Saying goodbye to the first year of Sam Bennett’s ELC isn’t necessarily a bad thing

If, for some bizarre reason, you want to be a pessimist and find negativity following the Flames’ vanquishing of the Vancouver Canucks and advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, there is one thing you can point to.

Playoff games count against entry-level contracts.

Sam Bennett is in the first year of such an entry-level contract.

That contract will slide as long as he plays fewer than nine NHL games.

Sam Bennett has now played seven NHL games, and his team is guaranteed another four.

Sam Bennett is, in all likelihood, playing in those four (or more!) games.

Wait, why is this bad?

Speaking exclusively in terms of money and cap space, it’s going to make Bennett a whole lot more expensive a whole year sooner. Having star players on cheap deals for basically just as long as ELCs allow can be incredibly important to Cup-contending teams. Two prime examples:

  • Evgeni Malkin was still on his ELC when the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in 2009.
  • Both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were on their ELCs when the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010.

With the Blackhawks, in particular, all that cap space they had thanks to three straight years of Toews and Kane on the cheap allowed them to load up on depth; depth they had to immediately jettison following the win thanks to their young stars’ raises about to kick in.

And here’s the thing: the Flames aren’t likely to win the Cup this year. They’re a lot of fun, and you want to believe they can, but at some point reality has to come in (especially if you’re part of the team’s upper management) and say, “Naw dude. Maybe in a couple years. But not this one.”

The Anaheim Ducks are definitely going to be a much more difficult opponent than the Vancouver Canucks, and the Flames will be in much tougher to make it out of the second round. They were the only Pacific team Calgary lost the season series to, after all. Also, second round’s usually harder than the first.

The Flames could be burning a valuable year of a cheap Sam Bennett for two or four extra games. When you take all the emotions and hope brought on by a playoff run out of the equation, it’s simply not a smart decision.

But do you really think a team on an unexpected run is going to pull its second line left winger from the lineup? That would be even more unexpected than making the second round in the first place. Especially when said winger already has two playoff goals and has proven himself a force throughout the few games he’s already played.

But there must be a good side to this!

Absolutely. For one thing: the Flames are in position to play Bennett in more than nine games to begin with. That’s awesome. This run is awesome. Beating the Canucks is awesome. Wouldn’t trade it for anything, no matter how short it ultimately ends up being.

Bring emotions back into the equation, and really, there’s no problem with burning a year of Bennett’s deal. Making the second round in the second year of a rebuild is beyond gravy. Not only that, but who’s to say the Flames can’t beat the Ducks, too? Just because the odds are against them doesn’t mean it’s impossible. This entire season has been impossible.

And of course, it’s a great thing that Bennett – yes, at just 18 years of age – is already a strong contributor to a playoff team. He’s getting NHL playoff experience, which is, of course, good. The fact that he’s doing it in a meaningful way only bodes for how good of a player he’s going to develop into (on the flip side: how expensive a player he’s going to become, too).

There’s another side to this, though, and it’s that if the Flames play it smart – outside of burning a year – they can afford to do this.

If Bennett plays just three more games, he’ll need a new contract by the 2017-18 season. The only guys currently signed for that year are as follows:

  • Matt Stajan ($3.125 million)
  • TJ Brodie ($4.650 million)

Calgary has been very, very smart in not committing to long-term contracts. TJ Brodie’s extension is only for five seasons; the same as Mark Giordano’s was, and the same then-impending free agent Dennis Wideman was signed for. The Flames have a history of not going beyond that, and considering how well it’s been working out, there isn’t much reason to think that’s going to change (extending guys like Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau possibly aside).

Players not signed for 2017-18, but who have a pretty good shot at still being around then, are mostly upcoming restricted free agents:

  • Johnny Gaudreau
  • Sean Monahan
  • Mikael Backlund
  • Joe Colborne
  • Josh Jooris
  • Lance Bouma
  • Markus Granlund
  • Paul Byron
  • Michael Ferland
  • Tyler Wotherspoon

It would be unreasonable to expect everyone to still be on the Flames three years from now. It should also be pointed out that some of these guys are closer to unrestricted free agency than others; for example, while Monahan will probably be getting a big contract through his RFA years, Byron will soon be a UFA, but he won’t command nearly as much money.

