December 19, 2004
12 dumb contracts that ruined hockeyWhy is the NHL in a mess? The gruesome tales of owners with dollars but no sense
By RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun
It seems to be such an honourable effort. Owners, united like the Three Musketeers, trying to save the NHL from itself.
From the overspending that's made third- and fourth-line grinders millionaires.
Sadly, it's more of a comedy.
These, after all, are the same owners who have done what they can to bend the rules to their favour and ignored what's best for the league when it suits them.
They've written out massive cheques in an effort to win and feed their own ego.
Comically, they're saying the lockout -- now in Day 94 -- is about making sure it's a level playing field.
There may be some validity to it but, over the last decade, they've tried to find every upper hand possible, tried to use greenbacks instead of intelligence to build winners. Tried to take advantage of fellow owners, who are in some financial peril.
Sometimes even to exact a measure of revenge.
For the past decade, there has been a steady stream of foolish contracts that have sent the salaries spiraling to high heaven.
Here's a rundown of some contracts that helped ruin the NHL and bring it where it is now:
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NO. 1 -- JOE SAKIC
Offer-sheet disturbers: The Rangers' three-year, $21M offer with a $15M signing bonus
Slightly more than a week after losing Mark Messier to Vancouver in the summer of 1997, the New York Rangers shocked everyone when they signed Colorado Avalanche star centre Joe Sakic to an offer sheet.
The price tag was a whopper in itself -- three years and $21 million -- and a huge bump from the $3.1 million Sakic was paid the year before.
Then came the bombshell: The deal included a $15 million signing bonus.
Colorado scraped together the money to match the offer for Sakic, who was a perennial all-star and only 28 years old at the time, instead of taking five first-round draft choices as compensation.
At least you can appreciate the Rangers going after Sakic, one of the truly elite players in the league. The problem with this deal is the effect it had on other restricted free agents.
Sakic's deal made a top-flight restricted free agent worth $7 million per season and both Paul Kariya (two years, $14 million) and Eric Lindros (two years, $16 million) soon took advantage.
It was very similar to Keith Tkachuk's romance with Chicago in October 1995 before the ink was even dry on the new agreement.
A young power forward with the Winnipeg Jets, Tkachuk signed a front-loaded $17.2-million deal that gave him $6 million in the first year and roughly $3 million per season over the rest of the deal.
The Jets were on the verge of leaving for Phoenix and the Blackhawks were trying to take advantage of the club's weakness.
Winnipeg matched the deal but the organization had to put up with Tkachuk whining he was underpaid a few years later.
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NO. 2 -- CHRIS GRATTON
Flyers' folly: A five-year, $16.5M deal for a young restricted free agent they really want ... for a little while
A week after the Rangers tried to lure Joe Sakic, Philadelphia signed Tampa's young rising star Chris Gratton to a five-year, $16.5-million pact.
This time it worked, sort of.
Gratton did score 22 goals in 1997-98 -- he had 30 the year before -- making it seem like a good move.
However, the end result cost Philly in a big way. First, the Flyers sent Mikael Renberg and Karl Dykhuis to Tampa Bay to retrieve the four first-round draft picks lost as compensation.
Then, having scored only once in the first 26 games of the 1998-99 season, Gratton was sent back to Tampa with Mike Sillinger for Renberg and Daymond Langkow. Gratton hasn't lived up to anyone's expectations since but the price of a young, powerful 20-30 goal scorer went up immensely.
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NO. 3 & 4 -- JOE THORNTON/SERGEI SAMSONOV
Rookie mistakes: Bruins circumvent freshman 'cap'
That Joe Thornton, the first overall pick of 1997, received a bonus-laden contract never has been and never will be the issue. The fact Sergei Samsonov -- the eighth pick of the year -- received the same deal, was.
The CBA signed a couple of years earlier capped rookies but the Bruins managed to come up with the deal that's known as the model -- which allowed players all three years to receive bonuses based on a handful of criteria.
Thornton reached 60 points in the final year and earned $2.4 million. Samsonov cashed a few big cheques because of it, too.
"Harry Sinden (the Bruins president-GM at the time) has just set the market for one-third of the teams in the NHL. Only two years after getting the CBA done and he's blowing it up," said one insider.
Now, every first-rounder wants the model. Moreover, those who reach the bonuses -- such as Marian Gaborik and Mike Comrie -- expect big deals when they become restricted free agents and can't be signed without those amounts collected from bonuses taken into consideration.
Even then Rangers GM Neil Smith -- in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black -- criticized the Bruins.
Sinden shot back: "I'm the last one in the sewer. They were all waiting for me."
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NO. 5 -- SERGEI FEDOROV
Clause for concern: 'Canes' six-year, $38M offer sheet with one sneaky bonus
Having sat out most of the season without a new contract, Fedorov was pushed to the forefront Feb. 26, 1998 when he signed an offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes.
