It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle, the National Hockey League’s trend towards the six-plus-year contract.
Teams sign their best players to deals of six years or longer to keep them off the free agent market. Then 30 GMs look at an ever-depreciating free agent market and say, “Man, there’s nobody here worth signing long-term. I’d better sign my own guy.”
Brandon Dubinsky became the latest NHL player to sign long-term on Friday, agreeing to a six-year, $35.1-million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets for an annual average value, or cap hit, of $5.85 million. Earlier in the week Chicago signed its two most valuable players forwards, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, to identical eight-year, $84-million contracts, which activate in the 2015-16 season.
Now, we all recall those ridiculous free agent deals given to players Scott Gomez, Bobby Holik and Wade Redden by the New York Rangers back in the day. Generally they went to players over the age of 30, and therefore closer to the end of their prime years than the beginning.
Today, give or take the odd David Clarkson or Dennis Wideman deal, those long-term contracts are given primarily to players who have more of their prime years remaining. So though it may look like Taylor Hall, Jeff Skinner and Gabriel Landeskog are getting much more money than they deserve at a young age, in fact, if you compare it historically to UFA signings, the teams are getting by far the most productive years out of the player, compared to signing a 31-year-old.
There is no accepted date range that defines a player’s “prime.” But experience tells us that age 33 is when the incremental injuries of a long career can force a decline in effectiveness.
We would say a player’s prime begins when he is 26. But Toews is 26, and it’s hard not to argue that his prime didn’t begin when he had a career-high 34 goals (69 points) as a 20-year-old NHL sophomore in 2008-09.
Regardless, the Blackhawks will have Toews under contract for eight seasons before he enters a training camp aged 33. Kane turns 26 in November, so his status is identical to Toews’.
One of the initial teams to recognize the possible value of giving long-term deals early on was Edmonton, which signed Jordan Eberle to a six-year deal, plus Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins each to seven-year deals, all for just their second pro contract.
The New Jersey Devils wasted no time committing to Cory Schneider as their No. 1 goalie this summer, and the Maple Leafs made sure to lock up two of their best players, Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, mid-season — long before the trade deadline, let alone July 1, came within sniffing distance.
The downside is if the player gets fat and sassy and loses the hunger to reach his potential knowing that his next seven years are guaranteed. So the gamble is not to give a long-term deal to the wrong personality.
The upside for the team is, the entirety of those three contracts will be spent on a player entering or in his prime years. There are no sunset years involved when you go long-term coming out an entry-level deal.
As for Hall, he has been the NHL’s most productive left winger over the past two seasons — only one of which included his seven-year, $42-million deal. If that production continues, how good will a cap hit of $6 million look for the league’s highest-scoring left winger?
In Columbus, Dubinsky goes for a six-year deal that won't kick in until he's 29. So the Blue Jackets get Dubinsky from age 29 to 34. That’s a sight better than the Washington Capitals, who will be stuck with defenceman Brooks Orpik’s $5.5-million cap hit from age 34 to 38.
And while Orpik’s got a ton of mileage on his odometer, Dubinsky had a career-high 34 assists for the Blue Jackets last season. He also led the club in face-off efficiency (52.9 per cent) and was second in hits, so clearly several elements of his game are at their peak as he puts his name on the dotted line.
Now, according to trusty Columbus beat writer Aaron Portzline, the Jackets will focus their attention on signing goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to a long-term extension.
It’s a trend you can get used to. Three of the top seven players from the 2010 draft class — Hall, Tyler Seguin and Skinner — all received a minimum of six years coming out of their entry-level contracts. So far the top two drafts from 2011 — Nugent-Hopkins and Landeskog — have inked seven-year deals, which kick in this year.
Compared to the NBA, where every few years LeBron James shops his wares though the league, NHL players are opting for security at a far younger age.
In hockey, it’s more common to “take your talents” back to the same dressing room for six or seven years, rather than South Beach or Ohio or anywhere else.