Regardless of what is contained in the new yet-to-be-agreed-upon CBA between the NHL and NHLPA, the contract landscape in the league is going to be very different than it was between 2004-05 and 2011-12.
Several key restricted free agents entered the lockout without a contract. Among those players, the most notable were Jamie Benn and PK Subban. Benn’s case is a very interesting one, for a lot of reasons. Although the CBA negotiations have been a largely fruitless endeavour to date, there have been some useful tidbits to come out. The two sides have reached unofficial agreements on a few issues, although they remain far apart on the important ones.
Let’s get back to Benn. It is clear as day that he is the franchise player in Dallas. The coaching staff loves him, his teammates love him, and the management/ownership love him. He has the WHL pedigree that the Stars seem to be focusing on – skilled and tough on the ice, and soft-spoken and humble off of it.
Before the lockout began, a few contracts were signed that provided context for the Benn negotiations. Do they still hold up?
Finding Comparable Players
The two most obvious comparables for Benn regarding his next contract are Jordan Eberle and Jeff Skinner. The two young stars signed massive deals with Edmonton and Carolina leading up to the lockout. The Oilers signed Eberle to a six-year, $36 million deal in late August, while Carolina locked up Skinner to a six-year, $34.35 million deal earlier that same month.
Eberle’s deal works out to $6 million per season, while Skinner’s is just a shade lower at $5.75. Obviously Edmonton and Carolina wanted to lock up their young stars, even though both players have a year remaining on their respective entry-level contracts.
Eberle and Skinner are dynamic young talents. They are also both younger than Benn (Eberle one year younger, while Skinner is three years younger). However, neither is as good at Benn right now. Upside and potential could factor in to the equation if you want to project the rest of their careers, but at the very least Benn should be just as impactful as Eberle and Skinner.
Compared to Eberle and Skinner, Benn plays significantly tougher minutes, he is more well-rounded (better defensively, tougher, bigger, more physical), and he plays a bigger role for his respective team, too. Benn’s agent, Rich Evans, is likely aware of all of these factors.
I wrote a pretty extensive profile of Benn earlier this summer – not much has changed since then, unfortunately, but it does allow me to share some of the more important points:
Benn, unlike many other skilled forwards in the league, wasn’t given easy minutes. He saw just 2:17 of power play time per game, good for 138th among all NHL forwards. He started only 48 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, a very low total for an offensive forward. The Stars didn’t have the depth up the middle to shelter Benn’s ice time at all, and his production likely suffered because of this.
Among all NHL forwards in 2011-12, Benn trailed only Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Eberle in even strength points per 60 minutes (a very good measure of how well an offensive player is performing).
Like Benn, Eberle was very productive at even strength. Unlike Benn, however, the Oilers protected him and kept him away from the opposition’s top forwards. Not only was Benn going up against the likes of Ryan Getzlaf and the Sedin twins, he was doing it while playing a new position.
Skinner is younger than Benn, and is a completely different player to boot. He’s a pure scorer who relies on finesse and creativity, but his overall game isn’t as impactful as Benn’s (at least not yet). Perhaps the best comparison may be John Tavares, who signed a very cap-friendly contract in 2011. Like Benn, Tavares is the face of the franchise. And as a center, he has more responsibilities than a winger (all other things being equal).
The three players mentioned – Skinner, Eberle, and Tavares – highlight how hard it is to accurately peg a player’s value. Tavares is undoubtedly the best hockey player of the three, and his new contract is the smallest. Comparisons help to establish a ballpark, but at the end of the day it comes down to what a player wants. Tavares could have asked for more money and more years from the Islanders, and to be perfectly honest Benn could probably get the Stars to hand him a blank cheque to fill out. Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that, of course.
What Do the CBA Alterations Mean for Benn?
Eberle’s extension kicks in next summer, and it brings him to the age of 29. The current UFA age in the NHL is 27 (or seven accrued seasons). The NHL initially demanded that all players have 10 years of experience before becoming UFAs, but they have since softened that demand to eight years accrued (or at the age of 28, whichever comes first). That extra year isn’t a significant change from the previous CBA, but it does give teams an extra year of ownership over their restricted assets.
Benn currently has three years accrued under his belt, so he would become a UFA at 28 after eight years – the two stipulations would be equal in his case.
