On the face of it, Drew Doughty finally beat down the Los Angeles Kings, forcing them to accept his terms on a new contract.
But this is a win for the Kings just as it is for Doughty, 21, who agreed to an eight-year deal for an average of $7-million per year late Thursday night. The agreement ended a bitter standoff between Doughty and the Kings, which grew increasingly nasty in the last few weeks when the Kings refused to increase their offer beyond the $6.8-million per year centre Anze Kopitar, 24, is making. Doughty and his agent, Don Meehan, would not take less than $7-million a year.
By giving in to Doughty and Meehan, the Kings secured its most important player, who is already one of the league’s best defencemen, for the next eight years. It reassures a fragile fan base they are serious about winning. With the additions of forwards Mike Richards and Simon Gagne to complement a solid defence anchored by Doughty in front of a pair of excellent young goaltenders, the Kings are in position to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
When the Kings finally decided to cross that $200,000 divide, which in terms of a $64.3-million annual salary cap is hardly the Grand Canyon, it appeared to be yet another win for a rising NHL star. Steven Stamkos, 21, just hit up the Tampa Bay Lightning for five years at $7.5-million per year. Before he was traded to the Kings, Richards squeezed a 12-year deal out of the Philadelphia Flyers for a total of $69-million in 2008 when he was 23.
The owners can cry about this all they want, and many are because this is the last season of the current collective agreement, but this is the system they wanted so badly they shut down their league for a full season in 2004-05. It places the emphasis on developing your own talent with a limit on how much you can pay the players, but on the players’ side there is a day when they can hit the jackpot.
That day used to be when the player hit unrestricted free agency after seven years, which can happen for players as young as 25. Now, for players thought to be a team’s next superstar, that day is when they are 21 or 22 and coming out of their first contract as a professional.
The players and their agents soon figured out that in a system that emphasizes homegrown talent, owners and managers have to hang on to the very best of those players or all that work finding them is wasted. Lock up your assets became the mantra. So the Ovechkins and Stamkoses of the hockey world were now being signed to whopping, long-term contracts to keep them out of the free-agent market.
Granted, this is a risky business, given the chances of serious injury or a serious miscue by your general manager about a young player. But these contracts are not meant for every player. You don’t hand one to Rick DiPietro, for example, who was not exactly the best goaltender in the NHL, and then watch him deal with various injuries.
These contracts should only go to the very best. Doughty already showed he is one of those players by the time he was 20, even if last season was a bit of a step back for him. Just think back to his performance at the Vancouver Olympics in February, 2010, when he became a key player on the gold-medal Canadian team.
Yet Kings GM Dean Lombardi let this get personal. He essentially told one and all Kopitar, a promising young player but hardly a superstar, was the most important player on the team by insisting no one could earn more than him. Lombardi made empty threats about fining Doughty for not showing up at training camp.
There was talk about Doughty refusing anything but a contract that would take him to unrestricted free agency in four years because he was fed up with the Kings and wanted to look elsewhere as a free agent.
But at some point in the last few days, someone talked some sense into the Kings. Yes, as Kings governor Tim Leiweke told the Los Angeles Times, they spent more money on Doughty, Richards and Gagne in this off-season ($114.6-million) than it cost to buy the team in 1995 ($113.25-million).
On the flip side, the Kings secured a player who would have set off a free-agent frenzy in four years that would have made the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes (in which the Kings played a role) look like a tepid auction. Now their roster is set at $62-million with $2.3-million of cap room to spend on emergencies, so as Leiweke said, “Let’s go win some Cups.”