Radar Watch: A Look at the Ryan O'Reilly RFA Situation

Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

The regular season starts on Saturday, but the Avs reigning leading scorer still doesn't have a contract. What happens now?

Perhaps I'm overreacting, but this is turning into a mess. Two days of training camp are already in the books, but the hard-working, fan-favorite centerman Ryan O`Reilly hasn't been at either of them.

A week ago, DDC ran a story questioning the popular sentiment that a deal with Radar would be reached quickly. I'll freely admit that I was among those that believed that an agreement was imminent. Why wouldn't it be? This is O'Reilly we're talking about, the heart and soul of this team for the past 15 months. The kid that made friends with the zamboni crew at the Family Sports Center because he stayed on the ice so long after practice. The guy that helped his teammates by coming up with various creative drills. The player many of us thought could take over the C from Hejduk. Heck, this is the 21-year-old who worked his butt off and went from a 3rd line center to the leading scorer of the Colorado Avalanche in the span of a year. He is the LAST person on the roster who I would expect to see mired in a contract dispute.

And yet here we are.

Background:

The trouble started early this summer. O'Reilly and Matt Duchene, our other 2009 draft pick, both came off their ELCs. Dutchy signed right away, taking a serious home-town sweetheart discount of $7 mil for 2 years after a disappointing 2011-12 season. However, he had managed 55 and 67pts before that injury-plagued year and easily has the potential to improve those numbers in the future. O'Reilly plays a more well-rounded game, but will likely only top out as an excellent #3C or a decent #2C. He's also had just one really good season, a campaign that was potentially influenced by centering the Rookie of the Year. There's a good chance that his offensive spark was not a fluke, but it's really difficult to justify paying O'Reilly much more than his draftmate's $3.5 million until we know that for sure.

It just got worse from there. The lockout started, NHL contract negotiations stopped, and in early December, O'Reilly signed a 2-year deal with his brother's team, the KHL's Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Along with the contract, he was given a verbal promise that he would be allowed to return to the NHL if he chose to. However, given the term and the reported $4 mil a year salary, it was pretty clear that the move was designed as leverage against the Avs.

He's not the only player in this predicament. PK Subban (MTL) and Michael Del Zotto (NYR) both came out of the lockout as unsigned RFAs as well. The common thread: their agency company, Newport Sports Management Inc. While the agent in charge of O'Reilly's case is Mark Guy, the firm itself is run by Don Meehan, a veteran player representative with a reputation for playing hardball. All told, the agency represents around 125 current NHL players, and in the past couple years, they've encouraged Doughty, Stamkos, and other big-name players to delay signing their contracts. Bobby Ryan actually ended up going around Meehan in order to sign his last deal with the Ducks. Of the 3 current RFAs, only Del Zotto has come to terms.

Current Negotiations and Impacts:

Since this is the Avs and negotiations are ongoing, all we're going to receive is rumors. Right now, the current story is that O'Reilly's camp is asking for 5 years at $4 mil a pop. For the Avs, this is troubling for a few reasons.

First of all, as mentioned above, Radar is still mostly unproven. Yes, he did have a very nice season last year, but $4 mil for 5 years is still a lot of money to commit to a person who has only scored 50+ points once. Here's a list of some Cap Comparables, and it's a little hard to include O'Reilly in there as of right now, especially as an RFA. Plus, as Elliotte Friedman pointed out in his recent 30 Thoughts (#17 and #18), teams are also hoping to hold down the cost of the "second contracts", and a large RFA pay-day like this could put Sherman in some very hot water with his peers. In short, an agreement of this magnitude would probably prove to be a massive overpayment and set a dangerous precedent that the league is trying to avoid.

However, there's also the overall team finances to think about. While the Avs can easily support the 4mil cap hit this year and next, in the Summer of 2014, all bets are off. Stastny, Duchene, Landeskog, McGinn, Downie, Barrie, Elliott, Varlamov, and Giguere all come due, making cap space very valuable at that point. Paying $4+ mil for a player who will likely never break out of the #3C role again if Stastny and Duchene stay healthy may compromise our ability to sign other core players. O'Reilly is important, but not at the cost of some of those other assets.

Also, a 5 year term takes O'Reilly to UFA territory. At that time, the Avs will be supporting all the contracts they signed in 2014 as well as Johnson's next deal. The 2+ million potential difference between a RFA negotiation and a UFA one could be huge.

What Now?

The best option by far would be to quickly sign O'Reilly to a reasonable contract, something like $3.5 for 4 years or $4 for 3 years. Even though the second deal would still interfere with the signings of 2014, having that $4 mil on the books for only one more season would be workable (or tradeable). While O'Reilly is one of the best defensive forwards in the game, if he's looking for this contract to be proof of the organization's commitment to him as a Top 6 center, he's going to be disappointed. With Duchene and Stastny here, he'll most likely never see anything more than a 2B role.

If he's unwilling to accept that truth, then that brings us to Option 2: leave him in the KHL. The Avalanche own his rights until he becomes a UFA at 27. Even though he'll be making good money and playing with his brother in Russia, the KHL still features inferior talent and is far from his homeland of Canada. He has very little leverage, and a few extra months of -27º weather may bring him around. This option does open him up to an offer sheet though. If another team signs him for $3,364,391 to $5,046,585 per year, the Avs will have the choice to match the offer or receive a 1st and 3rd round pick as compensation.

Option 3 is to trade his rights. The Avs have a glaring hole on our top pairing, and O'Reilly could possibly help net a solution. The rumors have already started, including an O'Reilly to PHX for Yandle one. The Avs also have a history of not taking fondly to contract disputes, and if O'Reilly misses any games (which is likely at this point), his future with the Avs could be very short indeed.

Unfortunately, not having O'Reilly in the lineup for whatever reason poses some problems. Our roster is setup to roll 3 scoring lines. Unless a player of O'Reilly's caliber centers that third set, our goals-for will probably take a hit. Whether you believe the Avs are a playoff team with or without Radar, there's still no denying that unless the trade return is significant, we're a better team with him in the lineup than without.

***

My biggest hope is O'Reilly signs today or tomorrow and all of this goes away. Hockey may indeed be a business where stuff like this happens, but as a fan, nothing would make me happier than seeing my favorite player skating with his Avalanche teammates in Minnesota on Saturday.

Radar, we miss you. It's time to come home.

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