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."
It may well be that Parise is one of the few players in the league who can actually block out the effects of his big pay day. Presumably, he knows if you're a league leader playing on a comparatively small contract, you're a hero. If you make $10-million, you need to walk on water, solve world hunger - and score 50 goals before anyone is satisfied.
Parise laughed at that observation.
"It's true," he said. "I know people can't wait to jump on it. That's human nature. People love to jump on things like that. It doesn't bother me."
THIS AND THAT: Speaking of big contracts and the Nashville Predators, goaltender Pekka Rinne is starting to earn his. After failing to register a win in his first five starts of the season, Rinne is on a tear – two consecutive shutouts and three in his last four games. In all, he has now gone 137 minutes and 41 seconds without surrendering a goal. Even without Suter to man the defence, the Predators are the stingiest team in the NHL – and Rinne is back among the league leaders in goal, with a 1.61 GAA and a .938 save percentage … Until they lost 4-3 in a shootout to the Colorado Avalanche Thursday, Minnesota had gone six games in a row, scoring just a single goal in regulation. They won one of those in overtime and another in a shootout … As the contract standoff between the Avalanche and centre Ryan O'Reilly drags on, it becomes more and more likely that the NHL team will trade his rights. Question: What is fair value for a player who led the Avalanche in scoring last year (albeit with just 55 points), just turned 22 and is considered an excellent two-way player? Is a first-rounder in a deep 2013 draft enough? Or would the Avs insist on a quality young player going the other way too? For any team evaluating the decision, the question is how much they're asking is how much will O'Reilly eventually score in the NHL (he had 107 points in his first 236 games)? O'Reilly last scored more than 20 goals in a season playing for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens of the Greater Toronto Hockey League back in 2006-07. In his two years with the OHL's Erie Otters, O'Reilly had 19 and 16 goals in 61 and 68 games respectively.
THE IGGY WATCH: At his best, Calgary Flames' captain Jarome Iginla plays with an edge. When he gets involved physically, usually the other parts of his game – most notably the offence – falls into place. Iginla played that way this past Wednesday, getting into two scraps and setting up two goals, both pivotal in the team's 7-4 win over the Dallas Stars, which got them to 4-4-3 and out of the Northwest Division cellar. Iginla's future in Calgary is subject to almost daily speculation, but it is unlikely that the Flames would move him unless they fall far out of the playoff picture by the Apr. 3 trade deadline. At the moment, the key is to muddle along without starting goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, out another two weeks with a sprained knee …Every team that builds through the draft acknowledges that there'll be growing pains, no matter how precocious the prospects. Consider the Edmonton Oilers, where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has now gone 23 games without scoring an NHL goal dating back to last season, when he scored 18 times in 62 games. The puck's gone in for Nugent-Hopkins in the minors and for the world junior team, but not in Edmonton, where Jordan Eberle has also gone eight games without a goal. Edmonton needs to make strides now because in March, they'll be on an extended road trip, when the Brier curling championships move into Rexall Place.
KING FOR A DAY: Droughts do come to an end eventually, as Kings' backup Jonathan Bernier can attest. Bernier went almost 11 months between wins, before earning the victory this past Monday for L.A. over the St. Louis Blues. Jonathan Quick, MVP of last year's Stanley Cup playoffs, has a 3-4-2 record, an .891 save percentage and a 2.70 GAA through 10 starts coming off off-season back surgery. Asked Thursday if there was one thing he'd like to see the team do better, Quick answered: "Yeah, I'd like to see myself play better. I think that's the biggest thing" … Los Angeles is seeing a far different Jeff Carter this year as opposed to last, partly because he's healthy and partly because he put on 11 pounds of muscle in the extended off-season. On a Kings team struggling to score goals again, Carter is leading the way with six goals … L.A. is bringing up the rear in the Pacific Division and one reason is that their defence corps has been decimated by injuries. Fully one-half of their regulars in last year's Stanley Cup drive – Willie Mitchell, Matt Greene and now Alec Martinez – are out with significant injuries … From press box to penthouse: Defenceman Keaton Ellerby was largely a depth player for Florida this season, but since arriving in L.A., he is playing above 19 minutes per night on the No. 1 defensive pair alongside Drew Doughty. Ellerby's father Cal played junior hockey in Calgary on the same Wranglers' team as Ralph Krueger, the Oilers' coach, and Kelly Kisio, the long-time NHLer who now runs the WHL Hitmen.