On The Changes In NHL Contracts, Part 1

Mar 25, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter (20) during the first period against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE

Remember July 1s of years past? A cool glass of lemonade and a computer with Internet access would be all you needed to laugh yourself silly. 'That team really signed that guy for that much?' Who can forget where they were when they heard about Bobby Holik, Bill Guerin, or Curtis Joseph on July 1, 2002? These guys would become the highest paid players on their teams. However, we're seeing a trend in the NHL lately - teams are being much shrewder about handing out a gigantic, cap-crippling contract. Evidence after the jump.

Anyone paying attention to the NHL in recent years has noticed the trend to hand out contracts with smaller cap hits that end roughly when your unconceived child goes to college. Let's look at some NHL contracts and when they end:

2018: 9

2019: 4

2020: 6

2021: 5

2022: 2

2023: 1

2024: 0

2025: 1

That's a total of 28 contracts that end more than 6 years from now, and that number will no doubt increase when Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, and Shea Weber are re-signed this offseason, among others. 17 NHL teams have a contract that ends in 2018 or later.

Most of these contracts are at 'discount prices.' For instance, Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk are signed to deals that have a 5.2M and 6.6M cap hit, respectively, and that end roughly when your life's course will be fully determined and there's no extricating yourself from your fate. Their cap hits on contracts both signed after the end of the lockout, when the salary cap was 39M? 6M and 6.3M, respectively. Their cap hits have barely moved even as the salary cap itself has nearly doubled, and this was for players who were RFA when they signed their post-lockout deals, and UFA when they signed their lifetime contracts.

I decided to look at the top 20 largest cap hits in the league in 2008-09 and the biggest cap hits in the league in 2011-12. The summer of 2008 was when teams seemingly decided that the cap would never go anything but outrageously upwards - the economy was robust, NHL fans had forgotten about the lockout, and Glen Sather knew that the surge of Wade Redden jersey purchases would pay for that contract by themselves.

Year Total Top 20 Salary Salary Cap % Of Total Cap Space
2008-09 $148.248M $56.7M 8.72%
2011-12 $151.047M $64.3M 7.83%

The 'Total Top 20 Salary' column refers to the summed amount of the top 20 biggest cap hits in the league. As we can see, it's barely moved despite the fact that the cap has grown by more than $7M. The '% Of Total Cap Space' refers to the top 20 salaries' total being divided by the salary cap amount times 30, for the 30 teams in the NHL. We can see that the percentage has gone down by nearly a full percent. That doesn't sound like very much, but we're talking about nearly 1% of 1.7 billion dollars. That means that cap-hit wise, the top 20 contracts are down by nearly an average of $766K relative to the cap. In total dollars, as we can see, things have remained relatively stagnant.

The deals that are super-long term don't really fit into this mold either, as only 5 contracts in the current top 20 biggest cap hits end in 2018 or after. That means these players whose big contracts end earlier will almost certainly face pressure to sign for a lower cap hit - odds are they will be out of their prime when their current deal ends.

In Part 2, I will examine RFA forwards to see if this trend also holds true among lower paid players, and in Part 3, I will give some reasons why the NHL is evolving in this way.

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