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Does a megadeal for a 27-year-old player actually make sense?

Regardless of which team he signs with, John Tavares is likely to ink a long-term deal with an eight-figure price tag. But is it really wise to spend that much to land a 27-year-old who could be in decline come the back half of the deal?

While a handful of teams – including the New York Islanders – trip over themselves in an effort to get John Tavares to sign with them, one key question is not being asked. And that question is: Is this really a good idea?

Let’s start by pointing out that the opportunity to get a player of Tavares’ ilk for nothing more than cash and cap space almost never comes along. In fact, it would not be a stretch to suggest that if he does not sign with the Islanders by July 1, Tavares will be the best player ever to hit unrestricted free agency. And in an era when fewer and fewer marquee players are actually hitting the market than ever before, it’s tempting to think that a seven- or eight-year deal with double digits followed by six zeroes is a worthwhile investment.

But history tells us that is a dubious notion at best. First of all, from everything that hockey analytics and the eye test tell us is that Tavares is a player in decline. Now, that doesn’t mean he still can’t be an effective player for three or four or maybe even five years, but it’s unrealistic to think that the John Tavares you’ll have a couple of years down the road is the same as the one you’ll be signing on July 1. And even though Tavares has worked extremely hard to improve his skating the past couple of seasons to the point where it’s not a detriment, it’s still not one of his strong points. He’s certainly not going to get any faster and players that can’t keep up with the pace of a faster and younger NHL don’t seem to age very well.

If you need more proof, let’s take a couple of recent examples. Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks would have become an unrestricted free agent three summers ago had his team not locked him up with an eight-year, $85 million contract. They did that a year prior to him becoming a UFA and won the Stanley Cup the next spring. And Toews was terrific, both in the regular season and the playoffs. Toews was 27 when that contract extension kicked in. In fact, he was about seven months younger than Tavares will be when his deal takes effect. Since then, the Blackhawks have failed to win a playoff round, are further away from being a Stanley Cup contender than they’ve been in a decade and Toews struggled to score 20 goals and 50 points last season. And that was after a summer where he dedicated himself to off-ice habits more than he ever had in his career.

Anze Kopitar was 29 when his eight-year, $80 million extension kicked in two summers ago. And in the first year of that deal, Kopitar scored two fewer goals (12) than millions of dollars he made in salary (14). He redeemed himself with an outstanding season in 2017-18, but how much further were the Kings ahead with his Selke Trophy season? The Kings were swept in the first round of the playoffs. Carey Price is going to carry a $10.5 million for each of the next eight seasons and he’s 30 years old.

Armed with this knowledge, GMs will continue to be seduced by players past their primes such as Tavares because they know they’re not paying them for a seven- or eight-year deal. They’re actually hoping they can get half that many years out of them, hopefully win a Stanley Cup or two, then worry about what to do with the contract when the time comes. When David Clarkson signed his seven-year, $36.8 million deal in 2013, then-Leafs GM David Nonis basically said as much, pointing out that he didn’t really care what the contract would look like seven years down the road.

As long as teams compete with one another, as long as it remains difficult to draft and develop truly elite players, as long as there’s a salary cap that keeps increasing and as long as the NHL refuses to die on the hill that is five-year contract limits, teams will continue to sign these kinds of deals. In the case of Tavares, you can bet as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow that this deal will look all kinds of ugly the further the team that signs him gets into it. Regardless of with whom he sings, Tavares will get everything he wants – a front-loaded deal with lots of signing bonus money, lockout protection and a no-movement clause (at least for the first half of it). If that contract is with the Islanders, it’s believed to be for eight years at $11 million per season. If it’s anyone else, since it can only be seven years, it will be even more. And the team signing him will do so hoping he can deliver on at least half of it.

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