BOSTON — Erik Karlsson is going to strike it rich this summer, whether he wins the Norris Trophy as the National Hockey League’s top defenceman or not.
Here are a few words of caution, though, for those asking Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray to lock him up to a contract for the next decade or so: Alexei Yashin, Rick DiPietro, Vincent Lecavalier. Scott Gomez, Shawn Horcoff, Chris Pronger, James Wisniewski.
Almost every organization that has been handicapped by an endless contract or two. There’s a book in there somewhere, a story of busts and buyouts and broken bones that never mended properly. Teams have been forced to lick their wounds – few are in the position of the New York Rangers, who have buried Wade Redden and his colossal contract in the minors – while the money burns.
For all the hype which surrounded Monday’s NHL trade deadline, many of the bodies GM’s really wanted to deal were immovable because they have three, four, five – or in the case of Lecavalier, eight – years remaining on their existing contracts. Rick Nash didn’t move. Sure, Jeff Carter and his lengthy deal went to the Los Angeles Kings, but only because Jack Johnson and his eternal contract came back the other way.
The rush to sign young cornerstone players was the product of the collective bargaining agreement which came out of the lockout, opening the door for players to become unrestricted free agents in their mid 20′s.
Yet, as the NHL heads into a spring and summer full of negotiations towards a new deal, GM’s would be wise to heed the advice of Edmund Burke. As far we know, Edmund Burke is no relation to Brian Burke and he probably wouldn’t have known a puck from a fork – hockey wasn’t invented when he was around – but the 18th century British philosopher is generally credited for writing that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
Don’t misunderstand. Karlsson is an outstanding bargaining position. After scoring the only goal in the Senators 1-0 win over the Boston Bruins Tuesday, he’s now on an eight-game point scoring streak (seven goals, 11 assists). He has 15 goals and 66 points and is lapping the defencemen field in the NHL scoring race. He may finish 30 points ahead of the next highest scoring blueliner. On top of that, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk essentially handed him a blank cheque last week when he declared that Karlsson will “go down in history as one of the great defenceman of all time.”
The point is that the Senators don’t have to go to infinity and beyond on a new contract, extending him until the 30th anniversary of the modern franchise. Even if they have to overpay in the short-term – a high end of five years and $35 million, perhaps? — that’s more prudent than a seven, eight or 10 year deal for less money per season.
Yes, there’s the possibility that Karlsson, who becomes a restricted free agent on July 1, could choose to wait for an offer sheet from a rival which could cement him to a longer-term contract. Yet given the headaches caused by long-term deals in the past, how many teams would be willing to jump into an uncertain future by dealing away scores of high draft picks for a single player? While there are rules against collusion among NHL teams, there’s also a general sense that owners won’t be working against each other on the eve of new CBA talks.
A decade is an eternity in the NHL world. The tide can turn quickly. Last summer, Senators fans were deeply concerned about the team’s depth at centre. Come next season, the team will likely have Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris, world junior star Mika Zibanejad and Zack Smith down the middle.
Even Karlsson himself said the other day that the future is uncertain, that someone new might come along to take his place.
The NHL is also trending younger. Injuries happen. So do bad years. Complacency often accompanies extended deals. When was the last time anyone saw the hungry, determined Alex Ovechkin of old? Funny what having a guaranteed $100 million or so will do.
In many ways, Karlsson is in the same situation as Tampa Bay Lightning centre Steven Stamkos was last summer, before he signed a five-year, $37.5 million extension. Stamkos, the game’s top goal scorer, was coming out of his entry level contract. There were rumblings about other teams sniffing around with possible offer sheets. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was surely pressured to sign him to a longer deal.
There was a lesson, however, staring Yzerman in the face. It came in the form of Lecavalier, who under a previous management regime, began an 11-year, $85 million contract in 2009-10. Lecavalier is still a good player and could have helped a Stanley Cup contender, but for the next eight seasons his salary cap hit will be $7.727 million per season. Lecavalier was once a marquee draw with the accompanying hype. Former Lightning owner Art Williams said he would be “the Michael Jordan of hockey” after drafting him first overall in 1998.
Keep that in mind as the Karlsson kudos continue to pile up.