With news that the Arizona Coyotes will announce July 1 that they have signed defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to an eight-year contract extension, it’s worth noting the sequence of events that led to it and how things can sometimes get twisted in this industry.
It was interesting to note that when news of the extension broke, several observers noted that Ekman-Larsson was “off the market.” This despite the fact that, unless some people I trust have been lying to me, Ekman-Larsson was never “on the market.” From what I’ve been told, GM John Chayka never offered Ekman-Larsson to anyone, never had talks, never indicated Ekman-Larsson was available. Not once. What he did apparently do, however, was tell Ekman-Larsson that he needed to know by the NHL draft this year whether or not the star defenseman intended on re-signing in Arizona. And if Ekman-Larsson had indicated he did not, Chayka then would have shopped him for a trade.
Which takes us back to the rumored eight-year, $66 million deal and why it is so important. If the Coyotes ever want to get themselves out of the muck in which they are mired, if they ever have any hopes of even approaching NHL contender status, they have to stop being patsies. They have to put an end to being the Montreal Expos of the NHL, a team that develops good young players for the rest of the league by losing them when it comes time to pay them what they’re worth.
The very fact that the assumption that Ekman-Larsson was ever on the market is a good example of this. The hockey world looked at the fact that he was approaching unrestricted free agency in a year and, assuming the Coyotes could not afford to keep him, were quick to also assume Arizona had to trade him rather than lose him for nothing. Then perception becomes reality.
Perhaps that perception will never end with an organization as perennially cash-strapped as the Coyotes are. But good on Chayka for getting out in front on this one and staunching the bleeding. Not being able to sign Ekman-Larsson and having to put him on the trade block would have been a fatal blow for this franchise, one from which perhaps it might not ever be able to recover. At some point you have to say, “enough is enough” and stop the parade of good players out of the organization.
And even more kudos to Chayka for doing it without getting himself into an albatross of a deal. Even more than losing players, it’s imperative a franchise such as the Coyotes not get saddled with bad contracts. And if the eight years at $8.25 million a year is accurate, that’s a home run for the GM. Would you rather have a 28-year-old Ekman-Larsson on an eight-year extension at $8.25 million a year or a 32-year-old Brent Burns for roughly the same money ($8 million AAV) and term? Right here, right now, you might say Burns, but in the long-term, the Ekman-Larsson contract is going to look much better.
(In reality, Chayka is turning out to be a really sneaky-good GM when it comes to signing players. Both the Antti Raanta and Alex Goligoski contracts are terrific value signings. As for Ekman-Larsson, the deal will be middle-loaded, paying him less than $8.25 million in the first two and last two years of the deal and more than $8.25 in the middle four. It will also have lockout protection with the majority of the salary coming in signing bonus in 2020-21.)
If it goes through on July 1 as expected, the Coyotes will have orchestrated this perfectly. They will have kept the player, which is paramount. But they will also have done so without compromising their salary structure or tying themselves to a bad contract. They have to get up to the salary floor somehow. They might as well use it on star players who will move the process forward. Anytime you can get something to take on dead money that goes toward the salary cap it helps the bottom line, but getting Jakob Chychrun, the pick they acquired from Detroit to take on Pavel Datsyuk’s contract, is going to help them a lot more on the ice than Datsyuk’s dead money ever would.
If or until the Coyotes get a new rink, if or until the Coyotes get an infusion of cash into their ownership group, things are always going to be dicey for them. But at least it looks as though they have a steady hand at the helm, one that might just be able to navigate them through this into contender status.
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