The contract was a six-year, $38-million pact that had an amazing signing bonus that gave him $16 million in the first season alone, in which he played only 21 games. Moreover, it included a crazy $12 million bonus if the team reached the Western Conference final.
Detroit won the Cup that year but there was no such chance for the Hurricanes, who were playing to near-empty houses. Plus, it was no secret Carolina owner Peter Karmanos Jr. was trying to hit Detroit cheque-signer Michael Illitch in the wallet.
The fact this lockout is to save teams like Carolina makes it even more foolish, doesn't it?
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NO. 6 -- JOHN LECLAIR
Past-their-prime prices go up: Five-year, $45M deal for broken-down winger
Shortly before becoming an unrestricted free agent, John LeClair inked a whopping five-year, $45-million deal in the summer of 2001.
Sure, the hulking Flyers forward had averaged 47 goals in a five-season span (1995-96 through 1999-2000) but he had just missed all but 16 games due to back problems and was about to celebrate his 32nd birthday.
He's had a couple of 20-plus goal seasons since but only skated in 35 games in 2002-03 because of a shoulder problem. Because of the deal, the asking price for pending UFAs -- Mats Sundin -- went up to as much $9 million per season. Doug Weight signed for four years and $40 million upon being traded to St. Louis and hasn't scored more than 15 goals a season for the Blues.
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NO. 7 & 8 -- ALEXEI YASHIN/JAROMIR JAGR
Top dollar for scorers who don't score: 10-year, 87.5M and 8-year, $88M deals
Just before the 2001 training camp, the Islanders signed the longest, most lucrative contract in NHL history with Alexei Yashin, a 10-year, $87.5-million deal.
Let's see ... he sat out a whole season because he didn't want to honour his contract with Ottawa and finally gets his wish -- a trade to a team stupid enough to pay him too much.
Thanks, Mike Milbury.
How's the man known as Cash-in shown his thanks? Seasons that have seen his goal totals go from 32 to 26 to 15.
A month after Yashin's deal was signed, in a perfect show of what ego and stupidity do when mixed together, Washington owner Ted Leonsis decided to rip up the final two years of Jaromir Jagr's deal that was worth $9.5 million and $10.25 million and gave the moody star to an eight-year, $88 million deal.
Leonsis, after seeing Jagr destroy his team's chemistry and fail to crack the 40-goal mark, dealt him to the Rangers last spring and had to swallow $20 million of the remaining seasons.
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NO. 9 -- BOBBY HOLIK
Chequing centre: Five-year, $45M deal for a third-line centre
Trust the Rangers to take stupidity to a new level.
Against all sense of sanity, Rangers GM Glen Sather shocked everyone by signing Bobby Holik to a five-year, $45-million pact on July 1, 2002.
A year earlier, Holik scored 25 goals playing on a one-year, $3.5-million deal reached through arbitration.
After reporting to his first Rangers camp 20 lb. overweight, he scored only 16 goals.
Want to know what makes the deal even worse?
The Rangers could have given him $10.5 million per season because the owners -- Cablevision -- were mad at the New Jersey Devils owners -- the New York Yankees parent company -- for taking Yankees games away.
As one NHL insider said: "When you're making decisions for corporate revenge, I can guess why Gary wants an idiot-proof system."
A year later, Keith Tkachuk also signed a five-year, $45-million deal that St. Louis is trying to figure out how to get out from under.
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NO. 10 -- MARTIN LAPOINTE
'Cheapskates' break bank: Bruins give winger four-year, $20M deal for one better-than-usual season
A day after Holik signed came a reminder the Boston Bruins have no right to complain about salary escalation.
A year before signing Martin Lapointe, Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and Detroit owner Mike Illitch got into a heated shouting match at the board of governors meeting.
Illitch called Jacobs a cheapskate for raking in so much profit with a mediocre team year after year and Jacobs vowed revenge.
It came in the form of signing Lapointe to the tune of four years and $20 million.
Lapointe, who somehow scored 27 goals the year before, has been either hurt or back to his old self -- a career 15-17 goal scorer.
Word is, Lapointe's agent had a deal with Detroit GM Ken Holland to give him a last chance to come to terms and Holland's reply hearing the numbers was: "You're lying."
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NO. 11 & 12 -- JOSE THEODORE/J-S GIGUERE
Net gains: Goalies get three-year, 16.5M and four-year, 19.5M deals for their one good season
The one-year wonders.
Prior to their deals, goalies signed to mega-contracts either had a long history of success, such as Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur or Ed Belfour, or were pending unrestricted free agents such as Dominik Hasek and Curtis Joseph.
Theodore was first to hit the jackpot, inking a three-year, $16.5-million deal with Montreal after winning the hotly contested 2002 Hart Trophy over Jarome Iginla.
Giguere, cast aside years earlier by the Flames, capped the next season with a Conn Smythe Trophy win while taking the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim within one game of the 2003 Stanley Cup. For his efforts, he signed a four-year, $19.5 million deal.
Neither have managed to live up to the value or expectations.