Long-Term Faith

Mike Milbury said something interesting during Hockey Night in Canada’s Hotstove segment on Saturday evening. The former Islanders GM made a comment about Jeff Carter’s long-term contract extension saying, “Are [the Flyers] guaranteeing a championship? No. They are guaranteeing competitiveness.” To an extent, Milbury has a point. While the Flyers are a pretty solid team, other less competitive and less proven teams are selling the same thing. The Flyers have at least demonstrated success recently.

This made me wonder how many NHL teams have long-term contracts extending into seasons three or four years away (and how many of those teams are real Stanley Cup contenders). After extensive research (read: geeking out on CapGeek.com for a couple of hours), I found most teams have a few contracts going beyond the 2013-2014 NHL season. The more competitive teams (real Cup contenders) currently have between three and five contracts committed to the 2013-2014 season.

Then I wondered how many teams have more than five contracts extending into or past the 2013-14 season. The answer is four: the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.

Note: the list below indicates the players signed into the 2013-2014 season or longer, as well as significant players who have contracts expiring before then. Obviously the players listed represent the “core” players of each team.

Vancouver Canucks – Six Players
Signed: Henrik Sedin (F), Daniel Sedin (F), Roberto Luongo (G), Ryan Kessler (F), Dan Hamhuis (D), Keith Ballard (D)
Not signed: Christian Ehrhoff (D; signed until 2010-2011), Alex Edler (D; signed until 2012-2013)

Pittsburgh Penguins – Six Players
Signed: Evgeni Malkin (F), Marc-Andre Fleury (G), Paul Martin (D), Zbynek Michalek (D), Brooks Orpik (D), Kris Letang (D)
Not signed: Sidney Crosby (F; signed until 2012-2013), Jordan Staal (F; signed until 2012-2013)

Philadelphia Flyers – Six Players
Signed: Daniel Briere (F), Mike Richards (F), Jeff Carter (F), Chris Pronger (D), Andrej Meszaros (D), Claude Giroux (F)
Not Signed: Scott Hartnell (F; signed until 2012-2013), Matt Carle (D; signed until 2011-2012)

Chicago Blackhawks – Seven Players
Signed: Brian Campbell (D), Patrick Kane (F), Jonathan Toews (F), Duncan Keith (D), Marian Hossa (F), Niklas Hjalmarsson (D), Dave Bolland (F)
Not signed: Patrick Sharp (F; signed until 2011-2012), Brent Seabrook (D; signed until 2011-2012), Tomas Kopecky (F; signed until 2010-2011)

A few things stand out with this crop of teams. Obviously Pittsburgh and Chicago have won Stanley Cups with their core players and Philadelphia came within two wins of the same distinction. Vancouver hasn’t come anywhere near that close. I’m not suggesting the Canucks aren’t a strong team, but Mike Gillis and the Canucks brass have a lot of faith in their roster, despite a lack of winning results (for the record, I’m considering “winning results” as a Stanley Cup final appearance or better).

Something else that stands out is the fact that the players locked into long-term contracts eat up a consider amount of each team’s salary cap. With the commitments these teams have made, it doesn’t allow much room for additions of other impact players who aren’t on entry level contracts (and thus, the emphasis on teams to draft and develop players is more important than ever before).

That’s where things get really difficult for General Managers.

Clearly teams are being forced to lock up cores of their rosters earlier and for the long haul. Depending on where a team is in their development cycle, they may have to sign core players to long-term contracts before getting close to their prime winning window. The effect of “paying for potential” is more evident than ever before. The fact that it’s been happening for years doesn’t help either.

Think of buzz teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the St. Louis Blues. They may have to do the same thing as Vancouver, but even earlier. The earlier a team has to lock in their core players, the less sure they can be they have a true winner (and the right players to win with!).

Right now, the Kings are looking very good. They’ve improved year after year and have enjoyed a solid start to the 2010-2011 season. Problem is they haven’t won a playoff series with their core roster. In the case of the Blues, they made the playoffs two years ago after a terrific end of season surge and missed the post-season last year. This year they’ve been great out of the gate, but the team’s results over the last several years hasn’t been consistent. In the case of paying for potential, how can GM’s of these two teams (and others) know if their rosters have what it takes to win?

In my opinion, they’ll need a lot of long-term faith.