30 Thoughts: Jamie Benn among 'The Unsigned Three' | Hockey | CBC Sports

Hockey Night in Canada30 Thoughts: Jamie Benn among 'The Unsigned Three'

Posted: Monday, January 21, 2013 | 09:57 AM

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All-star forward Jamie Benn is unsigned and seeking a long-term deal from the Dallas Stars. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) All-star forward Jamie Benn is unsigned and seeking a long-term deal from the Dallas Stars. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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That NHL teams are now trying hard to police themselves from overspending adds a layer of intrigue to contract talks with unsigned stars like Jamie Benn, Ryan O'Reilly and PK Subban.  

You always look for trends in this league, but it's foolhardy to jump to on-ice conclusions after less than 48 hours of games. Off-ice, however, we can see one major trend developing.

Last week, five people signed multi-year deals with their NHL teams. Six, if you count St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong. In order of value, they were: Travis Zajac (eight years, $46 million); Alex Edler (six years, $30 million); Joffrey Lupul (five years, $26.25 million); Michael Del Zotto (two years, $5.1 million); and Dmitry Kulikov (two years, $5 million).

There was a significant drop-off from the first three to the latter two, both in term and dollars. Zajac, Edler and Lupul were months away from unrestricted free agency. Del Zotto and Kulikov are under team control for years to come, just like Jamie Benn, Ryan O'Reilly and PK Subban. Hmmm.

The NHL targeted the "second contract" prior to the lockout, but didn't really do as much damage to these players' leverage as it would have liked. So once again, it's up to the teams to police themselves. Usually that works as well as a Richard Nixon presidency and there's no guarantee this will end up any differently.

But you can see they're trying.

Del Zotto and Kulikov didn't have the same leverage as "The Unsigned Three," which adds an extra layer of intrigue. Let's look at their situations:

Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars

This is purely a guess, but I think Benn gets done first, maybe because Stars owner Tom Gagliardi sounded optimistic about it last week. Agent Rich Evans is on-record as saying Benn, who is four seasons away from being an unrestricted free agent (UFA), wants three to five years. The Stars have discussed that, but it's believed they prefer an even longer term.

Whatever the case, they are still apart financially. Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk didn't really want to talk about it, saying: "We're going to focus on who we have here." This undoubtedly bothers Nieuwendyk, who has an excellent relationship with Benn.

The problem, though, is Jeff Skinner. The Carolina Hurricanes signed the talented forward prior to the lockout to a six-year, $34-million extension that takes effect next season. Skinner had 107 points in his first 146 NHL games; Benn had 97 points in his first 151 games, then added 63 points in 71 games last season. His point totals have increased every year and he's pretty much the face of the franchise.

Benn is eligible for salary arbitration next summer and Skinner's contract would be a comparable. Dallas doesn't want to go that high unless UFA years are involved. You can certainly find some similar players making less, but the largest contracts usually become the flashpoints. So there's a philosophical difference, but you don't get the sense there is a personal one, unlike his unsigned brethren.

Ryan O'Reilly, Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche don't talk about this stuff. A request for comment was politely declined. The Denver Post's Adrian Dater reported O'Reilly turned down a five-year, $17-million offer last summer. Colorado pulled that proposal and came up with two years for $7 million, which went nowhere.

Colorado's reputation is the organization can be very tough negotiators. It was among the NHL's highest-paying teams during its glory years, but the last three seasons have seen it among the lowest.

O'Reilly remains in Russia, although he missed a game last weekend with a foot injury. His situation reminds me a lot of Michael Peca's in Buffalo. O'Reilly likely won't ever be a 100-point scorer. He had 55 points last season, more than his first two years combined, but he is a fierce, fierce competitor who can do a lot of critical things for you. He took more defensive-zone faceoffs than any other Avalanche player and faced the toughest competition among the team's centres (credit: behindthenet.ca).

