Blackhawks Preserve Toews and Kane's Careers With Contractual Restraint

S BCorrespondent IDecember 4, 2009

CHICAGO - MAY 24:  Patrick Kane #88 and Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrate after Toews scored a goal in the second period against goalie Chris Osgood #30 of the Detroit Red Wings during Game Four of the Western Conference Championship Round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 24, 2009 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jim Prisching/Getty Images)
Jim Prisching/Getty Images

NHL GMs are falling in love with the long-term contract.

What's not to love?

Since cap hits are calculated using the average annual value of the contract, superstars can be retained with front-loaded contracts that are relatively easy to buy out toward the end of a career, thus taking the sting out of a hefty superstar salary.

The downside? You're basically saddled with a player who could seriously deteriorate before it's financially viable to buy-out the contract.

That's what makes Chicago's recent signing so very interesting. On the one hand, you had the team holding onto defenseman Duncan Keith with a 13-year, $72 million contract, which works out to a cap hit of around $5.5 million per year.

The length isn't horrifying when you consider how gracefully defensemen tend to age and the annual cap hit is certainly reasonable.

What was even more impressive were the signings of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to five-year $31.5 million contracts, which turns into an annual cap hit of $6.3 million per year, a high number, but well within the norm for two rising NHL stars.

The lengths of the contracts are what's most impressive, though. For as much upside as the two youngsters seem to have, there is always a huge degree of risk with unproven talent.

We've seen it this season. While Kane is on-track for another 70-odd point season, Toews, captain of the Blackhawks, is struggling with just six goals in 20 games. It could be an aberration or it could be an indication Toews' first two successful NHL campaigns were statistical anomalies.

But the beauty of the relatively short-term signings is that if Toews is on the downside of his career sooner than anticipated, the Blackhawks aren't saddled with his contract for the next decade.

And if, as expected, Toews rebounds in the second half of the season, Chicago has him locked down for a good amount of time, with the option of re-signing him at the end of his contract.

Even better for the Blackhawks, assuming no no-trade clauses were granted, a six-year contract is a lot easier to trade than a 13-year one. Especially a few years into a six-year deal.

One has to wonder if the Blackhawks weren't a bit scared off by the adventures of Mike Richards in Philadelphia. Richards, just a few years older than Kane and Toews, signed a 12-year, $69 million extension in December 2007.

He finished the next full season with 80 points and the Flyers captaincy. He has played well this season, with 11 goals in his first 24 games, but he's come under fire for the Flyers' recent swoon , with fans complaining he's not taking enough of a leadership role.

What happens when Richards gets tired of the backlash and realizes he's still got a decade to go on his contract? Will the security of a 12-year deal begin to feel like a prison sentence?

One has to wonder if the Blackhawks watched this situation carefully and worried about sinking Toews with the pressure of being the team captain, plus the pressure of a huge, long-term contract.

And one has to wonder if the organization worried that by keeping him for 10 or 15 years, they might accidentally crush his spirit and destroy his career.

Long-term contracts are useful from an economic point of view, but not enough GMs seem to consider the psychological toll it can take on a player—especially a young player.

There's definitely some pressure on a player coming up in the NHL with a reputation for being a rising star. The pressure can become oppressive on a player whose team potentially ruined its ability to sign future free agents, or retain players, because it threw the bank at him.

Duncan Keith is going to have some huge expectations to live up to for quite a long time.

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane's relatively short contracts will give the Blackhawks two wonderful gifts: Future flexibility with their roster and a chance for the two forwards to develop without the yoke of a long-term contract holding them back.


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