You can file this one under "Stupid G.M. Tricks"! Kevin Lowe and The Edmonton Oilers signed Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres to a seven year $50m+ Restricted Free Agent Offer Sheet! Buffalo obviously matched the offer immediately. I've got so many issues with this signing I don't even know where to start! Let's narrow it down to a few items:
I. Vanek is an excellent young player but he's not worth the money:
Vanek was Buffalo's 1st selection (5th overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. In 2004-05 he scored 42 goals in 74 games for Rochester of the A.H.L. Definitely an impressive season for the then first year professional. In 2005-06 he made his NHL debut for Buffalo and scored 25 goals and 23 assists for 48 points in 81 games. He was, however, a -11 in his rookie NHL season. All in all, it was a very promising debut for the young forward listed at 6'2" and 208 pounds. In the playoffs that year he only dressed for 10 of Buffalo's games, scoring a whopping two goals (both on the power play) and going -1. Then came his breakout season, 2006-07, he scored 43 goals and 41 assists in 82 games for Buffalo. His +/- soared to a +47. In the playoffs he appeared in 16 games for the Sabres notching 6 goals and 4 assists for 10 points, while going +1. Not exactly overwhelming playoff numbers. Those are his credentials. 2 seasons, that's it! After years in the NHL compiling that lengthy resume (tongue firmly planted in my cheek!), Edmonton decides to pay the guy "Franchise Player" money. Don't get me wrong, I like Vanek as a player. Even though it's way too early to be sure, he definitely looks like the real deal. But after putting together 1 forty goal season and zero impressive playoff performances, what the heck was Edmonton thinking? What if the guy's numbers were inflated because he plays for the league's most offensively oriented club? He's not the go to guy in Buffalo, he hasn't been around long enough to prove that he can actually play that role, why would anyone pay him "go to guy" money when he hasn't been around long enough to prove he's worth it? He's not Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. I just don't get it. The next point is even worse:
II. The Oilers' predatory signing has upset the salary balance within the league:
I know I'm a Ranger fan, so don't laugh at this point! Even though conventional wisdom has it that the Rangers have driven salaries out of control over the years, that's simply doesn't paint the full picture. The Rangers have traditionally targeted Unrestricted Free Agents. The contracts they sign these players to do not count as comparables in salary arbitration. When a young player goes to arbitration to try to land a bigger contract he can't point to the Bobby Hoilk contract as a comp. Everyone knows that UFA contracts are inflated, it's supply and demand: only a few free agents with a lot of interested clubs. A contract signed by a Restricted Free Agent however, can be used as a comparable in salary arbitrations (and regular contract negotiations for that matter). What is Henrik Lundqvist worth now? How about Sean Avery (his numbers don't come close, but he brings very important intangibles to the team)? Zach Parise in Jersey? The list goes on and on.
The problem is compounded because of the salary cap. If the salaries of young players are not kept at reasonable levels, it will be impossible to dress a deep well balanced lineup. In today's NHL it's impossible to dress a lineup full of top shelf UFA's. They're too expensive. Teams must build with good young players still earning reasonable salaries and add the right mix of UFA talent. Anything else is too expensive and unworkable. If the young players (who do not yet have the leverage of UFA's) start getting paid UFA money, it will be impossible to dress a competitive well balanced team. Make no mistake, Kevin Lowe and the Edmonton Oilers have assaulted this balance.
III. Isn't it ironic?
The Oilers (or should we call them the Oiler$?!?) have been one of the small market franchises that have allegedly struggled to compete against the big boys. Their payroll was always low. They could never spend money on talent. They constantly traded away developing young players once those players commanded higher salaries. They couldn't even bridge the gap between themselves and Ryan Smyth leading to his tearful departure from Edmonton (so sad). Now all of a sudden, they've got some money to spend. The problem is that not only were they unable to spend it, they actually shot themselves in the foot trying. What will the Oiler$ do when one of their Restricted Free Agents takes them to arbitration and gets awarded a huge pay day with the Vanek contract cited as a comparable? They'll probably accept it. Why? Because maybe just maybe the lock out wasn't really about salaries and available funds, maybe just maybe it was really about increasing the values of each franchise. All that bickering about the big market clubs like the Rangers was possibly nothing more than posturing. It's even more ironic when you consider that Krazy Kevin Lowe a/k/a Kaptain Small Market Suffering Franchise, abandoned these same Oiler$ in order to sign for bigger bucks with the the Rangers. Then he bemoans the fact that current players do the same thing. THEN, he goes and attacks the balance of salaries in the NHL ENABLING players to do the same thing. It's enough to make your head spin.
IV. Never act out of desperation:
I've said it once and I'll say it many more times, sports is a microcosm of life. Just like in life, desperation moves rarely if ever pay, so too in sports. As a transactional lawyer I do a lot of negotiating and "deal making". I've seen people make desperate moves far too often. Those moves almost always come back to bite you in the behind. The bottom line here is that the Oiler$ probably acted out of desperation. They were willing to spend money (surprise, surprise!) and they still came up empty. For some reason, people don't want to play in Alberta. Go figure. To make matters worse this is only one year after Chris Pronger left town after a trip to the finals. The guy didn't even want to stay on a successful Edmonton club! To make matters even worse, Krazy Kevin thought he landed Nylander only to find out that he was left at the alter once Washington stepped in. I even read a report (although I can't remember where and, therefore, can't verify the authenticity) that Nylander signed with the Caps for less than the Oiler$ were going to pay him. Ouch! So Krazy Kevin goes and sticks it to the hockey world by signing the battle tested superstar Thomas Vanek to a $50m contract. I can't imagine that this move will be popular with the rest of the teams in the league. Even Philly didn't pull a stunt of this magnitude! Will Krazy Kevin suffer the ramifications of this move when the Oiler$ finally cut him loose? Will owners hold this move against him the next time he's interviewing for a job? Neil Smith is still looking for work as an NHL G.M. after being branded a salary inflating predator. What goes around often comes around. Stay tuned!