One of the recurring themes in the comments section here is that the Oilers need to make sure they have the necessary cap space to re-sign Connor McDavid when his contract expires. It’s a valid point; obviously if things go as the Oilers hope the team will have to juggle the contracts of several outstanding young players. However, it’s also worth remembering one of the fun little side effects of the salary cap: legitimate stars almost never get what they’re worth.
Tyler Dellow had a great post on this subject on his site before it was taken down so that he could go work for the Oilers, with the requisite graphs and research and whatnot, but it doesn’t take much more than a glance at a site like NHL Numbers to recognize that this must be so.
Let’s consider two imaginary NHL teams. One of them, through luck and possibly the sacrifice of the general manager’s first-born, has an elite centre, a Jonathan Toews or Sidney Crosby or whoever. The other was less fortunate, and had to go to free agency and sign the best guy he could find, someone like Jason Spezza or Paul Stastny.
Generally, there really isn’t that much difference in terms of expenditure.
Toews’ new deal, at $10.5 million, is the max, and only Evgeni Malkin joins him above the $9.0 million mark. Crosby is a little bit south, and down around $8.0 million we find the Claude Girouxs and Ryan Getzlafs of the world.
Stastny and Spezza, on the other hand, sit at $7.0 million or even a little ways north of that. Both are solid players, so I ask this with all due respect: What’s the performance gap between Stastny and Getzlaf? What about Spezza and Crosby? The money gap is just barely over $1.0 million; it’s basically half the difference between employing Boyd Gordon and employing Anton Lander on the fourth line.
The point I’m making here is that while every team needs a good centre, the price difference between a good centre and a great centre doesn’t come close to capturing the performance difference. Superstars may carry teams on their back, but their cap hit rarely reflects their true value.
This is true at pretty much every position. The difference between Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan can basically be made up by running Rob Klinkhammer on the fourth line instead of Matt Hendricks. The gap between Corey Crawford and Tuukka Rask can be made up by running a $1.3 million backup instead of Ben Scrivens. The disparity between Shea Weber and a guy like Brian Campbell (who I love as a player, this isn’t meant as a slight) or Dion Phaneuf is less than the difference between running Martin Marincin instead of, oh, any of the Oilers’ overpaid third-pairing guys.
Assuming Connor McDavid develops as expected, he’s not only going to be a great player for the Oilers but by virtue of being a superstar he’s almost certain to be underpaid relative to his contribution to the team. If Edmonton ends up with massive cap problems, it won’t be because it overpaid guys like McDavid, it’ll be because it just had to toss $2.5 million at a physical No. 5/6 defenceman or because it gave a big fourth-liner (don’t believe me? look at the ice-time) $4.0 million after he caught lightning in a bottle in the playoffs one year.
Great teams, as a rule, don’t get in trouble because they give money to great players. They get in trouble because they overpay replaceable supporting cast members. This has been a problem in Edmonton under the previous management, and at times was a problem for Peter Chiarelli in Boston (though he really wasn’t too bad; generally his problem was giving too much term to older depth pieces, who then declined as time passed). If Chiarelli can change the Oilers’ ways in that department, paying McDavid may entail sacrifices but they won’t be prohibitive ones.
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