Last chance for long-term contracts

You could make the case that Sidney Crosby and Martin Brodeur have been modern-day Gordie Howes. Like Howe before them, both are superstars who have led their teams to incredible success on the ice and, in the case of Crosby, saved a franchise. And like Mr. Hockey, both have been loyal, some would say to a fault, by taking well below market value for their services and never posing the threat that they would take their talents elsewhere.

Until today.

As the league and its players entered into their first official negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement Friday in New York, they did so against a backdrop of what promises to be a tumultuous time for both players and teams, one made all the more unpredictable by Brodeur’s intent to test the free agent market if he can’t reach a deal with the cash-strapped New Jersey Devils by noon on Sunday.

What the last free agent frenzy before the new CBA comes into play lacks in depth of talent more than makes up for in intrigue. There won’t be many elite players available Sunday, but the ones who are have the capacity to be difference makers, on the ice and in terms of finances. The fact we’re presumably seeing the last days of the monster deals such as the 12-year, 104.4 million contract extension signed by Crosby and the 10-year, $58 million pact with Jonathan Quick will make this July 1 all the more unpredictable.

Players who can sign as free agents or are in the position to negotiate contract extensions, along with their teams, will want to tie those players up long-term before the expected term limits are invoked in the next CBA. That means Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford could wait until the new CBA to sign newly acquired Jordan Staal to a contract extension, but he almost certainly won’t. It would be a shock if Staal didn’t ink the same 10-year, $60 million deal he was offered by the Pittsburgh Penguins before he was traded.

Both Rutherford and Shero could have waited to see what the new parameters of the CBA are, but there’s a risk of losing the player by doing that. Let’s say it’s a worst-case scenario and the league locks its players out for the entire 2012-13 season, then strike a deal in the summer. Both the Hurricanes and Penguins would be looking at the prospect of signing Staal and Crosby as unrestricted free agents. And after playing chicken with the players and not signing them when they had the opportunity, what chance would they have had of signing them then?

No one knows what will come of the new CBA and if someone tells you they do, his name is Donald Fehr or Gary Bettman, or he’s blowing smoke. Whether the new CBA institutes term limits on all contracts, abolishes guaranteed contracts or establishes a “franchise player” scenario, we’re not likely to see the likes of Crosby’s contract again. We’re also presuming this will be the last time the league’s traditional big spenders will enter July 1 with tens of millions of dollars in cap space.

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Yes, this time the owners really, really have to be saved from themselves.

The contracts that already exist and will be signed by Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and others in a couple of days, will likely be grandfathered into the new CBA. That’s why the guys who are in a position to do so will be swinging for the fences in their last at-bat.

Which brings us back to Crosby and Brodeur. There has been some criticism that Crosby did not demand or receive a raise in his latest deal. (Nikita Nikitin gets a 358 percent raise and Crosby receives zero? What’s wrong with that picture?)

Some will accuse him of being a company bootlicker who is dragging down his colleagues. After all, a high tide raises all ships. But Crosby has earned the right to negotiate the deal he wants and if he retires after this current contract expires when he’s 37 years old, he’ll have made roughly $160 million playing hockey. And for some there are considerations other than hockey, such as winning Stanley Cups and having the security of a lengthy deal. This, of course, is even more of a factor for Crosby, whose long-term future as an NHLer is anything but certain. By the way, I’d like to see the Penguins get insurance on that contract against a catastrophic, career-ending concussion.

By not taking more, Crosby will allow Penguins GM Ray Shero, arguably the league’s best GM, to have the cap space necessary to chase Parise and perhaps Suter Sunday afternoon. There’s something to be said for that kind of attitude and if Fehr truly believes the union is for the players and that he works for them, he’ll understand.

It’s interesting that the day after Crosby agreed to his deal, Brodeur left the Devils in limbo by hiring Crosby’s super agent Pat Brisson and threatening to test the market. No one saw that coming from Brodeur, who bleeds Devils red and has passed up numerous opportunities to chase the dollars elsewhere. What has changed between him and the Devils? Is their precarious financial situation part of his decision-making process?

Brodeur may very well sign between now and Sunday and retire a Devil and all will be right in the world once again. If not, an interesting July 1 just got all that more exciting.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.