"I'll do it if you do it."
[Today was about Doug Weight, but we have unfinished business from yesterday to consider...]
The Islanders do not have any superstars and likely will not luck into one anytime soon. That means they have to build a deep team of very solid players who all help pull the rope, rather than accessorize with complementary pieces around a generational star bequeathed by those rare tank-loving hockey gods who nudge their way into NHL affairs every decade or so.
With that in mind, there are many things to like about the Islanders' five-year, $14 million contract with Kyle Okposo, as it's another fair deal signed with an eye toward security for the player and flexibility for the team. This matters, in many ways, all the more so for a lower revenue team hoping to get a new building and put stability questions to rest once and for all.
For starters, it's just the third contract to extend beyond the expiration of the Nassau Coliseum lease (Michael Grabner's being one; some seldom-mentioned goalie's deal being the other). For another, it's a continuation of a pattern of quality Islanders committing long term, exchanging a bit of potential UFA salary in return for security and belief from their employer. Frans Nielsen and Andrew MacDonald -- bargain-rate guys the Islanders took a chance on at four years -- represent one side of that coin. Grabner and Okposo represent a higher-dollar version of the other.
With the club's future venue hanging in the balance, there are PR benefits to steadily announcing deals like this. But there are many hockey reasons, too.
A note about belief from your employer: I know it's the official site's version, but I think Okposo's quote there is not just PR. To many people, and quite a few players, this matters:
"I really appreciate Garth's willingness to sign me to a long-term deal even though I didn't play my best hockey this year," Okposo said. "The faith that he's shown in me really bodes well for my confidence. It's an affirmation that I am a good hockey player and that they know what I can do. I'm excited about that."
The Islanders under Charles Wang's ownership sure are into loyalty, first signaled by their famously giant commitments to Rick DiPietro and Alexei Yashin. It's impossible to overstate how both those deals were too long, though one underreported facet of them is that with the direction NHL salaries appeared to be going at the time, they were signed with an eye toward exchanging long-term commitment for future earnings opportunities.
Again, both were too long and too generous. But I at least understood the theory.
In recent years, the Islanders have modified that theory. Contracts are shorter, but they are still making long-term commitments to players they believe are and will remain important. Nielsen and MacDonald were both prescient moves. Not as prescient was the five-year deal given to Trent Hunter, who has seen his last three seasons limited by injuries and lower production.
But even Hunter's deal carried a key component: The worst-case scenario still wasn't awful. At $2 million annually, Hunter's compensation is below the league average and he is a "character" player who -- even if his production declines as it has -- will not become one of those overpaid sideshow malcontents. (I'd add that his defensive strengths are often overlooked by many Isles fans, but that's another topic.) Hunter's $2 million slot isn't ideal for a guy who's managed only 26 goals and 133 games over the past three seasons, but it is in no way a handcuff.
Still, Hunter was a player approaching unrestricted free agency. Nielsen, MacDonald, Okposo and Grabner were all guys coming up on restricted free agency, which is a different animal.
The Benefits of Long - But Not Too Long - Term
Under the current CBA, when a typical* player's Entry Level Contract (ELC) expires he has a couple options: Sign for two more years to take himself to arbitration-eligible territory, or sign for longer to take himself to unrestricted free agency.
*There are exceptions, always exceptions. But the CBA is 400-plus pages, so go with me here.
(For a recent arbitration reference, you'll recall Matt Moulson -- a slightly different case due to his late bloom and older age -- was on the doorstep of arbitration with the Isles before agreeing to a one-year $2.45 million deal. This season, on his way to a second 30-goal campaign, they re-signed the would-be UFA to a three-year deal at a little over $3.1 million per. Also last summer, an arbitrator awarded Clarke MacArthur $2.4 million, and the Thrashers walked away.)
As you can see, just because restricted free agency limits salaries doesn't mean it's going to keep a good player at ELC levels.
So for a player, the advantage of taking the short deal on your second contract is, if you're growing into a star, you'll be able to make a mint in your arbitration year. That's not unrestricted free agency (when you can go to the highest bidder), but it is an RFA stage where you have the threat of an arbitrator giving you a big raise fast. And you can put the fear in your employer that if they don't buck up now, you'll be running for the Burke-iest bidder in two more years.
The advantage of the longer, arbitration-skipping route: Security and commitment from your team, minus the often ugly arbitration process. By going long with the Islanders at an average annual value (AAV) of $2.8 million, Okposo has selected that route. He's getting a considerable raise overall, but it's with an escalating salary that pays him $4.5 million by the final year -- which would've been his first year of unrestricted free agency.