There are just a few upcoming unrestricted free agents you can expect to be re-signed and on new contracts by the time Bennett needs a new deal of his own:

  • Jiri Hudler
  • Mark Giordano
  • Kris Russell

Those guys may be a bit more expensive. Hudler and Giordano command $4 million salaries, and with their contracts expiring when they’ll still be in their early 30s, may very well want raises (especially if they keep these performances up). Russell will probably come cheaper. Jonas Hiller or Karri Ramo could be dark horses for such a situation, but Hiller ($4.5 million) would likely take a pay cut, and Ramo ($2.75 million) probably wouldn’t cost much more.

The Flames are currently swimming in cap space thanks to smart signings and asset management. Burning a year of Bennett’s ELC now would, in all likelihood, be not-smart asset management, but also the only real flop on the Flames’ part since acquiring Brandon Bollig for a third rounder. And this move would be for a much better cause.

Should they keep playing Sam Bennett?

Yes, and no.

Yes, because the playoffs are fun, and you play to win. The Flames are a better team with Bennett in the lineup than not. Bennett increases the Flames’ chances at winning. So you keep him in the lineup, and whether you bow out early or not, you know you gave it your all and your next rising star was a big part of that.

Also: the Flames have put themselves in a position where they can afford to do this, as long as they keep being smart with their contracts, this one indulgence aside.

No, because it’s burning a cheap year and millions of dollars on a pipe dream, and it’s rather poor asset management to do that, not to mention it could accidentally hurt the Flames in the future.

Considering the intensity the playoffs bring about, not to mention the city’s full on embracing of this team once again, it’s pretty easy to see what the Flames are going to do. Sam Bennett will, in all likelihood, have a year of his ELC prematurely burnt.

For a team that so rarely treats itself, though, the Flames can afford this indulgence. It’s not smart, but it is very much okay.

  • Parallex

    Emotion aside, the organization has to show to the players that they are committed to winning. Pulling a top-performer two games into a series (e.g., we go down 2-0 against the Ducks) because he going to cost you money is both cheap and a little defeatist. Would you like to play for that team?

    As soon as they elected to play him, and he didn’t suck, they were committed. Apart from injury or some other calamity, he’s in.

  • MattyFranchise

    Because playoffs are fun? He is going to burn a year because he has earned a spot. Playoff hockey is so much more intense that it also aids development and teaches players what it takes to be successful. He is also going through this playoff with guys with other young players who are expected to help the Flames become contenders in the future. This will help build chemistry. Burning a year by playing him for 40 regular season games on a team that was not competing would be poor management but no team would do that to a top 4 pick. What the Flames are doing is sound management.
    By the way, you put Byrons name down as having a good chance of being with the Team in 3 years. I don’t see That as being a possibility with all the talent coming up.

  • SmellOfVictory

    Also, they should keep playing him because he’s outplaying established NHLers. If they start scratching him in spite of his good play, it doesn’t send the right message to him.

  • BIGFlamesFan

    I haven’t committed to a name on the back of my new jersey yet, but am starting to seriously consider this kid. I love the way he plays, and epitomizes “NO FEAR”!!! An 18 year old, cutting to the front of the net like he does…just imagine what he will be like when he puts on 20 pounds. Bennett, you are a gamer! Welcome to the fold young man!

    GFG!!!

  • FeyWest

    As long as contingency plans and ideas are in place to compensate for burning the 1 year I have no issue with it.

    -It’s Valuable Experience
    -Builds Chemistry
    -Gives Bennett an idea of how he needs to prepare himself for subsequent years

    Like Arii said, keep being smart with contracts and this is a non-issue. For me, if you can build such a close team environment and a desirable place to play it makes contracts a lot easier to manage as you don’t have to overpay and you don’t necessarily need to give out NTC/NMC’s.

    Just my 2c though.

  • FeyWest

    Here is something I’ve been wondering. Is it really a big deal having his ELC expire a year early? In the long run it might work out cheaper. They may be able to sign him to a more reasonable contract in two years rather than three.

    Look at what happened with P.K. Subban. Montreal could have signed him longer term for less. However, chose a one year cheap deal and it cost them dearly.

