Connor McDavid is doing his best to not make a big deal out of his big deal.
Edmonton’s 20-year-old captain and reigning NHL MVP insists nothing about him has changed in the months since signing an eight-year, $100 million contract.
“My buddies are all the same,” McDavid told The Associated Press. “Nothing’s all that different, to be honest.”
Individually, maybe not, for someone who will become the league’s top-paid player on a per-year basis once the contract kicks in next season.
From a league-wide standpoint, McDavid’s mega-deal is the latest and most eye-popping example of what’s becoming a sea change in how teams are prioritizing their payroll structure at a time the NHL’s salary cap has barely budged. The cap has gone from $69 million in 2014-15 to $75 million this season.
Hockey is becoming a young man’s game: Teams are now spending more on retaining their younger stars with an eye on the long-term future, rather than on adding older players in free agency.
“I would think this is going to be a trend,” Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford told The AP. “There’s 31 teams and it’s hard to find premier players, so when teams get them, they’re going to lock them up.”
As for whether the trend’s favorable, Rutherford chuckled and said: “It depends on how you look at it. If you’re the team that’s got the good players, you’re going to keep them.”
The Oilers did so this summer by also signing 21-year-old forward Leon Draisaitl to an eight-year, $68 million deal. Next up is Buffalo’s Jack Eichel , selected second in the 2015 draft, one spot behind McDavid. An NHL-maximum eight-year contract is on the table for Eichel, though the two sides have yet to agree on price.
And the focus will eventually shift to members of the 2016 draft class such as Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine. By comparison, the Florida Panthers might have gotten a break in signing 2014 No. 1 pick, defenseman Aaron Ekblad, to an eight-year, $60 million contract a year ago.
“There’s obviously a new market out there in terms of money for young kids,” Eichel said. “I don’t think age should be too much of a reason for somebody not to get a good deal. If they earned it, they earned it.”
What’s different is it’s happening to the under-23 crowd.
Previously, players coming out of their three-year rookie contracts would be signed to what were called “bridge deals” ranging from four to five years. That was the case with Sidney Crosby who, at 21, signed a five-year $43.5 million deal before cashing in once again at 26, when he signed his current 12-year, $104 million contract.
Now teams are blowing past age barriers by offering long-term security beyond when players are eligible to become free agents in exchange for cost certainty.
“A lot has changed since 2005,” Devils GM Ray Shero said, referring to the age of free agents dropping from 31 to between 25 and 27, depending on the situation. “The game right now is, pay the star player and retain them if possible. Those are the guys getting the eight-year deals.”
There have been exceptions, most notably the Montreal Canadiens signing 31-year-old goalie Carey Price to an eight-year, $84 million contract this summer. Last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning avoided losing captain Steven Stamkos to free agency by locking him up with an eight-year $68 million contract.
Fewer notable players, however, are making it to their first year of free-agent eligibility. And those who do aren’t landing the lucrative, long-term deals as before.
This summer, 31-year-old Alexander Radulov signed the most expensive contract, a five-year, $31.25 million deal with Dallas, followed by 28-year-old defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk‘s four-year, $26.6 million contract with the New York Rangers.
Those are modest deals in comparison to 2012, when the Minnesota Wild signed both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98 million contracts, before the NHL restricted contracts to a maximum eight-year term.
“Every time you set a new bar, as revenues rise, as players move up, it creates additional opportunities for other players,” NHL Players’ Association chief Donald Fehr said, referring to McDavid. “The more you pay an individual player in a cap system, however, it does have repercussions on it.”
The commitment to youth is evident in how NHL teams have re-arranged their scouting staffs and dedicating more resources into establishing player development positions. That’s a considerable switch from the past, when most teams relied on small staff of scouts, and spent little on their minor-league affiliates, Sabres GM Jason Botterill said.
Ten years ago, the Sabres employed one pro scout, seven amateur scouts and a staff of five scouting assistants. This season, Botterill’s first in Buffalo, the Sabres have two assistant GMs, 13 amateur scouts, three pro scouts and even a college scout. And that doesn’t include Buffalo’s four player-development coaches.
“Teams realize the importance of what the development of these young players in your system can lead to for your organization,” Botterill said. “And it’s important to put resources toward that.”