Buyers beware: the salary cap is breeding albatross stars
Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, I wrote right here about the contract the Columbus Blue Jackets signed with franchise player Rick Nash. At the time, my alarm was with the price tag ($27 million) -- prematurely establishing an inflated rate for restricted free agents -- and not the term (five years). In fact, I thought the Jackets erred in not getting Nash locked up for enough of his pending unrestricted free agency at the back end of that deal.
Well, the point became moot in 2009 when Nash signed an eight-year, $62.4 million extension with the Jackets. In the meantime, many teams saw divine terms as critical when it came to their emerging, twenty-something stars.
It began with the 2004 Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning and their title defense delayed a year by the work stoppage. Then-GM Jay Feaster scrambled to keep Dan Boyle, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis in town. It was a transitional quandary: how do you keep a team together -- rewarding its stars like champions usually are -- under new, different rules and regulations?
The Lightning struggled until recently, mostly due to the incompetence of an interim ownership group rather than anything Feaster or the Davidson family did. The franchise has now come full circle with solid new ownership and stable, committed management. The Lightning do, however, still own an arduous 11-year, $85 million contract extension, with a no-trade clause, that was bestowed upon Lecavalier by the now deposed former ownership partnership of Oren Koules and Len Barrie.
Miscalculation can happen in a minute. And fat, extra-lengthy deals are now fraught with team risk regarding production drop-off, injury and even a star's failure to mesh with a new coach's system or teammates. This past July, new Lightning GM Steve Yzerman signed St. Louis to a four-year, $22.5 million extension, which is a nice nod to a still productive, 35-year-old veteran. Yet, with Steve Stamkos a year away from a megadeal, is fiscal Lightning striking twice in Tampa?
Don't get me wrong. There are organizations out there that eschew contracts that constrict -- deals that make it hard to move a player if need be, or bloat a budget to the point of roster stasis. The Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues come to mind as excellent models. And while there are a few variations on how to build a team without solely relying on drafting well, that mindset has become the most prevalent.
It worked rather quickly in Pittsburgh and Chicago with championships in both cities, but stringent economics entered the equation after the fact. The Penguins locked up their core players in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang, leaving little with which to build a supporting cast. The Blackhawks had to vet most of their support players to become cap compliant.
Those details we waded through all summer long. We couldn't get away from the business side of things, with the immediate dismantling of a championship team and Ilya Kovalchuk's 15-year, $100 million deal with the Devils at the forefront. The Blackhawks knew they had to deal with their roster a year ago, as one management group replaced another and transition meant reconfiguring. Meanwhile, Kovalchuk's unrestricted free agency became the tipping point for the league, leading to mediation over his initial 17-year, $102 million contract and eventual restrictions on unrestricted deals. Even worse for the Devils, Kovalchuk has become a lightning rod during the team's stumbling start.
Questions have been raised about how well such an offensive force will fit on a traditionally defense-minded team, and Kovalchuk's recent benching for being late to a team meeting raised the spectre of a player who becomes more trouble than he's worth. When a series of injuries hit, the Devils were left to play with a short bench for a time until they could free up some temporary cap room by assigning Brian Rolston, and now Zach Parise, to long-term injured reserve.
It's also clear that in a league where a player of Kovalchuk's caliber can receive few substantive offers during free agency because few teams can accomodate his demands, the team that ultimately signs him can easily be stuck with him for better, worse, buyout, waivers, or fire sale trade -- the usual options for dealing with an albatross.
That's not where anyone saw this process going "way back" in 2005 when Nash signed with the Jackets and Kovalchuk inked with Atlanta where raw dollars ($32 million) came into question with his five-year deal. In the five years since, contracts have morphed from big-budget mid-range deals for restricted free agents into long-term monsters like Philadelphia's 12-year, $69 million contract with captain Mike Richards -- who was still in his early twenties when he agreed with the Flyers -- to front-loaded contracts of even longer duration to amortize the cap hit.
All these gyrations have made it difficult to differentiate between a wise deal and simply business as usual based on market conditions. Right now, market conditions in terms of big superstar contracts and cap restrictions are hardly friendly.