The final step of the process was perhaps the most important one. The paycut. That last ounce of selflessness, spread to the masses as they awaited the press conference, and confirmed at the podium. After a week or so of the entire hockey world flailing its arms at the gossip that Connor McDavid was about to sign an eight-year contract that made him the highest-paid player in the league by nearly $3 million for the next eight years. Yesterday, the pen finally hit paper and came out to about $750,000 less a year, a total of $100 million over the same term with a $12.5 million cap hit. Still the steepest contract in the league, but not to the same degree.
It’s enough to make you wonder how real that original number was, to begin with. $13.25 million didn’t seem like a number of particular significance, nor did the total of $106 million. It wasn’t a jersey number deal, it wasn’t a record smasher, it was simply a large sum of money. Part of me makes me wonder if was a contract leaked out with intent, to make teams have to re-approach their conversations with their upcoming free agents (looking at you, Carey Price), and more importantly, to dial back the panic.
Just look at the tone right now. It’s no longer “a guy with 127 games played is now the highest paid player per year in history”, it’s no longer “how do the Oilers cope with an investment like this”, it’s “Connor cares about his team enough to shave some money off” and “who else will take one for the team?”, possibly setting up a slightly better deal when the focus shifts to Leon Draisaitl. It’s a significantly more positive tone than it would’ve been without the initial scoop. If this was in any intentional, it’s an incredibly savvy move by Edmonton’s front office at a time where Chiarelli’s regime is in one of it’s rockiest stretches of approval rating.
Connor McDavid's cap hit in the context of the NHL's salary cap growth in recent years. Not hard to argue this is the biggest contract ever. pic.twitter.com/3Cx5IHDeDA
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) July 5, 2017
Make no mistake, it’s still a lot of money. Focusing only on the cap era (I don’t care about an owner’s pocketbook, just the team’s theoretical flexibility), McDavid’s 16.6% cap percentage trails Sidney Crosby’s 17.3% when he signed his second contract, and both trail Brad Richards, who got the league’s only-ever 20% max contract in May 2006.
But there are some differences. Firstly, Richards and Crosby both signed five-year deals, while Connor gets three years of extra commitment at that percentage. The growth of the salary cap matters too; the cap saw 52.3% growth in Richards’ 5-year term and 39.6% growth under Crosby’s. From 2014/15 to this year, however, it’s only gone up by 8.7%, and even that’s largely thanks to the NHLPA taking an escrow hit and activating their optional escalator. The league isn’t growing fast enough to support the commitments that its teams are making to its players; unless the Canadian Dollar shoots up or the Leafs win the next four Stanley Cups and milk their fans for every penny (sorry, sorry, I’m trying to delete it), it’s almost assured that the contact that McDavid just signed will make the single biggest dent on a team’s roster flexiblity of any contract in NHL history. But you know what?
It’s worth it. Comparing McDavid’s deal to Crosby’s like the above only matters if you believe that Crosby was making fair value when we all know what he was easily worth the league max, be it if he signed a year in advance ($10.06M) or when the next cap was announced ($11.34M). Superstar players, on the whole, tend to be criminally undervalued by the market; the idea that middle six forwards and the second pair get 50-75% of the pay of top-end talent while the bottom lines and pairs are lucky to get a third of what the guys slightly better than them are getting is hilariously skewed. Teams should be paying the players that are irreplaceable in the lineup like they’re irreplaceable, while the others compete for what money and security are left.
To say that McDavid is a superstar, or irreplacable is probably an understatement.
These are the best Age 19+20 performances that the NHL has seen, adjusted for goal scoring in respective eras. Pulling out Ovechkin, because he leaped straight in at 20, and the competition here is pretty clear. It’s Gretzky, it’s Lemieux, its Lindros, it’s Crosby. Unsurprising, really; we’re talking about the other four players who came into the league with the hype of potentially being the next saviour of hockey. When you say that McDavid is making a lot and compare him to his peers in the NHL today, it seems lopsided, but his peers are the history books and his target is no longer being one of the best in the league, it’s being one of the best of all time.
With that in mind, and an opportunity to lock him up from now until the edge of his prime years, you don’t even blink. Even if nobody’s paycheque comes close for another five years. You just do it. You can’t just replace a Connor McDavid type of player; there’s nobody to replace him with. Maybe Crosby for another year or two, but he’s turning 30 in four weeks. McDavid led the league in scoring by 12% as a 20-year-old and is following the pathway that those who have watched him since he was younger knew he was capable of taking.
Now, from Connor’s perspective, many are curious about the term; for a variety of reasons, ranging from maximizing value to dreams he’d chase a childhood dream and everything in between, there was a lot of thought for a while that we’d see him take a four or five year deal to get himself to unrestricted free agency as soon as possible.
But he didn’t, and I think that makes sense on a lot of levels.
Financially, he gets immense security here. Who knows where his head or his body is at in eight years; we can only assume the best, and hope for the best, but sports are cruel and unpredictable and anything can happen to anyone. Look at where the above names stood at the 11-year mark in their careers; Lemieux, Lindros, and Crosby all had years where they missed significant time between Years 4 and 11 where their careers appeared to be in some form of jeopardy due to injury. Especially with how slow the cap is growing right now, why not secure the next nine seasons now?
More importantly, though, Edmonton is the place to stay and be if he wants to cement his legacy. The story arc is just too perfect; the next one who comes in to replace the Great One at a time where it’s least expected, and when hope, while still immortal, was starting to fade in its strength. He’s brought a buzz back to an iconic post-expansion market in pursuit of a revival of its glory days, a buzz so big that he’d helped revitalize not just the team, not just the fanbase, but the city itself. Sure, the easy way out would’ve been to go home in a few years, join a team projected to be loaded, and cash in his endorsement deals, but that’s not as romantic, is it?
It’s better this way. The shy suburban kid with a team, a city, and a dream on his back, a weight he and only he can lift as an individual. It’s what’s best for him at this stage of his career, it’s what’s best for this city, it’s what’s best for the hockey world as we watch yet another highlight reel play coming from an otherwise unassuming kid in an unassuming venue. Sure, the team hasn’t done itself too many favours on other parts of the balance sheet in the past year or two, and it’s going to take some creative accounting and hockey manoeuvring to make it work. But no matter what the price, there’s not going to be a better player to be on the front lines of battle for this team or any other team for a very long time. To lock him in as long as possible in a way that keeps him happy, presented in a way that keeps the fans happy, is a win on all fronts.