The Balance Between Now and Later
Ray Shero has the enviable advantage of having several world-class players on his roster. He also has the unenviable task trying to sign them all to contracts that keep the Pens far enough under the salary cap that he can surround them with a strong supporting cast and maintain flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances. Shero has used several tactics to allow him to accomplish his task: he has kept most contracts short, he has convinced players to take less than their open market value, and built a stable of young, appreciating blueline assets.
Shero has not gotten himself locked into long term deals with players who are not “core” players. He has avoided such deals, because they are cumbersome and difficult to move if the player does not provide adequate value. He has only four non-entry level players on the current roster signed past next season: Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Paul Martin, and Marc Andre Fleury.
He has refused to sign role players to contracts longer than 2 years. This rule has lost him some valuable role players like Jarkko Ruutu and most notably Max Talbot to other teams willing to commit more tenure. The single exception has been Matt Cooke, who resigned for 3 years at $1.8 million AAV, because Shero felt Cooke was uniquely suited for his third-line, agitating, and penalty-killing role with the Pens. He did not want to split up what was, at that time, considered the best third line in hockey with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. Cooke also likely would have received a higher salary on the open market.
Cooke is not the only player who has left money on the table to resign with the Pens. Shero has considerable leverage in terms of what he can offer players: a first-rate and classy organization top to bottom. Deep-pocketed and legendary ownership, a young and energetic player’s coach with an aggressive forechecking system, a sparkling and constantly sold-out arena, a deeply dedicated but largely respectful fanbase, a city deemed America’s most liveable whose central geographical location minimizes travel, the highest amount of national television coverage and ratings, an opportunity to ride shotgun next to two generational talents, and a family locker room environment solely dedicated to winning championships. In short, there is very little Pittsburgh cannot offer a player.
Some players have been willing to forgo the maximum salary the market will bear for the opportunity to be a part of such a unique situation. James Neal probably left about $8-10 million on the table when he signed a 6 year, $30 million contract following his 40 goal, 81 point campaign last year. Pascal Dupuis, a strong family man, knew he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh and play next to Sidney Crosby. He also took less and signed a 2 year, $3 million deal in 2011. He went on to set career highs in both goals and assists last season.
Finally, Shero has stockpiled young, puck-moving defensemen through the draft and trades. Despres, Pouliot, Morrow, Maatta, Harrington, and Dumoulin are all considered very promising blueline prospects. This strategy, employed while Shero was in Nashville, builds assets that are in league-wide demand. The most oft-cited example of the Goligoski/Neal/Niskanen trade shows just how coveted young, mobile defensemen are. The more supporting players Shero has on entry-level and second contracts, the more cap money he will have to keep his stars. Or he can trade them for help up front. Or keep them and build a homegrown stud defense corps. Multiple assets gives Shero multiple options.
The three most important days on every NHL GM’s calendar are the Draft, the opening date of Free Agency, and the trade deadline. There is an old saying among GMs: “There are more mistakes made at the trade deadline than at any other time of the year.” With Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Chris Kunitz all entering the final year of their contracts in 2013-2014, Ray Shero cannot make a mistake at this deadline. While he should look to round out his roster with a gritty bottom six winger or a defensive defenseman, he should be cautious in upsetting the delicate balance he has created in the organization going into these critical negotiations this summer.
I am on Twitter, @AndrewRothey