Los Angeles, a middle of the road team for revenue, have three of the players who are on deals making $50M or more, though they only signed one of the contracts

I’ve written in some detail before about long-term deals. We’re not quite at the end of the first wave of deals, so we don’t truly know what to expect when stars in their late-30s are making the same money they were in their mid-20s, and whether they remain a good investment, providing a competitive advantage to big-market teams.

To me, this is what makes the Shea Weber offer sheet so damn interesting. Weber and Ryan Suter were a powerful defensive pairing for the Nashville Predators. Individually, it’s tough to tell the two apart but I remain convinced that Weber will still remain a very good force on an NHL blue line for four or five consecutive years and possibly more.

During those years, that’s Philadelphia’s Stanley Cup window. For a team like the Los Angeles Kings, paying guys like Jeff Carter or Mike Richards for several years, even if they have a downturn late in their career during the un-tradable portion of their contract, the investment will still have paid off as the team won a Stanley Cup.

And that’s really what it’s all about. The long-term deal pays the player a huge chunk of money up front, and sacrifices those middle-to-late years in favour of a value signing in the first few. No player doesn’t come with a price, and the term “free agent” is a bit of a misnomer. If you’re looking to trade for a star talent, you need to give up assets. If you’re looking to sign one, you have to give up assets.

As it happens, the price for Weber for Philadelphia is four first round picks and $80M over the first six years of the contract. Since the deal will likely be signed without a no-trade clause, I have to think that location didn’t factor too much into Weber’s choice. The man wanted to get paid, and he will, and I’m in no moral position to disagree. That’s $68M in bonuses and $12M in salary, so the Predators need cash to match the offer.

Here’s a quote from Predators chairman Tom Cigarran repeatedly brought up by Preds’ blog On The Forecheck:

We’re not going to lose players because of money.

The only way we’ll lose them is if there’s some chemistry issue, or their grandmother lives in Montreal or something, the intangibles. But they know we’re competitive and they know we’re committed after this season, so we’re in a really good place.

Already this season, the Predators have found that they couldn’t take Suter back with a hometown discount. They lost Alexander Radulov to the KHL, another top six defenceman in Francois Bouillon (whose grandmother may live in Montreal) and have yet to fill any holes. We could be a few months, or even a year, from the start of the next NHL season so there isn’t a rush, but you have to think that if you won’t lose Weber for financial reasons, you can’t possibly think that it’s a good hockey decision to let him go. It sends a poor message to other potential players, one that the Predators aren’t really interested in competing.

Philadelphia opens its wallet to free agents, but they remain a competitive force year-to-year.

So they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can’t show that they were simply outspent by Ed Snider and Paul Holmgren. Of the 16 NHL contracts that run 10-or-more seasons, three were signed by Holmgren and he signed a fourth to nine years. Danny Briere’s 8-year deal was the first front-loaded, cap-circumventing deal.

Five of the 16 contracts make up unrestricted free agent deals. We have yet to see what sort of success Suter and Zach Parise will provide in Minnesota, but Marian Hossa’s contract paid off with the Chicago Blackhawks, who was a key piece with the Hawks in their Stanley Cup run. Ditto for Ilya Kovalchuk, although the on-ice success of the New Jersey Devils may not out-weight their lingering financial issues. Kovalchuk also hits a run of six seasons where he will be paid at more than $10M per starting this fall, unless there is a salary rollback.

The last is Christian Ehrhoff, a long deal without a comically-high salary cap hit. The Buffalo Sabres wrote a lot of cheques last summer with an influx of money in the organization but it was spent in all the wrong places. Buffalo’s ninth-ranked powerplay went from 19.4% to an 18th-ranked 17.0%, and their goals for per 60 dropped from seventh at 6.7 per 60 minutes of powerplay time to 17th at 5.8 per 60. Penalty-kill schemes improved last year and there was less scoring league-wide on the PP, but Buffalo fell even relative to the rest of the league, despite the addition of Ehrhoff.

The problem with the long-term UFA deals is that most of the evidence for their success or failure is anecdotal at this point. So few players change teams on long-term deals so it’s hard to gauge the difference in the way teams adapt to the situation. Instead of length, what about the front-loaded contracts? The ones that are worth money ahead of term, for that I determined that contracts over $50M including salary and bonuses, regardless of term, were the ones that teams were risking.

By looking at James Mirtle’s must-read post from Friday at the Globe and Mail website, of those 15 teams, seven were in the top ten in NHL revenue last season (Toronto, Calgary and Boston opted out) and two teams from the bottom 10 of the league in revenue opted in to a $50M+ deal (although Rick DiPietro’s contract doesn’t qualify as “front-loaded”, it qualifies under my criteria as a big-ass cheque). The other is Carolina’s Eric Staal.

So there is a certain amount of distribution between high-revenue and low-revenue teams. Not enough to make competition terrifically unstable: the Conference finalists last season were composed of one “top” team, two “middle” teams and one “bottom” team. As for playoff teams overall, distribution was mostly equal: seven “top” teams, five “middle” teams and four “bottom” teams. The Leafs, Canadiens and Flames were the three top revenue teams that failed to make it. Of those three, only Scott Gomez was signed to a $50M+ contract.

The sample size is a bit too low to make any sweeping conclusions, but we can say that last year, top revenue teams took up the bulk of both the big money deals (45%) and playoff spots (44%) compared to just 25% and 20% for the bottom-revenue teams. Those numbers sync up quite well, along with James’ estimated NHL revenues: the top teams accounted for 46% of the money made by the NHL in 2010-11 and the bottom teams just 23%.

So maybe the current system works, depending on whether you think top revenue teams ought to be subsidizing the bottom revenue teams. Nashville’s steps in the next couple of days will give us an indication as to whether the small-market teams can compete financially with the big-market teams in the current system, but the Shea Weber deal may be the last of its kind signed in the NHL, depending on what we see coming out of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement.

(h/t to capgeek for information about contracts)