Just about a week ago, the normally mild-mannered and media friendly Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz uncharacteristically lashed out at a reporter that had asked a relatively innocuous question. It had to do with the fact that after 10 games, Predators captain (and $14-million man) Shea Weber had finally registered his first scoring point of the season.
Trotz took exception to the question and everything it implied – that Weber hadn’t been getting the job done because he hadn’t been putting up points. Weber was playing his usual 27-plus minutes per night for the Predators and despite their perennial no-name cast up front, they were once again confounding the critics and staying competitive in the Western Conference.
It was an interesting moment because it highlights an honest disconnection between the 30 NHL coaches, who really only care about two points in the standings, and everybody else: Owners, general managers, reporters, fans, fantasy hockey aficionados, all of whom DO care about scoring points.
For good or for bad, this is the reality of the new post salary-cap NHL: Every player’s performance is filtered through the prism of his contract and the value he delivers vis a vis the dollars he eats up on the payroll.
In Weber’s case, the small-market Predators made a hard financial decision this past summer after he’d signed a free-agent offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers. They’d already lost a linchpin on defence, Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild through unrestricted free agency (and a $98-million contract offer).
The credibility they’d so painstakingly established year after year was at stake. So the Predators exercised their rights under the collective bargaining agreement, and matched the offer, which is why Weber is the highest paid player in the NHL this year at $14-million, $13-million of which he’d already received even before the lockout began.
Suddenly, however, people looked at Weber differently. Only three years ago, he was earning $4.5-million per season – and thus represented one of the NHL’s biggest bargains, a player with a massive shot, who played physically and was unusually mobile for a big man. But at $14-million, he pretty much needed to be that, plus an amalgam of Bobby Orr, Eddie Shore and Nicklas Lidstrom, to deliver value on the contract.
The NHL is littered with examples of players who are considered underachievers, not because of the way they’re playing necessarily, but in terms of how what they’re delivering compared to their compensation levels. In Calgary, fans have never really taken to Jay Bouwmeester because, at $6.68-million per season, they want to see more than just a player who eats up minutes (24 per game), and plays a steady brand of defence. They want to see offence (improving this year) and physical play (probably never happen).
In Edmonton, the Oilers are on the hook to Shawn Horcoff for six years, a contract that started at $7-million per season, pays him $6-million this year and comes in at an annual cap charge of $5.5-million - all this to be their third-line centre between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner. Horcoff’s value to the team is indisputable. Without him in the lineup, they seemed adrift. He is a key leader, good in the face-off circle and the glue that keeps a young team together. But $5.5-million is too much to pay for a 34-point scorer – and the expectation is he’ll receive a compliance buyout next year, so the Oilers can free up some salary-cap space to get their young core signed.
Danny Briere talked about this matter a few years back when the Philadelphia Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks. In the summer of 2007, coming off a 95-point season with the Buffalo Sabres, Briere had his choice of free-agent destinations and picked Philadelphia. His contract, that year, was staggering - $56-million in all, with $10-million allocated to the first year, $8-million to the next two. Overnight, Briere was no longer this great against-all-odds story anymore – the player who went unclaimed on NHL waivers, and then turned himself into a top-three forward on a Cup-contending team.
Minnesota spent just under $200-million on two players, Suter and Parise, and in the early going, was not demonstrably any better than they were a year ago. Eventually, you’d think that they’ll find their rhythm and place on the roster, but it takes time – and time is in short supply in this lightning round of a 48-game season.
Parise had 12 points in his first 13 games for the Wild and says of living up to the expectations of his new contract: “It’s a fair question, but honestly, it’s the last thing I think about right now. I’ve played here in this league long enough, where I understand how I need to play and what works for me. All that side stuff, the media stuff, I don’t allow myself to think about it.”