The problem is that leads to major disputes between teams and agents over exactly how to financially quantify those things. Peca, for example, was traded because he and the Buffalo Sabres could not agree.

"He's definitely a No. 2 centre," one GM said of O'Reilly. "And with the proper wingers, he could be a No. 1 guy."

Those guys get paid well, especially if they can score. But again, O'Reilly is four years from unrestricted free agency.

The Avalanche operate in secrecy, so it's hard to predict what they are going to do. When they dealt Chris Stewart, many other teams didn't know he was even available. Barring a major change in philosophy from either side, this one could be heading in that direction.

PK Subban, Montreal Canadiens

The last five homegrown players to get long-term extensions from the Montreal Canadiens are Josh Gorges, Andrei Markov, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Carey Price. Because Markov is on his second such deal, he's not really comparable. The other four had to wait until approaching UFA existence to strike it big. Here is how many NHL games each of the four played during their entry-level contracts and how their second deal looked:

  • Gorges: 165 games turned into three years, $3.3M
  • Plekanec: 150 games turned into two years, $3.2M
  • Price (maybe not a fair comparison): 133 games turned into two years, $5.5M
  • Pacioretty: 123 games turned into two years, $3.25M

In his entry-level contract, Subban played 160 games, all but two of them in the last two seasons. His role was more certain than any of those players as he hit restricted free agency. Canadiens ownership may have changed and so has the hockey management, but the philosophy is similar: "Let's go short-term and not too high."

PK isn't buying.

There are a few dynamics in place here. Canadiens rookie GM Marc Bergevin played 1,191 NHL games. He recognizes Subban's skill set is hard to find. I'm beginning to learn about his philosophy and I think Bergevin strongly believes that, when building a franchise, you do not create "holes" with trades. Trading Subban will be an absolute last resort and not for anything less than equal value.

As a new GM, Bergevin must appear strong. He made a hard move last week with Scott Gomez, but looked confident in doing so. If he backs down from this challenge, everyone's going to smell blood.

The biggest problem for Bergevin is that it's hard to see how the Canadiens, as currently constructed, can improve without Subban. You can make the argument they finished 15th last season with him, but that's stupid. Even if their record is bad, isn't the idea to show that you're at least moving in a better direction? You're trying to build a better culture around younger players. 

It is impossible, though, to look at this situation and not recognize that something is seriously wrong between Subban and the Canadiens. No one is attacking Benn's character or O'Reilly's, but there are whispers about Subban's. It could get worse before it gets better, but will teams finally hold the line?

30 THOUGHTS

1. You're going to ask about offer sheets for these guys. Some teams are going to get desperate during this shortened season, but it's going to take a brave, brave owner to shake up the salary structure so quickly after this lockout. On some level, there will be payback.

2. For example, as the Edmonton Oilers locked up Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, did they do it with an wary glance at Sabres GM Darcy Regier? Ever since Thomas Vanek, I've wondered if Regier's been waiting for the chance to even that score. (Sources say he's got an owner who likes to spend).

3. Interesting dance between the San Jose Sharks and Gomez, but it makes a lot of sense. Because he was cut by Montreal and unable to skate at a high tempo as the NHL and NHLPA negotiated an opening, he gets a few extra days to tune up. Meanwhile, the Sharks, who are close to the cap, save pennies by holding off for a few days (rumbling is one year at a prorated $700,000). Smart by both sides.

4. Another big decision for Bergevin is what to do with Alexander Galchenyuk? Great talent, has "not scratched the surface of what he'll be," Bergevin said. Nothing left for him at junior level, but does it makes business sense for the Canadiens to burn a year of his contract?

5. Olympic discussions will begin soon. Hockey Canada President and CEO Bob Nicholson, now No. 2 at the International Ice Hockey Federation, contacted the NHL and NHL Players' Association last week about starting the process. Both are willing to get going, it's just a matter of when. Nicholson met in Europe with IIHF President Rene Fasel on Sunday.

