Before this season, Matt Carkner looked like a career AHLer with little upside. Although he had the necessary toughness, in terms of both fighting and hitting, to log NHL minutes, he didn't have the skating abilities or hockey smarts to keep up with the best players in the league. He was drafted ten years ago, had two NHL games in his career, and looked like his window into the NHL was pretty much closed.
A summer of training his skating, though, and a friendly coach in Cory Clouston helped Carkner to a strong training camp in which he surpassed a few blue-chip prospects in Brian Lee and Alex Picard, and early in his first NHL season he looks like one of the Ottawa Senators' top four defencemen.
If you told me I'd be saying that before training camp started, I wouldn't believe you. But that's what's happened. And it's why Carkner was given his two-year, one-way contract worth $1.4M on Tuesday. Is it still early in the year? Definitely. And does giving Carkner a one-way deal make the team less flexible? Absolutely. But, in my opinion, it's still a smart signing that comes at just the right time for the Senators organization.
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Leading the way of those who've questioned the Carkner signing, at least for the time being, is Another Ottawa Senators Blog. Duff makes a good argument, but I'm going to respectfully disagree, and here's why:
We're barely two weeks and only seven games into Carkner's first NHL season, so the biggest question is: What was the hurry in signing Carkner? The contract demonstrates a pretty significant commitment to a player who's far from proven in this league, a we're working on a pretty small sample size to build his case. But let's not forget that this isn't the first exposure the organization has with Carkner; in 134 games over two season with the Binghamton Senators (where Carkner perhaps surprisingly scored 13G and 33A) Senators coach Clouston and GM Bryan Murray both got a good look at the team-first honest approach Carkner brings every night. That's not the kind of thing that will change when a player signs a contract like Carkner was given.
And although he might perhaps have signed this same contract in three months time, his value could very well have gone up by that point, too. Is it likely that a player with a half-season of NHL experience would command a huge salary on the open market? No, but it's entirely likely that he could command more than $700k per season. He's no game breaker, but some Carkner-style players have signed pretty big contracts in recent years: Dennis Seidenberg makes $2.25M, Mike Commodore makes $3.75M, Matt Greene makes $2.95M. These guys have more NHL experience than Carkner, but they make a heck of a lot more than he does, too.
Even if his value doesn't significantly rise as the season goes on, this contract out of the way allows Murray to focus on the more pressing issue: Finding a way to re-sign Anton Volchenkov. There's no way Carkner could replace Volchenkov, but having him locked up does offer some flexibility to negotiate with Volchenkov.
Two years can seem like an eternity with a bad contract, but passes in no time when it's a good contract. It offers Carkner the ability yo manage his affairs, but it's a good term for the team, too. If it works out, he's locked up for that long. If it's not, it's a contract that can be buried or bought out with reasonable expense. Is it nice for owner Eugene Melnyk to have the prospect of paying a guy not to play (again)? No, but it's a cost of doing business in the new NHL.
It's, really, a no-lose salary at $700k. Again, it's cheap to buy out, if need be, but is a reasonable paycheque for Carkner. It's hardly any higher than league minimum, but the big deal is the fact that it's guaranteed.
Here's something big: Would Carkner really have refused a two-way contract, considering his bargaining position? Probably. On the verge of a breakout NHL season, any player with an agent in the right mind wouldn't accept a two-way deal when there's the possibility of a one-way deal coming his way soon. If the Senators weren't going to offer him a once-way, he could have signed one with any number of other teams. He's valuable because he's a veteran player, but for all intents and purposes is tantamount to coming off his entry-level contract.
This is a big thing. With Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips, and Erik Karlsson already under contract for next year, Volchenkov's status as an (irreplaceable) UFA, youngsters Chris Campoli, Alex Picard, and Brian Lee all entering the off-season as RFAs, and Patrick Wiercioch and Jared Cowen inevitably looking to make a splash in training camp next year, there's a lot of congestion on the blue line. So where does Carkner fit on there? The short answer, at this point, is that it's unclear.
But Carkner offers something that the other defencemen listed don't: The flexibility to line up as a winger, if need be. Should Picard, Campoli, or Lee impress to the point of earning contract extensions, or one of the prospects beat out Carkner for his spot, he can line up on the Senators' fourth line and play as a swing man. Remember when defencemen went out, or a shutdown defender was sent to the sin bin, and Christoph Schubert stepped back to defence in a pinch? Carkner can do the same thing. The contracts of both Shean Donovan and Jesse Winchester will be up at the end of the season, and there are no guarantees either will get an extension.
The biggest thing
Carkner's the flag-bearer for the honest, blue-collar, lunchpail style Murray and Clouston are trying to promote, and this contract is a recognition thereof. Although the one-way nature of the contract seems like it makes the team less flexible, his role as a swingman offers some adaptability for the team.
All in all, I like the deal. There's room for it to go wrong, for sure, but it was a calculated risk that was certainly worth taking.