By Jacob Underwood
(Note: As the Predators enter the most important offseason in franchise history (to date), we at 24/7 will take a look at some of the key storylines.)
One of the more compelling free agent stories for the Predators this summer is restricted free agent Colin Wilson.
The 22-year-old, to put it nicely, had an up-and-down season. There were stretches when he was the team’s best forward, and there were stretches when he was a healthy scratch.
Wilson got off to a great start, posting 22 points in his first 35 games, but he tailed off in the second half of the season, posting 13 points in his final 33 games.
He finished the year with 15 goals and career-highs in assists (20) and points (35). While those numbers are a slight improvement from the year before, the 2011-12 season felt like a repeat performance for Wilson. Through three years, he’s shown flashes but hasn’t come close to the numbers he was expected to produce when the Predators selected him seventh overall in the 2008 draft.
Just two years ago there was hope he would play his way into a spot on the 2014 United States Olympic squad (if the NHL and NHLPA decided to participate). While there’s still plenty of time for Wilson to reach that potential, some have questioned whether or not he will reach that level. While that may be viewed as a negative, it’s possible that Wilson’s play to this point could, contractually speaking, be a positive for the Predators.
Wilson’s subpar play gives GM David Poile multiple options moving forward. He could go the easy route and sign Wilson to a one-year deal, thus saving money on the front end. Wilson’s qualifying offer is a little more than $900,000, an exceptional value for the Predators. The team still has three years of control, though Wilson is arbitration-eligible after the 2012-13 season.
The Predators also have the option of taking a more aggressive approach, where they could try to sign Wilson to a longer-term deal. This would be more of a risk/reward option, choosing to overpay in the short-term in an effort to save money in the long run.
If Wilson reaches even 80 percent of his potential, he can be a consistent 60-point producer. In today’s NHL, the going rate for a 60-point player is in the $5 million-per-year range. If Poile signed Wilson to a five-year deal worth $14-$16 million, he could end up saving anywhere from $10-$20 million.
Many would argue that signing Wilson for more than a year or two is too risky, I would argue the opposite. Only signing Wilson for one year could cost the Predators a lot of money down the road. Paying for potential is certainly a risky venture, but it can pay big dividends for teams that have to make every dollar count.
As long as Poile doesn’t significantly overpay, Wilson would still carry some value on the trade market; even if he continues to perform below expectations.
Last summer, the Flyers signed James van Riemsdyk, 22 years old at the time, to a six-year, $25.5 million contract. The deal raised eyebrows all across the hockey community. He was the second overall pick in the 2007 draft whose play, like Wilson, had yet to match the expectations. Van Riemsdyk did a have a 20-goal season under his belt, but many thought the Flyers overpaid for a player that had yet to earn $4.25 million per season. Despite the overpayment, he is still viewed as a hot commodity that would command a lot on the trade market.
This strategy started being used in baseball a few years ago. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays set the trend of signing players that had yet to reach their full potential when they signed third baseman Evan Longoria to a nine-year, $44 million contract. At the time, the contract was viewed as a small risk with major reward potential. Since then, several MLB teams have adopted the practice of signing their top prospects well before the reach their arbitration years. According to Sports Illustrated, 12 players with less than three years of service time have signed long-term deals in the last nine months.
The Longoria deal has proven to be a brilliant move by the Rays. In his four seasons as a big leaguer, Longoria has played in three all-star games, won Rookie of the Year and finished top-11 in MVP voting three times.
While the two careers aren’t totally comparable, the Rays and Predators are two franchises with similar builds. Both are small-market teams that rely on drafting and player development. Like the Rays, the Predators need to take advantage of every opportunity they can.
March and April were difficult months for Wilson. He was a healthy scratch more than half of the time, missing 11 of the final 18 games of the season. He didn’t see the ice in the postseason until the Predators second round series against Phoenix.
When Wilson finally got an opportunity in the postseason, he played hungry. He brought an intensity level that he hadn’t shown in several months. During the second round, he was one of a few Predators forwards that you thought would score every time he touched the puck.
The day after Game Three against Phoenix, Wilson spoke to with the media and sounded like a more mature player that had learned from his time in the press box.
“I’m not going to be trying those plays at the blue-line that I tried during the [regular] season,” said Wilson. “I’m trying to get the puck low and off the other team’s stick and create offense down low.”
If Wilson’s acknowledgment of his poor decision making is any indication, expect Wilson to shed the inconsistent tag.
“I’m really happy to be back in,” he said. “Now that I’m back in I don’t want to ever come back out.”
A quick look at the future reveals a blank canvas. Only one forward currently under contract, Martin Erat, is signed beyond the 2013-14 season.
The opportunity is there for Wilson to be a top-six forward for many years to come. Wilson is poised to have a breakout season. When it happens, Poile will sleep a lot better knowing he’s got Wilson locked up.