Quick question: what the heck are the Avalanche doing with Ryan O’Reilly?

Adam Proteau
Ryan O'Reilly (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Ryan O'Reilly (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Colorado Avalanche are coming off a season that gave their fans legitimate hope the team could return to its heyday as one of the NHL’s powerhouse franchises. But their bizarre treatment of center Ryan O’Reilly is casting a shadow over some of that success. Indeed, their ongoing dealings with O’Reilly are quickly becoming a textbook case of how to alienate young talent and ensure they depart at their first opportunity.

The details of the arbitration case between the Avs and O’Reilly – first reported Monday by THN’s Ken Campbell – are troubling: O’Reilly is asking for $6.75 million on a one-year contract, but the team is offering a $5.525 million salary. That’s right, the Avs’ leading goal-scorer last season (who set personal bests on offense with 28 goals and 64 points in 80 games) and one of the NHL’s more highly-regarded young two-way players is being asked to take a 15 percent pay cut (the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement) at a time when the salary cap continues to rise and when Colorado has already lost one of its other talented centers (Paul Stastny) for nothing.

Of course, in every arbitration case, the team comes in with a lower number than they’re likely willing to settle for, and the player does the same on the higher end. The Avalanche would argue O’Reilly’s last contract had an average annual value of $5 million per season, meaning their proposal would be a raise of sorts. But that’s spin. The reality is, when the Avs matched the offer sheet the 23-year-old signed (for two years and $10-million) with the Calgary Flames after the 2012-13 lockout ended, O’Reilly became a $6.5-million-per-season player for them in the final year of that deal. The Avalanche might not have liked it – and clearly, they don’t value O’Reilly’s skills the way Calgary did – but by retaining the asset, they had to know what it would mean to now ask O’Reilly to take a haircut down the line, especially when he’s come as advertised and continued to improve. Ostensibly, you’re telling him that, no matter what he did last season, or what he’ll continue to do for them in the years to come, they see him at a certain financial slot.

Now, you can point to a team budget that’s less than the $69 million upper limit, or Colorado’s effort to keep O’Reilly’s salary below the $6-million Matt Duchene will earn this coming year, and say you understand where Avs boss Joe Sakic & Co. are coming from. I’d counter by asking you to look around the league and see what some forwards signed for this summer. Mikhail Grabovski will make $5 million next season with the Islanders; David Bolland signed with Florida at an average salary of $5.5 million for each of the next five years; Thomas Vanek landed a three-year deal with the Wild that pays him $6.5 million per season. If O’Reilly were on the open market, he’d receive offers closer to, if not in excess of Vanek’s salary. O’Reilly’s agent is acutely aware of this, and the mindset the team always comes first and players always ought to be beholden to management’s magic financial number only goes so far.

I’d also ask why, if the Avalanche are truly so concerned about internal budgets, they brought in Jarome Iginla and Brad Stuart (at a combined cost of $8.9 million) this summer. Sure, they wanted veterans to augment their lineup, but watching management spend on past-their-prime greybeards while taking a hard line with him must be particularly galling to O’Reilly.

The bottom line: O’Reilly may now be so soured by two protracted contractual negotiations that he never considers signing a long-term extension with the Avs and commits to walking away from the franchise when he can become an unrestricted free agent in 2016. If that turns out to be the case, Colorado will have allowed O’Reilly and Stastny to leave for next to nothing. (And yes, I know they’ll likely deal him if he hasn’t signed an extension, but by that point, other GMs will know his feelings and the Avs won’t get anywhere close to an equal return for him on the trade market.)

Maybe there is still time to patch up the relationship between O’Reilly and his current employers. And to be sure, Colorado still has enough elite talent in its system to survive the loss of O’Reilly if it happens. However, in a league where the reputation of how a team treats players does matter, the Avalanche are doing themselves more harm than good by picking a fight with a youngster who’s delivered on everything that’s been asked of him.

There are positives to drawing lines in the sand as Colorado is doing with O’Reilly. But that line might also represent the limits of how far the Avalanche can progress by repeatedly testing the loyalty of their best young players.