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Devan Dubnyk and Bargaining Position

"Negotiating with the Oilers is awesome!"
"Negotiating with the Oilers is awesome!"

The initial reaction to Devan Dubnyk's new contract has not been particularly positive. I don't think the contract is terrible, but it is higher than what I was expecting. When I wrote about what we might expect for Dubnyk in May, I suggested that he might find a four-year deal that paid him $10M in total pretty attractive. When I wrote that, both Derek and Dawgbone suggested that the commitment was a little much for a goaltender who hasn't played all that many NHL games. Two months later Dubnyk has a deal that will pay him $7M in half the time. How did that happen?

There obviously isn't just one factor. I have no doubt that the recent deals given to Ondrej Pavelec, Tuukka Rask, and Cory Schneider didn't help. These are all young goalies who haven't proven themselves over a long period of time, but they were all given contracts that paid them $3.5M per season or more. Of course, the existence of those deals doens't totally explain why the Oilers had to pay Dubnyk at that level, especially when goaltenders like Semyon Varlamov, Corey Crawford, and Jimmy Howard all signed for less than $3M per season just one summer before.

So what pushed the Oilers into that higher category? I'd argue that one of the major factors was getting themselves into a bad bargaining position when they decided to keep Nikolai Khabibulin. Buying out Nikolai Khabibulin has been the right play for the Oilers for a long time now, but the team has been bafflingly stubborn on this point. I think it cost them here.

With Khabibulin firmly entrenched on the NHL roster, Devan Dubnyk knows that the Oilers have just one reasonable option as their starting goaltender, and that the option is him. He can be quite confident that the Oilers won't go out and get someone else to fill the void because Khabibulin is still there taking up a spot, and the club, which has made a rather large investment in Dubnyk already, is extremely unlikely to want to cut him loose now. That gives Dubnyk tremendous leverage.

But it didn't have to be that way. If the club had bought Khabibulin out of his contract, there would be more pressure on Dubnyk because he'd know that the Oilers were looking for at least one more goaltender. If the club had made a move to acquire that other goaltender before signing Dubnyk, the pressure only increases. This is especially true if they had decided to trade for either Sergei Bobrovsky or Anders Lindback (both of whom were available for mid-level draft picks). Suddenly Dubnyk isn't the only option for the Oilers and his only remaining leverage is what he might get from an arbitrator. Furthermore, the Oilers would have had a second talented young goalie.

Had the Oilers gone with this second approach they'd be in a much better position today. They'd be better at the position, better equipped to deal with an injury, and probably less expensive over the next two years as well. Sadly, the organization didn't go with this approach. Instead, their commitment to Nikolai Khabibulin cost them. Again.