I must admit, I was not thrilled when I learned the Lightning had signed Valtteri Filppula to a five year, $25 million contract. My problem wasn’t with Filppula, but with the contract itself. Even if you write off Filppula’s 2013 season, one in which he never really seemed to get going, the contract still felt like a million too much and two years too many.
Well, welcome to the NHL in 2013. If July 5 proved anything, it proved that last winter’s lockout solved nothing, and if anything, conditions in the NHL are worse now than they were before it.
This year’s crop of NHL free agents was/is not a good one. And yet, simply because this was the group available, suddenly teams were coveting Rob Scuderi like he’s Chris Pronger and David Clarkson like he’s Rick Nash. And they got paid accordingly.
Clarkson signed in Toronto, where they seem to believe he’s the reincarnation of Wendel Clark, for $36.75 million over a whopping seven years. And yes, this came after it became obvious that teams were regretting signing players to massive term deals. Scuderi signed in Pittsburgh for a more reasonable $3.375 million per year, but for four years, which is risky given that Scuderi will be 35 before year’s end.
Clarkson, he of the seven year/$36.75 million deal, is 29 and has a career high of 46 points. Yes, you read that
right – 46 points. His next best total? 32 points in 2009. Clarkson’s contract came as a reward for the 30 goals he scored in 2011/2012, but he’s never scored more than 17 in any other season. To be fair, Clarkson’s totals from this past, shortened season, can be prorated to 26 goals and 42 points over an 82 game season. He has a career total of 97 goals and 170 points in 426 games. Of course, there are plenty of intangibles Clarkson brings to the table – physicality being the main one. The comparison between Clarkson and Wendel Clark is not completely ridiculous, after all. But because Clarkson does have a little bit of Wendel in him, perhaps Leafs fans should be terrified of this contract, specifically its length – Clark played 80 games just once in an NHL season, and usually if you could get sixty healthy games out of him you’d count yourself lucky.
Elsewhere, Nathan Horton, perhaps the single most coveted of this year’s free agents, scored a seven year deal of his own, in Columbus ($37.1M, or $5.3 million per year). Stephen Weiss signed in Detroit for five years at an average of $4.9 million. Calgary Flames’ legend Jarome Iginla decided maybe Boston won’t be so bad after all and he signed on for one year at $6 million. Ryan Clowe got himself a piece of Kovalchuk money (albeit before the Kovalchuk news broke), signing in New Jersey for five years at an average of $4.85 million per year. Clowe, by the way, scored three goals in 40 games last season. Back in Toronto, the Leafs brought back Tyler Bozak, a 0.5 points-per-game player, for $21 million over five years.
What I’m trying to convey to you, dear reader, is that on July 5, 2013, the NHL went nuts. And the Tampa Bay Lightning went nuts right along with it, signing Valtteri Filppula for a hefty chunk of the money they’d just saved on Vincent Lecavalier.
So what exactly happened here? Did G.M. Steve Yzerman sign/overpay Filppula out of desperation to fill a gaping hole at second line center? Did he pay Filppula what turned out to be fair market value? Was he looking to replace Lecavalier’s offense with defense? Did he pull the trigger on the Filppula deal because there’s murmuring about his job security in Lightning land, making the near-term more important than the long-term? The truth is probably some combination of all of those factors.
There were two key components, I believe, that led to Yzerman being willing to stomach Filppula’s pricetag. The first component was a non-occurrence: the New York Rangers did not buyout the contract of Brad Richards. You have to think Yzerman was eyeing that situation closely, and coming up with a number in his head for Richards. The second component was the Detroit Red Wings signed Stephen Weiss for five years at $4.9 million per year. (It seems that five years, $5 million per, is the new going rate for second line NHL centers, which probably would have applied also to Richards.)
It’s hard to compare Weiss and Filppula as players. Weiss provides solid secondary scoring while Filppula is a capable but unproven scorer whose main selling point is his defensive play and work ethic. The Red Wings have two of the premiere defensive forwards in the NHL (Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg). They need scoring. The Lightning are in exactly the opposite situation – they have two of the NHL’s premiere scorers (Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos). They need defense. And more specifically, they need a change in mentality among their forwards.
If you’re thinking the Lightning’s defense was poor in the 2013 season because they have inadequate defensemen, well, to be blunt: you’re wrong. To illustrate, I would invite you to take a look at the team’s plus/minus column for 2013. The only regular Lightning defenseman last season to finish with a negative rating was Brian Lee. The rest were all above par. How many Lightning forwards, with 20 or more games played, finished with a plus rating? Two: Benoit Pouliot and B.J. Crombeen. Martin St. Louis, the league’s leading scorer, was even on the year.
So we can complain all day and night about the team’s defensive struggles, but the problem is clearly most prominent in the forward group. The defensemen aren’t stellar, but they don’t deserve the label they’ve been given either. They’re middle-of-the-road.
In that light, the addition of Filppula makes a lot of sense. The pricetag is still bothersome, but again, apparently $5M/5Y is the going rate for second line centers.
While Filppula was easily the best fit available among this year’s free agent forwards, there remains the question, thinking long-term, is Filppula a better option than some of the Lightning’s in-house centers? Tyler Johnson, for instance, has more than earned a spot on the Lightning roster with his play in Syracuse over the past two years. And Alex Killorn is a natural center who, because of depth considerations, has played his pro career on the wing. There’s even been talk that Jonathan Drouin is capable of playing center.
But the in-house options would be risky choices in the near-term. They’re all inexperienced and most of them are undersized, and the Lightning are already lacking size in their top six forwards. While Filppula isn’t a giant, no matter how you want to stretch him, he plays a bigger game than his frame would indicate.
What Steve Yzerman is banking on, it would appear, is that Filppula’s attitude and work ethic will be contagious. And that applies particularly to the next wave of Lightning players, the kids coming out of Syracuse, many of whom share plenty of stylistic similarities with Filppula. Perhaps the real benefit of the Filppula signing, at least in Yzerman’s hopes and dreams, will be how he rubs off on the players around him.
While I’ve warmed up to the idea of Filppula anchoring the Lightning’s second line over the last few weeks, I still have a hard time stomaching the contract. But perhaps that’s got more to do with me having a hard time stomaching the current conditions in the NHL marketplace, where players aren’t paid for what they’ve proven they can do, but for what they have the potential to do. And teams are forced to bite the bullet on term and hope for the best. And even though I’m aware that this is the reality of the NHL right now (Filppula, after all, is actually a more proven scorer than David Clarkson), I’m still lukewarm at best on the particulars of Filppula’s deal.
While you can’t really compare it to the Lecavalier deal (it’s not a minefield of backdiving penalties for instance, and, more importantly, it’s a tradable contract. No other team was willing to touch Vinny’s contract.), it still eats up cap-space that might have come in handy next July, when perhaps a better group of free agents would be available.
That said, given the way this group of free agents was paid, I can only imagine what a better crop is going to ask for.