(CP) - The San Jose Sharks became the latest NHL team to give a young player big money on a long-term contract, and they didn't wait for Milan Michalek to become a restricted free agent to get a deal done.
The US$26-million, six-year agreement they reached with the 22-year-old forward Friday won't kick in until 2008-09, once Michalek's current pact expires following the coming season. He'll make $942,400 in 2007-08 after earning $471,200 last year.
After a summer in which the Edmonton Oilers handed out a pair of offer sheets to restricted free agents - successfully prying forward Dustin Penner away from the Anaheim Ducks with a $21.25-million, five-year deal - general manager Doug Wilson read the marketplace and decided to get the Czech native under lock and key.
"You have to understand how this CBA works on a daily basis, you have to make decisions much earlier and much quicker than you did in the past," Wilson said in a conference call. "It's also one of the reasons why we feel that the players we know the best are the ones we've drafted, developed and had a lot of time with."
Wilson believes Michalek, the sixth overall pick in the 2003 draft, is on track to join the league's elite forwards, someone who can play alongside San Jose stars Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo.
That type of player is always a hot commodity and as Edmonton's run at Thomas Vanek - a $50-million, seven-year offer the Buffalo Sabres were forced to match - and later Penner showed, a team with cap room and money to spend may be very willing to surrender the compensatory draft picks for such a talent.
Another factor is that players hit unrestricted free agency sooner under the current CBA, at age 28 this summer or after seven years of NHL service. With the salary cap to consider as well, teams seem inclined to lock-in their young players earlier to gain cost-certainty.
On Thursday the Florida Panthers gave centre Stephen Weiss an $18.6-million, six-year deal. Other contracts of this vein handed out this summer include: Buffalo's Derek Roy ($24 million, six years); New Jersey's Zach Parise ($12.5 million, four years); and Pittsburgh's Ryan Whitney ($24 million, six years).
"I think we knew this was an element of the new CBA the day it was signed," said Wilson. "When you drop down the age of eligibility of UFA and the accrued seasons, you have to make decisions on players obviously much younger. For us, Milan falls into that age group."
The attraction of such a contract for a player is obvious - financial security, being able to play without the fear of injury affecting future earning power and avoiding the distraction of contract issues. Increased expectations and pressure are the tradeoffs.
"I think it gives my more security and I don't have to worry about anything else than just hockey, that's good for me," said Michalek. "I think nothing is going to change in my play, I'm still going to play the same game like I played."
That would be fine with the Sharks, who watched Michalek record 66 points (26-40) with a plus-17 rating in 78 games in 2006-07, his second full NHL campaign. He tied for fourth in the NHL with nine game-winning goals.
The Czech native picked up 35 points (17-18) in 81 games as a rookie.
"He's certainly a multi-situational player who is very mature in his game with certainly a great upside," said Wilson. "We think he's going to be a dominant player for many years."
Michalek finished the year skating alongside Thornton and Cheechoo, forming a talented and physically imposing first line. Not surprisingly, that helped the six-foot-two, 225-pound winger step his game up.
"It was great to play with those two great players, they're (among) the best players in the NHL and I'm sure it helped me a lot in my career," said Michalek. "I'm very happy to stay in San Jose, I think we have a great team for many years to come and I think we can win many Stanley Cups."