That is the burning question on the minds of all Dallas Stars fans as the end of Benn's entry level contract approaches, with Benn facing restricted free agency after this season. He's set to make just over $800,000 this season, after two full seasons in the NHL during which he's become perhaps the most important player on the team and by far the future face of this franchise.
The question always is, especially with young players, is how much a guy like Jamie Benn is worth. Generally players don't receive their first massive payday until they hit unrestricted free agency, or are approaching it, and players with high ceilings can get what are called "bridge contracts", that pay a player for a few seasons so the team has time to further judge before handing out the big contract.
Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks signed just such a contract yesterday, signing a two-year deal worth $5.75 million. His first full season in the NHL was last year, as he roared onto the scene with 32 goals and an impressive 56 points in 79 games. While it's just one season worth of work, the Sharks felt it was time to reward him a bit and see what else he could do -- since the potential is certainly there for a monster contract in the future.
Other times, however, teams decide that now is the time to strike and hand out a significant contract -- even before that player hits restricted free agency. The Philadelphia Flyers signed James van Riemsdyk yesterday to such a contract -- and it could have a serious effect on how the Dallas Stars approach the Jamie Benn negotiations.
James van Riemsdyk is an electrifying young forward for the Philadelphia Flyers. Drafted 2nd overall in the 2007 draft, he made his NHL debut in 2009-10 and had a fairly impressive line his rookie season (15-20-35). This was the year the Flyers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and JVR was a big part of that run, scoring three big goals in the post season.
Last season, he showed even more explosiveness with the puck and netted 21 goals along with 19 points and an impressive plus-15 for the season. In the playoffs, however, JVR took a big step up with seven goals in 11 games for the Flyers and was one of the few bright spots during a disappointing postseason run.
With one year left on his entry-level contract, the Flyers signed van Riemsdyk to a six-year, $25.5 million contract that will pay him an average salary of $4.25 million per year. This was a very unexpected contract handed out by the Flyers, as Travis Hughes from Broad Street Hockey wrote he was hoping it was going to be something closer to what happened with Claude Giroux:
I look at this situation a lot like that of Claude Giroux, who signed a contract extension last season. That deal, a three-year, $11.25 million extension that begins this season, was a bit of a stop-gap between the big deal G will likely get from the Flyers before he's able to become an unrestricted free agent in a few years. He stays affordable for a few more years while still getting a worthy raise, and it's expected that he gets the long-term deal he deserves once that extension runs out.
This is generally the way it works in the NHL and it's the approach the Sharks took with Logan Couture. History is full of players who showed great potential and production their first few seasons but could never get beyond that, so teams are hesitant to hand out the big contracts until players have more than a handful of seasons under their belt as proof that such a contract is deserved.
So how does this affect Jamie Benn? For starters, Benn has been a better player than both Couture and van Riemsdyk over the same period of time.
Benn was drafted in the 5th round of the 2007 draft and has absolutely surpassed any and all expectations of him when he was initially drafted. Both Couture and JVR were top ten picks in the same draft and carried with them much higher expectations as they entered the NHL, while Benn didn't really emerge until his final season with Kelowna. Since coming into the NHL, Jamie Benn has 44 goals and 97 points in 151 career games; last season, Benn scored 22 times with 56 points in just 69 games while proving himself to be one hell of a beast not just on offense but in all areas of the ice.
Like Couture and JVR, Benn is entering into the final season of this entry-level deal and the time is approaching for an extension. There's absolutely no way that a player like Benn should be allowed to become a RFA, so the question becomes does Benn deserve the bridge contract, or the monster contract that keeps him in Dallas for the next six to seven years?
There is some history to go by with the Stars, however: Loui Eriksson initially signed a two-year contract before becoming a RFA and just recently was inked to a six-year, $25.5 million contract himself. The lengthy extension came after Eriksson continued to improve and right now it's possible to say that Eriksson is close to being underpaid, based on a number of contracts being given around the NHL.
So what can we expect with Benn? When the Stars feel it's time to get him to stick with the Stars for a long time, there's a good chance Benn will be making well over $5 miillion a season. The JVR contract is massive for a player with just two year's experience and you know that Benn and his agent are now jumping at the chance to get him a very similar deal, and the sooner the better. The question is whether the Stars feel that the time for such a contract is now, or perhaps a bit further into the future after a bridging contract has been signed.
The trick with all this, of course, is that the Stars have the flexibility to sign Benn to such a contract. Joe Nieuwendyk was careful this summer to not handicap the future of the Stars financially when signing six free agents to the team, giving the Stars room in the future to make sure that giving Benn a six-year, legitimate contract does not prevent the Stars from still having room to build around him. This is the key, of course, and could also be the deciding factor in what the Stars ultimately offer Benn.
There's also a big gamble in going with the smaller, bridge contract, as Benn could catch fire the next two years and reach the potential we know he has -- becoming an NHL superstar -- and suddenly the Dallas Stars are facing a much more significant contract than would have originally been signed. The Stars were able to sign Eriksson to a relatively friendly contract, and he's on the verge of staking his claim as one of the best players in the NHL.
Jamie Benn is a bit of a different case than Eriksson and perhaps is closer to JVR in what he means to this hockey team. Eriksson is one of the best players in the NHL but no matter how great he gets, he'll never be counted on to be the "face of the franchise". This is where Benn is headed, especially after the departure of Brad Richards, as Benn has an ability to completely dominate a hockey game like we haven't seen in Dallas in a very long time.
No matter how Joe Nieuwendyk feels, there's no way anything happens until new ownership is in place. I fully expect that within seven days of the ownership news conference, a contract extension for Jamie Benn will be announced.