Oilers not afraid to flex financial muscle

Doug MacLean on Hockey Central @ Noon is stunned that Nikita Nikitin was able to command $4 million a year for two years from Edmonton, feeling that the defenceman is being grossly overpaid for what he is able to do.

The Edmonton Oilers and the Los Angeles Kings are polar opposites. The weather. The standings. The glamour in the seats. You name it.

But it goes deeper even than that. The Kings and Oilers popularity among unrestricted free agents is marked on as inversed a proportion as their eternal positions on those 10-team lists that accompany No Trade Clauses in players’ contracts. L.A. makes the short lists of teams players will go to, while Edmonton holds a firm place on the lists that players give to their agents of places they refuse to go.

That’s not a shot. It’s reality. And this week they couldn’t be more representative of the two ends of the hockey world, as we hit the peak season for free agent signings.

On Wednesday both teams went about their own business in their own way, the Kings signing a premier sniper to a seven-year deal with a relatively low cap hit of just under $5 million, while the Oilers signed a second pairing defenceman to a two-year contract worth $4.5 million per season.

The Kings gave Marian Gaborik term, and in return he took less annual pay (nearly $5 million) than he’s earned in a decade. They’ll be stuck with him until he’s 39 however, and you could argue that L.A. will receive no more than a year or two of Gaborik’s prime years over the course of this deal.

The Oilers, meanwhile, gave Nikita Nikitin more money than anybody would dream of paying him, but for just two seasons. They will get him at age 28 and 29 – an NHLer’s prime — at which point the Oilers hope their younger drafted players will have matured enough to allow Nikitin to walk away.

In L.A., Gaborik bought term from the Kings by taking less annual money. In Edmonton, the Oilers bought term from Nikitin by paying him more over fewer seasons.

“That’s right,” said Oilers senior V.P. of hockey operations Scott Howson. “We told (agent) Rick Curran and Nikitin, if he wants a shorter term deal we’d pay more money. We were up front (with him on that) right from the start.”

Edmonton also parted with a fifth-round pick, which goes to Columbus for Nikitin’s negotiating rights. “Good for them. You’ve got to do those things sometimes, especially when you’re Edmonton,” an Eastern front office type said when Edmonton struck the deal. “Even if it doesn’t always work.”

Free agency is always a gamble. The Kings gamble that Gaborik stays hungry and healthy in the sunset years of his career. The Oilers gamble some cap space (of which they have plenty) and some of Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s money (of which he has much) on a player who is more valuable on Edmonton’s weak blueline than he was on Columbus’s burgeoning defence.

“In free agency you overpay either in term or in dollars, and sometimes you overpay in both,” Howson said. “When you get into this game (free agency), you’re not going to win being careful and cautious.”

Kings GM Dean Lombardi once told me that landing free agents wasn’t the issue in L.A. It was signing guys who aren’t simply after the lifestyle — “The Starbucks and sandals culture,” he called it. Sharks GM Doug Wilson has recently spoken on a similar theme about hardening his roster in San Jose a tad.

Edmonton has no currency there. No one comes to Edmonton for the scenery, even if those of us who live here are very happy. What the Oilers do have, however, is a money-making franchise — which vaults them ahead of likely 15 teams right there — an owner with deep pockets, and a new building on the way.

When their rebuild is too slow, the Oilers get ripped. When they force young players into the lineup too soon, they get carved. When they don’t trade a core player, people wonder why. If they did, I suspect people would also wonder why.

The singular marketplace advantage that Edmonton has today is cash money, and they used it on Nikitin. The rest, as was outlined when young defenceman Justin Schultz chose the Oilers over 28 other clubs, is promise and opportunity.

“We’re a great team for anyone who wants an opportunity to play,” said Howson, who as GM in Columbus traded for Nikitin from St. Louis back in 2011. “We have a young, promising team, we can sell being part of building that from ground up. And there are a lot of exciting things about a Canadian market.”

Nikitin gets $9 million to forego free agency, and if he plays well, he may actually be worth $4.5 million to other teams come July 1 2016. On another team, he’d be a third pairing guy and never get the chance to attain that value. So he gets paid now, and gets the opportunity to get paid again in two years.

“We see him as a top-4 guy. We think he’ll play on both special teams, probably on the second power play,” Howson said. “He’s got a great one-timer, a left shot one-timer we haven’t had. He can kill penalties, he’s got size and he can play against big players. And we know the West is full of big players.”

The West is full of big players. But as July 1 nears, even the little players have to flex whatever muscles they have.

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