The Pittsburgh Penguins have agreed to a 12-year, $104.4 million contract extension with captain Sidney Crosby. What could go wrong?
Well, we all know what could go wrong: He could suffer another concussion. He could never be the same again. The Penguins could be on the hook for a whole lot of money for a real long time.
But this is a risk the Penguins had to take, and look at what could go right: The Penguins could have the best player in hockey for the rest of his career, at a salary-cap hit that allows them to surround him with a strong supporting cast.
Crosby could have accounted for a little more than $14 million under the current collective bargaining agreement. Yet in return for financial security, he kept his hit at $8.7 million -- a nod to his birth date, 8/7/87, and his sweater number.
That's the same as it is under his current five-year deal that expires next July 1. That's also the same as it is for reigning league MVP Evgeni Malkin through 2013-14, keeping them both on equal footing.
The timing is interesting for the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, with labor negotiations beginning Friday. One of league commissioner Gary Bettman's marquee teams just gave out the kind of long-term, mega-million-dollar contract the owners want to curb. Union executive director Don Fehr just had the face of the game accept less -- a lot less -- to help management deal with the salary cap.
For the Penguins, though, the timing is exquisite. It sends an unmistakable signal.
The Penguins cleared cap space at the NHL draft last week when they traded Jordan Staal and Zbynek Michalek, and now they have assured they will have Sidney Crosby, about to turn 25 and enter his prime, at a reasonable number for the next 13 years.
When Crosby's contract becomes official and free agency opens Sunday, Pittsburgh could be the most attractive destination for one or both of the most attractive players on the market -- New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise, a close friend of Crosby's who could become his long-awaited winger, and Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter, a steady presence who could complement the flashy Kris Letang.
"We're in a different spot than we were maybe a week ago in terms of our salary cap situation," said Penguins general manager Ray Shero in a conference call. "It's good to have Sidney signed back up and Geno under contract for two more years. To have these franchise players signed up, it's good for the franchise no matter what happens."
Fact: A big question rivals had entering free agency was Crosby's contract status. Would the Penguins be able to lock up Crosby now -- and at a number that would help them land Parise, Suter or both? That has been answered.
Another fact: A big question rivals had just a few months ago was Crosby's contract status, but in a completely different context. What were the Penguins going to do with a superstar who had missed so much time with concussion issues? That has been answered, too.
The consensus then was that the Penguins likely would have no choice. They would have to sign Crosby to a long-term deal, despite the uncertainty, even if they couldn't insure his contract. Crosby had come to Pittsburgh as the No. 1 overall pick in 2005 when the Penguins were at the bottom on the ice and on the balance sheet. He had won a slew of individual awards. He had helped revive the franchise, win a Stanley Cup, build a new arena. He was close to co-owner Mario Lemieux, and he had taken over for Lemieux as the face of the franchise. He was the Penguins.
He is the Penguins.
There is still uncertainty. There always is with concussions. But again, Crosby's value to the Penguins goes beyond that of a normal superstar. It's the Penguins' money on the table, no one else's. And after missing more than a year's worth of hockey, and so much medical drama, Crosby appears to have pinpointed the problem in his neck and alleviated his symptoms. He came back down the stretch, and though he wasn't quite back to full power, he still had 33 points in 20 games, regular season and playoffs combined.
Now Crosby has been working out in Los Angeles, and his agent, Pat Brisson, said: "It's been night and day. It's been very encouraging. He's looking very well, and he's feeling well based on what he tells us. He’s looking ahead to a great season." That's easy for his agent to say, with a 12-year, $104.4 million contract waiting to be signed. But what would you do if you were the Penguins? Wait and see? It's Sidney Crosby.
"We feel confident as to where he is and how he finished up for us," Shero said. "So yeah, we believe the best days are going to be ahead here with a full summer of training, which he really didn't have last year at all. And to come back and play how he did and produce how he did certainly bodes well for the future."
In a sense, the intersection of Crosby's comeback, the labor situation and the free-agent market created a unique opportunity for the Penguins.
Having spent so much time away from the game, Crosby had to assess what was important. He had to be paid fairly, and he is being paid fairly. But he can make more money in endorsements and leave a larger legacy if he becomes known as a winner -- especially if he becomes known as a winner who spent his entire career with the same franchise, like his idol Steve Yzerman did with the Detroit Red Wings.
The collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15. No one knows what the new one will look like, but the owners want the players to take a smaller percentage of revenues and want to limit contracts to six years, among other things. If there is a time to do a 12-year, $104.4 million contract, this is it, and Crosby has set the Penguins' salary structure far into the future. Malkin has said he wants to re-sign when his contract is up. Will he agree to another $8.7 million hit? We'll see. But in theory, Crosby's precedent and a new CBA could help.
"It's almost like having two kids you're equally fond of, and when the time comes, whatever the rules are going to be, we're going to try to make Geno happy as well and keep him as a Penguin for a long time," Shero said. "That will be our mindset when we have a new CBA in place."
Yzerman and some other key Red Wings deferred salary in the summer of 2001 so the team could sign free agent Brett Hull after acquiring Dominik Hasek and Luc Robitaille, and that was when there was no salary cap. They trusted ownership and management. They wanted to play with a collection of stars. They won the Stanley Cup in 2002.
If you were about to become a free agent Sunday, what would you think of what's going on in Pittsburgh now? Some guys want to cash in as much as they can. Some want as much of the spotlight as they can get. Others want to balance all of that with winning. In this era of parity, when the salary cap is supposed to equalize everything, there are few opportunities to rise above the pack.
Shero said Crosby wanted a fair deal, but also asked: "OK, that's fine, but how can I help the team?" Shero added that "the 8.7 is certainly beneficial." Brisson said a friendly cap hit was "very important" to Crosby and that he "wanted to be a Penguin forever."
"When you are negotiating a contract like this, of this magnitude, as a player it's important to understand what you want and where you want to be first and foremost, and Sidney understood that from Day 1," Brisson said. "He was able to realize where he wanted to be, and he wanted to be in Pittsburgh."
Where do Parise and Suter want to be? What if the Penguins get one or both?
Worst-case scenario: Crosby gets hurt again, and the Penguins are out all those millions. They were going to pay him, anyway. At least they will have a stronger roster than they would have had otherwise. There is more than one way to get insurance.
Best-case scenario: Crosby stays healthy, and the rest is history.
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