Last June, in a rational and thoroughly convincing explanation of why he was so anxious to land Jeff Carter from the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets’ general manager Scott Howson noted that there’d only been two No. 1 centres traded in the six years since the NHL lockout ended (Joe Thornton, from the Boston Bruins to the San Jose Sharks; and Brad Richards, from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Dallas Stars) before two more were moved on a single day before the 2011 entry draft. That shattered the NHL peace in a big meaningful way.
The Los Angeles Kings got the other one, by the way - Mike Richards, who was signed to a 12-year, $69-million contract by Philadelphia. Howson, by comparison, got off comparatively lightly in terms of the overall cash outlay - Carter’s contract was for a mere 11 years and $58-million, a reasonably cap-friendly number, even if it was a significant commitment in terms of the overall dollars.
Of course, the reason the Flyers were so anxious to move out all that money was so they could hand a lot more of it over to goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who received $51-million from them spread over nine years. If you factor in the money Philadelphia paid Daniel Briere (eight years, $52-million), Kimmo Timmonen (six years, $38-million), Scott Hartnell (six years, $25.2-million) and Chris Pronger (five years, $31.25-million, to a player past the age of 35 when he signed), you can genuinely conclude that the Flyers contributed more to the NHL inflation rate than OPEC ever did to the general economic malaise back in the high-interest eighties (hey, if Tim Thomas can mix sports and monetary policy, so can we).
Now, some eight months after making the Carter deal, there is talk that the Blue Jackets would consider moving his rights, if they could find someone willing to take on the contract (and give up something of consequence in return, since Columbus surrendered two top-10 NHL entry draft picks to land his rights in the first place).
With the NHL about to start new collective bargaining talks with the players association some time after the all-star break, it bears asking the question: Is anybody really getting their money’s worth on these mega-year, mega-bucks contracts that commit team to player in a long-term relationship that invariably seems headed for the rocks sooner if not later?
Not that the NHL all-star game should act as the perfect referendum on money well spent, but consider this: Eight players are earning over $8-million this season, according to capgeek.com. Only two - Evgeni Malkin and Zdeno Chara - are playing in the all-star game. Alex Ovechkin would have made it three, had he not bowed out; and you’d have to think a healthy Sidney Crosby would be there as well. But think of some others: Brad Richards ($12-million), Vincent Lecavalier ($10-million), Bryzgalov ($10-million), Christian Ehrhoff ($10-million). Dany Heatley didn’t make it, nor did Duncan Keith nor Thornton nor Henrik Zetterberg nor Eric Staal nor Scott Gomez nor Rick Nash nor Anze Kopitar. What do they have in common? All are signed to contracts seven years or longer and earn $7-million or more on average. And the conundrum is, if the players underperform, or simply just aren’t a good fit, or by their play, give you a strong message that they’d really like to be somewhere else, how do you move all that money when so many teams are capped out?
Worse still, those sorts of forever-commitments put ownership in the awkward position that Washington was in this week when both the owner, Ted Leonsis, and the general manager George McPhee, came rushing to Ovechkin’s defence when he decided to drop out of the All-Star game, after a perfectly legitimate decision by the NHL’s player safety department, to suspend the Capitals’ captain for three games for leaving his feet to hit Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek in the head.
Didn’t the Caps get the memo? Half the league is currently missing in action because of concussions. Hits to the head are bad. They damage brain cells. They may cause significant health issues down the road.
The league is trying to minimize these blows so that its star players are actually in the lineup on a more regular basis, instead of being on the sidelines, seeing stars, and otherwise not functioning properly. If everybody exempts their own players from the new standards that the league is trying to impose, nobody wins - and everybody loses. But with so much money committed to Ovechkin, the Caps are not about to hurt his hurt feelings any further by noting that everything else about the hit on Michalek was fine, but Alex - please, please, please - don’t leave your feet to launch yourself like a missile into him. That’s a no-no in 2012. That would be the right message to send. But right now, the desire to keep Ovechkin happy trumps all, a function of committing too many dollars for too many years to a player, so you end up coddling them, and do whatever it takes to prevent the sort of week-long pouts that has the Blue Jackets thinking about what to do with Carter after going to such trouble to land him in the first place. What a crazy business the NHL is becoming.