Kris Letang and the Pittsburgh Penguins settled into a stare-down over a hometown discount Friday, which mirrored the trade buzz around the NHL entry draft.
All of the talk in the previous two days that fuelled hopes of a free-wheeling market before Sunday's draft fizzled as general managers grappled with how several compliance buyouts affected their trade plans and were distracted by actually trying to prepare for the draft itself.
The news concerned just two players – Brad Richards and Daniel Alfredsson – who will remain with their current employers next season.
The New York Rangers announced they will not issue a compliance buyout on Richards, which takes the veteran centre out of the free-agent market.
The 40-year-old Alfredsson told Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray he has decided to play at least one more season, so contract talks will begin over the weekend.
Letang, 26, became the centre of most of the trade speculation late Thursday, after he turned down a contract offer from Penguins GM Ray Shero of eight years and a total of $54-million (U.S.).
That works out to $6.75-million a year. But Letang and his agent think that, as one of the best offensive defencemen in the NHL, one who was a James Norris Memorial Trophy finalist this year, he is worth perhaps a million more per year. Hence the standoff over the hometown discount.
Shero did not respond to a request for comment but it appears he would prefer to get Letang signed quickly to a long-term contract. That means the Penguins' three biggest stars (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin being the others) would be tied up. But if Shero thinks he can't reach a deal with Letang, he could solicit trade offers over the next few days.
Meanwhile, Toronto Maple Leafs fans should not get too excited even if David Nonis is one of the busiest GMs these days. Those close to Letang pooh-poohed a report he would love to play for the Leafs. His preference is to stay with the Penguins but not if it means taking less than he is worth.
"We're committed to staying in Pittsburgh if we can work through a deal," said Kent Hughes, Letang's agent. "We don't believe that needs to be resolved right now. It could be resolved in the future when there is more clarity to where cap would be. We understand Pittsburgh has a decision to make on their end."
Hughes is a busy fellow these days. He is also Vincent Lecavalier's agent and has heard from at least a dozen teams who are interested in signing the veteran centre after he becomes a free agent July 5. (The Tampa Bay Lightning made Lecavalier a compliance buyout on Thursday.)
The way Letang sees it, he took the discount in his current contract, which has a salary-cap hit of $3.5-million and expires at the end of the 2013-14 season. He signed it three years ago at 23, and after much "encouragement" from the likes of Penguins owner Mario Lemieux about being a good corporate soldier by helping the team with a discount so it could fit both Crosby and Malkin under the cap.
Three years later, both Crosby and Malkin have signed newer, even bigger contracts and Letang does not see why he should once again be the nice guy who takes the hit.
There are also the issues of the changing nature of player contracts under the collective agreement and just where the cap will be in 2014-15, the first season after Letang's contract expires.
The old front-loaded contracts, which saw players get most of their money in the early years of the deal so the salary cap hit could be lowered by averaging, are no more. Players are signing for shorter terms and a higher annual salary, as Malkin did earlier this month with an eight-year deal that has an annual salary and a cap hit of $9.5-million.( Crosby signed his front-loaded, 12-year deal a year ago, before the lockout, and it carries a cap hit of $8.7-million although his salary for the first three years is $12-million.)
Letang and Hughes are agreeable to signing now but only at what they think will be his market value in 2014.
While the cap is going down to $64.3-million next season, it is anyone's guess as to what it will be in 2014-15.
Some NHL management types think next season's league revenue could jump by $1-billion thanks to several new outdoor games, a new Canadian television contract and the continuing willingness of hockey fans to forgive lockouts. That could bounce the salary cap back to $70-million, so Letang doesn't want to short-change himself.