Wednesday July 23rd, 2008

If you've been failing in your efforts to get in touch with Andrej Meszaros lately, don't worry. He's probably been busy doing a lot of browsing. Maybe a bigger flat screen. A new car to transport it. A new home in which to install it.

You know, the usual stuff.

Of course, he's probably just window-shopping at the moment because he doesn't have the cash in hand just yet. But it's coming. Oh, is it coming.

It wasn't that long ago that a restricted free agent like the 22-year-old Slovak would be lucky to double his entry level deal on his second contract. But after earning less than a million dollars in each of his first three years in Ottawa, Meszaros is likely to break the bank, nailing down a multi-year deal worth somewhere around $4 million a pop. Not bad for a guy who was minus-five in the playoffs and saw his ice time slashed as the series wore on.

That's essentially the deal reportedly inked this week by Dennis Wideman, another RFA blueliner who got four years and $15.75 million from the Boston Bruins.

Yeah, that's the same Dennis Wideman who was so highly thought of when the season opened that he was scratched on opening night.

Just a few months ago, that annual number would be a million or more above even the most generous valuations of his services. But the times, they are a changin'.

For one thing, the term "restricted" when preceding "free agent" is essentially obsolete. Kevin Lowe may be accurate in saying it was Columbus' deal with Rick Nash (five years, $27 million in August 2005) that let that particular horse out of the barn, but his sparring buddy Brian Burke is right in laying the blame for this at Lowe's feet. It was, after all, the attempts of the Oilers' GM to land Thomas Vanek (seven-year $50 million offer sheet) and then Dustin Penner (fiveyears, $21.25 million) that changed how teams had to respect their RFAs.

These players may not be able to choose what colors he'd like to wear, but the brakes have been taken off their earning potential. The same market forces that determine the value of an unrestricted free agent are now applied to RFAs as well.

So Wideman, who could have re-signed earlier in the year but wisely chose to see how the market would play out, is simply the latest signing to confirm a pattern of paying big bucks for players with more hopes and dreams than they have skins on the wall. The trend has been particularly conspicuous among blueliners.

Consider a slew of recent signings, such as Tom Gilbert (six years, $24 million), Brent Seabrook (three years, $10.5 million), Shea Weber (three years, $13.5 million), Ryan Whitney (six years, $24 million) and Matt Carle (four years, $14 million). That's a lot of scratch for a group of players whose games aren't yet fully on track. So what exactly are teams buying with these deals?

In simplest terms, they're speculating.

Wideman, who could walk the streets of all 30 NHL cities unmolested even while wearing his Bruins jersey, might seem an unlikely candidate for that kind of scratch, but he actually epitomizes the type of player who is earning this sort of contract.

The three-year vet is exactly the player for which every team is searching: a puck-moving blueliner. His game improved steadily under coach Claude Julien's tightly controlled system, and by the end of the season Wideman had demonstrated a certain reliability in all three zones and in virtually every situation. His ice time numbers bear surprising witness to the trust he earned. Wideman played more than 2,000 minutes last season. That total surpassed Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Gonchar and all but seven other blueliners. His average TOI, hampered somewhat by his slow start, ranked 13th among defenders. He might not look like the ideal No. 2 defenseman right now, but at 25, he has it in him if only he continues to develop.

If Wideman had gone to arbitration as scheduled, the deal would have been for either one or two years. By getting him signed for four, the Bruins also bought the first two of unrestricted eligibility from their right-handed shot. Even if he stagnates, the contract should be palatable in years three and four. If he improves, he could provide the same value for dollar down the road as as Sergei Zubov ($5.35 million) or Gonchar ($5 million) do now.

Which brings us back to Meszaros, a different kind of defender, but one who can't help but benefit from these signings and from the situation in Ottawa. With former partner Wade Redden gone, and youngsters like Brian Lee not ready to contribute major minutes, his experience is something the Senators can't do without.

At the same time, Meszaros is not coming off a breakthrough year like Wideman. In fact, other than playing all 82 games for the third consecutive season, it was a disappointing campaign. He earned regular criticism for his lack of aggressiveness, and his indecision with the puck minimized the effectiveness of his passing game. As his play sagged, his ice time diminished, and questions were raised about his top end. But...

Yes, there's a but -- and it's a big one.

There's the thought that Meszaros' play suffered as a direct result of Redden's sub-par season, and that his regression was inevitable for a youngster getting so little support from his experienced partner. As a result, it's hard to know what's next for Meszaros, but that same risk is inherent in virtually all of these recent RFA deals.

If Ottawa wants to keep Meszaros, they're going to have to dig down deep and make a comparable offer. And when it comes, that'll be a good day for Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Tobias Enstrom, Ladislav Smid and the rest of the RFA class of 2009, all of whom can be forgiven for the massive dollar signs in their eyes.

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