if they didn't want him, well, having O'Reilly at a known price tag for 2015-16 makes him more valuable on the trade market.
That's pretty simple as well.
Beyond that, it's still difficult to believe this whole play won't start all over again as soon as next summer. At least, not without an actual show of faith from the team that has treated its player so badly for so long. The person who probably has to be most convinced is O'Reilly.