In the discussion over whether or not the Stars did the right thing in signing Kari Lehtonen to a three-year deal for $10.65 million, I think the key is that Lehtonen could have become an unrestricted free agent next summer had you merely extended him a qualifying offer of $3 million this summer.
If you had Lehtonen as an RFA next summer, I think for sure the Stars would have simply qualified him for one season and then revisited the negotiation next year. There are some questions about his ability to stay healthy and his ability to be a No. 1 goalie even at age 26, so that would have been a nice cushion to have. But with the chance that he could have walked away next summer as a UFA, the Stars felt they had to give him a little security in order to allow him to give up the chance to shop himself around the NHL had he put up a great season.
As such, I think the contract is appropriate.
Yes, Lehtonen could struggle with injuries and conditioning, and the fact he has a three-year guaranteed contract could take away some of his motivation to get himself in the best possible shape. But in spending a little time with Lehtonen, it seems he is motivated and he is excited about the chance to work within the Stars organization. He understands his importance to the team, and he understands the importance of where he is in his career.
The Stars may be getting him at just the right time, as he seems to have matured.
Now, could this still blow up when he is due to $3.7 million in 2011-12 and $4.25 million in 2012-13? Sure. Every contract is a gamble. But I think it is a decent gamble that allows the Stars to possibly hand the job to one of their younger goalies within two years if it isn't working out.
Now, the Stars still have some other contracts they are working on, so let's take a look at those and see how you would attack them.
Mike Modano _ UFA _ I don't think we'll know about this one until the ownership deal is worked out. If the Billy Quinn group gets the team and Modano is included, he will retire. If this group does not get the team (or if it's not decided by then), this will be a very interesting discussion for him. In talking to him recently, he is no closer to a decision.
Jere Lehtinen _ UFA _ I talked to Lehtinen this week and he said he still has not decided what he wants to do and may not for a while. We'll see on this one, as well. He really does sound a little worn down by all of the injuries. That could change, but you hear it in his voice that it is taxing on him. Still, I think the Stars would like his experience and right-handed shot if it came at the right price.
Krys Barch _ UFA _ He made $575,000 last season and I believe he is seeking a raise. I would probably offer him a one-year deal at the same level. He is a decent fighter and a good teammate, but I think a one-year extension at this price still is a solid deal for him. What's more, someone like Francis Wathier would happily step into that role if Barch is not re-signed. The problem is the Toby Petersen deal (from $550,000 last season to $750,000 next season to $800,000 the next) sets the table for Barch to ask for a comparable contract.
Nicklas Grossman _ RFA _ His qualifying offer is $1.05 million, and you definitely tender him that, but you try to get him locked up longer. The problem is that he is 25, meaning he has just two years left before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Thus, if you want a deal longer than two years, you have to buy out some of his UFA time. I would say you could probably get him on a two-year deal at $1.5 million a year, but do you want more than that? It's a tricky negotiation. The Stars are back-loading a lot of contracts right now, so I'm not sure they want to do that with Grossman, but they might not have any choice. I will say this, with Stephane Robidas setting the high bar at $3.55 million and Grossman looking like a player who probably won't score 20 points, he won't break the bank on you.
Matt Niskanen _ RFA _ I think you just give him his qualifying offer of $756,000 and hope that he gets better next season. If you want him to be a good player here, he probably needs to understand he does not deserve a significant raise after last season. If you want to trade him, you probably need him in at the lowest possible price. It just makes sense to get him on another one-year deal.
Fabian Brunnstrom _ RFA _ There are enough skilled forwards on the Stars that I don't think you give him his qualifying offer of $826,875. You try to trade his rights, but I don't think you make this investment right now if all you are going to try to do is trade him anyway.
James Neal _ RFA _ Here is the big fish this summer. The two options you have with Neal is that you try to negotiate a long-term deal at a time when you can probably get him at Brenden Morrow money ($4.1 million a year) or you give him a bridge contract for two seasons at somewhere near the $2.5 million range. I would go with the latter. I think Neal was inconsistent enough that you still don't know what he is, and I think you use the next two years to find out. Is that a risk? Yeah. Could you end up paying him a lot more in a couple of years? Possibly. But I just think James Neal needs a bridge contract right now.
The New York Rangers did this with Brandon Dubinsky and even went so far as to let Dubinsky sit out some of training camp. He came in and signed a two-year deal at $1.7 million and $2 million. Neal's numbers say he has earned more than that, but I think you have to be prepared to wait him out on this. The general consensus in the league is teams with cap space do not have money and teams with money do not have cap space. Thus, nobody is going to make an offer to an RFA when you have to overpay. The Rangers tested the market last year and nobody gave Dubinsky an RFA offer sheet at a time when the Rangers probably could have been had. So do you believe you can do the same thing with James Neal?
If a team did make an offer sheet, you have two options. You can match it if it is within the range you were hoping or you can let him go and take the draft picks. One scary thing is the salary levels have gone up and the compensation has gone down for RFA's since the NHL drew this up in 2005, so it does seem more reasonable for a team to take a chance on an RFA. Here are the 2009 compensation numbers:
* $994,433 or below - None
* $994,433 to $1,506,716 - 3rd round pick
* $1,506,716 to $3,013,434 - 2nd round pick
* $3,013,434 to $4,520,150 - 1st and 3rd round pick
* $4,520,150 to $6,026,867 - 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick
* $6,026,867 to $7,533,584 - 2 1st round picks, a 2nd and 3rd round pick
* $7,533,584 - 4 1st round picks
Brad Richards _ One more year at $7.8 million _ If you blow Richards away with an offer right now, you can probably get an extension done, but I think the Stars would actually like to get him at an average that is less than the $7.8 million he is making now. That would take a fairly long commitment. I could be wrong, but I get the sense both sides may have to wait on this until the ownership situation is worked out. The Stars need to know what kind of budget they are looking at for the 2011-12 season and beyond, and Richards needs to know if this is an organization that is serious about winning.
One question that is very vexing for the Stars: If indeed it takes $7.8 million to keep Richards, do you make that commitment or do you put him on the trade block and believe you can be a better team by spreading that money around to more than one player?
That's all for now. I'll try to keep this updated and keep it near the top of the blog.