Since we don't have the newsletter with fan questions during the summer, we're handling things on the blog with sporadic questions and answers. If you have a question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: Hey Mike, what's going to happen with James Neal and Jere Lehtinen?
HEIKA: Good question, John. Key front office people have been on vacation and should be back at work starting today, but I still think the pressure points of negotiations won't start really pressing on talks until mid-September.
Neal, Nicklas Grossman and Matt Niskanen are all restricted free agents and Jere Lehtinen is an unrestricted free agent. Lehtinen has an open invitation to return if he is willing to come in at a bargain price. He is back from Finland and his kids are enrolled in school, so he plans to live in North Texas this year. The question is whether or not he wants to push his body through another season after battling various injuries in the past three seasons. Joe Nieuwendyk said yesterday he has talked to Lehtinen and that Lehtinen has not yet decided. I believe Lehtinen will play only for the Stars or will retire.
I put a call into Lehtinen on Monday, but he has not returned it. I think this is a very tough decision for him.
Let's take the restricted free agents one at a time. Grossman and the Stars are close, I believe. Grossman passed on arbitration and is probably going to be helped out by the four-year, $14 million contract (averaging $3.5 million a year) that Niklas Hjalmarsson signed with Chicago this summer. The Stars I believe are looking to get Grossman signed for around $2 million a year for three or four years.
Niskanen has a qualifying offer of $756,000, and I think the Stars have some wiggle room on him, but I don't think they will go much above $1 million a season right now.
Neal is the tough one. I believe the Stars have offered a two year deal at $2 million for the 2010-11 season and $3 million for the 2011-12 season, and I don't think they will come off of that. I think Neal's people are waiting for Bobby Ryan to sign in Anaheim, and hope that a big contract for Ryan will help shape this negotiation, but I really feel the Stars may be willing to play hardball with Neal. Neal might even ask for a one-year deal, and I don't think the Stars will give him that, because they don't want to go through this again next summer (when Neal would have arbitration rights). Bottom line, the Stars have the hammer in this negotiation, and they may be willing to wield it.
Without an RFA offer sheet, Neal's only real negotiating tool is to miss training camp and hope his absence hurts the Stars. However, the team is so deep at left wing, I think they can get by without Neal in the short-term.
But if the Stars are going to play that game and will not change their offer at all, then it makes no sense for Neal to sign his deal until Sept. 15 or 16. Even if he plans on coming in on time and has already made that decision, he might as well hold open the door for an RFA offer sheet until then.
So that's where I think things are with all of the free agents. There will be talks (probably as soon as today), but I think we still could be a couple of weeks away from seeing signed contracts.