The NHL franchise player isn't dead, but the timid manager just might be
As much as it might pain the Buffalo Sabres faithful to be reminded once again of their dearly departed captain tandem of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, one for the city of brotherly love and the other for the city that never sleeps, they'd better hope Sabres' General Manager Darcy Regier keeps it in the back of his mind if he wants to continue his job. The new NHL may be advertised as a faster, sleeker product on the ice, but it has proven to wield just as many important off-ice elements that have been exploited by some shrewd NHL GMs and have victimized just as many unsuspecting others.
Professional hockey management is in a state of perpetual adjustment since the 2004-2005 lockout, and this has caused many people to assume the worst when it comes to team unity. With the free agent migrations over the summer that saw character players and team cornerstones like Drury and Briere as well as Ryan Smyth and Scott Gomez flee to greener pastures, it has become a highly discussed issue over whether the "franchise player" even has a place in the league anymore. GMs face a difficult paradox: The very players that lead a team to a Stanley Cup very often cripple said teams with their ample - albeit sometimes warranted - contracts. GMs simply cannot afford to keep these superstars, and so the highest bidder constantly snatches them up. But does this have to be the case?
Dany Heatley is the only player in the league to have had 50-goal years in the past two seasons, and he aims to make it 3-for-3 this year with his already league-leading six goals in seven games, all at the ripe age of 26. In a contract year this season, he was already being projected to be the most highly-sought free agent of the 2008 off-season. But early in October, the NHL announced that Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray signed Heatley to a six-year contract extension worth roughly $7.5 million a year. This came only a few months after the NHL's brightest young star, Sidney Crosby, signed his own extension, a five-year contract with the Penguins worth $8.7 million per.
What Murray and Penguins GM Ray Shero are doing is setting a precedent that surely all GMs must soon follow if the beloved franchise player is to remain a part of this league: Sign 'em young, and sign 'em long term.
This isn't to say that it's recommended to take the New York Islanders' route and sign the face of your team to a 15-year deal, despite the success of Islanders' netminder Rick DiPietro as a formidable force between the pipes so far. But maybe Islanders GM Garth Snow is on to something in the midst of all the silliness of that deal - it's going to take some creativity to keep a team together, especially its star players.
If the league begins to follow Murray's lead with Heatley and sign a team's stars before they hit the market, it will mean the Yzermans can be succeeded by the Zetterbergs, the Sakics replaced by the Stastnys. The worst thing Regier did was wait until the summer to try to sign the Sabres' elite duo. It's not a good enough excuse that the separate parties were afraid to interrupt the team's focus on the ice. With 29 rabid teams salivating at the prospect of a game-breaker like Drury centering their top line, it's something that can't be ignored, even in the midst of a playoff chase. It's not the franchise player that will disappear; the GMs with slow trigger fingers will be the ones that get left in the dust.