You’re With Us For Life!

What do Alexander Ovechkin, Duncan Keith, Roberto Luongo, Marian Hossa, Henrik Zetterberg, Mike Richards, Vincent Lecavalier, Alexei Yashin, Rick Dipietro, Johan Franzen, Nicklas Backstrom, Jeff Carter, and Ilya Kovalchuk have in common? Each player signed a contract that locked him up for at least 10 years, and as many as 17. While many of the deals are not astronomically high in terms of price per year, with the exception of Ovechkins’ which carries a 9.5 million dollar cap hit annually, they are a great way to side-step the NHL’s fairly recent implementation of a salary cap. Prior to the lost season of 2004-2005, in which the league experienced a lockout, the NHL did not have a salary cap. Teams were free to offer contract extensions or free agent contracts at whatever price they deemed necessary. While the system afforded teams in large markets, like the New York Rangers, the ability to attract high priced free agents, it hindered the chances for many small market teams to compete, remember the Hartford Whalers. Now, everyone has the same guidelines, but it seems that some teams are finding some leeway within the rules.

Taking the gamble and signing a player to such a lengthy deal has a considerable amount of drawbacks given the physical nature of the game of hockey, but in some cases the team can hit the proverbial jackpot and lock up an up-and-comer for a considerable amount of time without a gigantic cap hit in the process. Nicklas Backstrom was 22 when he signed a 10-year deal with the Washington Capitals. Given his age, his pass first, shoot second playmaker mentality that continues to improve, and the simple fact that he plays with Alexander Ovechkin, who some consider to be the most electrifying talent in hockey, the deal looks to be a win-win for both parties. Conversely, Rick Dipietro, who was signed to a goalie record 15-year deal with the Islanders, has played 13 times before the start of the 2010 season, and won only three of those games. Clearly, the Islanders lost that roll of the dice, which is something the organization is not a stranger to. In 2001, before there was a salary cap, the same club signed Alexei Yashin to a 10-year, $87.5 million dollar deal, the results of which were not to the liking of the Islanders or their fans and was consequently bought out before it expired.

The long-term deals are questionable due to a two-tier set up that the NHL salary cap/contracts work on. The team has the ability to pay the player the max allowed (as of today), 10 million dollars a year, for the first few years of the deal, and then lower the dollar amount each year until the player is making a million or less towards the end. However, the team can form the salary cap hit however they would like. In most cases the team structures the hit so that it is considerably less than the real dollar amount. For example, a player signs a 10-year contract worth $60 million dollars. He can make $30 million of the contracts total worth in the first three years, and then whatever portion each year after for the last 7. But in terms of the salary cap the team can say he is only making $6 million a year over the entire length of the deal, or any combination they want, thereby dispersing his hit in an ability to free up cap space to sign more players. In reality a team’s actual payout to players for a specific year can be over the allotted fund limit, but in salary cap land it is perfectly kosher.

How can the NHL fix this problem? Well there have been rumors that Gary Bettman, the NHL’s commissioner, will look into correcting the problem this offseason, but for now the league investigates each contract on a case-by-case basis, and spends extra attention on older players deals. All in all there will probably be a ‘max-contract’ proposal in the air sometime in the next few seasons, just like the NBA and the NFL have done. The gambling with players will pretty much be over at that point, as will the scrutinizing. Then again, the ability to circumvent the system and basically re-invent the wheel in terms of signing players and staying under the cap is an art and some general managers do it far better than others. It’s a job that certain men get paid handsomely to master, and it shouldn’t be taken away. If an organization wants to sign a player for more years than many people see fit than let it happen. If the player fails the GM will be fired, and if he succeeds the team will most likely be competitive. Hockey might look like a brawl on the ice, but it’s a chess match in the boardroom. Let’s not discount the brains in this case.

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