The landscape of modern hockey contracts has changed significantly over the past several months. A bevvy of restricted free agents opted to sign bridge deals or shorter-term contracts. These pacts give them significant raises on their entry-level salaries but will finish soon enough that the players will be up for new deals while still in their primes. It’s a symbiotic contract structure in that it sets the player up for two major paydays and also means the team pays up for the player during his best seasons.
We might indeed be witnessing a paradigm shift in the next generation of player contracts. But, as center Brayden Schenn’s new contract reminds us, the unofficial rules have not changed for Stanley Cup champions. You win a Cup? You pay the price, literally, by rewarding your key veteran contributors with long-term pacts, even if that means paying them for what they’ve done, not what they’re going to do.
A standout recent example of this style of thinking was the contract the Los Angeles Kings, then helmed by GM Dean Lombardi, gave left winger Marian Gaborik after he scored a league-leading 14 goals in 26 games during the 2014 post-season. He was already 32 at the time, but Lombardi still ponied up on a seven-year, $34.125-million contract carrying a cap hit of $4.875 million. That ate 7.58 percent of the Kings’ cap at the time, making it the equivalent of a $6.18-million AAV today.
Gaborik had nothing but downhill years in front of him, but the Kings felt the need to reward him anyway for a job well done and a Stanley Cup delivered. By 2015-16, his play had declined significantly. By 2017-18, he was dumped to Ottawa to balance out the ledgers in the Dion Phaneuf trade. Now? Gaborik is a spectre, hidden away on the Senators’ LTIR list.
Gaborik wasn’t the only recent Cup champ to sign a “job well done” extension that pays big money for what will clearly be decline years. In 2016, Lombardi handed center Anze Kopitar an eight-year, $80-million deal that ends when he’s 36. After the Pittsburgh Penguins won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, they rewarded right winger Patric Hornqvist, who was 31 and already had significant injury mileage on his body, with a five-year extension at a $5.3-million cap hit. Hornqvist gets paid until he’s 36 and, given his physical style, might be worn down to a husk by then.
So that brings us to Schenn, part of the reigning Cup-champion Blues, whose eight-year, $52-million extension was unveiled Friday morning. The contract commences in 2020-21, when Schenn is 29, and concludes at the end of the 2027-28 season, just before he turns 37. The $6.5-million cap hit reflects Schenn’s current value, a.k.a what he’s done, pretty fairly. He’s delivered between 17 and 26 goals for six straight seasons, averaging 56 points per 82 games over that stretch. He can play center or the wing. He’s one of the most physical top-six forwards in the game. He’s a guy you go to war with, no doubt.
But Schenn’s contract won’t play out during his prime. We’ve just witnessed his prime. Instead, he’ll earn $6.5 million a year for what will be his decline. That probably won’t happen for several more seasons but, as we’ve seen with bruising forwards like David Backes, Milan Lucic and Wayne Simmonds, the tires’ tread can wear down quickly once the 30s arrive. A power forward doesn’t age the same way a playmaker does.
Perhaps Blues GM Doug Armstrong knows that in his heart of hearts – and perhaps it doesn’t matter. There seems to be an unwritten code that GMs reward their players once they bring home one or more Stanley Cups, even if that reward ends up hurting the team later. It’s enough to wonder if a handshake agreement takes place: “You know we’ll have to dump your salary in about five years, right? But don’t worry. We love you, you’re a champ, so we’re making sure you get paid.” Call it the Gaborik Method. Circumstantial evidence of that approach applying to Schenn: the new contract is front-loaded, just like Gaborik’s was. The final few years pay significantly fewer actual dollars, so Schenn will be movable by then to a team that can offer cap space in exchange for picks.
So while the new generation of RFAs has introduced a new-school contract philosophy, reigning Cup champs are staying old-school when it comes to paying their veteran UFAs-in-waiting. If you scratch your team’s back with a Cup, it scratches your back with a long-term deal that probably won’t look so great within four or five years.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.