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One thing that you hear a lot when it comes to guys signing contracts is how they have or have not earned it. Corey Crawford, for example, this week "earned" his new lengthy and expensive extension with the Chicago Blackhawks.
It's easy to see why this is an argument people would make. He posted a 1.94 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in the regular season (though he was weirdly not nominated for the Vezina, and by weirdly I mean not-weirdly), then improved on both those numbers with a 1.84 and .932 line en route to his club's second Stanley Cup in four years. With it came not only all the laudatory back-patting due a player who backstops such an easy run to the grandest trophy in sports, but also an invite to Canada's Olympic orientation camp and a lot of talk about how he looks like a very strong possibility to make the team given how he really picked it up this past season.
These are stunning numbers to be sure, low and high exactly where they should be and a potential indicator that the Blackhawks have one of the elitest-of-the-elite franchise goaltenders on their hands.
Certainly they are paying him as such. The contract doesn't kick in until the start of the 2014-15 season and thus by that point he could move up or down the ranks a little, but as of this moment he is in line to be the fifth-highest paid netminder in the league behind only Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, Carey Price and Cam Ward.
Meanwhile, Nazem Kadri finished tied for 21st in NHL scoring this past season, netting 44 points as a 22-year-old forward who played in each of the Leafs' 48 games. He was the only person to finish in the top 32 in scoring while playing fewer than 18 minutes a night, having gotten just 16:03 TOI on average. He has however gone unsigned to this point, in part because of the Maple Leafs' cap crunch but mainly because of Dave Nonis's insistence that he accept a team-friendly bridge deal, which in turn translates to the belief that he has in some way not earned the money that would normally be due a player who can score .917 points per game in a way that, say, David Clarkson just for an example clearly has.
You'll recall that Clarkson was more or less the Leafs' white whale since more or less time out of mind: A Toronto-born-and-bred top-flight NHL player, who for so long had shunned his hometown in favor of playing in a market where they care exponentially less about hockey; and who could lift the Leafs from their long malaise if only he could be attracted with the absolute right number of dollars and years calculated by only the shrewdest general manager. Of course the numbers — what we have to go on for Clarkson over the breadth of his 426-game career — dictate that he has earned neither the seven years for which the Leafs agreed to pay him nor the nearly $37 million price point at which the Leafs agreed to do so. He has, to date, 170 career points and just 97 goals (an average of just 18.7 over an 82-game season), all of which is buoyed heavily by his 30-16-46 effort in 2011-12, the only time he's ever cracked 40 points or even come close.
There's a reason this is interesting and it's not because of how fun it is to laugh at Dave Nonis's incompetence, though obviously most would admit freely how very fun that is indeed. No, what's interesting is the way in which Clarkson and Crawford seem to have earned their contracts in the eyes of the majority of the hockey-observing public and certainly the guys who have the authority to agree to such deals in the first place. We have mountains of evidence that these are league-average NHL players from a mere production standpoint.
That Crawford was able to put together 30 very good games in the regular season and 23 more that were even better in the playoffs is not an inherent reason to give him either six years or $36 million, especially given the fact that Ray Emery put up statistics that were so similar (1.94/.922) as to be eerie. One hates to throw around the term "system goalie" because of the fact that, yeah, at the end of the day you still gotta make the saves, and particularly because Crawford had shown himself to be so adept at not doing so just a season earlier, but he and Emery having put up near-identical numbers should be a tipoff that perhaps there was something a little larger than Crawford somehow becoming world-beating in the summer and autumn leading up to this latest lockout-shortened season.
The obvious problem with Crawford allegedly earning that contract is the way in which he performed in his numerous NHL appearances prior to this one. He has played in just two full NHL seasons, and been anywhere even close to league-average in just one of them; in 2011-12 — which you'll also recognize as the most recent full season the league has played — he was 2.72/.903. Goaltenders as a general rule don't go around improving on their numbers that substantially for particularly long periods of time after they turn 28 and this is especially true of those goaltenders who simultaneously had been able to be categorized as "really not much more than average" in his previous 122 appearances as well.
He entered last season with a career .910 save percentage (right in line with those of Marc-Andre Fleury, Cam Ward, Chris Mason, Martin Biron, Devan Dubnyk among goaltenders with more than 100 games played between the lockouts), so why start paying him as though he's been putting up Henrik Lundqvist numbers this whole time?
You'll also recall that the Blackhawks, having won the Cup and facing a significant cap crunch last time around, jettisoned Antti Niemi to San Jose on the basis that their goaltending was affordable and thus replaceable but have now decided Crawford is the rock upon which they will build their team until such time as he turns 35 years old. For some reason.
You have to wonder at some point what the basis, in GMs' thinking, is for a player having earned big money in this league is. It seems, at least from here, as though the correct answer is tenure. Crawford's deal came when he was 28. As did Clarkson's. Niemi, at this time of his winning the Stanley Cup and having been plucked from relative obscurity (just three career games played before usurping the starter's role in Chicago) was just 26, and deemed disposable by seeming-genius GM Stan Bowman. Likewise Kadri has in no way earned anything more than, say, $3 million per season for the next two despite the fact that he nearly met Clarkson's career high in a 48-game campaign despite getting fewer minutes per game and for the season on the power play than Mike Kostka, which by the way is probably the best stat of the entire season league-wide. This is at the same time as Clarkson is due fabulous amounts of money because in his previous 378 appearances between the lockouts he put up 0.39 points per game, famously the same amount as compiled by high-paid two-way forwards like Bobby Butler, David Moss and TJ Galiardi.
If the Leafs aren't convinced that Kadri's numbers are for real then why are they convinced that Clarkson's are? Their insistence on holding the former at arm's length because he only produced in his one season in the NHL while embracing the other for only producing — a relative term for a 46-point campaign, you understand — in one season out of six is frankly baffling. Ditto Niemi and Crawford.
The hockey world has gifted us with mountains of evidence as to why Crawford and Clarkson will probably not live up to their contracts, both in the short- and long term. It had done no such thing with Niemi at the time and has not done so with Kadri to this point. The obvious point that Niemi is now a bargain (albeit for a different team than Chicago) is one that's well-taken, but the thinking that guys can only get paid when they're older, no matter what their production levels have looked like, creates a bizarre market inefficiency that teams are apparently unwilling to exploit.
Would you rather have Niemi for another two years with a cap hit of $3.8 million or Crawford for six at $6 million per? It's really not a difficult question. They've both won Cups with the Blackhawks, but only one has been better than league average in each of the last three seasons.
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