Andrew MacDonald Contract Talks with the Islanders: Here we go...

To market, to market? - Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Are you ready for the drill? The drill is ready for you.

The new calendar year has arrived, the Olympic break (and then the NHL trade deadline) are fast approaching, so it's time to officially start the "Andrew MacDonald: Sign or Trade?" machine.

You know how this works with NHL pending unrestricted free agents. Through a form letter from the player's agent like this...

DEAR REPORTER:

WE HAVE RECEIVED YOUR INQUIRY ABOUT [insert player]'S PENDING UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENCY, AND AT THIS TIME WE ARE PREPARED TO RESPOND WITH (check all that apply):

_ No comment. But we will get back to you when (a) we feel talks are moving too slowly, and/or (b) we wish to exert pressure through the media and/or rival GMs calling for trades.

_ His first choice is to remain with [INSERT TEAM], because he likes what they are building here.

_ It is a big moment in his career, and he hopes things work out for the best for both sides. He won't forget who gave him his first shot.

_ He is in the best shape of his life, playing a key role, and that has value in the market. We just want what's fair to both sides.

_ Off the record, but we are demanding $__million over _ years. Please cite us as [SELECT ONE] "sources say" / "believed to be" / "people familiar with his thinking."

THANK YOU.

WHILE WE HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, DON'T FORGET WE ALSO REPRESENT [insert client], A HIGH CHARACTER VETERAN, AS WELL AS [insert client], WHO COULD COMMAND TOP DOLLAR IF HE WERE TO HIT THE MARKET THIS SUMMER. WE ALSO REPRESENT [Milan Jurcina] IF YOU'RE DESPERATE, OR IF YOU KNOW SOMEONE IN NEED.

TILL NEXT TIME,

YOUR FRIENDLY AGENT

The latest round, and the first nudge of on-the-record movement from either side, was MacDonald's agent Peter Cooney filling out the above form and returning it to telling Katie Strang of ESPN NY this week that he "would describe the talks as ‘preliminary.'"

Which is...yeah. In agent-speak, "preliminary" is the minimum step beyond "there has been zero discussion." In the ESPN post, Cooney also had a couple of other quotes that pretty much fit the form letter above, as obviously MacDonald wants to remain with the Islanders, etc.

Anyway, the real question here is, do the Islanders have sincere interest in keeping MacDonald?

Not as a defenseman, I mean -- but as a defenseman who wants the kind of money and term he will surely want?

Because if they were gung ho on the matter, they'd have progressed talks by now. Instead, given the prospects they have in the system and the ever-wider impression that he is not fit for a top pair (and maybe not even middle pair) role, it doesn't make much sense for them to re-sign him to be a minute-munching and power play guy like they've used him.

It poses an interesting negotiation, because in one misguided signing MacDonald could go from being one of the league's better values to one of its most overpaid and/or worst signings. And the fact he's spent so long as the former would make him or his agent more inclined to push for the latter.

On the one hand, competent defensemen -- as we've seen every time injuries hit -- can be hard to come by, so shedding MacDonald, particularly via trade, could hurt the Islanders right now. On the other hand, Calvin de Haan came up from the AHL and immediately made a difference to the NHL blueline, so there could be more graduations like that and, regardless, MacDonald's ideal role with the Isles is, well it's not how he's being used right now.

Alas, how he is being used right now is the basis for how his agent will want him to be paid on his next deal.

Don't Pay the Man (At Least Not Commensurate with How You Play the Man)

For this season, the perfect scenario for the Isles is probably for de Haan to keep impressing, and for Matt Donovan and even Aaron Ness to grab strong enough roles that the Isles feel comfortable letting MacDonald go. However, the coaching staff's use of the latter two indicates they might not get to that point, at least not before the trade deadline and season's end. (Unless the Isles have been perpetrating the long con, pumping up MacDonald's value all season long with gobs of minutes and power play time. Which would be excellent, at least in an "I appreciate the diabolical" kind of way, if not the "winning, above all else" kind of way.)

In Tuesday's loss in Florida, with Travis Hamonic out, MacDonald played nearly 30 minutes while the other five defensemen played under 20 each. And heavens, they're even ready to pull Radek Martinek back out of storage again.

As has been mentioned many times this season, MacDonald's current contract provides value both for the budget-conscious Islanders and for any potential trade partner that would want to fit into the payroll a player who is better than his current $550,000 cap hit.

Which is why it's time for his agent to publicly acknowledge the usual, while guardedly describing things as preliminary.

Kevin Schultz at Islanders Point Blank summed up the conundrum and perception disparity around MacDonald nicely last week, but to summarize: While MacDonald is still useful to the Islanders blueline, they absolutely cannot afford to pay him like a 26-minute, top-scoring (on this team) defenseman. If they pay him in a way that reflects how they use him rather than in a way that reflects what he can contribute, they will be making a mistake.

Either his camp realizes that, or it's best that the Isles flip him to a team that doesn't, or -- barring a good offer that makes it worth hurting their depth for the rest of the season -- they ride it out and set him free like Mark Streit, P.A. Parenteau and other less glamorous names before him.

I've long maintained that the true test of the Islanders rebuild will come not in the collection of assets, the drafting, and the resisting temptation to make impatient trades. Rather, it will come in the decisions about whom to keep and whom to discard, which homegrown products to double down on and which ones to tell "thanks for the memories, but it's time we part" as the Isles manage their small budget.

Given what MacDonald's usage and points will do to his open-market asking price, this is one of those key decisions.

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