The $14 million cap hit NHL player is nearly here

Climb into your DeLorean and travel back to 1993 with us, won’t you?

(Hey, it’s the Deep Space Nine premiere! Everybody’s singing “Whoomp [There It Is]”! Why Lorena Bobbitt, what are you doing with that knife?)

The highest paid NHL player in 1993 was Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers at a whopping $3.35 million, or slightly less than what Nicklas Grossman will make this season for the Orange and Black.

Now travel with us through the decade. Wayne Gretzky made $6.54 million in 1995-96 with the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues. Mario Lemieux blew out that contract with an $11.35 million salary the following season.

Oh, then things got nutty. Factor in their signing bonuses, and Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche ($16.45 million) and Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings ($14.5 million) had the top two highest single-season salaries in NHL history, in 1998 and 1999 respectively. The former was given an offer sheet by the New York Rangers; the latter was given a hugely front-loaded deal. (Ed Note: Thanks for the reminders - Fedorov was an offer sheet from Carolina as well.)

[Also: Lockout quality time paying off for Penguins' top line]

Sakic’s contract was the one that shifted the tide for elite NHL players, whose average salaries jumped roughly $4 million on average to around $7 million annually after the Avs matched the offer sheet. By 2004, the top five player salaries were all $10 million or more; think about what they’d mean in today’s dollars.

The lockout reset things for two seasons, but the free-agent frenzy of 2007 – Danny Briere, Scott Gomez, Thomas Vanek – gave the NHL $10 million men again. Other contracts followed, culminating with the Nashville Predators matching an offer sheet for Shea Weber that would have paid him $14 million this season.

With the new CBA, where is this all headed? Onward and upward, after the contracts for Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf with the Anaheim Ducks. The numbers could get mind-blowing.

Currently, the highest cap hit in the NHL is that of Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals at $9.54 million; a contract of inexplicable financial integrity at a time when everybody from the Red Wings to Flyers were handing out cap circumventing contracts.

Chris Johnston of Sportsnet believes that number will likely be eclipsed in the next wave of star contracts – and that the numbers could get astronomical:

As one high-profile agent put it in a conversation with “Those guys are going to get paid a lot more money in a shorter window of time. And after the career contract is finished they can still sign another one.”

Opinions vary on how high NHL salaries might soar under the new CBA, but one agent (different than the previous one) estimated that the AAV — average annual value — of top contracts could hit $13 million or $14 million within five years.

That number was projected based on what the agent expects will be significant revenue growth for the industry, which would obviously push the salary cap much higher than the $64.3 million it will be set at next season


Granted, the cap would have to go sky-high for anyone to approach that number. Which, according to James Mirtle’s projections, it very well could, hitting $90 million by 2020.

Combine that with contracts that can’t “back dive” to reduce cap hits, and whose truncated term compared to the ones under the previous CBA beg for high annual salaries, and we’re headed to $14 million annual cap hits – with players like Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and especially Steven Stamkos pushing the numbers even higher in their next contracts.

Maybe we’ll look back at Perry and Getzlaf as the “Joe Sakic contracts” of our time, raising the bar for all elite players under the new CBA.

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