First off, hi I’m Connor! I’m new around PensBurgh so maybe put the pitchforks away for a few articles and let me dip my toes in the water? No? Okay, that’s fair. Anyway, let’s get right down to it.
You probably didn’t hear about the news this week, but a certain centreman in Toronto was signed to a five-year contract extension. Pretty low-key news, don’t beat yourself up if you missed it.
Yes, Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs sent hockey Twitter into a frenzy, as it was announced that the centreman had been re-upped to a $58.17m contract covering the next five seasons. The contract wasn’t exactly a hometown discount, and some speculated this lowered the team’s contention window to the six years (including the current season) they now have the star centre locked up for.
It’s true that this contract certainly is reminiscent of the one signed by Sidney Crosby. The logic behind the model in question consists of doling out large swaths of cap space to three or four key players and letting the rest fall into place.
Except, that really hasn’t been the Penguins’ model, at least not in its entirety. For a variety of reasons, Pittsburgh never had to limit their contending window to six years.
I mean sure, it has been correctly pointed out that Crosby and Malkin each signed for $8.7 million on five-year terms and that these contracts represented the high watermark for five-year deals coming off ELCs for quite some time. Beyond simply the historical context, these contracts certainly were not discounts and absolutely did squeeze the team financially. Crosby’s contract even accounted for 17.3 percent of the cap at the time while Matthews freshly inked deal is only 14.6 percent. That’s all true, but another big part of the Pittsburgh model was getting the players that surrounded the superstars on value contracts.
Locking in Kris Letang for four years at $3.5 m, Marc-Andre Fleury to a seven-year contract at just $5m per season, and Jordan Staal for 4x4 were all key contracts that kept the 2009 championship core together and have all aged well long after they’ve expired. In the case of Staal, the team wisely moved on from him before he was signed to a 10-year coffin of a deal for in 2013, recouping Brian Dumoulin and Brandon Sutter (who would be flipped for Nick Bonino).
It’s definitely worth pointing out that the four years concentrating the bulk of the Crosby and Malkin mega deals were some of the least productive years of the Penguins current run, potentially a bad omen for Leafs fans. The Penguins were largely also-rans during the 2010-2015 seasons, often flaming out embarrassingly early in the playoffs and falling well short of expectations. Other factors come into play in this conversation of course, namely injuries to captain Crosby, but the point remains, a lot can go wrong over a five-year window if that’s all you have to work with.
The Penguins have been able to extend their window despite consistently leveraging massive amounts of cap space to pay a few players at the top end, something which probably wouldn’t have been possible if Crosby had demanded a salary bump like Malkin on his third deal, or if the league had altered the maximum length of contracts prior to Crosby’s latest 12-year pact. However, contending over this time was in no small part aided by extracting huge value from periphery pieces, and knowing when to move on from soon to be overpriced players. That’s something which can’t be said of the now bottom dwelling Blackhawks and Kings.
All in all, the team has been very shrewd with cap management over the last 12 years. You can see that trend continuing today in contracts like those given to Jake Guentzel and Brian Dumoulin. I struggle to think of any player who was an anchor against the cap during this time, there certainly weren’t any David Clarkson or Nikita Zaitsev contracts on the books.
Days like yesterday provide context for just how fortunate Pittsburgh has been to maintain this cap structure with such success. It certainly seems more and more likely that the days of RFAs and young players taking value contracts — or home town discounts — are over. So, relish what the Penguins accomplished over this time, it seems like it’s going to be hard to replicate.