Bob Murray's Restricted Free Agents

Earlier today, Bob Murray signed Andrew Cogliano to a new three-year deal that will pay Cogliano an average of $2,390,000 for the next three seasons. It's the kind of deal that will pay off for the Ducks if Cogliano can take a role in the top nine forwards and run with it, and the kind of deal that will pay off for Cogliano no matter what. That number is on the high end of what he would have been able to get in arbitration (Nikolai Kulemin's $2.35M cap hit provides a nice comparable), and it's locked in for three years, which is long enough to guarantee that Cogliano will be given time to find his game in Anaheim, but short enough that, if he performs well, he'll be paid very well indeed when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Still, I can't help but think that the Ducks have taken on an awful lot of unnecessary risk to buy just one (potential) year of unrestricted free agency. Unfortunately for Ducks' fans, this kind of payment to young players who haven't yet established themselves in the role that they're being paid for is becoming a regular occurrence. 

Since Bob Murray became the general manager of the Anaheim Ducks in November of 2008, he's had a few chances to sign important restricted free agents, but taking a look at the list, it's hard to be too impressed:

James Wisniewski - Wisniewski was coming off a season in which he had played 48 games and scored a career-high 24 points. This was, essentially, Wisniewski's second full NHL season and he was coming off a contract that paid him $650,000. Murray gave Wisniewski a one-year contract worth $2,750,000 that July, which didn't give the Ducks much chance at getting value since, even if Wisniewski succeeded, he would immeidately need another contract. Wisniewski ended up having a good offensive season in Anaheim with 30 points in 69 games, but because of the huge raise given the year before, the Ducks felt that it would be too difficult to get value out of the player going forward, and so they traded him to the Islanders for a third-round pick at the end of July.

Bobby Ryan - After a long negotiation last summer, the Ducks signed Bobby Ryan to a five-year contract that would pay Ryan an average of $5,100,000 per season, and that bought them one year of potential unrestricted free agency. Ryan was coming off of two consecutive thirty-goal seasons, and was quite clearly among the Ducks' best forwards. I think that this is Murray's best restricted free agent deal by far, but he had the good fortune of using the contracts that Brian Burke had negotiated with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to his advantage in negotiations. I also tend to think it's easier to get value from top-level players that it is from the "middle class".

Luca Sbisa - Murray signed Sbisa to a four-year extension earlier this year that will pay the defender an average of $2,175,000 per season. Murray didn't buy any years of unrestricted free agency and paid a huge premium for the player-type (defensive defenseman). Sbisa was just approaching his 100th career game when the contract was signed, and hadn't shown any propensity for offense. Further, Sbisa was struggling mightily in his protected role on the club's third pairing. I don't think Sbisa will be good value at any point in this deal, but as with Cogliano, the deal is to the great benefit of the player since it virtually guarantees opportunity but doesn't give much away in terms of maximizing earning power if the player succeeds.

I bring Bob Murray's deficiencies up because Steve Tambellini has often been criticized for similar reasons. Some of that criticism is warranted (Ladislav Smid and Gilbert Brule from this season, and Denis Grebeshkov from the summer of 2009 all come to mind as RFA overpays), but he's certainly not the only manager who seems to struggle with the valuation of various players in the "middle class", although in Tambellini's case, there are some examples on the good side of the ledger too (Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano last summer, and Ladislav Smid in the summer of 2009). With the Oilers collecting young players and targeting three-to-five years from today as an important opening for Cup contention, it will be very important for Steve Tambellini to get value from these mid-level restricted free agents who are no longer on entry-level contracts. I can only hope that he's better at it than Bob Murray.

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