Not that they are direct comparables, but for reference, Boston signed Milan Lucic to his second contract at an annual cap hit of $4.08 million.
Market Value, and Internal Cap
Players who consume as much or more than Okposo's new $2.8 million cap hit include Dan Cleary, Fedor Tyutin, Colby Armstrong, Olli Jokinen, and Erik Cole. Granted, those represent multiple positions and some of those guys had UFA leverage when they signed, so that's not just apples and oranges, it's apples, oranges and pears. But none are signed as far into the future (and into an uncertain CBA, where the UFA age could even get lower) as Okposo and Grabner.
It's unclear how good Okposo will become, or how consistent Grabner can be. But $2.8 million for a defensively sound workhorse with scoring punch and $3 million for a speedy penalty killer and apparent 30-goal threat is solid at any level of free agent status.
With the Islanders operating under what appears to be an internal budget (or just plain fiscal restraint) well short of the cap ceiling, this sort of bargain-parsing becomes all the more important. To be sure, the Islanders have not pushed the salary cap ceiling and likely won't any time soon. That makes controlling their assets at affordable levels all the more important.
The Backload Approach
I don't know Charles Wang's finances and don't know how the proposed new arena will affect Islanders revenues. (The presumption, always, is that they go up. But by how much?). I also don't know how that will be affected by Wang's widely reported pledge to pay overages if the cost of the new arena exceeds $350 million.
Regardless, backloading the actual salaries (not the cap hit) on these deals causes the player's paycheck to steadily go up (a nice feeling for the employee) while also making the player easier to handle at the end of the contract when: a) revenues should be higher, and b) if things go south and the player needs to be dealt, higher-revenue cap-pressing teams can more easily digest a contract that pays out more in actual cash than it consumes in actual cap hit.
(For an example of this kind of maneuver, which Earl Sleek has coined "Rich Dad, Poor Dad": When the cap-pushing Edmonton Oilers traded Lubomir Visnovsky to the internal-budgeted Anaheim Ducks for Ryan Whitney, the Oilers were getting rid of a guy (Visnovsky) who was still due to consume $11.2 million more in cap space -- but only $8 million in actual cash -- in exchange for a guy (Whitney) who was due only $8 million more in cap space, but $10.5 million in actual cash. In short, Rich Dad dumped a front-loaded deal, while Poor Dad shed a backloaded deal whose priciest years were yet to come.)
By NHL standards and by presumed revenue streams going forward, the Islanders are still Poor Dad.
On that note, I don't expect either Okposo or Grabner to divorce the Isles or become trade bait. But no one ever does. Yet sometimes these things happen. The beauty of these deals is shared risk, shared commitment from player and club. The player will get paid; the club will not get stuck if things don't work out.
Relocation Aside: Of course the other, worst-case scenario here is if no new building can be constructed, the lease expires without replacement in 2015, and Wang has no recourse and no interest in owning the team elsewhere. In that scenario, the bulk of actual cash outlay on these two backloaded deals falls to a potential new owner. But if it came to that disaster scenario, well we'll be calling this whole exercise off anyway, so it's not terribly important here.
A Young Core Buying In
Grabner and Okposo follow behind the older Matt Moulson in signing up for more of what Wang is cooking. They now have three "top six" forwards signed for three-plus years at an average of $3 million each. Not too shabby.
The Islanders still need plenty of help from within and without. But their important players are buying in, they're signing long -- and they're not going for market-busting deals to do so. Ironically, while prime UFAs have a hard time seeing the way to Long Island, the young RFAs who represent this team's future are on board.
Speaking of which...
The Next Deals: Bailey, Comeau, Tavares?
Tavares doesn't need to be taken care of until next summer, but that process could always begin earlier. (Contract "extensions" can only be entered into during the final season of a player's contract.) I'm hoping Grabner and Okposo represent a new limit to the contract lengths the Islanders will give, but Tavares -- the closest the Isles have to a superstar -- could be an exception.
Either way, Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau are fellow RFAs forwards who are left on the docket. Their stock isn't as high as Grabner or Okposo's, which should mean that they command lower salaries -- but could also mean they might wish to increase their value through better performance before signing long term. Either way, they remain pieces of the puzzle.
How much will Garth Snow sign them for...and how long? What a fun, busy summer.