Over the past couple days, there have been numerous articles discussing the potential demotions of Hall to the OHL, and Paajarvi to the AHL, in an effort to maximize the value of their ELC’s. It’s fair to say that, in general, I tend to be a believer that 18 and 19 year old players should be demoted barring the situation where they can be a true contributor to a team. That said, it’s not hard to see why this is potentially a pretty complicated issue for a GM; there are many angles to consider: Is the player’s development likely to be better, or worse, at the NHL level when compared to the alternative? Can the player still learn more at a lower level while retaining the ELC year? What is the current quality of the team? Can the player help improve a team? Is it in the team’s best interest to start this player now, or one (or two) years later? Does the team risk damaging its relationship with the player if they demote a “clearly ready” player? Is that risk worth delaying the contract? Do you need the player around to sell tickets?
I don’t know the answer to all these questions, though I have my opinions. I think if the Oilers had handled this a bit differently over the summer, they would be in a better position to frame a potential demotion. They never really came out and said something like “We’re happy to keep Hall and Paajarvi at the NHL level provided they can be positive, two-way contributors to our line-up. If they aren’t ready to play 16-18 minutes a night, we don’t think it will hurt Hall to go back to Windsor for a year and shift to C, or hurt Paajarvi to play in Sweden or the AHL for another year to improve the weaker areas of his game.” On the other hand, were they able to retain/sell 1,500-2,000 season tickets, by pushing the hype, the rebuild, and the “new direction”, that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise sell? If so, at $100 a seat, you’re looking at something like $6 – 8 million they’d have been without, PLUS they then have to try to generate new season ticket holders, which most people would agree is harder to do than retaining the ones you already have. It’s easy to see the hockey argument for sending these players out, but teams aren’t necessarily run with hockey matters as the only consideration.
I think the argument that you might get a more team-friendly deal with a player that starts in the NHL at 18, instead of at 20, is with, at least some, merit. It’s true that the agent might advise the player not to sign a long term deal, but for a lot of people there’s value in certainty. If Taylor Hall starts this year and posts 40, 50 and 60 point seasons on his ELC, ending at age 20, he could conceivably have hit very few of his performance bonuses, let’s say 800 K-1.3 mil. That would put the player at $3.5-4 mil in salary earned over 3 seasons. Sure, it’s a lot of money, but a player would have to be pretty confident in his future ability to turn down roughly $25 mil in a 6 year deal. What if he stagnates, or regresses? What about injury risk? Is it that hard to imagine a player willing to trade some future earning potential for the certainty of $25,000,000 now? If he continues progressing and becomes a superstar, he’ll be a UFA again at 28 and can make his mint at that time. Yes, it’s speculation. No, we don’t know what sort of long term deal Gagner would have been willing to sign this summer. Would he have been willing to sign the sort of long-term deal Tyler had proposed earlier this summer? I don’t know, but I have to think it’s more likely he would than if he had started in the NHL during the 09/10 season and posted 55-60 points during years 2-3 of his ELC (which would have been the upcoming 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons) than the ~45 point seasons he actually recorded during seasons 2 and 3 of his ELC.