    If management plays it a bit smart, it may not be too detrimental to our cap. As well as everyone being happy.

  • FeyWest

    Depending on team health don’t be surprised that, if Bennett were to happen to look over matched against a bigger and better team than the canucks and the Flames loose game one, he is scratched game two.

  • FeyWest

    Good job knocking out the Canucks. I can think of nothing better then the thought of the Sedins sad.

    You won’t make it past the Ducks.

    I anticipate a short FOUR game series and a whimper.

    • Ari Yanover

      I edited your comment to get rid of the “Sedin sisters” junk. Don’t say things like that. It’s misogynistic. Remove the terminology from your vocabulary and come up with something better that doesn’t imply half the world’s population as inferior. Thanks.

      • mk

        Nice. I argued with someone at the office the other day who called Burrows a woman. My argument was that being a tool, a diver & a loser are not womanly attributes – they are simply being a tool, a diver & a loser. Comparing Burrows to women in general is an insult to women.

        Back to the OT – I think the Flames are bound to continue playing Bennett. Whether they should’ve put themselves in this situation is another discussion (I’d argue they had no choice – where else should he be playing?). They’ve put him in the line-up and it would look awful to Bennett, the team & the hockey world in general to pull him out because you want to preserve your rights to his career for a year longer. If he were struggling – that would be easy to do, citing his struggles. He’s not. He’s in the show and succeeding – its too late now.

    • Rockmorton65

      Did you predict the Flames earning the third seed in the division? How about beating the Canucks in 6? Probably not. I’ll wait to see what the players have to say about whether they can beat the Ducks or not. But, thanks for playing.

  • Parallex

    There is actually an economic case to keeping Bennett in… namely if his play adds enough to the win probability to get the team the added home gates. At a certain point having Bennett play now makes economic sense as the added revenue now outstrips projected savings later. Now I have no idea where that point is but in theory it exists.

    The other thing to consider is that while he may burn the ELC he won’t hit the threshold that counts as years towards free agency (41 games yes?). Not that I expect that to matter since I figure he’ll get extended longterm long before that point but it’s still club leverage.

  • beloch

    Some people believe that NHL teams should carefully marshal all their resources towards one or two Stanley Cup pushes and then rebuild. That means selling everything and tanking for a while, building a lot of talent at around the same age, loading up on expensive free agents, and getting the championship shot before the rookies age into expensive contracts. Then sell everything off, rinse, and repeat.

    The rise of parity in the league makes this exceptionally dumb. A stacked championship hunting team doesn’t have much better odds of making it to the finals than Cinderella teams like the Kings the last couple seasons or (we can only hope) the Flames this season. Stacked teams are slightly more likely to make it, but not overwhelmingly so. Making the playoffs more often is a better strategy for maximizing your odds of winning the cup. e.g. The Red Wings.

    What does this mean for the Flames? Throw out the notion of a “competitive window”. The goal is to be a machine that makes the playoffs every year from now on. The key to doing this is to generate talent and sell it off continually, always keeping the farm pipeline packed with talent. That means the team should not trade the farm for veterans when it’s “time to make a push”. Instead, when you have developed useful, good players who aren’t essential, you unload them for picks and prospects. The goal should be to turn fourth round picks into players that can be sold for third round picks, and so on. A system that does this continually builds value in the organization.

    In this kind of system, the lack of a critical window means that you aren’t trying to pack as much value as possible into a small period of time by timing when players’ ELC’s end. A few players might become members of the core, but they’ll be surrounded by younger players who still provide good value. This system does also require occasionally selling very good players (that the fans love) for exorbitant sums.

    Who are the players who currently offer the worst value on the Flames? Raymond, Smid, and Engelland would be my choices. These three players are worth 9.6 megabucks in cap space, and only Engelland plays a significant number of minutes. All of these are veterans who could be replaced by cheap rookies immediately with little impact on the team. The Flames lack defensive prospects at the right stage of development to replace Engelland right now unfortunately. Veteran depth costs a lot because most teams don’t have the rookies to round out their rosters. The goal should be to be a team that always generates more talent than it needs so that it doesn’t need to overpay for depth. If you do this, you can afford it when a member of your core goes off his ELC a year early.

