Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Does Carey Price have a bad contract? Debating five star contracts as salary cap court is back in session

Everybody please take a seat. Cap court is back in session.

This is a feature where we weigh the pros and cons of various big-dollar deals around the league, and render a verdict on a simple question: Is it a bad contract? In our first session back in January, Erik Karlsson, Jamie Benn, Aaron Ekblad, Ryan Johansen and Jonathan Toews were called to the stand. Two were found guilty of having bad contracts; three were let off with a warning. Many of you had strong feelings about those verdicts – Toews especially – and we’ve heard that appeals may be working their way through the lower courts.

But for now, we have a new docket of names to consider. And we’ll start with the one that came up the most often, by far, in the responses to that first piece.

Carey Price, Canadiens

The details: The 32-year-old Price is finishing the second year of an eight-year deal that carries a cap hit of $10.5 million.

The case that it’s a bad contract: When the Canadiens gave Price this deal during the 2017 offseason, he was just two years removed from winning both the Vezina and the Hart Trophy in the same season. He was near the top of every list of the best goaltenders in the league, and with one year to go until unrestricted free agency, he held all sorts of leverage. Rather than turn the negotiation into a season-long sideshow, the Habs quickly offered up a deal that reset the market for goaltenders.

Or did it? In the nearly three years since, only two goalie deals have landed in the same ballpark as Price, with Sergei Bobrovsky getting seven-years at $10-million AAV as a UFA last summer and Andrei Vasilevskiy getting an eight-year extension at $9.5-million AAV with the Lightning a few weeks later. Like Price, both players had a recent Vezina. But despite Vasilevskiy being younger and Bobrovsky being a UFA, neither player came all that close to topping Price’s total.

In other words, the Canadiens paid top dollar – literally – on the sort of deal that really needs Price to be a perennial Vezina frontrunner to make sense. So far, he hasn’t been. He was below-average in 2017-18, his first season after signing (but before the extension had even kicked in), leading to philosophical questions about whether you could regret a deal that hadn’t even technically started yet. He was better in 2018-19, finishing seventh in Vezina voting. But his numbers dipped again this year during an up-and-down season, and people around the league are starting to reassess whether he’s still a top-tier goaltender. Since the day he signed, among goalies with at least 100 starts, he ranks just 19th out of 27 in save percentage. He’s even behind Carter Hutton.

Goaltender aging curves can be all over the map, but two so-so seasons after turning 30 is a bad sign, especially for a guy with a league-leading cap hit until the summer he turns 39. The contract is bad right now, and it has the potential to turn into a total disaster.

The case that it might be OK: Price had one of the best seasons any goalie has ever had in 2014-15, becoming one of just three goaltenders to be named MVP since Jacques Plante in 1962. He has four other seasons as a top-five Vezina candidate and was the starter for Team Canada at both the 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup. The bottom line is that he’s clearly perceived as an elite goaltender. And that’s especially true among players, who still consistently rank him as the league’s best goalie. They should know, right?

His numbers haven’t been great lately, but even the very best goaltenders have a bad year or two – Bobrovsky did this year, as did Marc-Andre Fleury and others. And Price hasn’t exactly been playing behind an elite roster.

Is he the very best goaltender in the league, as his cap hit would indicate? Probably not, although that doesn’t mean he can’t get back to that level. But even if he doesn’t, he’s unquestionably the most important player on the Canadiens’ roster, and these days lots of teams are paying their top guy north of $10 million. He’s their rock. His contract might not be great, but under the circumstances it’s far from awful.

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