The following article was written by lakingsnews.com guest writer, Howard Roark. Howard has asked the question and then answered it in succinct and intelligent prose. This may be my favorite article of his yet. Enjoy.
This has been a frustrating off season for Dean Lombardi and the Los Angeles Kings. Paul Martin and Dan Hamhuis were offered as much money as the other suitors but chose the “other” nonetheless. Ilya Kovalchuk chose the deal that gave him the $100 million over 10 years he (or his agent) desperately wanted but now sit in limbo as an arbitrator rules on whether the contortions used to make it happen comport with the collective bargaining agreement. Sean O’Donnell and Alexander Frolov left, but there is no indication the Kings were all that keen on seeing them return. The sole acquisition, Alexei Ponikarovsky is clearly a rental, a one year placeholder until either another UFA or prospect is ready to take over his role. While my faith in Dean Lombardi has been shaken a little, I will not blame him because the UFAs he wanted signed elsewhere. Let’s face it- Los Angeles is not a particularly attractive destination for many players. They have to deal with the grinding travel, the lack of a winning legacy and a bet that the youthful core the Kings are built around will continue to develop. This is not the case in Pittsburgh or Vancouver, the travel required in the latter notwithstanding.
As one looks on how to improve the club for next season, and, yes, make no mistake it needs to be improved to fulfill critical AEG business interests, Lombardi is left with two options. The UFA door seems to have been closed. Unless Kovalchuk is declared a free agent by the arbitrator, which I believe will occur, there are mighty slim pickings left in the market. There is a reason all of these UFAs are still not signed- they bring very little value relative to either the dollars they want or to the talent that already occupies most NHL rosters. In the cap era, value is the product of production divided by cap hit. If a young kid under team control can provide near or equal value on the ice, he will always be given the first crack at a particular role over a veteran who wants to be paid based on past production. For most GMs, this is a no brainer. Perhaps, we can all hold out hope that Kovalchuk still ends up in LA, and I would put the odds of that happening higher than most analysts, but I do not see the Kings in bringing in another UFA except as a placeholder to replace O’Donnell.
Then, there is the trade route. There are evidently a lot of players available as teams desperately look to improve and create cap space for themselves. The Kings, as one of the few teams willing and able to take on salary, are likely deeply involved in every conversation. The problem with a trade, as Lombardi has pointed out, is that to fill one hole, one risks creating another. Yes, the Kings have prospects galore, but most teams in the trade market have immediate needs to fill and want NHL-ready players in return. Therefore, a gigantic game of chicken has developed resulting in very few significant trades.
There is, however, a third route to improvement, and that is the offer sheet. This presents certain advantages. One is always getting a young player who has already demonstrated his ability yet has yet to hit his prime. Moreover, all one has to give up in return are draft picks, and that is an asset the Kings are less in need of now that Lombardi has meticulously rebuilt the reserve list. On the downside, one has to offer the player more than he is worth to keep his existing team from matching the offer, but one is compensated for that risk by betting on the untapped potential yet to have been realized. The biggest risk, of course, is that the team that one is poaching retaliates and goes after one of your own restricted free agents (RFAs), and the Kings are highly vulnerable here with Doughty Johnson and Simmonds all becoming RFAs after next season. But, how significant is that risk?
If one looks at the salary data as provided on CapGeek, one can see that most teams are grouped into one of two categories. The first are big market teams, flush with cash that are consistently at or near the salary cap. These include the Rangers and Flyers of the world. Let us name this category, which includes 15 franchises, the Big Spenders. Down below on the salary continuum are the small market teams, all of whom are losing lots of money and who are forced to operate on self imposed caps in order to remain viable. Included here are the Coyotes and even the Stars who play in a big market yet have to be sold due to their owner’s own financial problems. I call these the Cash Strapped and believe they represent 11 teams. There are only four teams, the Kings, Avalanche, Oilers and Ducks who are spending below their financial capacity, and the Oilers don’t have very much. Note that Tim Leiweke has been quite clear that the Kings’ success is paramount to the achievement of other AEG real estate projects, and that he is willing to sustain financial losses at the team level in order to bring more people downtown on a consistent basis.
If I am correct in my analysis, pilfering a top RFA now becomes an analytical exercise in minimizing the risk of retaliation. If I am Lombardi, I stay away like the plague from any RFA playing on a Big Spender franchise. These teams will not take kindly to being attacked and have both the resources and the will to retaliate. On the other hand, if I know a team is in financial straits or is minimizing its losses to ensure a quick sale, that is who I attack. Teams like Phoenix whose budget is constrained by the NHL or Nashville, which has a hard ceiling, look like enticing victims. The owners in St. Louis have made it clear they want out as soon as possible and will not take on more losses. Thus, this is where Lombardi can turn his attention.
For those of you who say that Dean is averse to the offer sheet as a matter of principle, I say his job is more important to him than any amorphous principle. He only received a two year contract extension and is under enormous pressure to win now. With his two other avenues to improve the team closing to him, I believe he should take another look at the RFA market and present an offer sheet to a desirable player on a team that just lacks the financial recourses to compete. After all, we are here to win a Cup and this is a practice clearly within the rules as set up in the CBA. Not considering this option would be a dereliction of his duties.
Categories: L.A. Kings News