One of the unfortunate parts of sports is occasionally money becomes a big issue. This was the case over the last six weeks between the Colorado Avalanche and Ryan O'Reilly, one of the best young players on Colorado, but also a restricted free agent. Now that Colorado finally has O'Reilly signed after matching Calgary's two-year offer sheet and O'Reilly was back in the lineup Sunday afternoon, it's time for both parties to move on until his new deal is up at the end of the 2013-14 season.
I know what this situation is like because it happened to the Los Angeles Kings when I was coaching them in the early 1990s. We went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 and the next season Marty McSorley, who had been a very valuable part of our club, had to be moved because of his contract. This was before the salary-cap era in the NHL, but the front office believed he was going to make too much money because he got a big raise after we won the conference title and as a result we ended up having to trade him to Pittsburgh. When it became apparent how valuable he was for us, we traded back for him.
This situation was different because it wasn't about matching offer sheets or dealing with free agency, but it is an example of when the economics of the sport have an impact on your team. His new contract just didn't fit in with our salary structure. A lot of the deals in the NHL are made without the coach being involved. A lot of it is about money. A great example of this is the Chicago Blackhawks trading away several valuable pieces like Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg right after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010. Those situations are out of a coach's hands. It's always a tough situation when money is more involved in a deal than a player's ability.
That was certainly the case with O'Reilly, but I can guarantee you this: Avalanche coach Joe Sacco wanted O'Reilly back, he wanted him signed and he wanted him signed long term. Sometimes, though, the business decisions take precedence.
It can also be strange when a player that has been out for an extended period due to a contract situation finally returns to the locker room, but most players are professionals and understand the business side of the game. Perhaps more importantly, though, the players are all going to be aware of the kind of money O'Reilly got. The offer sheet is believed to be structured with a $1 million salary this season and a $2.5 million signing bonus with a salary of $6.5 million in the second year. That basically means O'Reilly will make $3.5 million in 29 games this season, the equivalent of $9.9 million in a full 82-game season.
That means O'Reilly just made every player in the NHL more money with that contract. O'Reilly's salary will be the one used in arbitration for players with similar statistics. They'll use O'Reilly's numbers as the benchmark and say they deserve the same money. The guys in his locker room in Denver realize this and I'm sure they're happy about it in addition to being happy about having one of their better players back. It's a can't-lose situation for O'Reilly. He just made his team better and he just helped out the rest of the players salary-wise.
The other interesting thing from this whole situation is the gamesmanship on Calgary's part. That contract was structured money-wise to make it difficult on Colorado, a division rival. By making the final year of the contract worth $6.5 million, that raises the benchmark for numbers O'Reilly will deal with for the next round of negotiations with the Avalanche. It also put extensive pressure on Colorado to match the deal, not just with the dollars committed but the impression it gave. The Avalanche couldn't just let one of their young players go for draft picks and claim they're trying to compete.
I also think that's the reason Colorado matched the offer so quickly. The Avalanche had seven days to decide, but they matched within a matter of hours. They needed to make a statement to Calgary that they couldn't be pushed around and they also needed to save face with O'Reilly. Negotiations are difficult. They can get contentious. Sometimes feelings can get hurt. By matching the offer so quickly, Colorado sent the message to O'Reilly that they wanted him on their team, they wanted him badly and they were willing to pay for it. They needed to show one of their best young players that they wanted him back in the lineup as soon as possible because they're still trying to make the playoffs. After all, the next game the Avalanche lose without him could be the game that costs them a playoff berth in April.
I do think O'Reilly will struggle a little bit at the start. He might play well right away because of sheer adrenaline, but once he gets into the grind you might notice him being a little tired. He's a key player for the Avs and he'll play a ton of minutes. I think it'll take him a little while to get his sea legs and get back up to speed with everyone else that's already been playing for five weeks.
In my opinion, I still don't think the Avalanche are a playoff team, but they aren't too far out of the race right now and their chances are much better with O'Reilly in the lineup than with O'Reilly out of the lineup. He's going to make the players around him better, and having a strong young talent up front always helps your team. Without O'Reilly, Colorado probably didn't have a chance of making the playoffs this season. With him, the Avs now have a fighting chance.