Just when the hockey world was convinced that months of acrimonious talks between Ryan O'Reilly and the Avalanche were destined to spill over into a nasty confrontation in front of an arbitrator, the two sides arrived at an 11th hour agreement on Wednesday morning that will (or at least could) keep the star forward in burgundy for the next two years.
The deal, which pays O'Reilly $5.8 million this season and $6.2 million the next, signals the end of the contentious negotiations, but also begs one question:.
What exactly was the point of all the bickering, anyway?
A $6 million AAV was the middle ground where this seemed to be heading all along. The team catches a break in terms of dollars (O'Reilly was paid $6.5 million last season) but has to suck up a cap hit that ties O'Reilly with Matt Duchene for the highest on the club. O'Reilly knows he'll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this deal, but he has to swallow a slight pay cut before getting there.
Neither side is likely to be happy, which is why this is a perfectly equitable arrangement. And one that seemingly could have been arrived at a long time ago.
So now we sit back and wait for the smoke to clear to see if all the bitterness and posturing has poisoned forever the relationship between the two sides.
It's possible that the damage was done two summers ago, when O'Reilly agreed to a seemingly outrageous two-year, $10 million offer sheet from the Flames. Matching that contract forced Colorado to pay well above what they thought was fair market value for a then-unproven center, especially with a second year that was going to cost the team $6.5 million.
O'Reilly has emerged as a considerable talent since then, an elite two-way player with a 2014 Lady Byng Trophy on his shelf. He's a top player by anyone's standards. But long-running contract squabbles with two different management teams has created the perception that it is impossible to make him happy and that he isn't committed to being part of the long-term solution.
Despite the "O'Money" nickname that has resulted from his contract disputes, you can't blame O'Reilly for battling to be paid what he thinks he's worth. He's under no obligation to take a penny less than he thinks he ought to in the interest of helping the team, despite a widespread perception among fans to the contrary. Careers only last so long, and he has to look out for himself first.
But this agreement hints that the Avs are getting closer to a sharing O'Reilly's perception of his value. After all, Colorado agreed to $6 million AAV, a level that just 50 or so players in the NHL top. That says something about the team's respect for the player.
So maybe there's a greater chance now that a long-term accord can be reached. That's certainly what the Avs would like. O'Reilly? Well, we'll see what he really wants this time next year when he's eligible to discuss an extension.
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UPDATE: You know, the more I think about this, the less I like it for the Avs. To agree on a two-year deal, one that puts O'Reilly in the fast lane to unrestricted free agency at 25, is lunacy. Sure, they'll have their opportunity to extend him next summer but at that point the player holds all the cards. He can ask for $7 million, $8 million, whatever he wants. If they won't give it to him, he just sits back and waits a year until teams can line up for his services.
I don't know where O'Reilly sees himself in terms of his value to the team. If he wants to be the highest paid player, that might be a problem. Or maybe just he'll be happy to be among the highest paid alongside Duchene and (eventually) Nathan MacKinnon. All we know for sure is that there's a deal in place that will keep him in burgundy for another year. After that, the clock starts ticking again.