No matter how much Senators GM Bryan Murray may pump Jason Spezza's tires and talk about how a player like Spezza is irreplaceable, there's a secret truth Murray and his staff will probably never admit publicly:
The Senators will win a Jason Spezza trade no matter what.
A brilliant mind discussed this point a while back, as detailed in this post. In a nutshell, the gap between Spezza's production and his salary would continue to grow more divergent as he aged past 31. Spezza turned 31 on June 13th.
What's interesting is that since that article was written, the two closest comparables for Spezza's next contract, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, have both been bought out. Lecavalier was bought out on June 27th, 2013, and Richards bought out on June 20th, 2014. Lecavalier was aged 33 at the time of his buyout, Richards 34. Lecavalier had completed just four years of his 11-year deal, while Richards completed just three years of his 9-year deal.
Lecavalier, whose cap hit of $7.7M was untenable for a Tampa Bay Lightning team without much cap room, seemed to land on his feet, signing with the Philadelphia Flyers on a 5-year, $22.5M deal, carrying a more reasonable cap hit of $4.5M. His first year with his team wasn't bad--20G, 17A in 69 games--but just one year into the contract, the Flyers reportedly aren't satisfied, and are rumored to have put him on the trading block.
Richards, meanwhile, signed exactly the kind of contract the league had a pointless lockout over, with three years tacked on to the end with an artificially low cap number--those years existed solely to drive the cap hit down. And yet, the Rangers even found Richards' artificial cap hit of $6.7M too much. Richards' agent called it a "business decision" that he expected.
What's going on here? Neither the Rangers, the Flyers, nor the Lightning are the kind of budget team the Senators are. If spending money equates with success, why are these teams shedding salary?
The answer, of course, is that in a cap system, both frugality and excess spending act as hindrances to success. It's a lesson Senators fans complaining about the team's budget would do well to remember. When multi-billionare Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Sabres in 2011, he made similar proclamations as Senators owner Eugene Melnyk had a decade before:
"Starting today, there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres hockey department."
Pegula was as good as his words, as the Sabres immediately matched an offer sheet for forward Ville Leino, giving him a 6-year, $27M deal with a cap hit of $4.5M.
Leino was placed on waivers in preparation for buyout on June 17th, 2014, and the Sabres, a team with an owner who has no concerns about personal wealth, are now having concerns about being able to reach the cap floor.
What's going on here? Why would the Sabres, who have "no financial mandates," be a budget team? The answer, again, is the cap. The salary cap demands that teams spend wisely. Simply throwing money around has the same effect as not spending money at all--it creates artificial handcuffs that limit GMs from spending money in the way they want to.
Jason Spezza will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. At this point, it's impossible to predict what he might command on the open market--if Lecavalier isn't worth $4.5M anymore, what does that mean for Spezza, especially considering he should still put up high-end top-6 numbers this year, no matter where he winds up? What happens when Spezza turns 33? 34? This is the last year that teams will be allowed to execute a compliance buyout, like those used on Lecavalier, Leino, and Richards, without any cap implications. The team that signs Spezza to his next contract has to absorb a cap hit no matter what they do. If they decide to cut ties with Spezza three years into his deal, they're still on the hook for a portion of that salary.
As a budget team, the Senators can't afford to make that kind of mistake. And while the process of replacing Spezza with a younger, cheaper, replacement like Kyle Turris may be unpalatable to the fanbase, that doesn't make it less smart--budget becomes irrelevant. In fact, as the cap continues to rise and causes salary inflation, it's likely that we'll see teams try to sign more players to favorable contracts, like the Senators have done with Turris, not because they're cheap, but because smart spending is going to become more of a competitive advantage: Teams that can keep their core groups intact through manageable contracts will be able to surround them with the kinds of players needed to make multiple Stanley Cup runs.
Really, that's what a Spezza trade comes down to. If the Senators can't get Spezza to sign a contract favorable to the team--and why would he?--then they win any trade almost by default, much in the same way they wound up winning the Dany Heatley trade: Not by any shrewd maneuvering by Murray, but simply because they avoided the unfortunate anchor that the last four years of his deal turned out to be.
It won't come to fruition right away, because the players the team gets in return will still need to develop, but should the Senators get anything with a pulse in exchange for Spezza, ultimately, the trade will have forced them to spend their money more wisely-- and that means they'll be the winners.
Even if it won't feel that way at first.