    • RexLibris

      Yes and no.

      The idea of going “all-in” isn’t as true as it once was, as you say on account of the financial parity of the league.

      However, that same financial parity can very quickly cripple a team and force it into a reflex cycle rather than a tear-it-down-and-rebuild mode.

      It is anticipated that the Blackhawks and Kings, dominant teams with recent championships and the closest modern equivalent to a dynasty since 1990, will have to trade away significant assets this summer due to the financial burden of having highly skilled players take up disproportionate amounts of their cap space.

      That lack of experienced depth on the roster leads to one of two situations. Either their development system rises to the challenge and they promote a collection of young players on early, affordable contracts to help support the roster, or they falter and become overwhelmed as other teams with a smaller skill/depth ratio overtake them.

      The extent to which the 1st option is plausible is dependent on the strength of the development system and the extent of the roster holes needing to be filled.

      However, it is more likely that the 2nd option occurs based on probabilities and the aforementioned parity of the league.

      Your stated goal, though, that a team ideally become something of a machine that continually replaces expensive veterans with cheaper options is correct in so far as it is the preferred model for most franchises, regardless of the sport. We often call this the Detroit model based on the years 1997 to 2008.

      The repeated attempts to replicate this model, however, demonstrate how incredibly difficult it is to implement, and Detroit’s progress since 2008 demonstrates how difficult it is to sustain.

      This is why Kent has written at length over the years about the high value of elite level players on entry level contracts.

      • beloch

        An argument specifically in favor of burning a year of of Bennett’s ELC this year is that the Flames are exceedingly unlikely to spend to their cap before his ELC runs out. If Bennett’s ELC ends a year sooner, he’ll be an extra year away from reaching his peak and will possibly sign a slightly cheaper contract. The cap hit of that contract is what will matter because that’s what will be on the books when the Flames are, once again, a cap team.

        • RexLibris

          The chances that this turns out in the Flames’ favour, long term, are very slim.

          As I said, it isn’t as though there are catastrophic consequences here, so if he plays nine games or ten, it’s nothing to lose sleep over.

          But the argument that he will be re-signing a year early and thus not be putting up the numbers that could force a greater payday doesn’t really hold water for the following reasons:

          1. His agent isn’t likely to let him leave that much money on the table that the cap savings and term would be so beneficial unless specifically directed to by Bennett. We can use Brodie as an example here. I think he left money on the table because he wants to be in Calgary and win in Calgary.

          2. The difference one can expect between the average of his 19 to 23 year old years, when the club will have almost exclusive control over him, and the contract year at 24 isn’t likely to be that dramatic. Forwards typically arrive at or near their peak in between the ages of 23 and 25, excluding elite-level players and the bottom-rung journeymen. By the age of 22 it is likely that we will know, more or less, what Bennett is capable of and where his ceiling likely falls. The negotiations will take place based on a combination of the work thus far and the expectations of what is to come. The difference is likely to be relatively minor, and if it isn’t then you are headed for difficult negotiations and the consequences that can ensue. I’d bet on the former – they’ll arrive at a long-term contract that pays the player well for RFA and UFA years and provides cost-certainty for the team.

          The ELC is one part of the deal to be considered. However, because he will have played fewer than 39 games this season he does not progress a year towards unrestricted free-agency. That is where the real cost or savings will be had.

          Provided his contract history is more of the Matt Duchene type than the Ryan O’Reilly, this means that the Flames wouldn’t need to consider a long-term deal that buys free-agent years from the player at a premium for his type on the market.

          Now, all that aside, we are still talking about an 18-year old player who has recorded all of seven NHL games and we’ve mapped out our theories of his contract status for the next seven to nine years.

          🙂

          • beloch

            There’s also the relationship with the player to be considered. If you yank him out of his first playoff series to save a nickel at his expense, he might remember it.

  • Parallex

    While interesting, I believe the issue with Sam Bennett contract to be moot; Calgary has room to spend another 22.9M THIS YEAR alone.

    This number will increase as players like Wideman (5.2M ex. 2017), Hiller (4M), Smid (3.5M) Raymond (3.12M), and Engelland (2.9M) are phased out over the next few years.

