It's a story we hear all the time when the NHL trade deadline is coming up, usually in regards to the middling teams with a very good player who is an impending UFA.
This team is usually a few points away from being out of the playoffs, or just a few points back.
Regardless, the story is always the same: "They can't let him walk for nothing!"
Personally, I'm sick of people complaining about this. Last year, as a Florida resident, I saw both sides of the Jaybo story, and I whole-heartedly agree with the Panthers' decision.
Many things play into a team's decision when making these moves, such as:
What are the chances the free agent stays?
What are the financial implications if he's dealt?
What are the hockey implications of him being dealt?
No. 1 is somewhat correlated to No. 2 and No 3. First, a team needs to be able to pony up the dough to sign its big UFA, and it also needs to display a product that can prove it's capable of winning.
No. 2 also comes into effect for revenue terms. One of the lost aspects when analyzing teams is its financial status. The Panthers haven't made the postseason since 2000 and haven't really fielded a good team since then. For a non-hockey market, that usually spells doom.
To no surprise, as of mid-January of this past League Year, the Panthers had a .15 TV rating, which was one of the lowest in the NHL. While there was a fan surge during their playoff push, close to a decade of nothing will surely kill such a fanbase with no cultural ties. The ultimate result is an extremely poor financial status for ownership.
Coincidence or not, the Panthers were just recently sold.
It's just an opinion of mine, but at the time, the Panthers were in a playoff race and dying for cash. Even if Jaybo couldn't be enticed to stay by winning—which is debatable, as nearly every statement he said was usually about that topic—from a financial perspective, it made no sense to deal him.
Back on topic though (which is the issue of impending UFA's), sometimes the big name players will be loyal, such as Kovalchuck:
"I like everything here," Kovalchuk said. "It's a great city, my family loves it here. I feel very comfortable in the locker room and with management, trainers, everybody. I don't have any problems. If we're going to play well, I want to stay here. I want to win the Cup and bring it here because I was drafted by this team."
It's a different situation, he explains, than that of former teammate Hossa, who made headlines when he passed on huge money to join the Detroit Red Wings for one season so he could try to win the Stanley Cup.
Before trading him to Pittsburgh, the Thrashers tried desperately to sign Hossa, but the forward was determined to test the free agent market. After being drafted by Ottawa, shipped to Atlanta, and shipped to Pittsburgh, Hossa finally had a chance to control his destiny.
Kovalchuk understands why his former teammate did what he did. He's just not ready to do the same. He has no envy that Hossa escaped Atlanta and is in Hockeytown, where he's playing for the odds-on favorite to win it all.
For one thing, he knows there's no guarantee in hockey.
"You never know who is going to win the Stanley Cup. I'm never going to pick the one team before the season starts. (Detroit) has a good team, but the NHL is a different world. You can't predict who is going to win and who is going to lose," Kovalchuk said. "I think it's more fun when you go through everything and finally you get on top of the mountain. That's tough to do; it's not easy."
Kovalchuk wants to stay and he wants to win—and, of course, he wants to at least get paid near market value, whether he says it or not—in Atlanta.
However, that is not very likely to happen, even though the Thrashers have the blocks there. Kane, Little, Bogosian, and the recent acquisitions such as Kubina and Antropov—which Kovalchuk had a huge hand in—are steps in the right direction. However, until Atlanta's ownership starts to pony up money (currently sitting at a 44.322 cap hit, 27th in the NHL), and until ownership starts to increase the team budget, Waddell can spend as efficiently as he wants, but it will be a real challenge to prove to Ilya that Atlanta is a contender.
Which leads to the main proposal: Does the NHL need a free agent compensation system like MLB does? In such system, UFA's are seperated into Type A and Type B free agents from a set statistical system derived from the Elias bureau.
Under this system, a player is deemed Type A by the system if he's offered arbitration by the prior club and he's signed to a contract by another club. In that situation, the new club has to surrender its first-round pick to the prior club, and the prior club gets a sandwich pick in between the first and second round, a "compensatory pick." Type Bs receive just the sandwich pick.
The issue here is not adopting the exact same compensation system. There are obvious faults in the MLB one, be it multiple FA signings (Yankees) killing compensation and questionable criteria for determining the types, amongst many others.
The issue is whether or not the NHL needs some sort of system, so players don't "walk for nothing." Another benefit is giving the team with the impending UFA an option in trade discussions, such as taking the offer from another team, or taking the compensation awarded and getting to keep the player.
Determining types may be hard because of the questionability of basic NHL statistics governed under the CBA—which can change, but let's face it, there's not a chance.
It can always revert to a coaches poll—even if that's shown epic failure at times with managers in baseball picking Gold Gloves—to determine which players are in the top 10 percent. Whichever way is chosen should help the NHL and the NHLPA find a fair way to agree on determining player types.
The problem isn't the details right now—it's the issue. And it's one, in my opinion, that needs to be addressed, no matter how they do it.