SUN Hockey Pool

Only time will tell

SCOTT MORRISON

, Last Updated: 4:35 PM ET

It was roughly 15 months ago that the New York Islanders shocked the hockey world when they announced they had signed goaltender Rick DiPietro to a 15-year guaranteed contract.

No one was quite certain if they were simply smarter than the rest or if the circus was still refusing to leave town, although the polls were pointing heavily to the latter.

"I don't know the benefit of a 15-year contract," then Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke said at the time. "But they must have their own thoughts on that. They also signed (Alexei) Yashin for 10 years. For us, in today's world, we think five years is a long contract ... but if DiPietro turns out to be one of the best goalies in the league, then it's a hell of a deal."

So far, so good for the Islanders on that front. While DiPietro hasn't been amongst the leaders in the league in terms of goals-against average, wins, save percentage or shutouts, he has still been quite good and is seemingly getting better. We'll check back in eight or nine years.

Some would argue, of course, that the fact they had to buy out Yashin last year for a whopping amount merely leaves them with a .500 record with long-term deals.

Clarke, though he is no longer GM, and the Flyers clearly were paying attention to what the Islanders were thinking because on Thursday they signed centre Mike Richards to a 12-year deal worth $69 million US or a salary cap average of $5.75 million. All of which begs the question: Were the Islanders slightly ahead of the curve or has the circus relocated in Philly?

It might be the former. You may have noticed that more and more good, young players are being signed to longer-term contracts these days. Deals are now routinely extending to five, six, seven, even eight years. And then there are Richards and DiPietro.

A lot of these deals have had different motivating factors. In some cases, teams are protecting themselves from allowing talent to become restricted free agents and thus open to offer sheets, once a seldom-used practice that gained huge prominence and inspired fear last summer after the Edmonton Oilers put in offers on Buffalo winger Thomas Vanek and Anaheim winger Dustin Penner. Teams obviously are worried that this is not a passing fancy.

Others see the longer terms, with what they hope is a comfortable cap average, as being protection against salary inflation in the NHL. The cap, after all, has risen every year since the lockout and will rise again next season, meaning the maximum a player can earn increases every year. Get a good player, for a good price, for a long time, and it seems like smart business.

The dangers in these long-term deals, though, are many and they are costly. There is the risk, obviously, that a player will lack motivation by not having to play for a contract every few years, or by natural causes he won't develop quite the way a team envisions or hopes. Or, he won't stay productive for the entire term because no one can predict longevity and no one knows where the cap will be that far down the road. Or, even what sort of collective bargaining agreement will be in place.

In the case of the 22-year-old Richards, he is off to terrific start this season, having reached a career high for goals (14) and points (35) and is valued as being not just a complete, all-around player, but a leader and future captain. The Flyers are confident his game and his attitude will both be good for a long while.

"We consider Mike one of the young core players in terms of his play and leadership, and we believe there is more growth in his game in terms of production and leadership," said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. "If somewhere down the road, Mike became our captain, it wouldn't surprise me. On a longer-term deal, are we saving? As Mike continues to develop and grow as a player, yeah. I won't say he's a bargain player, but it certainly stabilizes things for the Flyers."

Indeed, Richards would have been a restricted free agent in July and might have inspired an offer sheet. So the Flyers have him at a price with which they are comfortable. All he has to do is stay good for a dozen years.

"The threat is real," Holmgren said. "When you have young players going into restricted free-agency, it's there. We didn't want to get Mike in that situation. It's not to downplay the value of our other young players, but we just consider (Richards) a unique player."

And, for better or worse, he will be almost certainly be a Flyer for life.

Once was the time when a player starting and finishing his career with the same organization made him unique. The times may be changing.


Photos