If Benn were to sign a six-year contract next month (please take a big leap of faith and assume the lockout is over by then), his contract would carry him to the age of 29, eating up one year of his UFA eligibility (where under the old CBA it would have eaten up two). What many teams have done in the past is given RFAs more money on a contract that brings them one year short of their UFA eligibility, allowing these teams to have one more negotiation process with the player as an RFA.
Perhaps a four-year deal would make a lot of sense between the two sides if the UFA age is indeed bumped up to 28?
Another interesting note from the current lockout discussions – it looks like salary arbitration will be maintained, but pushed back to five years of experience. The NHLPA wants players to receive arbitration eligibility after four years, while the NHL initially wanted it abolished. The arbitration process is both archaic and detrimental on player-team relationships, but it does serve a purpose as a tool in contract negotiations.
Benn wouldn’t have had arbitration rights under the old CBA, as players coming off of their entry-level contracts weren’t arbitration-eligible. Additionally, it is very unlikely that the Stars and Benn would let the process drag into arbitration.
Overall contract length is where the NHL and NHLPA remain far apart regarding contracts. The NHL wants all contracts to come with a five-year limit, preventing the long-term contracts we have seen given out to the likes of Roberto Luongo, Marian Hossa, Jeff Carter, and Ilya Kovalchuk. The NHLPA is on board with preventing these “back-diving” contracts, but they are not in agreement with a five-year contract limit.
A five-year limit would simplify the process with Benn (and with many other young talents), and it would also increase the cap hits of their new deals.
Let’s look at the Roberto Luongo deal, for example. Luongo’s 12 year contract carries a $5.3 million cap hit. Regardless of what you think about Luongo (elite goaltender, playoff choker, Twitter sensation), that is a steal of a contract for a top-10 goaltender. The first eight years of Luongo’s deal carry a cap hit north of $7 million, though. It is the final four years that drive the cap hit down – and Luongo is unlikely to play out any of those four years.
The Bridge Contract
There are logically three deals that make sense in the Benn negotiations. One is a shorter term “bridge” contract – Dallas is quite familiar with these, having signed both Loui Eriksson and James Neal to them. Colorado forward Matt Duchene signed one this past summer – two years and $3.5 million per season. What bridge contracts do is put the onus on the player to prove his worth – in Benn’s case, he would likely be in for a massive payday two years down the road. They also remove some of the risk for the organization, as they aren’t committing significant money or term to relatively unproven young players.
There are many reasons (including Kevin Lowe) that the bridge contract has been dying a slow death in the NHL. Perhaps the additional year of RFA eligibility will bring it back to relevance?
Big Money, Medium Term
This is the most realistic deal in my estimation. I could see the two sides agreeing on a three or four year deal with a cap hit of approximately $6 million. I haven’t touched on the potential reduction of the salary cap all that much, as it won’t have much of an impact on these negotiations. The Stars have a ton of cap space and are quite obviously saving a large chunk of it to allocate to Benn.
Medium Money, Big Term
This is more in line with the Eberle and Skinner deals. Both of those deals are more of a “big money, big term” situation, but in theory the reason for the long term deals is to drive down the average cap hit a bit. Benn probably wants one of these deals, and who could blame him? Financial safety for the rest of your life at the age of 23 is a luxury that not many people are ever granted. And Benn’s agent knows how the team values his client, both on and off the ice.
With a five-year contract limit, these deals wouldn't be possible any longer in the NHL. A four-year, $24 million deal ($6 million cap hit) could be stretched over 10 years and carry a cap hit of $5 million (an example of increasing the term to lower the per-year rate.
My Best Guess
Assuming the new CBA carries with it a UFA age of 28, I see the two sides agreeing to a four-year pact. Even if there is no contract limit in the new CBA, I don’t see Dallas giving Benn a long-term deal (six or more years). If they were to go that route, it probably would have made more sense to do so this past summer (when they could have gone really long term to drive the cap hit down).
Even with the uncertainty that comes with an unsigned player, I have no doubt at all that Benn is going to be a Star for a while. A few other guys you may have heard of agree.
“Jamie Benn is going to be a Dallas Star, and this is just part of the process. He’s an important player to us, and it’s not like he’s going anywhere.”
“Obviously Jamie Benn is a cornerstone of our franchise. He is one of the key cogs for us going forward, and he could ultimately be a franchise-type player. He’s got that ability.”
It would be a lot better if Benn were flying up the ice scoring goals in a Stars sweater, but it is nice to see him excelling in Germany. Fast-forward to the 45 second mark for a beauty of a goal:
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