Friday, September 4, 2009

The deal of a lifetime....literally

Top story of the week: Roberto Luongo is apparently a Vancouver Canuck for life. News broke Wednesday that the prolific netminder inked a 12-year contract extension worth $64 million.  For those doing the math at home, that’ll be a salary cap hit of $5.33 million starting next season and ending after the 2021-22 season.

Normally, this news wouldn’t strike me as odd, considering the Canucks have locked up their goalie, their captain, their franchise player (sorry, Daniel and Henrik). And $5.33 seems about the present-day market value for an elite level goaltender.

No, what threw me off was the length of this deal.

Now let’s think about it for a minute. He has this upcoming season remaining on his current deal, so when this new extension kicks in, he’ll be age 31 when it starts. Perhaps more importantly, “Bobby Lu” will be 43 when this deal ends.

While I certainly look at the length of this deal as asinine, I also see it as symptomatic of a trend spiraling WAAAAY out of control.

And do we have to blame for this? None other than New York Islanders owner Charles Wang and GM Garth Snow (at the time, newly christened in his role as GM). Wang and Snow signed middling goaltender Rick DiPietro to a $67.5 million deal….over 15 YEARS.  At the time, it was the longest contract signed in pro sports history (and Snow was only 5 months removed from his role as DiPietro’s backup in net on the Island).

I suppose I can see what Wang and Snow were thinking with this deal. They’ll sign DiPietro to a reasonable deal (from the dollar amount) that locks their goalie (the franchise cornerstone who made the aforementioned Luongo expandable for the Isles), the guy they are going to build have be the cornerstone for years to come, to rebuild this once-proud franchise.  And as prices for top-notch players are likely to continue to escalate, he'd be come at a fixed cost that'll be locked in.

We all know the rest. DiPietro has been injured for the majority of the past 1 ½ seasons with concussion, hip and knee problems. Even when healthy, it’s safe to say he’s never really been considered an elite goaltender, and considering the extent of his injury history, his potential may never come into full fruition. Surely a far cry from what Wang and Snow had envisioned.

And of course, DiPietro is guaranteed all that payola. And in this day-and-age of current finances in the NHL, that means a hefty bite out of the Isles’ salary cap….until 2021. And a buyout of his deal, should he be forced to retire early, will take even longer to clear off the books.

Apparently all 29 other GM’s in the NHL took notice. But despite the criticism of the Isles’ deal with DiPietro, many other GM’s in the league seemed to follow in Wang’s and Snow’s footsteps by signing elite level players (either current franchise cornerstones or free agents waiting to cash in on July 1st). A short list of lengthy contracts which have been doled out is below, with the length and cost of each deal, as well as the age of the player when the deal kicks in (I’ll have you do the math on how old the player will be when the deal ends):

• Alex Ovechkin – 13 years, $124 million (22)
• Mike Richards – 12 years, $69 million (23)
• Daniel Briere – 8 years, $52 million (29)
• Henrik Zetterberg – 12 years, $73 million (28)
• Brian Campbell – 8 years, $57.12 million (29)
• Johan Franzen – 11 years, $43.5 million (29)
• Vincent LeCavalier = 11 years, $85 million (29)
• Marian Hossa – 12 years, $62.8 million (30)
• Mattias Ohlund = 7 years, $26.25 million (33)

Quite the trend indeed.  Every player listed will be in their mid 30’s to early 40’s when their contract ends.

Maybe this is just me talking, but the length of these contracts seem quite irresponsible. Granted we’ve been spoiled in recent years by the brilliant and lengthy careers of NHL legends (Gretzky, Messier, Sakic, Yzerman, Bourque, Chelios, Andreychuk, Francis, Hull, Stevens, to name just a few), and there continues to be advances in conditioning and training methods, sports nutrition, medical and surgical procedures, and rehabilitative techniques. But take into account the average NHL career still only lasts 5.5 seasons.  And it’s not exactly checkers (no pun intended) these guys are playing. Hockey is perhaps the most physically demanding of all competitive sports.

Only a select few are able to play NHL-caliber hockey into their late 30’s/early 40’s, and in nearly all cases, they are players of the Hall of Fame ilk.  Even so, they must find ways to stay injury-free. That’s one of the biggest X-factors of all that can shorten a player’s career (not to mention team politics, young players coming up in the minors, and just sheer luck).

And how many times have we seen athletes (in all sports) have themselves a career season in the last year of their contract, sign a multi-million dollar deal (either with their current team or the highest bidder), never to be heard from again for the sake of relevance?  I'm not saying that's going to happen to Luongo or the other players listed above, but you've gotta admit players who cash that big paycheck seem to take a little (if not more) of the edge of their game that got them to that pointn in their career in the first place (read: money and job security makes athletes soft).

Apparently the owners and general managers who orchestrated these deals can justify that the reward is greater than the risk, but time will tell if these contracts prove to be wise or foolish. At the moment, I’m leaning towards the latter.

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