As is so often the case, it did not have to come to this.
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Anaheim general manager Brian Burke did not have to be faced with the $21.5 million question of the day. Match Edmonton's five-year offer for Dustin Penner -- at an average cap hit of $4.3 million per year -- or walk away from the player who scored 29 goals as a rookie last season.
With Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry set to become restricted free agents next summer, Burke faces quite a dilemma. Sign Penner for $4.3 million per year, and you not only set a high bar for the other duo, but you face issues getting under the salary cap.
Once again, it did not have to come to this.
To look at where this all began, head back a little more than a year ago. The Oilers defeated the Ducks in the Western Conference Finals, largely because of a blueliner named Chris Pronger. Penner was one of the bright spots for Anaheim in the series.
After Edmonton lost to Carolina in the Stanley Cup Finals, Pronger went public with his request to be traded out of Edmonton. A few days later, the Ducks acquired the 6'6" rearguard.
In the post-trade comments, Burke called Edmonton general manager Kevin Lowe "an ornery cuss." It is hard to tell whether Burke was kidding or legitimately upset with Lowe at the time, but the comment seemed strange given the circumstances.
A few weeks later, Anaheim defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski received a one-year, $1.55 million award in an arbitration hearing. Vishnevski, who had a solid 2005-06 campaign, made $1.14 million the previous season. The Ducks had reportedly offered a significant salary reduction to less than $1 million per year, despite Vishnevski's solid season.
When the decision came in at what seemed to be a very reasonable amount, Burke hit the roof. He faxed the other 29 NHL teams to let them know Vishnevski was available, which essentially killed his trade value. Todd Diamond, Vishnevski's agent, told the Orange County Register his client wanted to be traded, as the Ducks were unnecessarily harsh during the arbitration meeting.
The Ducks eventually traded Vishnevski to Atlanta for Karl Stewart, a second-round draft pick, and a conditional fourth-round draft pick. But the message was sent.
Burke was in charge. Do not take the team to arbitration -- you will not like the results.
Another stern message was sent prior to the trade deadline, when standout rookie blueliner Shane O'Brien was dealt to Tampa Bay for a first round draft choice. The trade made little sense, as the Ducks were aiming to win now, not later, and O'Brien seemed to be a big part of the present plan.
Burke also said he would not trade any of the young guys at the deadline, and even went as far as to say he lived up to his word. Yet to many observers, O'Brien was a young player on par with the likes of Getzlaf, Perry, and Penner.
After the trade, O'Brien told the CBC he was glad to be in a more free-wheeling system, noting he was told to chip out the puck and not go below the faceoff circles in Anaheim. Whether anything else was said behind the scenes is unknown, but the trading of O'Brien made absolutely no sense on the surface.
With Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne contemplating retirement following the season, the Ducks suddenly found themselves in a tough situation. After dealing two solid rearguards in O'Brien and Vishnevski, Burke needed to do something to shore up the back end. He signed Mathieu Schneider to a two-year, $11.25 million deal.
Burke was not done, as he surprised the hockey world by signing Todd Bertuzzi to a two-year, $8 million contract days later. Bertuzzi was arguably the league's best power forward in his prime, but injuries have taken a toll, and he has not been the same player since the lockout.
When Selanne -- a long-time fan favorite in Anaheim -- rejoined the team under similar circumstances in 2005, he was signed to a $1 million contract. Over the last two years combined, Selanne has made only about as much as Bertuzzi will in one season -- and Selanne topped the 40 goal mark each season.
The numbers for Bertuzzi seemed high, and the Schneider signing might not have been necessary if the Ducks had held onto O'Brien and Vishnevski. With the team nearing their budget, Penner fell to the backburner.
And he was there for a long time. Twenty-six days, to be exact. For nearly four weeks, Burke gambled nobody would put an offer on the native of Winkler, Manitoba. Even when Lowe offered restricted free agent Thomas Vanek an offer sheet that would pay him more than $7 million per season, the Ducks did nothing.
Arbitration was not an option. After showing his contempt with the process last summer, Burke was in no position to offer arbitration. Penner, for his part, was likely tentative to file for arbitration after seeing how things worked out for Vishnevski.
That came back to bite Burke and the Ducks. If either side had filed for arbitration, that would have taken Penner off the market. A team cannot sign a player to an offer sheet with arbitration pending.
Thursday morning, Lowe offered Penner a five-year, $21.5 million deal. Considering the history between the franchises -- particularly with the Pronger trade -- and Lowe's attempt to sign Vanek, this offer sheet was anything but a surprise.
Now the Ducks find themselves in a tough situation. Signing Penner at that cost does not seem like a viable option. Not with Niedermayer's status up in the air. Not with big contracts being added in the form of Schneider and Bertuzzi -- deals that span two seasons. Not with Getzlaf and Perry being restricted free agents next summer.
The Ducks let O'Brien go for a first round pick, which was clearly below market value. At this point, it seems they have little choice but to let Penner go for a first, second, and third round pick -- the price the Oilers would have to pay for signing an RFA.
One thing is for sure -- it did not have to come to this. And it should not have.
The wheels are not falling off just yet, but Anaheim fans are learning the celebratory period following a Stanley Cup can be disturbingly brief.
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