    Approx 40M to sign on current rookie stars, additional D-Core, and goalies. Things may get tight if we keep a few vets on in six years when the rookies of today are awesome UFA’s.

  • SoCalFlamesFan

    I know there is a lot of love for Bennets ability to play but I have noticed huge defensive gaps, conditioning and system errors. I think Bennet is great he will be a good player but he is 18. He is an excellent 18 year old but he needs sitting him to watch a few games WOULD help him. Trash away.

  • The Last Big Bear

    Meh.

    If he pushes his ELC back another year, he’ll have one more season on his résumé to base his salary demands on.

    Just as an example, let’s say a kid has a nice linear progression, something like 15-20 goals as a rookie, 25 as a sophomore, and 30 the next year.

    Would you rather be looking to sign him after his 25 goal season, or his 30 goal season?

  • The Last Big Bear

    When will the value of Bennett’s contract be paid out? Does he get the full first year in a lump sum after his 9th game or whatever? I was under the impression most players did not get paid during the playoffs… when does sammy get his money, cuz right now sammy got no money (save his signing bonus)

    • Robs

      The full value of the contract does not get paid out. Simply pro-rated based on the amount of games played. You’re right that players do not get paid for playoffs, other than bonuses. The key is that although the contract does not get paid out, the second year of the contract starts next year. It simply is an economic advantate to have to resign him in 3 years rather than two. Not an economic advantage because you have to pay out his contract.

      For example, Leon Draisaitl was paid based on the games played for the oilers only, not for his games in junior. But because he played more than 9 ganes, next year he starts the second year of his contract and will be an RFA a year sooner than had he been returned to junior. He will want more money for that contract.

  • RexLibris

    I could understand playing Bennett two more games, but I think it would also send a message to the team to leave it at nine and tell the rest of the players: “okay, that kid set the bar. Beat it or you may be out of a job next season because he’ll be here full-time”.

    Burning a year of his contract in the playoffs is short-termed thinking on the part of management, but entirely understandable given a playoff situation.

    However, it is the job of management to remain objective despite the circumstances. I wouldn’t recommend that they burn this year based on personal experience.

    That being said, Bennett hitting free-agency one year early isn’t the end of the world. It just means he likely hits a higher pay bracket earlier as you have fewer RFA years to buy when you look to extend him on his second or third contract.

    Put another way, I’m fairly certain he won’t be going the Backlund route.

    • Sitting Bennett after 9 games just to save a year would send a message alright. And, it would be the wrong one. This is the playoffs and this kid is contributing and competing like crazy. This is not the same as burning a year on a player who is clearly not ready to contribute.

  • Very few rookies are burning a year off the ELC but Bennett is one of them, at least in the opinion of Flames owners, management and coaches. I assume they’ve reached a consensus that they’ll play Bennett every game of these playoffs, barring an injury.

  • Rockmorton65

    I think it’s safe to say that Sam has made the team. His contract is now running & the team is better for it. Risking messing up team chemistry isn’t worth the extra few million dollars on his next deal, IMO.

    • Rockmorton65

      Cant believe we are having this goofy debate. Play the kid for God’s sake, who freaking cares if we burn his ELC by a year. This playoff experience with players like Brodie, Money, Johnny, Backs, Colb, is the type of bounding chemistry that will not only make him close with the future cores of this team but he will give us a reasonable contract long term to stay. You sit him after he hits 9 games & I will want the whole Flame Management team ushered out the door immediately. It’s not like we are about to get 4 1st overalls in the next 4 years & have to worry about paying all of them 6.0 Mill +++ per year in the future.

  • I think I may be the only apparently one that doesn’t think that he is playing all that great (good, yes). Now I am not saying he is not an NHL player right now and that he doesn’t have the potential to be great. From what I watch he was being thrown around quite a lot. He was physically dominated by Canucks on many occasions.

    Do I think he is worthy of playing now? Yes. Do I think that he is playing well enough to waste one year of an ELC? No.

    Either way it’s not the end of the world if he stays but I am in agreement with Rex in that it is not likely to work out for the better for the Flames in the long run.