Thursday, December 13, 2007

Richards's big deal

It looks like Mike Richards is going to be a member of the Philadelphia Flyers for a long time.

A source tells The Canadian Press that he's agreed to a contract extension with the team that is believed to be for 12 years. The contract is still pending approval from the NHL.
A little more than a year after Rick DiPietro's landmark, 15-year deal earned guffaws across the league, the Flyers are pulling the trigger on a deal that's likely to surpass the $67.5-million given to the Islanders goaltender.

TSN's Bob McKenzie is reporting Richards's deal to be worth between $5.5- and $6-million, which is along the lines of the large, multiyear offers we've been seeing dealt to young players in the years under the new CBA.

What we haven't seen is a contract length in the double digits offered by anyone other than Long Island.

Richards will be 23 years old in February, and has already posted career numbers through just 28 games. He's on pace to finish as one of the league's leaders in goals and points, projected to have more than 40 goals and nearly 100 points. He's also in the final year of his entry-level contract, and would have been eligible to receive a Dustin Penner like offer sheet this summer.

And that, friends, is what's happening here. A look at big-time contracts signed by young players in the past few months:

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh, 20, five years, $43.5-million (8.7/yr)
Thomas Vanek, Buffalo, 23, seven years, $50-million (7.14/yr)

Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim, 22, five years, $26.625-million (5.325/yr)
Milan Michalek, San Jose, 23, six years, $26-million (4.33/yr)
Dustin Penner, Edmonton, 25, five years, $21.25-million (4.25/yr)
Derek Roy, Buffalo, 24, six years, $24-million (4.0/yr)
Ryan Whitney, Pittsburgh, 24, six years, $24-million (4.0/yr)
Zach Parise, New Jersey, 23, four years, $12.5-million (3.125/yr)
Stephen Weiss, Florida, 24, six years, $18.6-million (3.1/yr)

Provided this whopper of a deal goes through, Richards delays unrestricted free agency by eight years, and is now signed through 2019-20, when he will be 35 years old.

The contract is awaiting league approval, and my guess would be that NHL honchos are no more pleased with this deal than they were with the DiPietro one. Then-GM Mike Milbury's first attempt to get the netminder on a 15-year deal was scuttled by the league, but Charles Wang took charge last season in negotiating the unusual pact.

"I don't know the benefit of a 15-year contract," Philadelphia's then-GM, Bob Clarke, said at the time of DiPietro's deal. "But they must have their own thoughts on that. They also signed Yashin to 10. For us, in today's world, we think five years is a long contract...

"But if DiPietro turns out to be one the best goalies in the league, then it's a hell of a deal."

Welcome to tomorrow's world.

Where the problem arises, obviously, is if DiPietro or Richards goes in the tank. A career-ending injury is one thing, as it allows a team to essentially replace the contract against the cap, but what if Richards's play falls off considerably, as a result of injury or otherwise? We've seen plenty of players rise quickly and fall off in the NHL — just imagine if the Habs had signed a 26-year-old Jose Theodore to a 10-year, $50-million deal after he won the Hart Trophy? What sort of a contract would Jim Carey deserve after winning the 1995-96 Vezina Trophy at age 22 under this CBA? Sergei Samsonov won the Calder Trophy and was an all-star in his early years, and would now be only halfway through a Richards-like deal if he'd have signed one during his 30-goal, 70-point years.

And the list goes on and on and on when it comes to players who were stars at a young age whose play fell off or left them completely in their early 30s. Eric Lindros. Bryan Berard. Jason Allison. Zigmund Palffy. Todd Bertuzzi.

Just imagine if any team had them locked up until age 35 on a weighty deal? Good luck living up to those expectations — especially considering that even Brad Richards's enormous contract with the Lightning has weighed heavily on him, and he's averaged a point a game under its terms.

The fact is, these giant contracts are a considerable risk, one that large market clubs are going to be more willing to take. I'm also willing to bet Richards's deal in Philadelphia is heavily front loaded like the one they gave Daniel Briere, with Richards receiving the majority of the rumoured $70-million contract in the first few years of service.

It's a dangerous trend to have so much salary locked up in so much unproven talent, as it stands to reason that at least a few of these potential stars will fall well short of that potential and settle in as role players. We've seen more than a few NHL-calibre players demoted to while away the end of their careers in the AHL under this new CBA, something that deprives the league of talent simply due to contract concerns.

What good is it to the NHL if Mike Richards spends the final years of this contract as an overpaid former star toiling in the minors?

In the immediate future, the other interesting sidebar to these ludicrous contracts is something that flies in the face of what's become conventional wisdom: That you need young players under this CBA in order to win. As it stands, youth is being overpaid as young as age 21, meaning the bargains are more likely to come late in life than early. At 22, Ryan Getzlaf will be earning as much as he'll get five years from now, but which Getzlaf would you rather have?

