Ducks 'won' negotiation with Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale, but to what end?

The Anaheim Ducks seem to have 'won' their negotiations with Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale, but it's worth asking to what end?

One of the most peculiar stories in the NHL over the last few weeks as been the lengthy contract negotiations between the Anaheim Ducks and the young duo of Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale.

It's unfair to expect negotiations to be simple and completely uncontentious, but the Ducks have plenty of cap room while Zegras and Drysdale are two of their most important young talents.

Instead of quickly getting bridge deals done, they signed Zegras 12 days before their season opener and Drysdale three days later.

Both players will have catching up to do with new coach Greg Cronin in town, and it would be a surprise to see either hit the ground running to begin 2023-24.

Anaheim didn't have to roll over and give the pair precisely what they wanted, but potentially souring their relationship with foundational guys in the name of pure payroll optimization seems a little odd.

Ducks GM Pat Verbeek took a hard line with his young players (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Ducks GM Pat Verbeek took a hard line with his young players (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

That's especially true when it's unclear what they are going to do with any of the money they saved by taking a hard line in these negotiations.

As it stands the team has $9.26 million in cap space they almost certainly won't use in 2023-24, as there will be little incentive to make midseason improvements to a club that projects to be among the NHL's worst.

It's possible they use some of their flexibility to take on a bad contract or two like the Arizona Coyotes have been doing for years, but chances are they finish the season with far more money under the salary cap than they were haggling with Zegras and Drysdale over.

We'll never know precisely how much it would've taken to get Zegras and Drysdale into the building earlier — satisfied with their deals — to create a perfect counterfactual, but it wasn't an amount Anaheim was likely to put to work this season. The team had at least $10 million in unused cap space in each of the last two years, and their willingness to avoid expenditures probably won't change in 2023-24.

The next two seasons are more difficult to forecast, but Anaheim projects to have $35.24 million in cap space in 2024-25 and $47.85 million in 2025-26.

Plenty of that will be eaten up in roster construction, but the Ducks are currently so far from contention that they are unlikely to compete in either season. They don't have any impact restricted free agents to extend during that time, either.

Payroll efficiency doesn't seem like it will be top of mind for a team that figures to remain is asset collection mode.

Other reasons for fighting Zegras and Drysdale tooth-and-nail over their bridge contract AAVs don't hold up, either.

Neither player should earn enough that the team needs to keep their salaries low to create a sort of informal internal cap. Teams are often cautious with how they pay their best player in hopes that it will prevent others for asking for more.

With Troy Terry as the top earner on the Ducks ($7 million AAV), holding down the Zegras number didn't have ramifications for team salary structure — and Drysdale wasn't close to that kind of consideration. These bridge contracts also don't provide a baseline that raises will be negotiated from in the next contract.

For instance, if Drysdale becomes the top-four defenseman he's projected to be in the next three years, you can bet his current $2.3 million salary won't make a lick of difference to the next contract he demands.

The only benefit to playing hardball is keeping these two salaries as low as possible, but in this case that doesn't seem to be in aid of a competitive goal. Instead, the Ducks appear to have made a massive effort to minimize their important young players' earning power for the sole purpose of saving money for its own sake.

It's possible that a massive influx of spending will come in 2024-25 and 2025-26 to discredit that statement, but recent history, and Anaheim's place in its competitive cycle, suggests we'll be seeing more unused cap room.

Ducks owner Henry Samueli is estimated to be worth $9.9 billion dollars, but his team is acting like saving a little money — in a way that won't help them win games — is a priority.