Cross another name off the big board with the beginning of signing season little more than two weeks away. Jordan Eberle and the New York Islanders have come to terms on an extension.
On Friday, the Islanders announced Eberle’s signing, and despite tight-lipped GM Lou Lamoriello’s best efforts – New York is one of a handful of teams that doesn’t release contract financials – it didn’t take long for details of the deal to surface. According to CapFriendly, the five-year pact, which carries a no-trade clause in its first two seasons before a modified no-trade clause kicks in for the final three campaigns, will pay Eberle $27.5 million, which breaks down to a cap hit of $5.5-million per season.
The dollar figure is surprising for a couple of reasons, none bigger than the fact that Eberle’s new deal actually represents a step back in annual payment. On his last deal, a six-year, $36-million contract he inked with the Edmonton Oilers in August 2012 ahead of the completion of his entry-level contract, Eberle carried a $6 million cap hit and his original deal was worth 10 percent of the cap limit at the time it was signed. The new pact, as noted, sees him earn $500,000 less per season and takes up 6.92 percent of the available cap space. That said, his new contract includes a $2-million signing bonus this season, a $7-million base salary in the third campaign and pays him nearly 90 percent of the total value across the first four seasons.
But also stunning about Eberle, 29, taking what amounts to a pay cut – which this is just about any way you slice it – is that it comes at a time when free agents of his ilk appeared primed to cash in on the back of Jeff Skinner’s massive eight-year, $72-million deal with the Buffalo Sabres. It was posited that by signing that deal, Skinner, who is two-years-and-one-day younger than Eberle, had potentially increased the market value of all pending free agents. Thus, Eberle’s signing at a cut rate, and quite possibly less than he could have received on the open market, is somewhat confounding.
That’s not to say there aren’t reasons why he may have been willing to take less, however.
In fact, Eberle’s contract was always going to be among the more interesting of the name-value free agents, in large part because what he experienced this season was the exact opposite of that for which most players hope in the season leading up to free agency. After a great start to his tenure with the Islanders last season saw him score 25 goals and 59 points – tied for the third-best single-season goal total of his career and the fourth-highest point total of his then-eight-year NHL career – his offense fell off a cliff this season under coach Barry Trotz.
In 78 games, Eberle managed 19 goals and 37 points, and his overall per-game scoring rates were the worst of his career across the board. Included was a .47 points per game rate, which marks the first time in his career his production level failed to eclipse a half-point per game. That said, Eberle played not only some of the best hockey of his season and of his career but quite possibly his life during the Islanders’ two-round foray into the playoffs. In what was just his second career post-season appearance, Eberle scored four goals and nine points in eight games, including the game-winning goal in Game 2 and one goal in each of New York’s four-game sweep of the division-rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
Not to speculate too wildly on Eberle’s reasoning for taking less money in a market that seemed ripe for greater payment, either, but maybe that post-season performance is the very reason he landed on this number and this pact. There is more that has to go into a free agent’s decision than the financials, after all. It’s possible he feels that the Islanders’ success this past season is replicable, that he feels he really fits in the system and the fact he signed makes it clear enough that he desired to extend his stay with the Islanders. If he wanted to at least see what was available on the market, he could have waited until the negotiation window opens in late-June. He didn’t. That’s telling. (It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that the $38.1 million he has already earned over the course of his career is more than enough to set Eberle up for the rest of his life.)
No matter the reasoning for Eberle’s decision to sign on the dotted line now, though, the Islanders have to be pleased with the outcome. Not only do they bring back Eberle, but they bring back the winger who was top-line center Mat Barzal’s linemate for almost the entirety of the post-season and his third most common linemate during the regular season. The two showed chemistry, and if they can replicate that out of the gate next season, it could be a boon to an Islanders offense that ranked 22nd in the NHL last season.
And beyond that, Eberle’s signing at $5.5 million rather than $6 million-plus per season provides New York added financial flexibility that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Who knows how high Eberle’s contract could have climbed on the open market – $6.5 million? $7 million? – but his signing leaves the Islanders with a projected $22.2 million to spend this off-season should they so choose. That can go a long way in potentially retaining captain Anders Lee and Vezina Trophy-finalist goaltender Robin Lehner, possibly re-upping bottom-six center Valtteri Filppula and then attacking the open market in pursuit of a few lineup upgrades. The cap space can aid in cementing the defense corps or adding depth scoring. It can bring the Islanders an additional piece or two that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. And that, in and of itself, brings added value to the deal for New York.
How the Islanders work with the additional cap space is to be seen, of course, but that they have more of it is thanks in large part to Eberle’s willingness to take the pay cut in the first place. And in an NHL where cap space is one of the most valuable commodities, that stands to make this quite the deal for the Islanders, particularly if we see more of the same ‘Playoff Eberle’ that we saw this past spring.
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