Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Flyers sign Shea Weber to an offer sheet

So the Flyers 'broke the code' and probably caused Brian Burke to have a minor aneurysm when they signed restricted free agent Predators defenceman and captain Shea Weber to a 14 year, $110 million offer sheet.  The ball is now in the Predators court, and they have seven days to decide whether they will match the Flyers' offer and retain Mr. Weber's services, or choose to let him leave and accept four first-round draft picks from the Flyers as compensation.

First off, the amount laid out by the Flyers is mostly reasonable for a player of Shea Weber's caliber.  He is a Norris Trophy-quality defenceman with no holes in his game.  He is good in the defensive zone, can play well offensively and is on the first powerplay unit, has a cannon of a shot that inspires fear in Carey Price (and douchy detachment from Tim Thomas), is tough and has a bit of a mean streak.  He is the all-around player who has the total package, a modern-day Larry Robinson or almost, and a more than adequate substitute for Chris Pronger, who was brought in to Philadelphia to lead the team to the Stanley Cup but whose career is threatened due to concussion injuries.

Put another way, if in today's crazy NHL free agent market Ryan Suter and Zach Parisé are worth 13 year $98M contracts, then Shea Weber's offer sheet is quite sane and buys his services at a decent price.  Mr. Weber is a much more valuable player than Ryan Suter, and has the edge over Zach Parisé in my book.

David Poile was forthright with the media and his fans when communicating the shock and frustration he felt with Ryan Suter for his leaving the team to sign with the Minnesota Wild on July 4.  The General Manager of the Predators knew losing him outright was a possibility when he chose not to trade him last season, instead signing Pekka Rinne to an extension and keeping his core of players intact for a playoff run, and adding pieces at the trade deadline.  What he believed though is that Mr. Suter would look around on July 1 but give the Preds an equal shot to match any offer out there, and would show some hometown loyalty.  He averred that he thought there was a verbal agreement between the team and the Suter camp that was not followed.  He expressed his astonishment that Mr. Suter would pass up a chance to play alongside Shea Weber for the rest of his career and be the most dominant pairing in the League, better than even the Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook pairing of the Blackhawks.

In a way, some might have thought that the departure of Mr. Suter would make it easier to sign Shea Weber, in that they could now shower him with a huge pile of money, which may not have been possible if they were trying to retain both.  With their undivided attention on Shea Weber, a monster contract was thought to be quite feasible.

Enter the Flyers, and their wheeling and dealing General Manager Paul Holmgren, who in a small way did the Predators a favour by setting the market for Shea Weber.  Rumours abound that the Flyers and Preds were embroiled in trade negotiations, and the Flyers twice thought they had a deal for Mr. Weber but the Preds would turn around and try to use the Flyers offer as a negotiating ploy with other teams, causing Mr. Holmgren to lose patience and force the issue.  Now Shea Weber is committed to play with the Flyers unless the Predators match the offer.  If they do, they cannot trade Mr. Weber for at least one season.

And there lies the issue.  The Flyers know that the Predators, as a small market low-revenue team, are vulnerable to an aggressive front-loaded offer sheet, and they acted consequently.  They structured the contract so that Mr. Weber will receive two $13M bonuses in the first year.  If the Preds can't amass that amount of cash this quickly, or if their intention would be to match the offer and subsequently trade the defenceman, this initial outlay of $26M may be enough to get them to back down and accept the four first-rounders.

In a way, if the Nashville team wants to send a message that it is a serious team and wants to contend for the Stanley Cup, if it wants to be major league in the eyes of the League and the fans, and if they want to win, then they have to match the contract offer and retain their captain and best player.  The draft picks will not adequately compensate them for losing one of the best players in the league.  There is also the concern that they are currently $14M below the cap floor as it sits in the current CBA.  If they let Shea Weber walk, who will they spend that money on?   The list of remaining unrestricted free agents isn't very appetizing.  They'd be like Monty Brewster at the 99 cents store.

There are reasons for which the Preds may not match the contract offer however.  The big reason in this observer's eyes is that he apparently doesn't want to be in Nashville.  If he did, he would have worked out a similar deal with the Preds a long time ago.  He and Ryan Suter wouldn't have done the uncomfortable shuffle they did the past couple of years, claiming allegiance to Nashville but refusing to set pen to paper, choosing instead to point fingers at each other ("You jump first." "No, you jump first.") and stating they wanted to see where the organization was headed.  It looks like they knew all along what the direction was, it pointed out of town.

The Predators may also think that a 14 year contract is folly, even for a durable and valuable player like Shea Weber, and even when it seems to be transparently set up so that the last three years will be moot and the player will retire rather than play for a million dollars a year at age 40.

And this may be a card the Preds will play.  They may appeal to League Commissioner Gary Bettman and get him to rule the offered contract an attempt to circumvent the rules of the salary cap, void it, and send the team back to square one with its free agent.  While this has happened before when he punished the Devils for their initial contract with Ilya Kovalchuk, it remains to be seen if Mr. Bettman will dare to defy Ed Snider, owner of the Flyers and ComCast, the parent company of NBC Sports Network, the broadcasting partner of the NHL.  We've seen Mr. Bettman recently treat one 'partner' shabbily when he made a ludicrous opening offer to the NHLPA during their collective bargaining process, but it's another matter entirely to go up against someone who is essentially his boss.  I expect Gary to play nicey nicey.

Last season, it was thought likely that someone would offer sheet Steven Stamkos or Drew Doughty or both, since they are generational talents who were already dominant players very early in their career.  When one wasn't made, there were accusations of collusion between the owners and GM's to not jack up the bidding between themselves.  A very logical explanation was made by a GM who said that the only way an offer sheet works is if you overpay the player.  If you don't overpay, the player's current team will match the offer.  If you overpay, the team doesn't match and you land the player, then you have other problems on your hands, in that you have now upset your own team's salary structure, and are probably going to have to divest yourself of some useful players to stay under the cap.  Thus, he explained, offer sheets don't really work, and that's why they're not used often.

In this specific case, the Flyers found that they can work quite well.  They will either end up with Shea Weber at a reasonable cost in terms of salary and compensation owed to Nashville, and will have a big piece of the puzzle in place for a few runs at a Stanley Cup.  If the Predators match the offer, the Flyers at least kept him out of the hands of the Rangers and the Penguins for a couple years.  And they can show that in certain targeted situations, when used against a team hard up against the salary cap or struggling to generate revenue, an offer sheet is one more trick up a GM's sleeve.

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