Pending UFA Ilya Kovalchuk is on pace for 96 points, which would be his highest point total since 2005-06. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)
On the whole, NHL GMs are a very sharp, malleable group.
And while they’re often accused of moving like molasses on issues such as head shots, they’re pretty good at changing on the fly when it comes to the manner in which their own teams are constructed.
Our most recent issue of The Hockey News identified some notable stories of the past decade, including the trend-setting 15-year deal the New York Islanders gave goalie Rick DiPietro in September, 2006. DiPietro’s endless string of boo-boos has made that deal look really bad, but clearly management types embraced the notion of extremely long-term deals as a method to minimize the annual cap hit of a player you expect to be one of your best over the next decade.
The plethora of lengthy pacts we’ve seen consummated over the past few years has had a number of ripple effects, including a definite hit to the unrestricted free agent market. Basically, if more and more stars are on lifetime deals, fewer and fewer of them ever become the subject of bidding wars.
I spoke with former Tampa Bay GM and current THN.com blogger Jay Feaster about this very subject and he brought up an interesting point regarding how the lack of free agents could trigger more summertime trades of free-agents-to-be.
Feaster put it in the context of pending UFA Ilya Kovalchuk. Like my colleague Ken Campbell, Feaster believes Kovalchuk to be sniffing around for a 10-year contract in the $10 million-to-$11 million range.
As Feaster points out, at some point Atlanta has to take a hard evaluation on whether or not it’s prepared – or capable – of forking over that money. If the answer, hypothetically, is no, Thrashers GM Don Waddell is left staring his only option in the face.
“Let’s say (signing Kovalchuk) is something that Atlanta just can’t see their way to do,” Feaster said. “So that means Donnie is going to trade him sometime between the day they make that decision and the trade deadline of 2010.”
Assuming an organization has done its due diligence and knows one year in advance that a deal with its star is unlikely, Feaster argues the best move is to push him onto the market during the UFA bonanza that begins annually on July 1.
“If you take a guy like (Kovalchuk) and put him on the trade market after (Marian) Hossa signs, now those teams that didn’t sign Hossa, the team that lost Hossa, the teams in the same division where Hossa is that are maybe concerned about it, now all of a sudden you make that guy on your team who doesn’t have that long-term deal and is a superstar player, you make him the most attractive free agent – but it’s not via free agency, it’s via trade.
“In other words, in my mind, if Donnie puts him on the market this past summer right after Hossa gets signed, there’s no more attractive forward that you can acquire for your team.”
The timing of such a trade makes sense on a few different levels.
First of all, as Feaster touches on, you’re dealing with teams that have been jilted by another player and the juices are still flowing from that failed transaction. At that point they could be very prepared to take dollars earmarked for Player A and re-allot them to Player B, because if there’s one thing we’ve all learned over the years it’s that teams will find a way to spend the money.
Certainly you can pit teams against each other at the trade deadline to up the ante, but there are also fewer squads in play because there are clear buyers and sellers by that juncture. In the summer, you’re not just dealing with teams that think they can win a Cup in a couple months, you’ve also got clubs looking to turn their franchise around with a marquee name.
Also, there’s more incentive for teams to part with better player packages because they know, at the very least, they’re getting said superstar for at least one entire season. When you acquire a pending UFA at the deadline, you’ve more or less got him for a month, plus whatever your team can manage to do in the playoffs. An earlier deal also provides the advantage of talking contract extension for a whole year as the player gets more and more comfortable in his new surroundings.
From the perspective of the team moving out the big name, not only are you getting better players in return, you’re giving them an entire summer to mentally adapt to being dealt, plus you’ve got them on your team learning your systems from Day 1.
You also avoid answering an endless and distracting series of questions regarding the progress of contract talks with your star player during the course of the season.
If Feaster’s former colleagues take his logic to heart, names like Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton, Andrei Markov and Tomas Vokoun could all be in the headlines this July 1, either because they re-upped with their current clubs or because their 2011 UFA status spurred an early deal for the long-term benefit of the club.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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