Who can forget the howls of derision from just about every corner of the hockey globe when people got wind of the 15-year, $67.5 million contract the New York Islanders handed to then-franchise goalie Rick Dipietro? Surely, much of that mockery came because of their history of dumb deals (just look at Alexei Yashin’s still-ridiculous buyout) and the fact that – while he helped the team limp its way into the playoffs – Dipietro fell short of the upper crust of NHL goalies. Even at that moment of time.
Still, it’s clear to me that GM Garth Snow was a trailblazer that day. While he might not have “invented” the lifetime deal, his signing has become the template for many deals since that time. From Nicklas Backstrom to the rumored 17-year, $100 million deal some are saying the Devils signed Kovalchuk for, the common loophole is to fudge cap hits with unrealistically long contract terms.
Have we not learned anything from the disaster that was Vince McMahon’s 20-year contract with Brett “The Hitman” Hart? (Note: referencing professional wrestling is always appropriate in big picture discussions, especially on subjects of metaphysics, the meaning of life and the figure-four leglock.)
Anyway, all joking aside, these lifetime deals aren’t quite as fool-proof as they might seem. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to reduce the cap impact of a star player – after all, a lower cap hit means that you can improve their chances of success by surrounding them with more talent.
The problem lies in two areas, one tangible and one that’s difficult to measure.
When you sign a guy for that many years, injuries are an enormous risk. Even if you consider moderate loopholes like the injured reserve and the fact that retirement can help a team avoid a cap hit (if the player didn’t sign a contract at 35 or older), not all injuries are severe enough to force a quick retirement decision. Perhaps a knee injury might not keep a guy off the ice, but instead slow him and bump that player out of “elite” status. Old age and concussions can also greatly reduce a player’s effectiveness. Case in point: Dipietro
Health isn’t the only worry, though. I’m a big believer in the natural inspirational effects of a contract year and a 10+ year contract is the antithesis of that mojo. You can’t even really beat up a player for slowing down ever-so-slowly without that monetary carrot dangling. After all, it’s human nature; you’re much less likely to put your body on the line when you won’t see one extra zero in your pay check either way. Maybe it’s coincidence, maybe not, but there are only a handful of players who were successful once they signed big deals. Case in point: Roberto Luongo’s first year as the Canucks captain, Albert Haynesworth in the NFL, every Khabibulin/Huet/Theodore season that wasn’t a contract year.
Now, it’s far from official that Kovalchuk signed a 17-year deal. It is, after all, a rumor. Still, it wouldn’t be that surprising; it’s obvious that NHL general managers are milking that cap hit loophole for all its worth.
My question is: will they end up looking smart 10 years into such deals? I have some serious doubts about that.