Last Friday, Kings GM Dean Lombardi essentially set in motion a high stakes game of chicken with holdout RFA defensemen Drew Doughty. The two sides have been negotiating since June on a new contract for the 21 phenom defensemen, and have yet to come to an agreement. On the first day of camp, with Doughty a no show, Lombardi laid it all out in an interview. They love Drew – he’s a great kid, a great player, a great locker room presence, and that he will be a King for a long, long time. He also said they have made their best offer to him (believed to be $6.8 million for 7 years), and if Drew doesn’t accept it, it may go down over time not up.
Whether this was a line in the sand or a line in concrete, we really won’t know until this ugly mess is sorted out. The truth of the matter is that the Kings are playing a dangerous game with Doughty right now – one that I don’t particularly like. The offer is a fair one – it would make Doughty one of the top five defensemen in terms of cap hits in the league (but not in actual dollars, since many defensemen are signed to long term, cap circumventing deals). But it is believed that Doughty wants a shorter term deal – in the neighbourhood of 5 years, for around $7 million. So don’t believe what you read about this being about money – it isn’t. It’s about term. Doughty wants the same number of years as other stars coming off of their Entry Level Deal got. Players like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Jonatahn Toews, Patrick Kane and Bobby Ryan all did five year deals. Yes, last week Tyler Myers signed for seven, and the Kings own Anze Kopitar signed the exact same deal that the Kings offered Doughty two years ago, but for the most part, five or six year deals coming off on an ELC are standard.
The Kings don’t want five, because that means that Doughty and Kopitar would be UFA at the same time. Troubling yes, but should that really be a reason to throw this season under the bus? Should it be enough to perhaps forever damage your relationship with a 21 year old who has already been nominated for the Norris trophy? Should it be enough to hurt your Stanley Cup chance for the next five seasons? If you’re Dean Lombardi, I guess, the answer is yes.
This should be the most exciting time for Kings fans in years. The addition of Mike Richards in the offseason gave the Kings the depth at center that they have not had in years. It gives them a one-two punch down the middle with Kopitar and Richards. But it didn’t come cheaply. Fan favorite Wayne Simmonds, himself only 22, and Brayden Schenn, who the Hockey News called hockey’s best prospect last year, were shipped the other way. But the message Lombardi was sending was clear – the Kings time is now. They will compete for the Cup now, not just continue to say “Wait till next year”. Instead, we are embroiled in a high stakes game of chicken with the Kings best defensemen – something that if it isn’t resolved soon, threatens to carry on into the regular season, and could derail any chance the Kings have.
Kings fans have, for the most part, lashed out in anger at Drew Doughty – calling him greedy and overrated. Yes, last season wasn’t as good as the one before, but he was still the Kings best defensemen, and it was still a great season for a 21 year old defensemen. You really shouldn’t have expected him to win a Norris trophy last year – Ray Borque didn’t win his first one until he was 27. Niklas Lidstrom not until he was 31. The fact that Doughty was even nominated at the age of 20 was phenomenal. He is, right now, the best defensemen in the league under the age of 25. He could turn out to be the best defensemen in the league overall very shortly. So why the hell is this going on?
The truth is that both Dean Lombardi and Doughty’s side (including agent Don Meehan) are being pigheaded right now. Lombardi and Meehan hate each other, and this dates back years, and neither side wants to give. Is the Kings offer to Doughty fair? Yes, it is. But is it the only fair deal you can give to Doughty? If I were GM, would it be my line in the sand that I refused to cross? No, it wouldn’t. And it’s because the stakes are too high for all involved. Lombardi doesn’t want to risk not having Doughty in his line-up this year. Doughty doesn’t want to hold out for a whole season and become known as one of “those” guys. The truth of the matter is that the Kings need Doughty, and unless an offer sheet comes along, Doughty needs the Kings.
Honestly, I don’t think this drags on for more than another week. One side will blink. Doughty has to be itching to get back into training camp and be with his teammates. He loves playing hockey – you can see that in his every shift and when he’s on the bench. So will he cave? Or will AEG, the Kings owners, who have made the expectations of where they want the Kings to be this season very clear – a Cup contender – tell Lombardi to cave and get a deal done.
No one has had held out for an entire season in the salary cap era. The closest was Ilya Kovulchuk in 2005, who signed with Atlanta on October 8. It makes no sense, for either the player or the team, to let it get even that far (or farther, as if Doughty is not signed by December 1, he won’t be able to play for the whole season). Logic dictates that one way or another – either Doughty caving and signing a 7 year deal, Lombardi caving and signing him to 5, a compromise deal at 6 years, or a one year shorty, which gets them to next summer, when Doughty will be eligible for arbitration (and as such, would be resolved no later than the first week of August) – a deal gets done and gets done sooner rather than later. The problem right now is that neither side seems to be thinking logically. No one in the media actually thinks this will drag on into the regular season (bloggers are another story, but as Elliot Gould said in “Contagion” blogs are nothing except graffiti with punctuation” – this one excepted of course).
So Kings fans are in limbo. Held hostage by a pigheaded GM and a player and his agent who are also pigheaded. To be honest, right now, I’m pissed at all of them. All will be forgiven when a deal is signed, which cannot come soon enough for my tastes – and (hopefully) after that on October 7th, when we can analyze the team on the ice, and not what is going in at the negotiating table. Until then though, remember Doughty is only asking for what other players in his situation got, and Lombardi is risking the future of the franchise because of his ego. No one wins if Doughty holds out for even part of the season, let alone the whole thing - least of all Kings fans.