As much as people (*raises hand*) complain about the NHL lagging behind the NBA when it comes to blockbuster trades, it also seems like the league could use a real boost when it comes to free agency.
Blame it on the dangers of the game inspiring players to value long-term security over getting every last buck, team-friendly RFA quirks, or any number of factors, but this league rarely sees true star players hit the open market. Seriously, think about it; when’s the last time a true gamebreaker actually shopped his services? Would you count Brad Richards? Was it really as long ago as that Ilya Kovalchuk oddness?
(Sorry, Kevin Shattenkirk, I like you more than most, but you don’t count.)
With that in mind, it’s dangerous to look two years ahead and drool over the pool of potential, splashy UFA defensemen (see this Cap Friendly list as an example). That said, it’s also fun: imagine your team landing Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ryan McDonagh, or even Ryan Ellis/Anton Stralman/Niklas Hjalmarsson.
It’s such a fun thought that even Doughty is getting in on the speculation, as he discussed in this fascinating interview with Craig Custance of The Athletic (sub required):
“I know I’m going to talk to Karlsson back and forth, kind of see what money he’s looking for. I’ll kind of look at what money I’m looking for,” Doughty said. “I don’t know if he’s going to re-sign with Ottawa, I don’t know if I’ll re-sign with L.A. You just never know what’s going to happen.”
In case you’re wondering, yes, Doughty teased the idea of playing for the Maple Leafs once again. Is cheeky the right word, or is he merely candid?
Note: Doughty also said the right thing in claiming Los Angeles was his first choice, though.
Maybe the most delightful line came when Doughty said that he – along with Karlsson – might use P.K. Subban‘s contract as something of a measuring stick. Note that the Canadiens signed Subban for eight years at a $9 million cap hit, a deal that’s now owned by the Predators.
Really, you can’t blame Karlsson and Doughty for wanting that sort of cap hit, especially when you consider how sorely they’re being paid under their true market value.
Doughty signed his current deal in 2011, and for all the sass the Kings take for bad contracts, he’s been carrying just a $7M cap hit. Karlsson’s incredible bargain is actually at $6.5M, signed back in 2012. For a penny-pinching team like the Senators, those savings have been absolutely essential. Those deals also rank among the most enviable steals in all the league (especially once you throw out cheats like rookie contracts with artificial ceilings).
The fascinating thing about both Karlsson and Doughty is that, theoretically, it’s plausible that both might actually test the market. Many of these thoughts could also apply to OEL; for all we know, he may be closer to their levels by the end of 2018-19.
Not just about what Doughty wants with L.A.
As a fan of good hockey, it’s been delightful to see the Kings rebound, mostly because they’ve done so by modernizing the way they play. You have to think that Doughty’s having more fun, himself.
The Kings are in a better position to compete now, and it’s conceivable that their window might extend through 2018-19.
It’s not as easy to say what lies ahead in 2019-20 and beyond. Consider that Doughty turns 28 on Dec. 8; if he wants a long-term contract, it might be a bad situation for an L.A. franchise that might want to pivot toward a rebuild after taking another swing or two at a Stanley Cup.
Really, GM Rob Blake merely needs to look to San Jose if he wants a cautionary tale and doesn’t want to think about the mess he inherited. We all love Brent Burns, but his age and contract look as scraggly as his beard right now.
So, as painful as it might be, Doughty leaving town might actually be what’s best for both the player and the team. And it certainly would be fun for dorks like us, who love the drama of a free agent frenzy.
Note to Drew: even if the Maple Leafs are a slam-dunk, please play things up by at least pretending to field multiple offers. Hey, you’d get some steak/sushi dinners out of the deal and entertain us in the process. Pretty much everyone wins.
The cost of Karlsson
There are parallels with Karlsson’s situation, too, including him turning 28 soon (in his case, May).
Ottawa is incredibly dependent upon the otherworldly Swede, probably more than even Doughty, who’s immensely important to the Kings as well. That said, the Senators are a budget team right now, with open questions about ownership.
As much as GM Pierre Dorion wanted Matt Duchene for his speed and higher-end skill compared to Kyle Turris, there was also cost certainty to consider. Ottawa may decide that they’re simply not in a position to contend in the twilight of Karlsson’s prime, particularly if he’s getting paid *close* to what he’s actually worth.
For those who sometimes cringe at the Senators’ frequently bland style of play under Guy Boucher, it’s tantalizing to picture Karlsson serving as the catalyst to a high-powered, all-out-attacking offense.
It’s perfectly plausible that these defensemen will stick with their teams. Especially with Ottawa, Karlsson is the type of guy who’s so good he can help management avoid being, you know, fired. That has to weigh heavily on such thought processes.
There’s also the likely scenario where the Kings and/or Sens would realize they needed to part ways with their stud defensemen, leading to a sign-and-trade situation that saps some of the drama.
Still, hockey fans can dream, and compared to thoughts of Steven Stamkos dancing like sugar plums in your head, these visions might actually end up with real moves.
Hey, we can dream.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.