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The Slippery Slope of 5-Year Contract Lengths

One of the sticking points which blew up the last round of negotiations was the NHL's insistence that the NHLPA accept 5-year contract term limits. Bill Daly described the issue as "the hill we would die on."

The Hill to Die on?
The Hill to Die on?
MS-R / Michael S-R (Flickr)

Inspired by this article from Tyler Dellow and by @67Sound's Twitter feed, let's run another concept through the thought lab. In short: the issue of the 5-year contract limit brings up questions about what will happen to salary dispersal among the different talent levels of NHL players. Will the middle-class of players (middle-six forwards, 2nd-pairing D-men, 2nd unit PP & PK guys, salaries ranging generally between $2M-$5M) feel the pinch of the end of creative cap accounting?

The lynchpin of the argument that 5-year contract lengths will kill hockey's middle class is in the thought that the best players are going to react to their newfound inability to get the career-twilighting contract with demands that they get the absolute biggest salary they can over the short period of time where they can get it. This actually makes perfect sense and is outright what every player should do. I'm just not sure that's what every player will do.

In the last CBA, no player could get paid a salary that was more than 20% of the salary cap. That number changed every year as the cap rose, but only one player (Shea Weber) in the 7 years of that CBA ever got a deal which hit that max salary (Correction: as pointed out by user Ubiquitous in the comments, Ilya Kovalchuk's 2010 contract hit the max-limit in effect at the time in year 7 of that 15-year deal). Alex Ovechkin's 2008 contract approached closely, but fell short of the absolute max. Of course, a big part of this was the proliferation of the long-term deals which were more attractive for players over their entire careers and made a chase for the absolute max ceiling look really bad for a player who was already looking at a decade-long deal.

While that's one consideration of why players generally haven't shot for the max, there are additional considerations at play which don't necessarily go away when the ability to squeeze extra dollars into extra years goes away. For one, there's the Investment to Win Theory. In this system, a player takes less than he could on the open market to play for a team with a better chance to win the cup. While there are post-lockout examples, my favorite example of this is Luc Robitaille, who took $9M over two years to win a cup with Detroit, despite having received better offers.

The other part of Investment to Win is that being the best player on the most-competitive team in the league brings additional revenue possibilities in sponsorships which can make up for the salary difference. A player is gambling with essentially fake money (the pretend dollars he *maybe* could have gotten elsewhere) for the chance that he's going to end up as one of the most-marketable stars in hockey.

Another limitation on max deals is that the maximum salary becomes something like the cosmic speed limit. The closer you get to the speed of light, the more motivation there has to be in the system to get there. Basically, Zach Parise isn't going to get a maximum salary because he's not the best player in the NHL. Even with the huge salary he got, it was less than the absolute maximum he could have gotten because everybody else balked below the maximum point.

Of course, even with those considerations, it's possible that the system corrects itself like the NHLPA fears and you raise the willingness that GMs will happily run to it and give the player his choice of identical deals across five or six teams.

If we slide down that slippery slope where every time there's a player worth having a bidding war over, he simply gets to pick his team based on the factors of which small handful can currently afford him and which city he likes best, then you're still not necessarily killing the middle-class. With 30 teams in the league and so much flux, there's going to be salary room. You may accidentally cull a few mid-tier players every season or so when they take advantage of their right to find better employment in Europe, but in general, there's going to be room for those players simply because there's a lot more of them and a lot less of the crop of players who deserved to be paid the elite-level dollars.

Just as likely, you could end up splitting the middle class into the upper-tier, made up of players who are good enough to play top-line duties...just not as well (Jordan Staal either being their king or just another member of the lower-court of elites) and the lower-tier of underpaid 2nd-liners.

Though if we pretend that the slope is indeed very slippery and very steep, it's not hard to imagine a leaguewide balance comprised of 15 teams that are filled at the top with elite players and with inconsistent underpaid players everywhere else in the lineup while the other 15 teams are balanced fairly top-to-bottom with mid-tier talents.

In that setup, when you get the top-heavy teams playing each other head-to-head and the balanced teams playing each other head-to-head, you have pretty good hockey. The problem is when the top-heavy teams play the balanced ones. Any coach of a balanced team worthy of keeping his job is going to employ a strategy to simply neutralize the top talent and let the game be won by the lower lines. It's an effective strategy, but let's face it: it doesn't make the games any more fun to watch for casual fans who aren't quite as overjoyed about Drew Miller banging home a garbage goal to win a 2-1 game.

Ultimately, is this setup bad for hockey? Well that all depends on your personal preference and exactly how slippery you think the slope of 5-year contract limits are. Personally, I don't feel the slope is that slippery and I think the potential variance among 30 teams will keep things from getting too close to the scenario just outlined. However, I do feel that it will continue to push the league to a rule-enforced parity system that specifically works against dynasties and I don't know how comfortable I am with that level of competitive control. The trade-off of a system where titans never stomp on wimps is that it's also a system where titans never clash with one another.

In the end, I don't see this issue as being important enough to kill the season over.