Ah, it seem that only yesterday hordes of adoring fans were waiting to have their picture taken with Blue Jackets’ GM Jarmo Kekäläinen at CannonFest IV. After all, he had landed Nathan Horton and Marian Gaborik, had negotiated some nifty re-signing deals, and could seemingly do no wrong. However, being a General Manager in professional sports is at the top of the “What Have You Done For Me Lately” pyramid, and a significant number of those hands that were slapping Jarmo on the back in August are now reaching for torches and pitchforks. Why? In case you missed it, the club announced the signing of winger Jared Boll to a 3-year, $5.1 million dollar deal, which kicks in next season.
To be fair, the Twitterverse has been divided between those who thing that this is a “terrific” deal, and those that believe Jarmo has taken leave of his senses. The truth — to the extent that the concept of “truth” can be applied to the perceived value of services — really lies somewhere in the vast gray area between the two extremes. As those who follow my ramblings will attest — I am a big fan of understanding not only what we know, but what we don’t know. In deals such as this, the latter tends to be just as important as the former.
On its face, the $1.7 million AAV seems extraordinarily steep for a guy who has scattered 24 goals and 28 assists over the course of six NHL seasons, while amassing 963 penalty minutes. This represents a 70% raise, and puts him ahead of guys such as Letestu, Comeau, Calvert, Skille, MacKenzie and Atkinson. (Boll’s existing contract already had him ahead of all but Letestu and Atkinson). It’s not a stretch to say that each of those players has considerably more offensive up-side than Mr. Boll. For comparison purposes, Jared will earn just $50,000 less than the Flyer’s Sean Couturier when their new deals kick in next year. Couturier has 17 goals and 25 assists…in two years.
While it’s true that Boll has become the de facto enforcer in the wake of the Derek Dorsett trade, and has been a fan favorite in his role as Jody Shelley II, you can’t truly use Boll and Couturier in the same sentence, let alone pay them the same amount.
While I get the intangible value of having folks like Jody Shelley return to the organization, Shelley does not count against the salary cap. Loyalty is great, but to all appearances, this seems totally out of character with the other signings Jarmo has inked. So, is it temporary insanity, or is there more to the picture than we are seeing? Let’s follow the bouncing puck.
In case you have been in a coma for the last year or two, there was this thing called a “lockout” that cut last year short. As part of the CBA that emerged from that strife, term limits were imposed on contracts, and the salary cap was artificially reduced for this season. I use the term “artificially”, as the reduction did not stem from applying the formula used to calculate the upper and lower limits — it was rather a fixed, negotiated number. However, hockey related revenue was not reduced, and can be expected to follow its inexorable climb. What this means is that the salary cap is set for a jump come next year — and a big one.
Like a gas, contract money expands to fill the available space, and this phenomenon will be evident next year. Hence, General Managers have been tripping over themselves to get guys locked up for maximum terms. While some have perceived this as owner greed, focusing on the total value of these seven and eight year deals, the reverse is actually true. This season has presented a one-time opportunity to lock players up for longer terms at prices that may seem on the high side now, but will be a bargain next year. The players, for their part, are largely willing to forego some top end money for long term security.
Boll is in the last year of his contract, with UFA status coming next July, just when an increased cap will provide oxygen to the fire of salary escalation. A guy named Gaborik is in the same situation, as are Comeau, MacKenzie, Skille & McElhinney. The latter three are unlikely to pose issues, but Gaborik is clearly a priority. McElhinney’s future will depend almost exclusively on how he performs this season, and the same can be said for Comeau. Given the limited time Gaborik has with the organization — and the dollars that will be involved — his deal will take time. Say what you will, but Boll is a known quantity. Johansen is also playing for his RFA contract.
By pulling the trigger now, Kekäläinen gets a distraction out of the way, and has some longer term insurance against the salary demands that might otherwise be forthcoming next summer. More importantly, he has a player locked up at a number that is suitable for trading, particularly when the cap moves up. Sure, getting one-for-one value might not be in the cards, but Jarmo has already shown the ability to jettison enforcer types as part of a larger package. (See Dorsett, Derek– who makes just about what Boll will earn) His signing might also provide some incentive for Comeau, who might just be thinking “If they pay HIM $1.7 million…”
At the end of the day, we don’t know what Jarmo’s long term plans are for the impending UFA and RFA players. Those decisions might well depend, at least in part, on how Boone and Murray factor into the equation this season, and how Johansen’s performance translates to dollars. For now, it’s really not something to stress over. Would there be any consternation if Boll got a raise to $1.3 million or so? Probably not. So, we’re talking about roughly a million bucks over three years. The salary cap over that same time will exceed $200 million. Barely a ripple. So, put down the pitchforks, extinguish the torches, don your Blue Jackets sweaters, and turn out for the pre-season opener on Sunday.