The general rule of thumb for long-term contracts in the NHL: Players trade money for term, and general managers trade term for money.
Leon Draisaitl, 21, got both in his eight-year, $68-million deal with the Edmonton Oilers announced on Tuesday, giving him an $8.5 million cap hit through the 2024-25 season. It’s another classic overpayment from general manager Peter Chiarelli, who you might know from such hits as the David Krejci extension in Boston and the Milan Lucic deal with the Oilers.
The question this time is whether overpayment is justified.
This is the fourth-highest second contract of the NHL salary cap era, a list populated by Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. In three of those cases, they signed deals after having won the Hart Trophy.
OK, let’s bring this into a tighter focus on Draisaitl: It’s an overpayment if you judge the deal on accepted dogma and Draisaitl’s current trajectory as a player; it’s completely reasonable if Draisaitl ends up being the Malkin to Connor McDavid’s Crosby in a burgeoning Oilers Dynasty.
Let it be said that Draisaitl is a fantastic young star, and that the Oilers were lucky the rest of the NHL has an allergy to offer sheets. He completed his third season by setting a career-high with 77 points (29G, 48A). He had 16 points in 13 playoff games. He has 137 points in 191 career games.
This is No. 1 center money. Actually, it’s more than that: There are only five centers who will make more against the cap than Draisaitl next season: Jonathan Toews ($13.8 million, 29 years old), Anze Kopitar ($13 million, 29), Evgeni Malkin ($9.5 million, 31), Sidney Crosby ($8.7 million, 31) and Steven Stamkos ($8.5 million, 27).
Together, this group has 11 Stanley Cups, four Conn Smythe trophies and three Hart trophies.
No. 9 on that list is Ryan Johansen, the 25-year-old Nashville Predators forward who has proof of concept as a No. 1 center for two different teams. He’ll make $8 million against the next season.
“One big difference is that Nashville paid for just one RFA year and seven more expensive UFA years. This is why Draisaitl getting a RyJo contract would be generous on the part of the Oilers, even if you happen to think Draisaitl will be a better player than RyJo over the next eight years.”
That Draisaitl got more than Johansen, then, would drag this contract from generosity to overcompensation. Again, based on the typical dogma for these kinds of things.
But the Oilers, we can agree, aren’t a typical situation.
They’re Connor McDavid’s team, which means it’s assumed that they’re going to challenge for a Stanley Cup, and probably win one, within the next eight years. Crosby played for the Cup in his third season, and won his first in his fourth season. Next season will be McDavid’s third in the NHL.
You don’t have to pay McDavid’s winger $8.5 million annually to convert passes from a hockey deity. That person should make Chris Kunitz money. Hell, that person should play the Oilers for the privilege. But eventually, these wingers might earn that much because their stats are undeniable and the market dictates it. Draisaitl, who skated with McDavid last season, isn’t there yet.
But if you believe Draisaitl is a top-line center playing behind the best player in the world, giving you an unparalleled one-two punch in the Western Conference, then eight years and $8.5 million annually does make a modicum of sense. Because why dither around with bridge contracts and incremental gains if you feel this championship team will be built on the backs of McDavid, 20, and Draisaitl, 21? Why not lock up Draisaitl now, knowing that today’s overcompensation is tomorrow’s justifiable cost after their first Stanley Cup?
In a sense, Chiarelli might have learned a thing or two after (over)paying for success with the Boston Bruins: If you’re going to have ante up later, might as well do it sooner. Paying for potential could bite you in the ass, but it’s a better recipe for sustainability than paying David Krejci a $7.25 million hit for six seasons based on previous success. You know what you have with your two best players for the next eight seasons. There will be no surprises.
Yes, by any logical measurement of these types of contracts, Leon Draisaitl was just overpaid by his general manager. And yes, a top-heavy team in salary – they’ll have $21 million tied up in McDavid and Draisaitl beginning in 2018-19 – leads to migraines on your cap as the rest of the team asks for its reward.
That their combined cap hit is also that of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane with the Chicago Blackhawks would seem like a harbinger of things to come. Then again, Toews and Kane were paid for what they had accomplished, not what they might.
But that’s the gamble: That the McDavid Oilers will win a Stanley Cup or two, and that Draisaitl can anchor his own line rather than excel best with McDavid.
It’s a heavy bet.
But then when have you known a lottery winner to be frugal?
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