Ben McKay’s signature looms as one of the most sought after in the upcoming trade and free agency period.
The Kangaroos defender can exercise his free agency rights and depart Arden Street this off-season for a fresh start elsewhere in what looms as key junction of his career.
The question is where, plus his restricted free agency status means North can dig its heels in and match any rival offer, if it wishes so.
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A multi-club bidding war is set to take place for McKay’s services – and if he leaves — an auction that’ll also decide what draft compensation North receives for losing him.
If those rival offers are big enough, it could see the Roos end up with picks 2 and 3 (more on that later).
Essendon, Sydney, Hawthorn and Port Adelaide have all been linked to McKay, who could command a contract worth up to $800,000 per season due to an array of other key defenders – such as Harry Himmelberg and Tom Barrass – recently recommitting to their current clubs.
And so foxfooty.com.au has below unpacked the wider implications for North and where each McKay contender sits in the sweepstakes.
There’s larger repercussions to McKay’s move than just his own situation.
As mentioned, there’s every chance the Roos, in addition to their Pick 2, also get Pick 3 as compensation if the tall defender, as expected, were to depart at a juicy enough price.
In fact, the club would likely ensure that’s the case given it has the right to match any other deal McKay receives as a restricted free agent.
If the rival offer didn’t trigger ‘band one’ compensation, which would be Pick 3, the Roos would likely match and either force a trade or try and convince him to stay.
North, in a sense, holds all the cards, but he’ll get bigger offers elsewhere.
Alastair Clarkson has said the club is prepared to fight to keep McKay and values him highly given how much development the club has put into the defender.
And while there’s no rush on his decision, with free agency not open until the Friday after the grand final on October 6, it’s likely to come after the Roos’ best and fairest on Saturday.
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There are however some key implications to McKay’s looming call.
If he left, and the Roos held the No.2 and No.3 selections – in addition to having Port Adelaide’s first rounder – they’d be best armed to offer a package to West Coast for Pick 1 and thus give Clarkson’s side access to top prospect and generational talent Harley Reid.
Of the clubs in contention for Pick 1, the Roos would probably most appeal to the Eagles given they’d only move one spot down the draft order, and as a result, be guaranteed to land top West Australian prospect Dan Curtin, who’s believed to be West Coast’s top priority.
Plus, slide down much further and the Eagles risk Curtin going to another club.
Speaking about the about the prospect of West Coast trading Pick 1, one club recruiter told foxfooty.com.au’s Ben Waterworth last month: “It’d be North or nothing.”
It all seems like a win-win, but there are still some steps that need to play out.
McKay must first officially make the call to exercise his free agency rights and leave the Roos. He then has to nominate a club and North must decide whether to match the rival offer or force a trade (which would effectively hinge on the compensation).
Now, onto the rival contenders …
The cashed-up Bombers are armed with a war chest to use on prospective targets and have made McKay a main priority.
They’re now hopefully waiting he’s their preferred destination.
McKay has a connection to Essendon through coach Brad Scott, who he played under for three seasons at North Melbourne.
Furthermore, the 25-year old’s manager, Adam Ramanauskas from TLA, used to play for the Bombers, so those factors combined with Essendon’s comfortable salary position and overall positive direction under Scott are seen as strong selling points in the powerhouse club’s pitch to lure the free agent.
McKay would also be an ideal addition for Essendon given its thin key defensive stocks – heightened by reports of Brandon Zerk-Thatcher’s looming departure.
It’s the area of the game the Bombers most struggled in this season, too, ranked 15th in defending ball movement and in points against.
A lockdown stopper like McKay would tighten up Scott’s backline and give it more stability, plus allow the likes of Jordan Ridley to play more of an intercepting game.
Outside of the potential injury risk – with McKay totalling just 71 games across seven seasons – there’s very little to question about the Bombers’ bid, even if they do fork out big funds given their glaring need for defensive help.
Given Essendon has been so well placed for so long to land McKay, it’d be some blow for him to choose elsewhere now, baring in mind the Bombers have failed to land other noteworthy trade or free agency targets in recent years.
