In the past few summers, the size of contracts given out has obviously expanded along with the salary cap, and often it's some of the league's more mediocre players reaping the benefits. One need look no deeper than David Clarkson's contract, for instance, to see that guys who've never had a 50-point season in their lives can still cash in if you can find someone dumb enough to believe in “intangibles.”
But one area in which contracts have seemingly exploded within the last three seasons or so is when it comes to long-term contracts for goaltenders. While the ability of teams to succeed to one extent or another on relative bargain basement netminding — which just about everyone briefly bought into — typified by the Blackhawks, Capitals, Flyers among others was probably always overblown, things have very quickly swung in the opposite direction, and teams are once again willing to pay the toppest of top dollar for goaltenders they consider to be elite.
Since the 2004-05 lockout, only three goaltenders have ever signed deals that assured them $7 million or more against the cap, and all three have been signed since November 2011, when Pekka Rinne got seven years and $7 million per from David Poile. Since then, Tuukka Rask (eight years, $56 million) and Henrik Lundqvist (seven years, $59.5 million) have gotten in on the action.
This is interesting for a number of reasons. The first is that position players have been getting $7 million per season for as long as there's been a salary cap. Jarome Iginla, for instance, got that much when the 2005-06 season began, and the salary cap at that time was just $39 million, but what's interesting about that is that even as the ceiling has gone way, way up in the years since, very few top-flight forwards have found their salaries exceeding that $7 million plateau.
Currently, just 19 non-goaltenders (and only four of them defensemen) make more than that amount, and for the most part, they are pretty elite players. The only exceptions to this are, at this point, probably Dany Heatley and Alexander Semin, and the former's contract is a soon-expiring holdover from the days when he was a regular 40- or 50-goal scorer.
For reference, 19 skaters makes up a top-line or -pairing defenseman on slightly more than half the league's teams, and if you consider that each has five of these players, that's 19 out of 150 players who are considered — either by default or because they're just that good — to be players that would be in a team's starting lineup. Obviously your mileage will vary, because guys who get 20 minutes a night in Calgary, for instance, often wouldn't crack the top two lines enjoyed by a legitimate contender.
We're only just now starting to see goaltenders move into this territory. Three is obviously just 10 percent of the total starting goalie pool in the league, but it's interesting that it's only recently occurred to GMs league-wide that they might want to approach their goaltenders in this same way. In recent history, and only for a little while, Ryan Miller and Cam Ward were the only goaltenders making north of $6 million, before Carey Price joined the party last season. Corey Crawford will do so next year. Even Conn Smythe winner and legitimate Hart candidate Jonathan Quick couldn't get more than $5.9 million (albeit for 10 years) out of Los Angeles after that one Cup-winning season.
One suspects that this is perhaps the result of the contract that Chicago gave Nikolai Khabibulin immediately after the 2004-05 lockout, which was commensurate with what Iginla and the league's other stars received in the new cap environment. Four years, $6.75 million per, and a disaster on the ice. His stats improved as the time went along, though one suspects that this was largely due to the quality of the team in front of him, but by the end he was in a 1a/1b tandem with Cristobal Huet. The .886 save percentage he posted in his first 50 games of that deal, though, was probably put everyone off that type of contract for a while.
This all of course circles back to the contract Lundqvist signed this week, which will pay him $8.5 million a season against the cap until he is 39 years old. That's a lot of money for any player, regardless of who it is. He now makes more money against the cap than everyone in the entire league except former Hart Trophy winners Corey Perry ($8.625 million), Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million) Evgeni Malkin ($9.5 million), and Alex Ovechkin (more than $9.53 million). All of those forwards, by the way, are in their mid- or late 20s today. Perry, the oldest and coincidentally least-great of these, signed his deal when he was still 27.
Which is to say that the Lundqvist contract is not a good investment for the Rangers, especially because his stats are down this year, and we have no idea how he's going to respond to the new pad restrictions put in place by the league over the course of 82 games, let alone the following 574.
The arguments about why that doesn't matter are, despite this, perfectly reasonable, and also myriad.
The cap is going up by more than $15 million within the next three seasons alone! The Rangers can afford to buy him out when he starts sucking four years from now, especially because the deal is front-loaded! Someone else would have given him the same contract! And so on.
