The best player in the world is about to get paid like one. Yesterday, we found out what the ballpark range is on Connor McDavid’s soon-to-be-signed second contract with the Edmonton Oilers. It’s a lot of money; $106 million over eight years. It’s the fifth $100 million contract in NHL history, the second to come after an entry-level contract, and it’ll be the youngest that anybody has ever been able to commit to the century mark.
$13.2 million a year. That’s $2.7 more than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who are atop the league at $10.5 a piece. That’s nearly $5 million more than Sidney Crosby, who took the sweetheart “jersey number” deal when he signed for 12 x $8.7M in 2012. It’s… a lot of money.
It’s also probably worth it. We’re talking about Connor McDavid here; a player who could have probably played in the NHL at 15 or 16, may have been in the “best on earth” conversation while he was still in Major Junior and just cleared 100 points in a year where nobody else had 90. Not to mention, by signing him for the max term, they’re keeping him away from free agency for four seasons. Edmonton is probably going to run into cap trouble while he’s there, but that’s more a matter of his surroundings; moves like committing $10 million to Milan Lucic and Kris Russell, buying out sizable contracts with just two years to go on them, and boasting that they’ll match any offer sheet for Leon Draisatil don’t really give you much confidence in how they’re building.
Of course, this new McDavid contract has become a sudden barometer for the rest of the league. “Our player is actually cheap because he isn’t making this much!”, “well actually, McDavid is cheap because of his cap percentage compared to Crosby when he signed his deal”, and, my personal favourite, “the Leafs are totally screwed when they have to give $40 million to their big three!”.
Pump the breaks for a second. Connor McDavid is not a precedent, at least in this situation.
Connor McDavid is incomparably good
I’d like to reiterate that McDavid scored 12.3% more points than any other player in the NHL this year at the age of 20. That is, as the kids would say, completely and totally obscene, even if it helps that Crosby missed a few games. To put this into context, I looked up every regular player who put up at least 1.2 points per game in an Age 20 or younger season and combined their output at 19 and 20 together. Here’s how it looks, both raw and using Hockey-Reference’s era-adjusted points model.
For reference, Auston Matthews sits at 0.927, Mitch Marner sits at 0.87, and William Nylander sits at 0.796. All incredibly good, and reflective of them being future superstars, if not Hall of Famers if everything goes right (also, let’s see how Auston and Mitch do in their Age 20 years). But their numbers mean that their aspirations are in the context of the rest of the league.
McDavid’s aspirations, to be blunt, are with history. His multi-year comparables (Ovechkin didn’t have an age 19 season and probably gets a boost as such) are Gretzky, Crosby, Lemieux, and Lindros. Two of these players are neck in neck for the greatest of all time spot. The other two were considered the best hope to climb into the Top 4-5 before injury, though Crosby has an outside shot still.
That’s an entirely different playing field, and it’s hard to believe that a player poised to be one of the single greatest in the history of the sport, being locked up through his entire prime with a deal that expires just before the historical age for decline. The only contracts that are comparable in the entire cap era are probably Crosby and Ovechkin’s, and even then, one took a jersey number deal while the other signed to a term literally not possible under the Collective Bargaining Agreement today.
It’s great that you love your young player. In Toronto’s case, it’s great that you love your cast of young players. They’re incredible and they’re going to do incredible things. But, no matter how often a radio host or a blog will pitch a hot take to the contrary, they’re not Connor McDavid. Not Willie, not Mitch, not Auston, not any other young star in the league. He’s in his own stratosphere and his contract was always going to be unique, as such.
Can the league support a shift right now?
Then again, GM’s also have a tendency to do things that don’t make a ton of sense. Sometimes they genuinely don’t know any better, other times it’s about staying within the confines of the old boys club, and sometimes they lose out to quick-witted agents. So maybe, just maybe, there are a few teams that could be hoodwinked into tiering their stars, that they care very much about, in the same class as a young prodigy that’s fifteen steps ahead of them.