6. Olympic participation will be part of a larger discussion that includes the World Cup and world championships. Ideally, what the NHL and NHLPA would like to set up is a cycle consisting of Olympics in 2014 and 2018, World Cup in 2016 and 2020 and so on. One of the big debates will be when to hold the latter event. Will it be in September as we've previously seen or will it be in mid-season?

7. The case for a pre-season tournament is comfort level as teams are used to that. It helps that your best players arrive in game shape and, if someone does get hurt, you don't risk losing them for the stretch run. However, there are people in the league who prefer winter because that is consistent with the Olympic break, although it would eliminate the all-star game. And what would TV prefer?

8. One NHL/NHLPA meeting that will happen this week? A get-together to decide at what percentage escrow is to be set. I'll bet you all missed hearing the word "escrow."

9. Nieuwendyk on Ray Whitney: "Still the smartest player on the ice."

10. You can see why St. Louis was so determined to make sure Vladimir Tarasenko was here once the lockout ended. He looked ridiculous against the Detroit Red Wings in the opener. At 21, he's a little older than your average rookie and that extra experience could be a huge benefit to a legit Stanley Cup contender. If the Blues needed anything, it was someone with game-breaking scoring skill. This guy sure has it.

11. Impressive performance from 27-year-old rookie Mike Kostka in the Toronto Maple Leafs' opening victory. Kostka's greatest strength is considered to be his ability to read the play at both ends. He's worked hard to improve his skating, but as Leafs GM Dave Nonis said: "He's a better skater than he gives himself credit for."

12. Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel had an interesting answer when asked who he would put on the ice to protect a one-goal lead with Zach Bogosian injured. "I don't like to use the word 'protect' because it creates the idea you're defending the lead instead of attacking to extend it," Noel said. I like that kind of creative thinking.

13. Winnipeg saw such a difference in Mark Scheifele from last year to now. Both Noel and Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff noticed that Scheifele arrived in camp with much more of a "presence." At 18, he was careful. It's not like he's overly cocky, but he's obviously more comfortable. The Jets decided to keep him in junior instead of sending him to the AHL and it appears to have worked for Scheifele. Now the challenge will be finding him a spot with the team's best offensive players so he can grow.

14. If Game 1 for the Ottawa Senators was any indication, Marc Methot is going to be a perfect partner for Norris Trophy defenceman Erik Karlsson. Just like Filip Kuba, Methot understands he's there to do the dirty work. There were a few occasions Saturday against Winnipeg when Methot made sure he was the guy who chased the puck against a heavy forecheck, allowing Karlsson to avoid punishment.

15. Senators head coach Paul MacLean doesn't want Daniel Alfredsson to play all 48 regular-season games. Said Senators GM Bryan Murray: "I'd like to hear that conversation."

16. Murray on Washington Capitals rookie head coach Adam Oates: "I told George McPhee, 'We couldn't beat you guys before, now we're really in trouble.' Adam will know how to relate to all of his players. He won't yell and scream. He'll approach everyone the right way because he'll appreciate what everybody is."

17. Hockey Night In Canada analyst Kelly Hrudey has said several times he loved the 48-game season in 1995, but warned that it will be difficult on goalies at the start. Reason? The extraocular muscles around the eyes. "A muscle needs to be trained," said Hrudey, a former NHL goalie. "Even after as little as 2-3 days, they need to be retrained to the speed of NHL players shooting the puck. Equally as important is traffic in front of you. It takes an unbelievable amount of focus to deal with that. You can't replicate eye training in a practice or a scrimmage."

18. I was reminded of that Hrudey quote after hearing the Senators were keeping all of their goalies -- Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop, Robin Lehner -- to start the year (I spoke to Murray before this decision was announced). Undoubtedly, he's getting calls about them, but it sounds like he'll keep all three in the organization in case of injury -- unless he gets a ridiculous offer.

