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Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby

GLOBE ON HOCKEY

The Crosby contract debate Add to ...

ERIC DUHATSCHEK: The problem with trying to evaluate Sidney Crosby’s 12-year, $104.4-million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins on a rational basis is the starting point. Let’s face it. In this day and age, no NHL contract is ever particularly rational.

The Penguins took an extraordinary leap of faith by committing to Crosby for the next 12 years, despite the fact that he has lost most of the past two seasons with recurring concussion symptoms and ancillary neck problems. Crosby took an extraordinary leap of faith by committing to the Penguins for an average annual salary cap hit of $8.7-million, when he likely could have commanded far more on the open market, which he was scheduled to hit on July 1, 2013.

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But there’s the rub, isn’t it? If Crosby had been trying to eke every last dollar out of this negotiation, and dragged it out, he would have also taken an extraordinary risk to leave all that security on the table. Crosby can’t know what the future may hold, either in terms of his own health, or how the next collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners will look.

This morning, the NHL and the players association get together in New York for the first round of what are expected to be contentious negotiations on a new CBA. Some think the NHL will ask for term limits on contracts; some even think they may try to follow the NFL’s lead and do away with fully guaranteed contracts. My guess is that while term limits will likely to be on the NHL’s demand list, they will not press too hard to eliminate contract guarantees.

But no one can know for sure how the labour landscape will look until the language of the new contract is hammered out – and so essentially, the Penguins and Crosby have the baby in half. The Penguins gave Crosby security; he is turn provided them with a salary-cap number that permits them to actively pursue free agents and get his running mate, reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin signed next year.

Some believe the Penguins took too great a business risk to sign Crosby to that contract. But what if they’d gone the other way, and played hardball in the negotiations, which would likely mean the end of their relationship? What kind of damage to their business could have that done? It would send a message to potential free agents – their own, others that might consider joining Pittsburgh – that the Penguins are primarily interested in the bottom line and that winning is secondary.

Pittsburgh is seen as a viable destination for players of all stripes now, because of Crosby’s presence in the line-up and the team’s status as an annual Stanley Cup contender. They have established all that since Crosby arrived. Previous to that, they were a franchise, wallowing in red ink, and a prime target to move to Canada.

Nothing would undermine the enhanced value of the Pittsburgh franchise more than losing that perception among rank-and-file players. To do anything except send a positive message – about loyalty and about their commitment to winning to players around the league – would badly undermine what they accomplished in the past seven years.

Goodwill counts for something – and if the price of goodwill is a contract commitment to the NHL’s best player that could potentially blow up in your face, well, then the Penguins did what you have to do when rational decision-making is stripped from the equation. You cross your fingers and hope for the best.

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SEAN GORDON: What's the big deal?

Teams sign prized players to risky contracts all the time, just look at the uninsurable, 32-year-old Andrei Markov re-signing for three years last summer despite the Habs knowing he might never be the same after two knee reconstructions in less than a year.

This just happens to be an especially long contract involving a more inscrutable injury and the best player in the game. But the team would have access to all sorts of medical records and opinions before making the decision, it's not like they haven't evaluated the risks.

The Pens need to keep the Crosby-Malkin partnership together as long as they can and cross their fingers the former doesn't become Pat LaFontaine or Eric Lindros or Marc Savard. But the fact is this: if you have a chance to re-sign a top-line centre entering the prime of his career, you do it, and worry later.

I'd also point out that Mario Lemieux's not the rich guy in Pittsburgh's owners' suite, Ron Burkle is, and he's only got $3.2 billion or so to play with. Not sure cash is any kind of a worry here.

Yes, Crosby is one hit away from his career ending, but who isn't nowadays?

No one, that's who.

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ROY MacGREGOR: Usually, it’s the other number that makes you cringe.

You know, the one with the dollar sign in front of it. And especially on those extremely rare occasions – so far, three and counting in the National Hockey League – where there are three figures before any decimal point.

But people aren’t talking so much about Sidney Crosby’s $104.4 million as they are about the lifespan of his new contract: 12 years.

Whereas all the talk about Alexandre Ovechkin’s $124-million deal with Washington Capitals and Ilya Kovalchuk’s $100-million contract with the New Jersey Devils has always been “He’s not worth it,” that has changed dramatically with Crosby’s deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Now they’re saying “It's not worth it.”

We can talk forever about the monetary value of such a deal. You can say $8.7 million a year – a cute play on his birthdate of Aug. 7, 1987 – is less than a star of his stature could get. You can say he’s overpaid if he can’t play most of the games (as has been the case since Jan. 1, 2011). You can argue the Penguins should have kept rising star centre Jordan Staal and traded Crosby off while he’s still the game’s biggest draw.

You can even look at it from a franchise point of view and argue. You can say the $104.4 million is a foolish gamble, that no insurance company would go near it – not so, as you can insure anything so long as you accept the premium demanded – and that the Penguins could have spent the money more wisely. Conversely, you can say that this is money well spent, for Crosby is worth far, far, far more to the franchise and to the league than a piddling $8.7 million a year. He built the new rink in Pittsburgh. He is the face of the NHL. He is the jersey every kid in hockey wants to wear, preferably with Crosby’s Sharpie pen signature on the back.

But forget all that and think about Sidney Crosby the Person rather than Sidney Crosby the Player or Sidney Crosby the Product.

He has had three head injury incidents that we know of, beginning with the Winter Classic held on an outdoor rink at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field. Another came from a hard check, a third from a collision with a teammate.

What are the chances of a fourth in this 12-year span?

Can someone fully and totally recover from concussions to a point where, happily, it is like starting fresh all over – or is it as some experts are saying, a cumulative thing in which the long-term effects are even more frightening than the woozy, light-sensitive, headaches of an actual concussion?

No one knows for sure.

And for this reason, anyone who loves the game of hockey, who appreciates the skill level that Sidney Crosby has shown while winning the Stanley Cup and Olympic gold for Canada…all of us have to hope far more that it all works out for the player, not so much the franchise.

It is, after all, only money.

And contrary to popular opinion, money cannot buy time.

 

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