Given his concussion history, it could well be the riskiest contract signed by a team in NHL history.
It’s certainly one of the richest.
But when the name at the top of it reads Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins are prepared to live with it.
The Penguins announced on Thursday they have agreed to a new 12-year, $104.4-million (all currency U.S.) deal with their captain that will be signed on Sunday, the first day Crosby becomes eligible for an extension.
The deal will be the second biggest in league history behind only the 13-year, $124-million contract Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin signed in 2008.
It is also just the ninth NHL contract to run 12 years or more – although it could soon have more company come the opening of free agency this weekend.
“Our goal this summer was to sign Sidney Crosby to make him a member of the Penguins for life,” general manager Ray Shero said. “Hopefully this is going to do that.”
In keeping with Crosby’s previous deal – a five-year, $43.5-million pact that expires in 2013 – it will pay him an average of $8.7-million a season, matching both his jersey number and birth date (Aug. 7, 1987).
Both Crosby and the Penguins have to hope his lucky number pays off, as it’s been a tough 18 months for the 24-year-old superstar.
Including the playoffs, Crosby has appeared in just 28 NHL games since suffering what was likely his second concussion in five days on Jan. 5, 2011.
He has had multiple setbacks since that point, including shutting his season down for more than three months after returning for eight games in November and December and again experiencing postconcussion symptoms.
When healthy, however, Crosby’s level of play wasn’t in question. He finished the season with 37 points in 22 games, adding eight more in six playoff games, which is a 138-point pace over a full campaign.
Crosby’s career average of 1.4 points a game, meanwhile, is still better than all but three other players in league history: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy.
The risk side of the new deal, however, is compounded by the fact that NHL contracts are generally not insurable beyond seven years, and for players with recent injury histories such as Crosby, there would be “concussion exclusions” built into the insurance agreement for the entire length of the deal.
The Penguins are likely on the hook for the full value of Crosby’s contract even if he suffers another head injury and can no longer play, which could hurt the franchise’s bottom line for years. The good news in that scenario is his contract could still be placed on injured reserve to free up salary-cap space for a replacement.
Shero said Thursday the team is “confident” Crosby’s health problems are behind him.
“We believe the best days are going to be ahead,” Shero said. “He has a full summer of training, which he really didn’t have last year at all. To come back how he did and produce how he did certainly bodes well for the future.”
“He’s been training hard and feeling really well compared to last summer,” said Pat Brisson, Crosby’s agent. “It’s night and day. It’s been very encouraging.”
While a 12-year deal might seem excessive for a player with his injury history, Crosby and Brisson had several factors working for them in this negotiation.
For one, Crosby could have become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2013, giving him some leverage in terms of pushing for the best deal possible.
For another, this type of front-loaded, long-term contract with a lower salary cap hit will likely be forbidden in the NHL’s next collective bargaining agreement, which is expected to have a term limit for five or six years.
There’s also the matter of Crosby’s relationship with Lemieux, the Penguins owner who took him under his wing when he entered the league seven years ago and remains in a father-son type relationship.
So while several league sources noted on Thursday that it might have been wiser for Pittsburgh to have kept Jordan Staal and moved Crosby given his injury history, that wasn’t an option because of all of the other factors involved.
A risk or not, Crosby wasn’t going anywhere.
“This is a great day for hockey and tremendous news for the Penguins and our fans,” Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle said in a joint statement. “We are grateful for all that Sidney has done for our franchise since coming to Pittsburgh, both on and off the ice, and we look forward to having him in a Penguins uniform for the rest of his career.”
“Sidney wanted to be a Penguin forever,” Brisson said.
By locking Crosby up now, Shero also sends a strong message to the two marquee free agents – Zach Parise and Ryan Suter – the team is expected to pursue this weekend. Now any player coming into the organization knows that, if he signs on long term, he’ll potentially be playing with Crosby and on a contender for years to come.
In a thin free-agent market where there are far more bidders than star players to buy, that kind of an edge could pay off.
“To have these franchise players signed up, it’s good for the franchise no matter what happens,” Shero said.