The Edmonton Oilers are on the verge of signing their most important deal since former owner Peter Pocklington agreed to a 20-year personal services deal with Wayne Gretzky on the Great One’s 18th birthday, and the first thing you have to know is it has nothing to do with money.
Well, not exactly, because $106 million over eight years is an enormous sum. But you could argue that from a purely business standpoint, Connor McDavid will actually be underpaid when his $13.25 million annual salary kicks in after next season. After all, Oilers fans didn’t pay 80 bucks to stand in the Rexall Place concourse to watch playoff games on TV to see what tricks Mark Letestu had up his sleeve. Indeed, the only time McDavid potentially wouldn’t be earning his keep would be in 2020-21 if Gary Bettman and the owners decide they want to shut the game down…again. You can bet the vast majority of McDavid’s salary that year will be in the form of a signing bonus.
No, this is all about salary cap machinations and whether signing McDavid to his contract, then inking running mate Leon Draisaitl to a contract with the same term and about $4 million less in annual salary, will cripple the Oilers and hamper their abilities to build a Stanley Cup team moving forward.
Well, let’s see here. The Pittsburgh Penguins are probably just finishing up all the parties they’ve had from their second straight Stanley Cup, which was won in large part because they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their lineup. If McDavid and Draisaitl can be Edmonton’s version of Crosby and Malkin, there’s no reason why two of the most productive players in the NHL shouldn’t take up 30 percent of the Oilers’ payroll.
We’re talking here about two players who, if Draisaitl signs an eight-year extension, will play together for the next eight seasons, which will also be the most productive of their careers. If Draisaitl can make the permanent move to center the way most observers think he can, the Oilers will be set down the middle of the ice for almost the next decade. They will have a commodity that every team in the NHL craves and, like the Penguins before them, will really reap the long-term rewards that should come with being so bad for so long. The Penguins will be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders as long as both Crosby and Malkin are in their lineup, and that means for at least the next five seasons. There’s no reason to believe the Oilers would not be every bit as formidable as the Penguins with a 1-2 punch of McDavid and Draisaitl.
This does not mean the Oilers will be a shoo-in to win multiple Stanley Cups because it’s not that simple. The Penguins went through their share of bumps in the road with Crosby and Malkin. After the Penguins won the Cup in 2009, Malkin signed a five-year deal worth $43.5 million, one year after Crosby had signed an identical deal. They took up roughly the same percentage of cap space with the Penguins that McDavid and Draisaitl might with the Oilers. The Penguins, meanwhile, went on to win just one playoff round in the next three seasons and faced criticism over their decision to tie up so much of their fortunes in two players. There were even calls for Malkin to be traded, which would have been a disastrous move.
The thing is, what’s even more important than the Oilers getting McDavid and Draisaitl to commit long-term is what they do in terms of drafting and developing after they get those deals done. The Oilers could have lowered the cap hit on McDavid by offering him less term, but that would have bordered on insanity. When a player of McDavid’s ilk offers to stay for eight years, you hand him a blank cheque and tell him to fill it in himself. The reason the Penguins struggled so much was not because of Crosby and Malkin, but because they failed to surround them with reasonably priced talent that could contribute at the NHL level.
Both Crosby and Malkin have been excellent every step of the way. The Penguins only began to reemerge as a serious contender when they got their goaltending issues sorted out and they began to find young forwards who were young and cheap and could play an up-tempo style without looking out of place.
That’s why the decision to sign both players long-term should be the easiest decision the Oilers have to make this summer. And in order to prevent an offer sheet that might drive up the price for Draisaitl, they might want to get him done before July 1 as well. Once they do that, though, their heavy lifting will just be beginning. It’s easy to have great players. The real work comes in supplementing them with players who can help them take your team to the summit.
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