Who's actually a bargain this year so far? How about Henrik Zetterberg at $2.65-million? Daniel Alfredsson at $4.414, Cory Stillman at $1.75-million and Vaclav Prospal at $1.9-million. Heck, how about Nik Antropov at $2.05-million?

The number of players on entry-level contracts contributing in a big way is pretty exclusive, limited to players like Crosby, Ovechkin, Stastny, Malkin, Kopitar, Kane and Toews, and all except Stastny were drafted high up in the first round.

Beyond those immediate stars, the bargains are as much with older players as young these days.

UPDATE This is now a done deal, with the final terms coming in at 12 years, $69-million.

UPDATE Here's what Gary Bettman had to say about the DiPietro contract when it was signed: "My reaction is two-fold. One, and I'm on record saying this long before this contract, namely I think under the type of system we have, it's generally more prudent to enter into shorter-term contracts than longer-term contracts ... because under our collective bargaining agreement, there is no ability to renegotiate a contract ... With respect to this particular contract, only time will tell whether or not it was a wise move or a less-than-wise move."

Indeed. Although prudence went out the window long ago.

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At 3:08 p.m., December 13, 2007, Blogger Pete said...

Funny that after all the bitching and moaning we heard from owners during the lockout about the spiraling costs of the game, some of the most ludicrous contracts have been signed AFTER the lockout. Good times.

The NHL, they've gone to plaid!

At 4:16 p.m., December 13, 2007, Blogger Danny said...

I don't think this will be a bad deal. Even if Richards point production does decrease when he is in his mid 30's, his defencive game could still be a huge asset for the Flyers.

At 5:11 p.m., December 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post James.

I think that post-lockout trends are still sorting themselves out, but it seems fairly obvious that more and more hefty contracts are being paid out in terms of potential, instead of past, value. This isn't necessarily a bad thing though, because with salaries tied to revenue it is now a zero-sum game. If Mike Richards goes in the tank at around age 30, Philly will be forced to find a replacement player that is undervalued by league GMs. Could the undervalued assets in 5 years be players 32-36 with outscoring outputs that put the younger guys to shame? I think it will be interesting to see what happens.

Who will be the Billy Beane of hockey?

At 5:33 p.m., December 13, 2007, Blogger sager said...

Threadjack: What does it mean that Cal Nichols has resigned in Edmonton?

At 5:49 p.m., December 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Start a new hobby today guys and girls so that you are good at it and enjoy it by the time the CBA runs out. Because we know all too well where salary inflation like this is taking us.

At 6:27 p.m., December 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

homer wanted to lock him before he's forced to play in edmonton.

At 6:54 p.m., December 13, 2007, Blogger Kel said...

I can't help myself but respond every time people say that player salaries are out of control under this CBA, as if the whole lockout and NHLPA implosion didn't happen. It did happen and the result is that the numbers on the contract are funny money, not real dollars. All it does is to ensure that a $10 million a year player gets paid tow times more than a $5 million a year player, that's it. The linkage system ensures the percentage of total league revenue spent on players, and it's not going to change whether all teams spend up to the ceiling or down to the floor. The only loophole is in the minor league, where an NHL one-way contract doesn't count against the players' share. Relatively speaking, players as a group don't benefit from these contracts as much as a lot of fans think.

At 6:55 p.m., December 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Limited downside for a rich team such as the Flyers.
If he continues at this year's pace, he's fairly compensated. If he gets better, he's a bargain, especially given 12 years of inflation.
If he stiffs, the Flyers pay him lots of moneyt skate with the Phantoms and they go sign someone better.
The salary cap has solved nothing.

At 12:46 a.m., December 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One wrinkle to this - according to Spector this contract has a no-trade clause kicking in in the 11-12 season. In other words, this gives the Flyers 3 more seasons after this one to evaluate Richards. If the contract is front loaded, then around trade deadline 2011 Richards will be a 26 year old player with an 8-year 5.75M cap hit but a lesser actual salary; perfect for a team with a self-imposed spending cap (think, say, this year's Columbus or Atlanta) to take a chance on. I think this trend will continue, though GMs will try to push the no-trade clause later, to around age 28 or even 30 - essentially, the age at which a player's first child enters school, at which time many cease to be interested in moving around.

And in terms of assessing the deal, don't think in terms of numbers. This is not a fantasy league (I traded Richards a few weeks ago because I figured he'd get a contract like this); he'll post 2nd line numbers (70-80 points) most of his career for which this is an overpayment, but the Flyers are paying him extra to buy leadership on the ice and in the dressing room, and to buy a new face of the franchise, a-la Ryan Smyth in Edmonton.

At 2:35 a.m., December 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if the end result of these frontloaded contracts will be teams like Phoenix and Nashville trading for these players when their cap hits are much higher than their actual dollars paid. In 6 years you could trade for Briere, and he'd eat up 13 million in cap space over two years, yet you'll only be paying him 5 total. That's no good if you're a competitive team precariously close to the cap ceiling, but great if you're a cheap team not wanting to spend to the cap floor.


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