Thursday, July 19, 2012

Weber signs 14 year, $110 million offer sheet from Flyers

After seeing the news this morning that broke while most of us were sleeping about the Flyers offer-sheeting Nashville captain and star defenseman Shea Weber to a 14 year, $110 million deal, one of my first thoughts was how could none of us see this coming?  And my second thought was that a lockout's virtually assured now after all the craziness of this offseason.  Philly had already offered upwards of $100 million to the Minnesota duo of Parise and Suter, clearly GM Paul Holmgren (who hasn't met a roster he doesn't like to radically alter) had money to burn and wanted to do something big.  With Chris Pronger more or less gone for good and Matt Carle having gone off to Tampa Bay, the Flyers needed to fortify an already leaky defense.  Who out there could replace Pronger better than the 26-year old Weber, a Norris finalist the last two years with a booming shot and physicality to match?

Yet, the news still sent shockwaves throughout the NHL for more than one reason that became apparent as details of the contract leaked out through the course of the day.  First of all, offer sheets do tend to be a rarity.  For whatever the reason, maybe teams have a tacit understanding that I won't poach your RFA if you don't poach mine, or teams generally expect any offer to be matched regardless aside from something big like this.  A lot of people do frown on offer sheets, but I think it's a smart move under the right circumstances.  Either when you structure it in a way that you're sure the other team can't match financially, or you use it to set up another move like the Sharks did by offer-sheeting Nicklas Hjalmarsson, forcing the Blackhawks to walk away from goalie Antti Niemi because they were so far up against the cap - who the Sharks really wanted to begin with.  If it's legal and can benefit your team or injure a competitor, I don't see the big deal in using that rule.  Clearly the Flyers aren't shy about doing this, having tried to get Ryan Kesler from the Canucks a couple years back to no avail.

Whether the offer sheet in itself should exist is another matter.  With the UFA age already as young as 25 years old (if you start in the NHL at 18 and have seven years of service time), having the offer sheet available to RFA's basically starts the UFA clock even earlier since you more or less have to overpay dramatically to get anyone to sign an offer sheet.  Yes, teams do pay a price in the form of draft picks, but do you really think Holmgren cares about giving up what may be four late first-rounders to obtain an asset such as Weber, a franchise defenseman for the next decade?

Not to mention the structure of this deal makes the ultimate mockery of the salary cap and CBA:

$1 million contract and $13 million bonus each of the first four years.
$4 million contract and $8 million bonus in fifth and sixth years.
$6 million contract annually in seventh through 10th years.
$3 million contract annually in 11th year.
$1 million contract annually in 12th-14th years.

Even the grand total of $110 million isn't the staggering figure, or even the $104 million over the first ten years.  What's truly staggering is the $68 million worth of signing bonuses in the first six years of the contract combined ($80 million total value).  Weber got the maximum allowable signing bonus in each of the first four years of the contract, meaning that in the span of three calendar years, Philly or Nashville should they choose to match will have to cough up $55 million total, $52 million in four huge up-front checks - one of them immediately, one next offseason, one during the 2014-15 offseason and 2015-16 offseasons as well.  Having to cough up $26 million in the span of one calendar year is bad enough, but with more huge lump sum payments due over the next few years, there really is little letup financially until Weber's in his mid 30's.

I'm sorry, nobody can convince me using signing bonuses in this way, with literally over 60% of the contract in the form of up-front checks, is any less of a violation of the 'spirit' of the cap than either of the Ilya Kovalchuk contracts.  I wonder what Kovy must be thinking now, seeing as he took $12 million during the first two years with no up front money, while FA's this offseason have been getting twice as much in one calendar year?  Not that Kovy's going to starve with his $11 million seasons set to begin this year, but it honestly is amazing in hindsight that teams didn't use signing bonuses like this before last offseason, when Christian Ehrhoff, Ilya Bryzgalov and Brad Richards opened the floodgates for the massive up-front payments that have stunned the hockey world this offseason. 

Obviously some of it's a byproduct of the fact there may be a lockout and players want their money guaranteed, but still these are not only cap-defeating but a way to bully small markets like Nashville.  You wonder what GM David Poile must be thinking, faced with the unfathomable prospect of losing defensive studs Weber and Ryan Suter in a single offseason.  Or how quickly Pekka Rinne will ask for a trade after he signed his own seven year, $49 million extension with a Predators team that is quickly becoming defanged on the blueline.  I can't even begin to fathom what Predator fans must be feeling.  Granted, the Devils lost Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer in one offseason themselves (retirement and FA defection) but they still had Martin Brodeur, and an NHL-caliber offense.  Nashville's never really had a top-flight offense and Rinne will find it to be a very different proposition next year if he doesn't have either Suter or Weber on the blueline.

Officially, the clock began ticking this morning on the Predators.  They have seven days to either match, work out a trade or just walk away with four first-round picks and a disillusioned fanbase and franchise.  While PR-wise and in terms of on-ice need Nashville really has little choice but to match, do they possibly have the means to match this type of a contract?  If they still have an internal budget, how are they going to shell out $14 million for Weber over each of the next four seasons, including a $13 million check in the next week?  Word from Darren Dreger is that the Preds were already trying to work out a trade for Weber with Philly and other teams (an indicator that Weber was not going to re-up before next July 1), but clearly the Flyers didn't like the Preds' asking price and decided to force Poile to show his hand.

What happens next will be very interesting, and potentially very frightening for Atlantic Division foes (as well as Nashville fans themselves).  One thing's clear.  The upcoming CBA war, which already looked like it was warming up just got even hotter.  Having a hard cap when the celing's $39 million is one thing, but having a cap when the celing's $70 million and you can pay chunks more than that in signing bonuses is something else.  Once again this is going to be a three-pronged war with the big markets vs. the small markets vs. the union, which is now repped by Don Fehr, the former king of baseball labor strife. 

Then again, when isn't it a three-pronged war in any labor negotiation anymore?

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