But who even comes close before the big three can even sign? This year’s 60+ point class of U24 forwards has Nikita Kucherov, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Viktor Arvidsson due for contracts this summer or next. Draisaitl is the only player with a potential price attached to him, and seems even more disproportionately gigantic than McDavid’s ($9 million+), but Edmonton also has the (perhaps unfair) reputation of having to pay a premium for players to stick around in their market, and their thought process over the past several years in terms of roster composition hasn’t exactly inspired any blueprints. How the others do will be interesting, but the teams that they play for (Boston, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, and Nashville) have pretty good track records in not letting negotiations with RFAs get out of hand.
To the others, how far can those teams reach? How far can most teams reach? 21 teams are going to head into July 1st this year with under $20 million in cap space, thirteen with under $15 million, and seven with $10 million or less. With so many players locked into-long term deals up to this point, and with so many of the teams that have cap space to burn being clubs with internal budgets, are there enough teams that can feasibly give up money to enough star players to make contracts over $10 million into a pattern? As long as you can point to contract’s like Kucherov’s last deal, Mark Scheifele’s, Jonathan Drouin’s very recently inked contract, and the like, the precedent on signing younger players will continue to lean towards sweetheart, low-leverage totals.
I have my doubts. Even if you mix the UFA market into this, your odds of getting top veterans to make a dent in the market are low. Alexander Radulov won’t be making close to that level of bank. John Tavares could, but it’s just as likely that he pulls a Steven Stamkos and ultimately accepts the loyalty discount. Maybe Brian Little? I don’t think we’re at a stage where Brian Little becomes a mega-millionaire.
The status quo probably isn’t a great one, either; right now, superstars are far too closely paid to secondary support players. But the damage is so thoroughly done that it’ll take more than these next two seasons to shake it all out.
What can we actually expect?
Looking up to McDavid’s contract, which in a sense looks sideways over to Crosby’s, is probably the wrong way to go about this. Maybe a better example for the big three would be Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who signed extensions in the midst of their third season with a great but not top-of-the-world numbers (139 points in 166 games for Toews, 168 points in 188 games for Kane), and with Crosby, Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin’s second contracts all having been signed for at least a year and a half prior.
The Chicago duo received 6.3 million each on five-year deals, which could have potentially brought them to unrestricted free agency with just one “bought” year each. Their “Cap Percentage” was 11.09% a piece; a far cry from McDavid’s 17.7% and Crosby’s 17.3%.
For the big three, this would mean about $8.3 million a piece, as an average. There are other variables at play as well here; split ice time as they get spread across the lines could lessen their individual impacts next year and lower their cost, the fact that Matthews is a notch ahead of the other two could get him a steeper raise, signing Nylander early could bring him down, but booms from Marner and Matthews before you can start speaking about them could bring them up too.
The climate of the cap matters as well; the ceiling was going up by 12-14% a year when the last generation of superstars signed their second contracts; in the past three years, it’s grown about 3% per season (which make’s Connor’s deal even riskier than Sid’s, but again, the alternative is walking away from McJesus). That lack of growth has led to fewer “its fine, the cap will bail us out” contracts that can turn an anomaly into a precedent, and unless we have guarantees that a rebounding Canadian dollar or record merchandise sales from the Leafs and Oilers micro-dynasties will bring Hockey-Related Revenue up to make things grow again, salary growth outside of clear-cut generational talent will continue to be largely stagnant or a slow trickle.
All of this considered, it’s very hard to pinpoint what Matthews, Nylander, and Marner will get, but I don’t think there’s much need to panic yet. One player so far above the rest isn’t going to set the tone for the other seven hundred, and the league is too broken for even the dumbest of GM’s to add enough precedent to make it happen by accident. Getting the trio locked up as efficiently and quickly as possible remains a priority, but not to the point of desperation and fear as of right now.