Well, dear readers, it begins. Actually, it began last weekend when the Penguins acquired the rights to D Dan Hamhis at the NHL Entry Draft. I can say that my fourth summer of offseason coverage has by far been the busiest, and that is saying something because the lead-up and follow through in 2008 literally damaged my right arm from the entire cell-phone neck-leaning, note-taking and typing thing.
— I’ve never covered a negotiation as interesting as the one between GM Ray Shero and the agent for D Sergei Gonchar. The word on agent JP Barry has always been that he is a reputably cordial but tough negotiator, and that would be my opinion after these past weeks. The past year, actually. With about three hours before the NHL’s free-agent season begins at noon today, Gonchar looked likely to hit an open market where he will be coveted, from what I can gather after spending the past week surveying fellow beat reporters and national writers. Why is he hitting the market? Term, plain and simple. Barry has been asking for a three-year extension, and the Penguins won’t go there. Barry will do a two-year deal, but not at an annual salary the Penguins can live with.
That third year and why it is a sticking point:
Gonchar is 36. Under the CBA between players and the league, a contract signed by a player before his 35th birthday would not count against a team’s salary cap if/when that player retires. The long-term deals signed in the past by, say, Henrik Zetterberg with the Red Wings and Chris Pronger with the Flyers, are less risky for those clubs, even though the contracts would take those players into their late 30s and sometimes beyond, for a couple of reasons:
1) Going long-term afforded those clubs a chance to get the average cap-hit reduced;
2) That cap hit doesn’t exist once that player retires, which is likely near the end of the deal because those contracts were front-loaded with actual payments. Remember the cap hit is the average annual salary of a contract, so a seven-year deal worth $35 million is at a $5 million annual hit; but a player could actually take home the majority of that contract over four years. When looking at a long-term deal signed by a player in his mid-30s (but not at 35), look at the term of years and the up-front salary. Whatever that player is set to make in the shortest term is a pretty good read on what that deal really is.
A fan reading this might ask: Why didn’t the Penguins extend Gonchar before his 35th birthday? Well, the CBA didn’t allow for that. Only in the final 12 months of a contract can negotiations take place between a player and team. So Gonchar and the Penguins couldn’t start talking until July 1, 2009, and he had turned 35 by then.
This might have been a doomed situation from the start regarding his return. Had he signed a four-year deal with the Penguins in July 2005 instead of five, I’m pretty confident he would be finishing his career in Pittsburgh. Maybe not, because that 2008 offseason was nuts for Shero given the magnitude of core players with whom he had to negotiate. Still, it’s hard to see Gonchar not asking for — and getting — a long-term deal in July 2008 were that possible, because at that point a long-term deal would have been most agreeable to him and the Penguins.
Teammates believe Gonchar wants to return. I’ll say this to that: If he does, he will. If Gonchar, 36, really wants to play with the Penguins next season, well, he knows what their offer is. That offer hasn’t changed in weeks. He awoke today with a decision to make, and I’m not saying he’d make the wrong one by testing the market. In fact, I’d suggest he is foolish to do anything but play a field with potential lavish deal-offering suitors. That said, if he wants to play in Pittsburgh—- well, as it has been on the power play the last five years, the puck is on his stick blade.
— Shero was speaking with Hamhuis and his agent, Wade Arnott, deep into Wednesday night. I have no confirmation as of today, but when I finally hit the sheets around 3 a.m. I did so with an understanding that Arnott and Shero would be speaking again this morning.
Last I heard from Shero, he classified the talks with Hamhuis’ camp as “discussions.” I’ve been getting a lot of emails from readers — and thanks for that, really; keep them coming (firstname.lastname@example.org) — that if Shero hasn’t talked contract terms and salary yet, he’s dropped the proverbial ball. I disagree, mostly because I don’t believe noon will come without Hamhuis having a crystal-clear understanding of what is being offered in Pittsburgh. By that I mean he’ll have been presented with a flexible offer regarding term and annual salary, and he’ll know where he fits into the Penguins’ players regarding roster placement and team responsibilities. “Discussions” is a vague term, and Shero has no reason to tip his hand as to what it really means.
Hamhuis is 27, and by all accounts he’ll have no shortage of teams looking to sign him today. He’s crazy not to test the market, and he is reportedly a big NHLPA guy, so he almost has to test the market. That said, if it is not true that his heart is set on returning to Western Canada (and Arnott told me Tuesday that wasn’t true), then Hamhuis could test the waters early today and decided, “Hey, Pittsburgh is the best fit.”
It’s a risk, though. The Penguins are already moving on with plans to upgrade their defense corps without Hamhuis or Gonchar. They can’t wait around for any player, not after the 2008 offseason, as I noted here: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/penguins/s_688219.html
— It appears as though Ds Mark Eaton and Jordan Leopold are going to test the market. I’m paying close attention to Eaton, specifically.
He is a Shero Guy, so to speak. Like Hamhuis, his relationship with Shero extends to their days together in Nashville. Shero signed Eaton for two years in July 2008 after Eaton had played two injury-plagued seasons with the Penguins. There is a loyalty factor both men share even though this is a business.
I wouldn’t rule out Eaton signing before or shortly after noon. If he does, certainly that can be taken to mean the Penguins have ruled out Gonchar or Hamhuis.
— A name to watch today on the wing front is Ray Whitney. He was a big dot on the Penguins’ radar during the trade deadline period, and Shero is a good bet to inquire about his interest in playing with the Penguins. I’m hearing it will take a two-year deal to snag Whitney, 38.
A gamble? Yep, but he has scored 102 goals over the last four seasons. However, his 21 last season with Carolina were the lowest total during that span. Reports have him wanting another shot at the Stanley Cup; he’d get that with the Penguins, though how much he’d help next spring remains a reasonable concern given his age.
If Whitney is signed, that likely means RW Bill Guerin’s short Penguins tenure is over. If so, it’s hard to think of a guy who meant more over 15 months. They don’t win the Cup in 2009 without his on- and off-ice contributions. That is a fact.
OK, dear readers, keep checking back for updates. Most won’t be this long. By now, the longtime followers are aware how this works today: When I hear something and can confirm it, I post a blog update. This first day of UFA season might be slower than year’s past, but I’ll probably squeeze out a few updates anyway.
We’re under two hours until the noon deadline. Happy Canada Day to all, and to those of us that cover this league I’m sure the last was the first of many sleep-deprived nights.