The headline itself is a relief. With September fast approaching and Sam Gagner still a free agent, it started to look like there was some cause for concern. When Kevin Lowe spoke to Dan Tencer on Monday he said (transcript via David Staples), "Both those players would like longer deals, and we like both players, but I think from an organization standpoint, we're just uncertain where their overall game is. Typically the agents have a different version or view of where they fit overall. The best thing, I guess, would be to do one year deals." Ryan Rishaug has the deal at 2 years with a cap hit of $2.275M, which you'd have to think isn't what Gagner's agent had in mind for a "longer deal." More analysis after the jump.The contract is clearly a good one for the Oilers over the next two seasons. Sam Gagner is going to be one of the top three centers on this club over those two years, no matter which definition of "first," "second," or "third" line we use. When I wrote about Gagner in March, I took the optimistic view that Gagner was progressing well, despite some stagnation in his point totals: his possession metrics are improving, and he's starting to take on a more important role. I think there's some chance that he becomes a tremendous player. When Ben wrote about Gagner in August, he took a slightly more pessimistic view, but even then said that Gagner was "a fine player now," and that he was on track to become "a superb second line center someday." In either case, $2.275M is a great deal, and the two-year term leaves the Oilers in a good position to sign Gagner long-term in the future. Had it been a three-year deal, Gagner could have forced his way to unrestricted free agency by going to arbitration. With a two-year deal, that's not possible. The only small risk, then, is that the new collective bargaining agreement lowers the UFA age and service requirements. So credit where due, assuming a short-term deal was the way to go, Steve Tambellini did a fantastic job.
The problem (of course there's a problem) is that a short-term deal wasn't the way to go. You and I and everyone else all know that the Oilers aren't going to be able to compete in the next two years, so Gagner's deal is tremendous value at a time when tremendous value is, er... less valuable. From Lowe's comments, we know that Gagner was open to a long-term contract. The question then becomes, why not go for it? Overpaying a bit up front for benefit later is a good call for a team mired in the league's basement. It just doesn't make sense. I suppose it's possible that the money was way out of line, but if there was a deal to be made in the 8-year $28 range, I think the Oilers have missed a tremendous opportunity here.
I understand the desire to have Gagner earn his paycheque, but the problem is, you need players who do a lot more than give fair value on the dollar. In order to have success, you need to make bets, and betting long-term on a young player with no injury history whose play on the ice has improved more than his statistics is about as good a bet as you can find. So consider me disappointed with management for playing it safe, while acknowledging that they played it safe well.
Lastly, I wanted to look at the deal from Gagner's perspective because I don't think his agent did a very good job. He didn't limit the deal to one year in case Gagner has a break-out season. He didn't get a three-year deal which would have put Gagner's destiny in his own hands. He didn't get a four-year deal to make Gagner unrestricted. He didn't get particularly good money (Bryan Little got a bit more and the extra year from the Thrashers). You'd think that with a $3M offer sheet paying only a second round pick, a rebuilding team like the Islanders would jump at the chance to add a player who fits their cluster perfectly. That his agent couldn't get any team to offer more than what the Oilers are paying for Gagner's services is baffling. As an Oiler fan, I hope it's because Gagner asked his agent not to solicit offer sheets out of a sense of loyalty to the team, because we'll be needing a selfless attitude at the negotiating table again in two years.