When Craig MacTavish became General Manager of the Oilers on April 15th, I was cautiously optimistic. The Oilers had plenty of holes in their roster, and a lot of work ahead of them for the summer, but MacT seemed to be more aware of that than anyone. Since his hiring, he’s made several trades and signings in an attempt to move the team forward quickly.
While I was impressed with some of his moves (such as the Perron trade and the Gordon signing), I was critical of others (the Andrew Ference signing), and I couldn’t help but feel that the rookie GM had not yet proven himself. Sure, he brought some immediate help to the Oilers, and he made some reasonably smart trades, but MacTavish had never shown how he would handle a difficult contract negotiation.
That is, until now.
The Sam Gagner situation was one that was likely to trip MacTavish up. When the 23 year-old forward filed for arbitration, it became obvious that contract discussions were going to get dicey. Gagner was only a year removed from Unrestricted Free Agent status, and with a one-year deal would become the youngest UFA in NHL history. As the arbitration date inched closer, more and more details began to surface- none of them encouraging.
Several reputable sources reported that Gagner was seeking a one-year, 5.5 million dollar deal, and that the Oilers were asking for around 3.5 million per year. Rumour had it that Gagner was even seeking a no-trade clause.
Thus, when 9AM Eastern Time came without any news, I was almost certain that the arbitration hearing would proceed as scheduled. The Oilers would get Gagner on a one-year deal, and he would be moved at the next trade deadline, completely wasting six years of development.
Except that didn’t happen. At what seemed like the last possible moment, Gagner came to terms with the Oilers on a three-year contract with a cap hit of 4.8 million per year. The deal did include a no-movement clause as rumoured, but only during the second year of the contract according to Nick Kypreos and Darren Dreger.
Colour me impressed.
Gagner’s three-year deal is a success primarily because of one word: flexibility.
If the arbitration hearing had proceeded as scheduled, Gagner likely would have been awarded a one-year contract, giving him a year until unrestricted free agency. Had that happened, the Oilers would have been under a lot of pressure to trade Gagner in order to avoid losing him for nothing in next year’s free agency period.
Conversely, if the Oilers had signed Gagner to a long-term deal for big money, they would be at risk for another Horcoff situation. While Gagner will likely improve as he enters his prime, there is a reasonable chance that he plateaus as a 50-point player- if that happens, a five-year, 25 million dollar contract would have made him very difficult to trade.
In that sense, Craig MacTavish found common ground between these two extremes with this signing. 4.8 million dollars is a reasonable cap hit for a good second line center, and a three-year term is long enough to evaluate Gagner, but not so long that he becomes a burden if his performance regresses.
The no-movement clause in the second year means that the Oilers still have a large window during which they can trade Gagner, while giving Gagner a reasonable degree of assurance that he’s a valued part of the team.
In short, no matter what happens in the future, Craig MacTavish is covered.
If Gagner takes a step backward next year, the 3-year deal isn’t long enough to cause cap trouble down the road.
If Gagner stays roughly a 50-point player, the 4.8 AAV isn’t ridiculous. Consider, for example, that Valtteri Filppula (who has similar stats to Gagner over his career) was signed to a 5-year, 25 million dollar contract by the Lightning in free agency.
If Gagner becomes a 65-70 point center, the 3-year contract is long enough to give the Oilers time to decide if they want to keep him and pay him a significant raise at the end of the contract.
Flexible. Smart. I like it. While it’s best not to pass judgment on a GM until his team actually hits the ice, MacT is definitely impressing me so far.
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