This is an important one for Scott and company.
As things sit, the Swans’ offer is believed to be the strongest for the 25-year old.
Having missed out on West Coast defender Tom Barrasss and Buddy Franklin’s retirement opening up sufficient funds, the Swans suddenly have big money t0 throw at McKay.
And Foxfooty.com.au understands McKay would be prepared to relocate to the Harbour City to play for the Swans.
Unlike the other notable contenders, he’d have the opportunity to instantly playing finals and even contend for a flag, something he’s long been starved of at North Melbourne.
It’s also worth noting that Sydney’s salary cap structure puts them in a good position in terms of flexibility, having given out long-term deals to the likes of Hayden McLean, Tom McCartin, Isaac Heeney, Tom Papley, Callum Mills and Nick Blakey.
With the Swans now in pole position to land Brodie Grundy, they could likely also fit McKay in, if they really wanted to make it work.
The unfortunate retirement of Paddy McCartin has also opened up key void for the Swans down back and need for another big body to partner with Tom McCartin.
Of Sydney’s other notable key defensive stocks, Dane Rampe is 33, Aaron Francis seems to be seen as more of a depth player, while Lewis Melican has long struggled for opportunities in Longmire’s side and is out of contract himself.
McKay therefore makes a lot of sense for the club, and from the player’s perspective, he’d have a key role to play on one of the AFL’s most successful sides of the modern era under one of the best coaches in the game.
The Swans also have a habit of landing a big fish when they want one.
The wildcard in the race, and seemingly, third in line.
Foxfooty.com.au however can confirm the Hawks have met with McKay as they look to lure him to Waverley.
The Hawks hadn’t been linked to many players from other clubs until the latter stages of the season, suggesting Sam Mitchell’s side’s promising form as the year progressed may have changed the club’s position.
Perhaps they are closer to contending for finals than originally thought?
Having also been linked to Geelong’s Esava Ratugolea, it’s clear the Hawks have prioritised trying to bring in another key defender.
It’s an area of the ground they’ve long struggled, having ranked bottom four in defence in the last four seasons and too heavily relying on James Sicily.
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They still want for a player of McKay’s ilk and size.
James Blank played through the team’s uptick in form in the second half of the season and is a solid building block, Sam Frost is 30 and likely won’t be a member of Hawthorn’s next premiership side and there’s still a big question mark over Denver Grainger-Barrass, who’s been moved to the forward line.
The Hawks’ sell to McKay would be him become their marquee man back there alongside Sicily and grow with an exciting group of players that appear to be on a promising trajectory.
They’ve also made it no secret of their desire to compete for premierships – not just scrape into finals – so selling that vision could also appeal.
The question is whether the Hawks would want to go chips in now and break the bank while they’re rebuilding and in a development phase including finishing 16th this year
They’ve also had major problems forward of the ball – particularly when Mitch Lewis isn’t there – and there’s a loaded class of star forwards out of contract next year including Ben King, Aaron Naughton and Todd Marshall.
You sense they might just not be as attractive a destination as the others right now unless he really buys into their direction under Mitchell.
For much of the season, it was Essendon and Port Adelaide most seen as the most likely suitors for McKay.
But the Power are now pursuing other defensive options including Esava Ratugolea and Brandon Zerk-Thtacher and even Brodie Grundy, who’ve both reportedly requested trades to the club.
As such, Foxfooty.com.au understands Port is now an unlikely suitor for McKay.
That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be a good fit though, with the Power, like the other clubs, clearly crying out for defensive upgrades.
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It’s the main knock on their flag credentials compared to the other contenders.
Port, who conceded 19 goals against Brisbane last Saturday night, came into the finals ranked 10th in defending ball movement and have relied heavily on Trent McKenzie and others to play undersized.
There’s a clear need for Port to add a bigger and more seasoned body to lockdown on opposition star forwards, particularly with Tom Jonas’ impending retirement and McKenzie getting on.
McKay just likely isn’t their man.
If it were a bidding war, the Power would probably get outmatched anyway, and the club itself may want to disperse its funds as it looks to build around its star-studded midfield.