An NHL Salary History: How We Got Here

Matt EichelSenior Writer IJuly 2, 2008

Being that it is open season on any and all players unsigned through July 1, everyone is now looking to pay top dollar for the big names and get the bargains later.

Since Gary Bettman took over as comissioner, NHL salaries have skyrocketed and, even with the introduction of a salary cap, it also continues to rise.

Before Bettman was introduced as the comissioner, the highest paid player during the 1990-91 season was Wayne Gretzky, at $3 million a year. Mario Lemieux followed with $2.18 million, along with Steve Yzerman at $1.3 million, Ray Bourque at $1.194 million, and Brett Hull at $1.116 million.

Following the 1992-93 season and the hiring of Bettman as comissioner, NHL salaries skyrocketed, with the top-five salaries stretching over the $2.5 million mark. Eric Lindros was the highest paid player in 1993-94 with a contract worth $3.35 million, followed by Yzerman at $3.2 million, Lemieux and Gretzky at $3 million, and Patrick Roy at just over $2.5 million.

Then came the lockout, and player salaries nonetheless only continued to skyrocket. The 1995-96 season saw Gretzky getting paid $6.54 million, Mark Messier $6.29 million, and Keith Tkachuk $6 million (with the now-defunct Winnipeg Jets).

The 1996-97 season saw an explosion as Lemieux became the first player to earn over $10 million in a season with an $11.35 million deal. In 1997-98, Joe Sakic earned $16.45 million, the highest total ever made by a player in a single season.

Sergei Fedorov's deal in 1997-98 was close at $14.5, while Jaromir Jagr's blockbuster deal was worth $11 million a year and just over $11 million in 2002-03. With the top-five NHL salaries over $10 million (up $7 million from 1993-94), the NHL's second lockout with Bettman occurred, and a salary cap was installed.

Yet, the cap is seeming to lead us back to the same problem. Being raised from $39 million in 2005-06 to $56.7 million in the coming 2008-09 season, the top-five NHL salaries have spiked again. There was a slight drop after the lockout in the top-five salaries, as the fifth highest paid player was Jarome Iginla at $7 million.

This next season, Dany Heatley is slated to be the highest paid player at $10 million, with Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby next at $9 million, followed by Daniel Briere, Scott Gomez, Thomas Vanek, Jason Spezza, Brian Campbell, Mikka Kiprusoff, and Kimmo Timonen (?) at $8 million.

General managers these days must have too many happy pills to pass around to sign so many players to such high-priced deals.

True, Kimmo Timonen is a great puck-rushing defenseman, but not even near worth $8 million a year. Timonen is closer to $4-to-5 million a year. Thomas Vanek's disappearance from the top goal-scorers in the league came at a bad time for Buffalo, which paid him the big bucks as a reward for his 40-plus goal season in 2006-07.

So far this offseason, big names such as Brian Campbell, Wade Redden, and Marian Hossa have gotten their fair worth on the market for the teams that are willing to pay top dollar for them. Campbell is definitely worth $8 million a season in Chicago on a young and potent team. Hossa's contract in Detroit, just under $8 million, is worth its weight in gold, while Redden's deal in New York suits the Rangers defensive core just fine.

Yet other signings, such as Joni Pitkanen for $12 million over three years in Carolina (at $3.5 million, $4 million, then $4.5 million over those years) is not worth it at all. For a defenseman that played 63 games and had only eight goals and 26 points last season, with an additional career-high of 46 points and plus-22, may be questionable. Pitkanen is more in the range of $2-$3 million a year.

And don't get me, or anyone on the TSN panel, started talking about the Cristobal Huet deal in Chicago or the Jeff Finger Deal in Toronto, because that is just plain insanity for those GMs.

Where are my tylenol pills; this is going to be a headache crunching such high numbers.