No Sense In Matching

Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe is dogged in his pursuit of upgrades to his forward corps, and has once again taken an aggressive dive into the restricted free agent market. After getting snubbed in his attempts to land Buffalo Sabres forward Thomas Vanek, he turned his attentions to Anaheim Ducks Group II free agent Dustin Penner, inking him to a five-year, $21.5 million offer sheet.

The Stanley Cup champion Ducks now have seven days to match the Oilers’ offer. Should they choose not to match, they’ll receive a first, second, and third round draft pick from Edmonton as compensation for the loss of Penner. And for Ducks GM Brian Burke, there would little sense in matching this exorbitant offer.

Penner is an excellent hockey player, let’s make no bones about it. He’s huge (6’4″, 245 pounds) and has soft hands in front of the net. He provided the Ducks with great value during their Cup-winning season, playing at a bargain basement $450,000. But now, following the Oilers’ offer, Penner is receiving what amounts to a 1000% raise. And though his performance in 2006-07 was quite strong, it certainly didn’t merit anywhere close to that kind of increase.

A plodding skater, the 24-year-old Penner lacks the speed needed to become a dominant power forward in the post-lockout NHL. And as a result, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever be any better than the fifth- or sixth-best forward on a legitimate Cup contender. Given the importance of salary allocation in the NHL’s cap-driven world, matching the Oilers’ offer would not be a wise move for the Ducks.

The NHL’s salary cap is currently set at $50.3 million, which means that Penner (at an annual cap cost of $4.25 million) would take up nearly 10% of the payroll (more for the Oilers, who probably do not have the resources to spend to the cap). During both the regular season and playoffs, Penner averaged only 14 minutes of ice time per game, less than one-quarter of each game. And given his size and limited skating ability, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever be able to average more than 20 minutes per game.

In today’s NHL, the rarest commodity is a defenseman who can play 30 minutes per night, delivering valuable minutes at even strength, on the power play, and on the first penalty-killing unit. And a fair case can be made that only six rearguards consistently fit that criteria: Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Sergei Zubov, and Tomas Kaberle. Arguments can certainly also be made for the likes of Bryan McCabe, Brian Rafalski, Andrei Markov, and Dan Boyle, but they are better considered part of a second tier.

The next-rarest commodity is a goaltender who is both skilled and durable enough to play 60-plus games of elite-level hockey. And in 2006-07, only seven netminders met that criteria: Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Miikka Kiprusoff, Henrik Lundqvist, Marty Turco, Ryan Miller, and Rick DiPietro. An eighth, Ray Emery, just fell short (58 games), but will get the opportunity to be the Ottawa Senators’ full-season starter for the first time in 2007-08. And two youngsters, Kari Lehtonen and Marc-Andre Fleury, took huge steps forward in their development, putting the grand total at 10 goalies, or one for every three NHL teams.

This, of course, is an excellent argument in favor of the Islanders’ 15-year contract with DiPietro, which is only one year later looking like one of the NHL’s most prescient decisions. At $67.5 million, DiPietro counts for only $4.5 million against the cap in each season, already a bargain considering the scarcity of top-tier starting netminders. And with each season that passes over the course of that 15-year deal, DiPietro’s cap cost will likely become a smaller and smaller percentage of the team’s overall payroll.

There is little question as to whether DiPietro brings more or less value than Penner for the same money. The real question is why the Oilers actually concluded that it was a good idea to spend $21.5 million on a plodding forward who can–at absolute best–play 20 minutes per night.

A hockey team is comprised of 12 forwards, six defensemen, and two goaltenders. And spending money on the scarcest commodities is the best way to ensure success in today’s NHL. The Ducks accomplished just that in 2006-07, prioritizing their starting goaltender (J-S Giguere, $3.9 million) and their top two defensemen (Niedermayer at $6.75 million and Pronger at$6.25 million).

Comprising the Ducks’ three highest-paid players, that trio was the backbone of their championship team, and it presented an excellent object lesson in how to construct a winner. And though Giguere wasn’t able to reach the magic number of 60-plus games played, the Ducks’ well-paid back-up, Ilya Bryzgalov ($1.36 million in 2007-08) is good enough to start for nearly half the NHL’s 30 clubs.

Of course, there are exceptions when it does actually make sense to overspend to upgrade a forward corps. But that requires, first and foremost, that the team be willing to spend to the salary cap every season. It also requires that the team already have a top-notch goaltender and a solid defense (whether top-heavy or deep from one through six) also in place.

For the New York Rangers, who have a two-time Vezina Finalist between the pipes (Lundqvist) and a plethora of top-notch young defensemen on the way, opening the bankbook to land Scott Gomez and Chris Drury made good sense.

For the Ottawa Senators, who now have Ray Emery locked up–to go along with the NHL’s best defense in terms of depth of quality–it will make sense to spend big bucks to retain Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza before they become free agents next summer.

But for the Edmonton Oilers, who are relying on an aging, injury-prone Dwayne Roloson between the pipes, and a young, unproven blue line corps, overspending to land Penner made absolutely no sense whatsoever. And rather than matching the offer and putting his team’s payroll balance in jeopardy, Burke will be wise to let Penner go.

The 2008 draft is considered to be quite deep, and with the Oilers not looking like serious playoff contenders, those draft picks will likely turn out to be far more valuable than Penner. With this deal, look for Lowe to pay the piper for his aggressive spending. And look for Burke to take advantage of the Oilers’ reckless desperation.

Dustin Penner Career Notes

Prior to joining the Anaheim organization, the undrafted Penner played one season for the University of Maine, in 2003-04, helping them to reach the NCAA Championship game. He scored the game-winning goal in the Black Bears’ semifinal victory over Boston College, and his strong playoff performance encouraged the Ducks to sign him to a professional contract.

He enjoyed a breakout season in 2005-06 with the AHL’s Portland Pirates, tallying 84 points (including 39 goals) in only 57 games, setting the stage for his emergence with the Ducks last season. The Winkler, Manitoba native played in all 82 games for Anaheim last season, his first full NHL season. He tallied 29 goals and 16 assists for 45 points, while adding three goals and five assists for eight points in 21 playoff games.

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