The Rangers weren't about to let their all-world goaltender walk in free agency, nor should they have. They were very much backed against a wall because they were unlikely to find a suitable replacement, Cam Talbot's early-career success (which hilariously led to actual fears about a goaltending controversy) notwithstanding.
Yes, Glen Sather had only one option here, but that doesn't all of a sudden make it a good one, as a baffling number of observers termed it. Put another way, if a madman forces you at knife point to eat human feces, your only choice is to eat it, but that does not mean that the feces tasted good. Eating human feces is still as gross as this deal is bad. Full stop, no matter the reason why.
This all points, though, to the fact that teams are going to have to start paying through the nose for even good goalies. Rinne is a lot of things, but elite among current NHL goalies is a bit of a stretch. If you were putting together a top-5 list, even leaving aside the never-ending injuries, he might be in the very lower limits of that, or perhaps even outside it. No one could really blame you if you left him off, anyway. This is also true of Corey Crawford, who cashed in on a slightly-above-average Cup run for six years and $36 million.
Now, other goalies — even those that are only a little better than average — will be able to point at an aging Lundqvist in a few years, in the way they can Crawford now: “He's not that good and look what he's getting. I want that.” It's only going to get worse as the cap goes up. Cory Schneider, for instance, is eligible to sign a new contract this summer and his career numbers are markedly better than Crawford's. Think he's not going to want something in the neighborhood of that $36 million?
Obviously goaltenders have more influence on the games in which they appear than any other player; they play the full 60 minutes and are, at the end of the day, more responsible than anyone else for preventing goals. In much the same way that they say the difference between a .250 hitter in baseball and one which hits the fabled .300 threshold is just one extra hit per week, the difference between an elite goaltender and a sub-mediocre one over the course of a season stopping perhaps one extra shot over the course of four games.
In a world in which league average is about .915 over the last few years, Jimmy Howard's very good .920 save percentage on 1,377 shots in 2011-12 (the last full season played) is considered miles better than Martin Brodeur's shabby .909 on 1,336. However, the fact of the matter is that Howard allowed 17 fewer goals with only about 32 fewer minutes played.
It's also worth noting, obviously that team quality goes a long way to determining goaltender quality, more so than, say, forward quality. While forwards and defensemen can certainly play for teams with systems that are to their benefit (or detriment) given their skill set, bad players tend to be bad regardless of who they play for, and good players good. Goaltenders, however, can see their stats fluctuate wildly from one season to another not only when moving from team to team, but when staying with an existing one; Marc-Andre Fleury, behind an excellent team with little in the way of core roster turnover, went .912, .905, and .918 from 2008-09 (when they won the Stanley Cup) to 2010-11. His minutes changed very little during that time, and the number of points they earned in those seasons climbed from 99 to 101 to 106. He was a subaverage league goalie in two of those seasons, but the team did better regardless of his play. During that same period, Roberto Luongo, who's undoubtedly a better goaltender, went through similar changes to his save percentage (.920, .913, .928) and the Canucks likewise saw their season point totals increase regardless.
James Reimer's contract is up this summer and he has better career numbers — in fewer games played but behind a much worse team — than many of the league's highly-paid goaltenders, with Crawford standing out as an obvious example. Not that Reimer will necessarily get paid more than, say, $3 million, because GMs still have a very poor understanding of how goaltenders work, but he's really only played one fewer season than Crawford did when he signed his mega-deal. Put Reimer on Chicago last season and they probably still win the Cup. Yet he'll go begging this summer, and Fleury, who's a pending UFA, cashes in on another huge deal from some sucker or another.
One imagines, therefore, that the difference between a great goaltender (like Lundqvist or Luongo) and a subpar one (like Fleury or Ondrej Pavelec, who by the way entered last night's games with the same save percentage this season as the 59.5 million-dollar man) is much closer than, say, that between Crosby and a slightly less than mediocre NHL forward. Thus, to pay elite goaltenders commensurate with elite position players breaks the market value for everyone.
It comes down to a value proposition, and teams are starting to put too many eggs into baskets with unpredictable reliability to the detriment of their ability to bring in or retain those whose contributions can be more easily projected.
The Rangers just committed themselves to a 32-year-old basket for the next seven years, but hey, what were they supposed to do?