Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Dustin Byfuglien is one of the NHL's best players in 2010 and is one of the top candidates for the Norris Trophy. With 10 goals and 19 assists in 28 games, the 25-year-old Byfuglien is averaging just over a point per game.
This comes just a year after Byfuglien helped lead the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup as a first-line forward.
After being traded from Chicago, along with Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and a prospect, to Atlanta for a first-round pick, a second-round pick, forwards Marty Reasoner and Joey Crabb and Jeremy Morin, Byfuglien moved back to defense, where he started his professional hockey career.
It has paid off big time for both Byfuglien and the Thrashers.
Byfuglien has proven that he is not just an elite forward or an elite defenseman, but an elite player. It is going to take a lot of money for the Atlanta Thrashers to re-sign Byfuglien, who is currently making $3 million and can become a restricted free agent at the end of the season if he so chooses.
If Byfuglien does end up winning the Norris Trophy, which he very well could, he will most likely ask for a salary in the range of other elite NHL defensemen. It also isn't out of the question that he will be looking for a long-term deal that will keep him secure through his thirties at 25 years old.
The NHL's highest paid defensemen are Zdeno Chara ($7.5M), Nicklas Lidstrom ($7.45M) and Brian Campbell ($7.1M) However, Byfuglien will probably be looking at a deal similar to the one that Dion Phaneuf received in 2008: Six years and $39 million.
It doesn't seem so bad, but the Atlanta Thrashers are currently paying their players $46 million, and since the beginning of the decade, the Thrashers have never paid their players more than $47 million in a single season.
If Byfuglien were to theoretically get a salary raise from $3 million a year to $7 million a year, the Thrashers would go over that threshold by a significant amount.
The Thrashers have not been willing to pay big money to their star players in the past. Some examples of this stinginess are Marc Savard, Marian Hossa and more recently Ilya Kovalchuk. Even when the team had cap room, they refused to pay.
Marc Savard put up 97 points with Atlanta in 2005-2006, good for ninth in the league. After becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, the Thrashers let Savard go. He signed with the Boston Bruins for four years, $20 million.
In 2007-2008, a year after Marian Hossa put up over 100 points, he was set to become a free agent in the offseason. The Thrashers elected to not pay him and they traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline along with Pascal Dupuis, in exchange for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and the Penguins' first-round pick in 2008.
As recent as last year, the Thrashers were up to their old tricks.
Ilya Kovalchuk was set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2010. Instead of waiting until then to work out a contract extension, the Thrashers decided to trade a player that had scored 40 goals in five consecutive seasons.
Kovalchuk was traded to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for defenseman Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier and a first-round pick in 2010.
It isn't just stinginess that has made it difficult for players to stay in Atlanta. They are one of the least valuable teams in the league and have one of the lowest attendance rates annually.
The Thrashers are currently valued at $135 million, the second worst in the NHL, according to Forbes' 2010 NHL Team Valuations. The city of Atlanta is in danger of losing their team and teams don't typically dish out big contract extensions in situations like this.
The attendance in Atlanta isn't very promising either. Ranked 28th in the NHL in attendance, the Thrashers have had trouble putting fans in the seats.
This isn't new for them either: since the 2000 season, the Thrashers have never been ranked higher than 21st and regularly are at the cellar of the league in terms of attendance.
The Thrashers also are going to eventually have to sign a lot of the draft picks that they have accumulated over the years to contract extensions. The big names they will have to eventually sign to extensions are captain Andrew Ladd (this offseason), forward Evander Kane (2012) and defenseman Zach Bogosian (2011).
Quite simply, the Thrashers have too much on their plate to sign Byfuglien to a long-term deal at the rate he will most likely be asking for.
Perhaps trading him while his value is as high as it has ever been is a productive, financially-sound move considering everything.
Based on past tendencies of the Atlanta Thrashers, Byfuglien will probably get traded at the trade deadline so the Thrashers don't have to pay him. Luckily for the Thrashers, Byfuglien is a restricted free agent and most teams would not be willing to give up multiple first-round picks to sign him to an offer sheet.
However, he is going to be too expensive for the Thrashers to sign at all as one of the most versatile and productive players in the NHL.
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