Ryan O’Reilly versus the Keystone Kops

Ryan O’Reilly’s gap-toothed grin made him look like a kid . . .

a) . . . in a candy store.

b) . . . on Christmas morning.

c) . . . who had just spanked an accountant in a numbers game.

d) all of the above.

Take your pick. There is no wrong answer.

“Is he the happiest man on Planet Earth currently?” Altitude TV analyst Mark Rycroft asked after O’Reilly took a minute between the first two periods of today’s game at Columbus, his first in the NHL this season, to do a quick TV interview with game analyst Peter McNab.

“It feels great,” O’Reilly said. “It’s a little quick right now. It definitely takes some adjustment.”

As an organization, the Avalanche clearly believes in accounting. Its two general managers since godfather Pierre Lacroix gave up the title — Francois Giguere and Greg Sherman — are both accountants by trade. So the team’s difficulty competing in the salary cap era is not for lack of ability to do the math.

And yet the Avs utterly misjudged the state of financial play in the O’Reilly contract dispute. They seemed to relish making a power play that gave O’Reilly two choices: sign for their number or sit out the season.

A month and a half into the season, along comes Calgary with a two-year, $10 million offer sheet. The Avs were clearly miffed that another franchise handed power back to O’Reilly. In a league where one owner awarded two 13-year contracts simultaneously, the notion that owners will do things contrary to their collective business interests in order to win is not exactly novel.

“If that’s the way they want to do their business, that’s their right,” Sherman sniffed at a rare media availability to confirm Colorado had matched Calgary’s offer.

The Avs could have signed O’Reilly for that number anytime. It was the O’Reilly camp’s proposal for a $5 million annual average that Avalanche management found so objectionable. Its surrogates in the media pointed to Matt Duchene’s two-year, $7 million deal and said paying O’Reilly more than his 2009 draft classmate would turn the team’s salary structure upside down. While it’s true that O’Reilly was the better player last season, when Duchene was hurt, it’s not likely to be true very often.

And yet, confronted by a Calgary offer sheet with terms slightly more onerous than O’Reilly had requested — the $6.5 million second-year salary makes that the qualifying offer to keep O’Reilly’s rights after next season — the Avs took only a few hours of the seven-day window to match the offer.

So the net effect of the Avs’ strategy was to drive a wedge between O’Reilly and the front office, remove him from 40 percent of the lockout-shortened season — and then give him everything he was asking for months ago.

The Avs’ only excuse for this bungle is their disappointment that the Flames would breach owner etiquette by making an offer to a restricted free agent and ruining Colorado’s financial power play. This would suggest an informal agreement among owners not to exercise their rights under the collective bargaining agreement to make such offers. That, in turn, sounds a bit like collusion among the owners.

It would behoove Avalanche management to read up on the collusion cases between baseball and its players’ union in the 1980s. Donald Fehr, then president of the Major League Baseball Players Association and now executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association, surely remembers them quite well.

During a five-minute media availability at his locker after reporting to the Avs on Saturday, O’Reilly mentioned several times how happy he was to be back on the ice and back with the fellas. He did not mention the organization.

“I was just sitting at home, got a call from an agent that an offer sheet was available,” he said. “And I wanted to play hockey. So, obviously, I signed it. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought it would probably take a week or so, but for me it was over quickly. I’m just so excited now to be playing hockey and be back with these guys.”

As if the episode didn’t already have a Keystone Kops feel, Chris Johnston of Rogers SportsNet reported that because O’Reilly had played two pro games in Russia after the NHL season finally began, he would be subject to waivers if any team other than Colorado signed him. In other words, had the Avs elected not to match, Calgary might have surrendered first- and third-round draft picks and then watched Columbus, the NHL’s worst team, snatch O’Reilly off the waiver wire.

Amid much behind-covering over the weekend, Calgary general manager Jay Feaster insisted the Flames had done their due diligence on the applicable provision in the new collective bargaining agreement and insisted they had a case. He also acknowledged that the club’s interpretation was “different than the NHL’s current interpretation,” meaning the doomsday scenario could very well have been the league ruling.

Evidently trying to help prevent one of its GMs from looking sillier than he already did, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly declared the question moot after the Avs matched and added the league would have nothing further to say about it.

When I asked O’Reilly about Johnston’s report, he artfully skated around the question.

“I had no idea, and in that situation, I didn’t know,” he said. “I just accepted the offer sheet. I can’t control the past. I don’t know what would have happened. But I’m just glad to be back here with these guys.”

Calgary’s decision to hit Colorado with the offer sheet the day of a game between the teams added yet another subject for the most common question of the day: “Did they do that on purpose?”

Sherman would not be specific about the source of his pique, other than the vague suggestion that making an offer to another team’s restricted free agent is bad form. When I asked coach Joe Sacco if it made the game a little strange — the Avs came back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Flames 5-4 with three third-period goals — he replied carefully.

“I guess a little bit, yeah,” he said. “You look at it and they’re your opponent that night and a team that you’re battling with. I would have thought maybe that would give us a little bit extra incentive to play even harder, to play even better. But that’s business. That’s the way it goes in this league here.

“I knew the news (about the Avs matching) right before the puck dropped. Our players didn’t. They weren’t aware of that before the puck dropped. So our focus was strictly on that Calgary game. But it did seem a little odd that you were playing a team that, that day they made that offer to him and you could lose him in the next seven days. But lucky for us, he’s not. He’s here with us.”

Equally strange, it’s possible that O’Reilly and Calgary just saved Sherman’s job. Before the offer sheet, the Avs sat near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Injuries, especially to captain Gabe Landeskog, had hurt, but so had the absence of O’Reilly, the club’s leading scorer with 55 points last season.

If the Avs miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season, a watch would commence on the status of both Sherman and Sacco, especially with Joe Sakic currently in training in the front office. The Avs cannot have missed the success that fellow Denver playing legend John Elway has enjoyed while running the Broncos. Elway had considerably more experience, having run an arena league team, but one playoff appearance in five years for the once-proud Avs might be enough to hasten Sakic’s learning curve.

Now, O’Reilly returns just as Landeskog does. With injured defensemen Erik Johnson and Ryan Wilson accompanying the team on its current trip, their return could be imminent as well. If this injection of talent allows the Avs to sneak into the playoff bracket, it might buy Sherman some more time.

The NHL’s official stats will not reflect O’Reilly’s first goal upon his return. It went into his own net in the third period at Columbus today. He was trying to cut off a pass through the crease; instead replays appeared to show that he deflected the puck past Semyon Varlamov into the Colorado net. It was the Blue Jackets’ only goal of regulation and sent the game into overtime, where they scored again and won, 2-1. McNab called it the Avs’ worst effort of the season.

Both the Avs and Flames manage to come out of the O’Reilly episode looking vaguely incompetent. The qualifying offer now required of the Avs to keep their rights to O’Reilly 16 months from now will be especially problematic because they’ll be negotiating new deals with Duchene and Landeskog at the same time.

Of course, if the Avs don’t get better in a hurry, they may be represented by new front office executives by then.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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