Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Do these five stars have bad contracts? Welcome to Salary Cap Court

There was a time when fans could get away with not caring about player salaries. Except in an indirect way, it wasn’t their money, so who really cared if some rich owner was paying a bit too much for a third-line center? Maybe he missed a payment on one of his yachts, but otherwise, no harm no foul.

Then the NHL became a hard cap league. Today, salaries – or more specifically, cap hits – are absolutely crucial. Squeezing as much value as possible into an artificially limited salary structure is the key to building and maintaining a contender, and even one big mistake can derail a roster. In today’s NHL, as I’ve phrased it before, a good player with a bad contract isn’t a good player.

We’ve had some fun over the years with some of the league’s worst signings, even building an entire cap-compliant roster out of them. But for the most part, those were the contracts nobody argues about. We all know that Brent Seabrook’s deal is bad. Nobody’s calling Bobby Ryan a value contract these days. We’ve beaten Milan Lucic’s deal into the ground, picked it up and dusted it off, then beaten it down again. With very few exceptions, even the most diehard fans aren’t defending those kind of deals anymore.

Other contracts aren’t as simple, and those are the ones we’re going to focus on here. Welcome to Salary Cap Court, where we’ll weigh the pros and cons of five contracts that might be bad, but maybe might not.

To be clear, every contract that makes its way to cap court will be questionable; there won’t be any good deals here. But we want to know if they’re outright bad, or merely not great. We’ll make the case for both sides of the argument, and then we’ll render a verdict, passing judgment on whatever’s left of a deal and deciding once and for all whether it really deserves to have the dreaded “bad contract” label slapped on it.

Make sense? Then be seated, because Salary Cap Court is in session. Let’s bring out our first defendant.

Erik Karlsson, Sharks

The details: Eight years and a cap hit of $11.5 million, thanks to an extension signed days before he would have become an unrestricted free agent last summer.

The case that it’s a bad contract: Karlsson has two Norris Trophies, should maybe have more, and might have been the very best defenseman of the 2010s. But everything in that sentence is in the past tense, and with his new contract only kicking in this year, the present and future are all that matters. The reality is that he didn’t play at a truly elite level in his last year in Ottawa, he didn’t live up to the hype in his first year in San Jose, and he hasn’t been especially great this year.

If you’re trying to figure out why, it’s not hard to round up the usual suspects: injury and age. He had a groin injury last year that resulted in surgery, and a heel problem before that. Mix in the fact that he turns 30 at the end of this season, and it’s not hard to wonder if his recent decline is permanent. That doesn’t mean he can’t still be a solid player, or even a very good one. But he’s being paid like he’s the very best defenseman in the league, and it sure looks like he isn’t that player anymore.

The case that it might be OK: Injuries heal, and we’ve already seen Karlsson overcome a more serious scare in 2013, when he missed most of the season with a sliced Achilles. He came back from that just fine, posting three straight first-team all-star seasons. As for age, we’ve seen plenty of superstar blueliners play into their late-30s and beyond, including Ray Bourque, Al MacInnis, Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom. Karlsson’s always been a great skater, but his most important talent is his vision and instinct, and that won’t fade even if he loses a half-step.

Sure, he’s been disappointing this season. So has everyone on the Sharks. The year has been a disaster. We can’t just throw out the whole season, but we shouldn’t lean on it too much either. Last year might be a better example of what Karlsson’s floor could be, and it’s worth remembering that even in an off-year his underlying numbers were decent and he still played well enough to show up on a handful of Norris ballots. If that’s the worst-case, it’s not bad. And his best-case looks a lot like his 2017 playoff run, when he almost managed to drag a very average Senators team all the way to the final. That wasn’t that long ago, and he was fighting through injuries then too.

The bottom line is that Karlsson is a generational talent, and when he’s fully healthy he’s basically been unstoppable. Every long-term deal is a gamble in some sense, but if you’re going to roll the dice, this is exactly the sort of player you do it on.

Key comparisons: Drew Doughty is the obvious one, with a similar eight-year deal that carries an $11 million hit. We’d also want to look at Roman Josi (8 x $9 million) and teammate Brent Burns (8 x $8 million). There’s also John Carlson, who signed his 8-year, $8 million cap hit deal at a similar age and is delivering the sort of dynamic Norris-caliber season Karlsson used to, but for a lot less money.

The verdict: The case against the Karlsson deal is a strong one, but I’m not sure it goes beyond a reasonable doubt. The Sharks are in cap hell, and we’ll watch Karlsson closely over the next season or so, but for now we’ll tentatively say: not a bad contract. Yet.

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