What, Me Worry?

What, Me Worry?

What, Me Worry?
Alfred E. Neuman: Leafs Fan.

Two and half weeks have passed since the July 1st free agent frenzy, and many in Leafs Nation continue to ponder the unsigned status of Maple Leafs‘ defenseman Luke Schenn.  With GM Brian Burke currently taking a well-deserved vacation, odds are it may be a while yet before pen is put to paper on a new deal for one of the franchise’s cornerstone players.

Were Schenn the only prominent restricted free agent remaining unsigned, his status as such would be apt cause for concern. However, Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos, and the Los Angeles Kings’ superstar-to-be Drew Doughty also remain unsigned to date.   Is this perhaps a case of waiting for the shoe to drop with one of the aforementioned (Doughty), or simply a case of the formalities of a contract having not been deemed an exceptionally  high priority?

Setting the Market

For a while, speculation has suggested both the Schenn camp and the Leafs are content to observe the market for RFA defenders, and use the value of those signings to determine an appropriate dollar/term range for Schenn.  The recent signing of Karl Alzner by the Washington Capitals, to a very cap friendly two year deal at a $2.57m total, could not have been a pleasing sight for Team Schenn.  It stands to reason that perhaps they may be content to wait for Doughty to sign, and try to negotiate a range somewhere in between those two contracts.

As a shutdown defender, it’s pretty clear Schenn will not receive anywhere close to what Doughty does on a new deal, but he has shown flashes of offensive instinct (and hasn’t looked out of place on a few PP shifts the past couple of seasons) which suggest his overall potential may perhaps be higher than that of Alzner, who projects to be more of a pure shutdown type.

The flip side, of course, is it could be just as possible the Doughty camp is doing the exact same thing — looking to what both Schenn (as a cornerstone defender in the same age range) and Stamkos (as a superstar in the same age range) receive before coming to their own terms.  In essence, both teams appear to be waiting for the other to make a move before making their own.  How long the stalemate lasts is anyone’s guess, but it’s a safe bet that once one of the teams reaches a deal with its cornerstone RFA the others will quickly follow suit.

The Not-So-Dreaded Offer Sheet

Another reason as to why these signings have taken so long is the perception of offer sheets as a relatively empty threat.  Quick, how many RFAs can you name who’ve been signed to an offer sheet post-lockout?  Most can come up with Dustin Penner, who was successfully signed by Edmonton, as Anaheim – then helmed by Burke – opted to take the compensatory picks.  There are five others:  Tomas Vanek (Edm), Ryan Kesler (Phi), David Backes (Van), Steve Bernier (StL), and Niklas Hjalmarsson (SJ) — all were matched.

While offer sheets represent a valid threat during trade negotiations, the threat of losing a player to one as a free agent signing remains low. Unlike unrestricted free agency, where players’ rights are up for grabs, most GMs have no interest in driving up the prices on players whose rights are still owned by their fellow colleagues’ teams.  Why, might you ask? Simply put, no GM wants to see another team do it to him.

Moreover, draft picks carry an incredibly high value in a salary-capped league due to Entry Level Contract restrictions.  The opportunity to draft and develop several players in the early rounds who can be signed to 3-year contracts for less than $1 million per season is for many clubs far more valuable than an exchange of several of those picks – over multiple years – for a single player who will take more money to sign than all of those picks combined.

It is the reason Steven Stamkos, a true superstar available to the highest bidder, has yet to receive a single offer sheet. For his price range, he would cost any team that was to sign him four consecutive years’ worth of 1st round picks. Few organizations can recover easily from that sort of an exchange, not only from a financial perspective but developmentally as well.  Going back to the pre-cap era, the St. Louis Blues’ signing of Scott Stevens (for a total of five 1st round picks), who a year later was dealt for Brendan Shanahan, set the organization back immeasurably; despite a lineup full of veteran stars the Blues never were able to build the internal core required for sustained playoff success.

In essence the teams believe, with good reason, that the likelihood of their restricted free agents being signed to an offer sheet by another club is not only low but grows more minimal with each passing day.  Accordingly, the GMs have focused on more pressing matters such as trades and unrestricted free agents, with an eye toward re-opening talks with their RFAs when the other business has been completed.

Where Things Stand

At the moment, it appears both sides are willing to stand by their initial proposals/demands and wait for either (a) the other side to acquiesce for the sake of getting a deal done, or (b) for another signing to impact the market in such a way one side or the other deems it necessary to re-visit their prior dollar/term valuation.

While the threat of another GM using an offer sheet to leverage a trade is certainly possible (the Leafs did exactly that with Phil Kessel), it is unlikely a GM would do so unless it was a case where the player either wanted out or the team couldn’t afford to meet his contractual demands (the latter being the case with Kessel).   To date, there has been no certifiable word of any animosity between Stamkos/TB, Doughty/LA, or Schenn/Toronto.  As for affordability, this certainly isn’t the case with the Leafs and likely won’t be with the Kings.  Although Tampa Bay does run on a strict internal budget, they are in the precarious position of having to ensure sustained success in order to keep the fanbase interested; losing the face of their franchise at this juncture would be disastrous to their long-term success and viability in Florida.

In short, it is reasonable to expect all three of these players to eventually come to terms with their respective teams, and would indeed be quite surprising to see any of them moved at this stage. Each plays a key role in both their teams’ current and future opportunities for success, and as such none are likely to be moved for anything less than a player or package of players who can provide a similar or greater overall impact. And beyond the two casualties of Philadelphia’s locker-room overhaul, not too many of those have been on the market of late.

Will the Leafs and Schenn get a deal done, prior to training camp? I believe so. Other than elapsed time, there have been no negative indicators, and no credible reports of of discontent or controversy from either side (for what it’s worth, Schenn joined Burke on his Canada Day trip to Afghanistan). With six-plus weeks remaining in the off-season, both camps have plenty of time to continue negotiations at their convenience.

Should Leafs fans be worried? Not yet. Perhaps come mid-August, if a deal still isn’t in place, more than a few eyebrows may start to furrow.  But for now, time is on management’s side, the player’s side, and Leaf Nation’s side also.  The odds of seeing #2 suit up for another franchise, or even hold out, for that matter, remain at the present moment slim to none.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,