There've been a few head scratching contracts so far during the off-season. The Rangers signed Derek Boogaard for four years at $6.5 million--a player who hasn't scored a goal since I was in high school. Jody Shelley earned a $1.2 million deal with Philadelphia and Matt Cullen signed a fresh $3.5 million deal with Minnesota.
Yesterday, Brett Lebda signed a two-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs with a salary of $1.5 million next season and $1.4 million the following season. Last season in Detroit, as a third pairing defenseman who sat out quite a few games, Lebda earned $850,000. A $650,000 increase for a player coming off his worst NHL season (offensively) and has seemingly hit a plateau in his defensive game.
I'm not going to sit here and rip on Lebda as a player, he's had enough of that throughout his career and most of it is pretty unjust. Rather, is the way the free agent market and general managers have conducted business started to spiral a bit out of control? I understand that the cap has increased so there is more room for bigger contracts but that does not necessitate a player signing a contract that might put him outside of his worth. Contracts for lower tier players are increasing in value and in turn it increases the contract values of the upper echelon players like Ilya Kovalchuk and the expected $8.5-$10 million that he will earn. So is all of this a matter of the free agent market expanding in terms of contract demands or is it the effect of bad moves by GMs?
Here's a problem I have with the contract: Lebda goes to Toronto to serve as a 5th/6th defenseman. Fine. But if he falters in his game he will be immediately tossed to the media dogs in Toronto and be ripped apart for being overpaid and a bust, a label that will stay with him until he proves otherwise. Lebda is entering a vicious market in Toronto where players are expected to earn every penny of their contract. So how does a player of Lebda's caliber avoid the potential scrutiny cast his way if he underperforms his contract? What about Derek Boogaard and his $1.7 million next season to sit in the penalty box?
Does the rising value for lower end players look worse for the player himself or the guy that offered him the contract?
Case A: The GM
Signing players as a general manager is often very hit or miss, especially signing a player from outside the system. Add in trying to lockup a valuable asset for a long duration at a low price and you get the ludicrous deals that have Rick DiPietro with the New York Islanders for 15 years, Marian Hossa in Chicago for 12, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen both until 2020. Usually, middle of the road and lower end players draw less attention to the GMs when contracts are indeed offered. However, when contracts like that of Lebda and Boogaard take up more cap-space than they probably should, the GM has the blame aimed his way. Add in the possibility of a player underplaying his contract and the blame shifts more and more towards the front office. On the flipside, the GM has no control over how well the player fits into the system and adapts given his new environment. Usually, things break even for the GM but a good portion of the pressure in terms of the job responsibility comes from signing the right players and at the appropriate price.
Case B: The player
Plain and simple a player is going to seek the most money offered to him, and why not? So you can bet that Brett Lebda was giddy at the offer from the Toronto brass. Lebda probably isn't the best example in terms of a player underplaying his contract because in all likelihood he will pan out as serviceable in Toronto, not warranting true calls for his head. However, there are several other players that have massively underperformed the contracts given to them. Michael Nylander, for example, started making $5.5 million a year for three years in 2007-2008 following his 79 point and 83 point seasons for the Rangers in 05/06 and 06/07. The two years in Washington that he made $5.5 million per (the third year was in Grand Rapids), his production declined greatly with 37 points in 07-08 (although injury shortened) and 33 points in 08-09. To some degree, Ilya Kovalchuk isn't worth his contract. If a player is going to make over $8.5 million, he should be doing everything possible on the ice instead of just offense. There's a lot of pressure on a player to earn his contract but when a GM offers him more money than he should be making, it's difficult to even it out with production.
So what are your thoughts on the whole thought of overpaid player vs. stupid GM?