Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rick DiPietro: A Case Study

rick dipietro injured
Rick DiPietro, initially slated for a mid-December return, had a set-back in his rehab from knee injury. The Islanders are seeking additional medical opinions on their young netminder who left an AHL game last Friday with leg stiffness. It was only his second game of a conditioning assignment. He hasn’t played in the NHL since last January. Since signing a 15-year, $67.5 million contract before the start of the 2006-2007 season DiPietro has played a total of 130 games. However, he has only played five since last season. This is only one of the major reasons teams should be wary of signing their players to such long-term deals.

The DiPietro deal was perplexing on multiple levels. First, he really only had one good year prior to the contract extension. In the year before the lockout he won 23 games with a 2.36 GAA and .911 save percentage. He even recorded 5 shutouts. After sitting out the lockout, DiPietro returned with mediocre numbers in 2005-2006 and was then rewarded with his major deal. I can’t fault the Isles for re-signing their franchise goalie, but the term is ridiculous. How can you give a 15-year deal to a young player you don’t really know much about. It wasn’t like he was consistently producing since draft day. The second reason this deal was perplexing is because the Islanders already locked up a 28 year-old Alexei Yashin for 10 years and $87.5 million in 2001. Didn’t they learn after Yashin’s production declined precipitously to the point where the Isles bought him out in March 2007? In fact, the Isles will be paying for Yashin until the 2015.

The Islanders case study should be a warning to the rest of the league. Long-term deals are very risky. I guess the real effects of these long-term contracts won’t be realized until the next decade when many of today’s stars begin to age. Over the past years we’ve seen long-term deals given to Marian Hossa (12 years, $62.8 million), Duncan Keith (13 years, $72 million), Henrik Zetterberg (12 year, $73 million), Johan Franzen (11 years, $43.5 million), Mike Richards (12 years, $69 million), Vincent Lecavalier (11 years, $85 million), Roberto Luongo (12 years, $64 million), and Alexander Ovechkin (13 years, $124 million). This does not even include players like Chris Pronger who signed long-term deals in their mid-30s that will last until their early 40s.

Each of these deals has varying degrees of risk to them. The Mike Richards deal is probably the safest considering the reasonable cap hit and the contract will conclude before he is 35. Both the Hossa and Lecavalier deals are probably the riskiest considering they were both signed close to 30 years old and are signed until their early 40s. These deals are risky because there is no way that near the end of these deals, when they are mid-to-late 30s, these players can match their production in the 20s.

Currently, in the top-30 of NHL scoring there are only five players in their 30s. The oldest is Martin St. Loius, who is 34. The others are Joe Thornton (30), Patrick Marleau (30), Jarome Iginla (32), and Tomas Kaberle (31). More than half of the players in the top-30 in scoring are 25 or younger. There are only seven players within the top-100 in NHL scoring that are 35 or older. If the Lightning feel disappointment over Lecavalier’s lack of current production, they should dread what he’ll look like when they’re paying him almost $8 million as a 39-year-old. There are very few cases where someone in their late 30s or early 40s can play at such a high level to command that much money. In fact, I can only think of one, Nicklas Lidstrom. Unless the NHL becomes a game dominated by older players, which doesn’t happen in any major sport, these deals will be burdens on their teams.

I suppose in some cases there is an implicit understanding that these players will retire before their contract expires, allowing the team to alleviate itself from their cap pressure. Maybe that sounds good to the player now, but what about when they’re older and realize they have a free pay cheque waiting for them even if they are physically unable to play? Rick DiPietro is benefiting from that now and he isn’t even 30.

These deals represent the type of short-sighted nature characteristic of most GMs. The deals do allow teams to be more competitive in the short-term, but at a long-term cost. These deals allow teams to sign their stars at a lower cap hit, which allows them to sign higher talent to supplement these stars. So, since the window of opportunity in the NHL is brief these deals can’t be entirely trashed. But, if a team doesn’t win a cup during the time when their stars with long-term deals are productive, then they might be forced into a prolonged period of decline. Remember, there was a point when Alexei Yashin scored 94 points. There are no examples of successful teams that employ an unproductive player taking such a large amount of cap space. These deals can become especially burdensome if the salary cap decreases.

I think more teams should follow the strategy of the Penguins, who signed both Crosby and Malkin to reasonable five-year deals. These deals will end when both players are in their late 20s and gives the Pens the flexibility to re-evaluate their talent at an older age. It also keeps both players hungry. I see no reason a 42-year old Marian Hossa will have the same desire to play at as high a level as he did before he hit unrestricted free agency. Even if he does have the drive, I doubt his body will be able and at that point the Hawks will be paying a lot of money for a third or fourth line player.

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