Ready for a surprise? The New York Islanders are already thrilled with post-lockout waiver claim Brian Strait.
After seeing him in an Islanders uniform for all of six games since claiming him on waivers from the Pittsburgh Penguins, today they announced a three-year contract extension that will keep him in uniform through 2016. Multiple reports have the one-way contract at $$775,000 per year, $2.35 million total.
Strait has been used as a number-four defenseman by the Isles (by overall ice time), pairing with Mark Streit at even strength and logging 2:00 per game on the penalty kill, also fourth among defensemen on the team.
Perhaps more importantly in the Islanders' eyes, while Stait brings no offensive flash to his game, his puck movement and positional decisions have been solid.
It's a commitment of years only for the Islanders, as the salary is a few grand above the minimum ($550,000 increasing to $575,000 in the new CBA over the years of this contract). Stait's expired ELC cap hit was $805,000 but his current one-year, two-way contract signed with the Penguins carries a $605,000 salary. But it's also at an uncertain moment, as Strait's NHL record is small, and the market for this type of pending UFA under the new CBA is unclear. (The average NHL salary is over $2 million, but eliminate stars and producers and focus only on depth players like this and you're in under $1 million.)
In short: After this season with the Isles, could he have commanded this deal entering unrestricted free agency this summer? If you can answer that definitively, you ... are on the Internet a lot.
Headed Toward Group VI Free Agency
Although it at first glance may look like the Isles just went "long" on a player who had no leverage, Strait was actually headed toward unrestricted free agency this summer thanks to the lockout-shortened NHL season.
Rule VI Free Agents (from the old CBA):
Means any Player who is age 25 or older who has completed three (3) or more professional seasons, whose SPC has expired and: (i) in the case of a Player other than a goaltender, has played less than 80 NHL Games, or (ii) in the case of a goaltender, has played less than 28 NHL Games (for the purpose of this definition, a goaltender must have played a minimum of thirty (30) minutes in an NHL Game to register a game played).
For the purposes of the foregoing, the term professional season shall: (A) for a Player aged 18 or 19, mean any season in which such Player plays in eleven (11) or more Professional Games (including NHL Regular Season and Playoff Games, minor league regular season and playoff games, and games played in any European professional league, while under an SPC), and (B) for a Player aged 20 or older, mean any season in which such Player plays in one or more Professional Games (including NHL Regular Season and Playoff Games, minor league regular season and playoff games, and games played in any European professional league, while under an SPC).
Strait is 25, his ELC expired before last summer, he completed three full minor pro seasons with Wilkes-Barre, and he'd only played 12 NHL games before this season. Thanks to the lockout-shortened 48-game season, there was no way he could reach 80 career NHL games this season.
Meaning what exactly? Meaning he was headed to UFA:
(ii) Any Group 6 Player shall, at the expiration of his SPC, become an Unrestricted Free Agent and shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with any Club, and any Club shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with such Player, without penalty or restriction, or being subject to any Right of First Refusal, Draft Choice Compensation or any other compensation or equalization obligation of any kind.
But Who Will Think of the Children?
Okay, we have the leverage thing down -- the Islanders have a history of signing players like Frans Nielsen and Andrew MacDonald to longer, budget-friendly contracts before they become better known, or before they realize how good they can be.
But the next question is, is Strait really that good? As mentioned, he's not flashy and doesn't have much meaningful offensive production in the AHL. Partner-wise, he's an upgrade over Mark Streit's recent partners like Steve Staios (and Bruno Gervais?), but it appears his ceiling is as a PK blueliner and a safety valve for a more rush-happy partner like Streit.
Which also raises the question: Do the Islanders have Strait's current partner Streit, a 35-year-old pending UFA, in their plans beyond this season? Or do they have in mind the promotion of one or more of their current Bridgeport blueliners such as Matt Donovan, Aaron Ness or even Jon Landry? Or is the promise they once saw in any of those, and the oft-injured Calvin de Haan, fading? Fellow waiver claim Thomas Hickey also enters this equation.
Evaluation of blueliners during Garth Snow's tenure has been hit-and-miss. For every Streit or even MacDonald prescient score, there has been a Mark Eaton -- or, we'll likely find, Matt Carkner -- who doesn't really justify a long-term commitment.
Ultimately, there is little risk in actual dollars spent here. On salary alone, it's a fine price for a steady defenseman even in the 6-7 slot. It's the three years that raises eyebrows after a six-game trial (though the Isles surely saw plenty of Strait in the AHL), as you wonder if the Isles will let that tie their hands in the event things go wrong.
If his one-way deal and commitment means he later blocks a better or more promising prospect's promotion -- and the Isles have rarely waived underperforming players on one-way deals -- that is where they could regret going three years.
Time will tell. Lucky for him and his first few weeks with the club, Strait now has that time.