Benn signing, Subban negotiation important for all UFA contracts going forward under new CBA

Jamie Benn's five-year deal with Dallas was a happy medium for both parties. (Resolute/Wikimedia Commons)

Jamie Benn’s five-year deal with Dallas was a happy medium for both parties. (Resolute/Wikimedia Commons)

By: Chris Messina

@cmessina85

Here we are not even a month into the new CBA and already we are arguing about contracts. Recently, Travis Zajac signed an eight-year $46 million extension with the New Jersey Devils and Dallas’ Jamie Benn signed a five-year, $26.25 million deal while UFA P.K. Subban is negotiating his second contract with Montreal. I wrote a column on good players coming off entry level contracts this past summer that you can read here.

It seems like the court of public opinion on this issues is very hypocritical. Going on twitter, reading papers, listening and watching opinions on TV and radio the Devils are getting ripped for signing Travis Zajac – a key component of their run to the Stanley Cup final last Spring – for the maximum length a player re-signing with his own team is allowed to be signed for under the rules rules of the new CBA. Meanwhile, the Stars (up until the Benn signing) and Canadiens are being asked if they are crazy letting core pieces of the lineups stay at home to start the lockout shortened deal.

Zajac is a good player but the length on the deal is questionable. There is no doubt he’s an important piece for New Jersey going forward, but he’s already 27 and his contract will take him through to his 36th birthday. On top of that his cap hit starting next year will be $5.7 million. In eight years the money might look small if league revenues continue to grow and the cap gets pushed up. But still New Jersey has committed to a player that is at the age where production usually dips.

Then there is the flip side of the argument where Benn and Subban are players coming into their prime and are looking for the always interesting second contracts. Not enough credit is going to the two GMs negotiating the deals – Joe Nieuwendyk in Dallas or Marc Bergevin in Montreal – for holding their ground and not handing out too much money for players that haven’t proven much over the long haul at the NHL level. Instead they are taking heat for not having their best lineup to start this shortened season. Can you imagine the backlash against a rookie GM in hockey crazy Montreal if the Canadiens miss the playoffs because they didn’t have Subban for a significant portion of the season over a contract dispute?  They’ll be asking for his head!

There is nothing wrong with paying players through their prime. It’s the most efficient way to go about it. The problem is that in order for a team to hit a homerun on those types of deals they need to guess whether a player will continue to improve and get better in their early to mid-twenties. In order to make the deal work there is some compensation on both sides.

The trade-off being that the team pays less in annual salary than they might otherwise while the player gets job security for taking a cut salary during the prime of their career. Despite the potential of players at 20, 21 or 22 there is a lot that can happen between then and the time they hit the open market as an unrestricted free-agent between 25 and 27. Think of the impact an injury could have on a player’s leverage in negotiations.

From the teams perspective they don’t want to be in the situation Nashville was this past summer with a franchise player like Shea Weber. He was a year away from being a restricted free-agent and the Flyers gave him an offer sheet for more money than the Predators wanted to pay him. They ended up matching the deal to keep him because they couldn’t let him leave for draft picks when they are getting ready to make another run at the Stanley Cup. Let’s not forget Ryan Suter –another core piece of the Predators blue line – had signed in Minnesota early in the summer.

Though when you look at the contracts, Steven Stamkos (five years with a cap hit of $7.5 millon), Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews (both five years at $6.3 million), Erik Karlsson (seven years at $6.5 million) and Drew Doughty (eight years at $7 million) got money while they didn’t sacrifice a lot financially. Each player was coming off an entry level deal and signed into their free-agent years. Although they didn’t get max contracts, they still got paid rather well. It’s starting to look like the price the Blackhawks paid for their two marque players is very cap friendly.

Let’s not forget those contracts were done under the old collective bargaining agreement. Maybe teams are a little bit weary of making those types of commitments to players that haven’t proven their worth over the long haul because the cap is dropping next season. However with the way the fans have reacted by storming back to NHL rinks while TV numbers are soaring in both Canada and the United States it probably won’t take long to get passed the ceiling of the old cap and go well beyond. Take a look at this article by James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail as he projects the cap could be at $90 million in a little less than a decade.

For Bergevin in Montreal his deal with Subban might be a little easier because of the deal that the Rangers signed Michael Del Zotto a few months ago. Though the dollars are going to be significantly higher with the Rexdale, Ontario native the 2-year term of the contract is what the Habs are aiming for. According to Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette the Habs aren’t interested in signing Subban to a long-term contract. Montreal wants to do a shorter deal and have Subban prove that he really is a top defenseman before they lock him up to big dollars over the long haul. From his standpoint he wants to be paid what he is worth but the Canadiens would look insane giving him Karlsson or Doughty money.

Jamie Benn’s situation was the opposite in Dallas. The Stars were trying to lock Benn up long term, but as Mike Heika of the Dallas News writes, the emerging 23 year old star wanted a short-term deal because he is trying to hit the jackpot on his next contract. Benn feels that because he was a 5th round pick back in 2008 he got short changed on his first NHL contract that paid him a little more than $800,000 annually. It’s a fair point as Heika brings up in his article; hold the 2007 draft again and he is probably a top 5 pick. Fortunately they were able to come to an agreement, settling in the middle with their five-year pact.

A big power forward like the Victoria, British Columbia native is, is a hot commodity in today’s NHL. It’s expected his numbers will improve, but he’s never had more than last year’s total of 63 points in a season. Let’s also not forget that Benn has yet to play in a playoff game. That is where players earn their money for future contracts.

Subban’s negotiations will depend on Montreal’s start and so far they are 2-1. A good start means less pressure to get a deal done on the team, while a bad start could work in the player’s favor. One thing is certain, both Benn’s and Subban’s (whenever it is finalized) contracts will be used as comparable deals to players negotiating in the future. Stay tuned.

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