Goalie contracts a bad case of the overpaids

January 29, 2012

The first all-star game since 2006 to feature neither Crosby nor Ovechkin might have been the coming out party of John Tavares, as an NHL star.  After following the path of many great players, being selected first overall by the Islanders after a storied Junior career, and finishing second in rookie scoring his first year like Crosby, Tavares seemed destined for team-lifting greatness.  Unfortunately for Tavares and the NHL, the Islanders cannot be lifted.  There is no John Tavares era.  Instead on Long Island it is the era of Rick DiPietro’s contract.

Those NHL fans chuckling at the Isles misfortunes may want to check their own team’s roster, as somehow the disastrous error seems the beginning of an idiotic trend in big-league hockey, one which threatens the near-future of several otherwise competitive teams.  There are 5 goalies who currently have NHL contracts for over 6 million dollars per year, and three more who are effectively also making over 6 because they have years under contract in which they will obviously not be playing, although they are on the books for less than 6 per year.  DiPietro is one of those latter three, and while he has had the most disappointing career of all these highly paid goalies, his contract does not have the most money left on it; not by a long shot.

If the Flyers continue to be forced towards using Bobrovsky as their regular starting netminder, then Ilya Bryzgalov will become the most expensive backup goalie in hockey history, and he is owed 5.66 million each year for eight more seasons after this one.  Bryzgalov may bounce back; many players have had a tough initial half-season for a new team and facing more pressure.  If he doesn’t bounce back quite dramatically, however, Philly will have to go with Bobrovsky, as he has not only been much better, but the younger Russian was also better last year than Bryzgalov has been this year, by almost as wide a margin, and this is supposed to be a contending year in Philadelphia.  Players like Jagr may not be easy to keep around if they suffer a first round playoff exit. 

While his season resembles his disappointing ’08-’09 campaign, he’s facing 3 and a half less shots per game, which seems fairly representative of the situation in front of him.  Bryzgalov turns 32 during the offseason.  If he doesn’t turn it around, he will not be tradeable, and the Flyers will immediately become also-rans in the Eastern Conference for the indefinite future.  The problem is that even if Bobrovsky solves the goaltending situation for them, they won’t have the necessary cap room to keep him and pay the rest of the team.  New rules, such as the salary floor will bleed such would-be contenders of their depth, and vets like Jagr, seeing the writing on the wall, will take their services to teams with the flexibility to adapt and win.

All too famililar for a guy guaranteed 5.66 million in 2019.

Cam Ward’s contract burdens his team in a different way, because Ward’s performance has not been the problem.  The problem is that the rest of the team is a disaster, but they can’t do much about it because as one of the Hurricanes’ only valuable assets, Ward’s contract makes him almost as undesirable as Bryzgalov.  The same situation could be evolving in Vancouver as well, but with the added complication of the Sedin twins twin contracts.  A sort of mix of the two seems to be unfolding in Minnesota, where Harding could easily be given the starting gig at this point, but the situation there is less dire for Backstrom’s contract having only one more season after this one, and because Backstrom is still good.

There has been a clear split in the philosophy of NHL teams when it comes to goaltending in the past several seasons.  As the financial regulations have been tightened, teams are splitting into either ‘cap-circumvention’ or ‘spend it on D and role the dice’ camps.  Those who doubt the effectiveness of the latter approach should address their concerns to Chris Osgood’s Stanley Cup rings.