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Getting Aggressive with Free Agency

Last week I wrote that NHL general managers need to get more aggressive in the restricted free agent market, because therein lies an opportunity to force another team to match your offer and potentially hamper their position relative to the salary cap. By identifying those RFA's that are critical to a team, and making them a slightly over-market offer, you force the original team to make a very difficult decision. Letting a good young player go because you don't want to overpay by 10% isn't something many GM's will do. 50% is a different story entirely - bid too much, and you've just crippled your own salary cap strategy for years to come. But rather than talk in generalities, let's get down to a specific offer that makes sense:

Tuomo Ruutu (C), Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago's first-round selection in 2001, Ruutu showed promise in 2003-4 by scoring 23 goals to lead the team, but injuries limited him to 15 games last season. His salary for last season was $858,000, so what makes sense here in terms of his future worth? Kyle Calder led the team in scoring last season and just got an arbitration award of $2.95 million for one year, and Mike York just got $2.85 million coming of a 13 goal, 39 assist campaign, and hasn't scored as many as 23 goals in a season since 1999-2000. That would lead one to argue that as a #1 center, Ruutu should command value significantly higher than those previously mentioned, as he is now surrounded by better talent (like Martin Havlat) and is capable at least of a 30 goal, 30 assist season playing on the top line and top power play for Chicago.

Now, according to the article linked above regarding Calder's contract, the Hawks have about $38 million committed to next year's team, against a cap of $44 million. Their first-round draft pick this year, Jonathan Toews, would take up $3.5 million due to bonus eligibility if they have him play in the NHL, so at the very least, a near-$3 million deal for Ruutu would force the Blackhawks to send Toews back to college hockey or free up cap space through player movement. One could see feasibly offering Ruutu a three-year deal that pays $3 million, $3.5 million, and $4 million each season, which under the salary cap would be averaged out to hit the team for $3.5 million each year. I'm sure the Hawks could live with that, so why not put the screws to them a little bit? Hike that up to $3.75 million, $4.5 million, and $5 million, averaging $4.41 million instead. That's a little more uncomfortable, but not so much that the Hawks would let Ruutu walk away. Now be advised, these numbers came straight from my nether regions, so they're likely to be off the mark, but the idea of overbidding by 10-15% is what's important here.

So who would be in place to make such an offer? Basically, any mid-level Western Conference team who could use young help at center (in case the Hawks didn't match), have cap room available, and would benefit from seeing the Hawks have an extra $1 million or so tied up against their salary cap. That list could include Columbus, St. Louis, Edmonton, and a few others. By forcing Chicago's hand, it makes sure they're paying a healthy price to keep their young talent, and possibly makes it easier to extract value from the Blackhawks down the road, as they'll be motivated to dump salary in order to make other moves. By acting now, GM's might be doing themselves a favor closer to the trading deadline next spring.