19. Well, that brings us to Roberto Luongo. Even before Vancouver's ugly opener, there were complications. Canucks GM Mike Gillis is determined to get good value. Nazem Kadri's improved play caused Toronto to pull him from any trade offer. Teams believed the market for him is shrinking and, when you get key injuries like Vancouver (Ryan Kesler, David Booth), other GMs throw you anvils instead of lifejackets.

20. Starting 0-2 with losses to the Anaheim Ducks and Oilers only makes the last problem worse. Gillis has to be patient because you can't let two games ruin your long-term plan. The one thing everyone has to remember is that circumstances can change in a split second. Another team suffers an injury or gets desperate and suddenly a new trading partner emerges out of nowhere. Of course, the Canucks need to get going too.

21. When Martin Brodeur's future was uncertain, it appears the New Jersey Devils at least inquired about Luongo. Interesting. Now that Brodeur is signed for two years, it's no longer necessary.

22. Oilers rookie head coach Ralph Krueger was very aggressive in overtime against the Canucks. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins dominated the forwards' ice-time. Ryan Smyth got one shift and Shawn Horcoff took a defensive-zone faceoff before going right to the bench. Krueger really went for it. He also let Gagner (48 per cent on faceoffs last season) take defensive-zone draws against Henrik Sedin.

23. Kris Letang led the Pittsburgh Penguins in ice time in each of its weekend games (27:03 minutes versus the Philadelphia Flyers, 24:17 against the New York Rangers) and looks terrific. He works out in the off-season at P.J. Stock's gym in Montreal. Letang does pullups with a 120-pound dumbbell attached to him and carries what PJ calls an "I can beat you" mentality while working out. "The most explosive legs in the gym of any athlete," Stock said.

24. Pittsburgh had 18,000 fans at a public scrimmage last week and will be fired up for Wednesday's home opener against Toronto. Impressive road wins against the Flyers and Rangers. You can tell the Penguins are angry about the way Philly embarrassed them last year. You can really see it on Sidney Crosby. Penguins fans know how his 2008 summer workout was motivated by a photo of Henrik Zetterberg raising the Stanley Cup after Detroit beat them. I'd bet Claude Giroux gave him similar motivation last summer.

25. The other thing the Penguins have done is create competition for Marc-Andre Fleury from within. Having Tomas Vokoun there and giving him a big game against the Rangers should make Fleury feel slightly uncomfortable. He needs that push. Yes, he's the guy, but he should still feel threatened occasionally.

26. After watching this weekend, I wondered if Chris Campoli's landing spot would be Philadelphia. They do have eight defencemen under contract, though.

27. Marian Hossa: Two games, four goals, five points, nine shots and not against weak sisters, either. The Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes are two of the NHL's best defensive teams. With all the awful stories about concussions, it's great to see a strong recovery.

28. Anaheim's Cam Fowler missed the Canucks game with the flu, so we'll have to wait to see how he's deployed. He's the team's best puck-moving defenceman and, with Scott Niedermayer now on the Ducks coaching staff, it sounds like they're going to try some new stuff with him.

29. Nice gestures of the week: The Tampa Bay Lightning re-scheduled practice last Monday so several players could attend Katie Moore's funeral (Dominic Moore, her husband, played 133 games for Tampa). Lightning owner Jeff Vinik provided his private jet to facilitate the opportunity. Sean Bergenheim, who is injured, also went. Meanwhile, the Rangers, in partnership with Chase Bank, gave a mortgage-free home to a wounded Afghanistan war veteran on Sunday. That's really something.

30. I know there were a lot of people around the league mourning last week's death of original San Jose co-owner George Gund. Hrudey, who played there from 1996-98, said Gund dressed as Santa Claus at the annual family Christmas party. "He loved it and was fantastic to the kids," Hrudey said. "A great guy."

Follow Elliotte Friedman on Twitter @FriedgeHNIC

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