Ovechkin Fallout: Are Long-Term Contracts Becoming an NHL Epidemic?

Jason HackettAnalyst IJanuary 11, 2008

There is a growing trend this year in the NHL, and it is not a pretty sight.

Originally, a rule held that teams couldn't re-sign their players under 23 to extended contracts until their contract had ended. Teams would retain those players' rights, but they could also be sent offer sheets from other teams.

General managers complained. And the owners demanded a change to rule.

Thus, the league's current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) states teams can re-sign their players under 23 to contract extensions.

So what's the problem? One would think that the ability to re-sign their youth would be a good thing for the many young franchises in the NHL.

Well, hold your horses.

In a growing trend, many of the league's great young talents are being locked up for extended periods.

Although many will say this trend it started with goaltender Rick DiPietro, who signed a 15-year contract with the New York Islanders last season, the Isles' owner did the contract and not GM Garth Snow. Most in the league called it a lapse in judgment, but while the length of the contract was called into question, no one thought it would be a snow ball effect.

But one by one, young guns across the league are inking long-term deals. No one can argue that Alexander Ovechkin is a great player—one of the league's best—but will he be in 13 years, at the end of his new contract with the Washington Capitals? Will he sustain a career ending injury? Will he defect to Europe?

Ovechkin might love Washington now, but how many people at his age know what they want when they are in their mid-thirties?

The Capitals obviously feel that not only is Ovechkin their future, and that they cannot risk losing him to free agency after just seven seasons.

This is understandable. Gone are the days were you can retain a player's right until he is 30 in the NHL.

Consequently, GMs are not only putting more emphasis on youth, but are also desperate to keep them for as long as humanly possible, as is evident with many recent deals—including Ryan Getzlaf's with Anaheim (5 years), Mike Richards' with Philadelphia (12 years), Dustin Brown's with Los Angeles (6 years), and many more.

But the trend isn't limited to the younger players. Veteran restricted and unrestricted free agents are being offered or re-signed to extended contracts, such as Mike Ribeiro (5 years), David Legwand (7 years), and Daniel Briere (7 years).

It is a growing trend that needs to be address by the league, before it gets out of hand.

[Ed. note: Until the Gretzky picture, you need to develop a case for WHY this is a bad thing? Is it because too much can go wrong with longer contracts? Is it because longer contracts tie teams' hands? Develop that, and we can work on this section.]

The problem is that the general managers won't bring it up, as they are the ones that wanted the rule change to begin with—they obviously don't see anything wrong with it!

So it will be up to the league itself to make the changes, but expect the NHLPA to put its foot down on this one, as these contracts greatly benefit the players.

Even more alarming will be prospects being signed to a max of three years (which I agree with)—will this become the norm for the higher echelon players? Or even better yet, what will happen to the under 23 year olds who contracts are coming up this season?  With players like Marc-Andre Fleury, Mike Green, Henrik Lundqvist, Jay Bouwmeester, and Pascal Leclaire all looking to be re-signed, who will get the long term contracts? Florida will definitely be looking to sign Bouwmeester long term, and the same goes for the Rangers' Vezina candidate Henrik Lundqvist.

So what is the solution? Well, there are a couple different ideas that are floating through my little head. First, the league could put a cap on the max length of a contract to, let's say, 5 years. Second, have an unlimited max length on a contract for just one player per team, and make it an automatic no trade clause for the first 65% of the contract—force teams to bite the bullet for a good proportion of the contract. 

It bears mentioning that long-term deals are not competely new to the league—Wayne Gretzky still holds the record for contract length with the Oilers back in 1979, for a grand total of 21 years.

Yes, that's right: The Great One was supposed to be an Oiler until 1999!

Of course, we all know that didn't come true—he was dealt to Los Angeles, sparking the NHL's expansion into the southern United States.