By Bob Trask – As a former player agent, Kent Hughes has to be a numbers guy and it is a certainty that he will measure each player’s contract with a discriminating eye. Too much money spent in one area can have adverse affects on trying fill spots in other areas of the team and it is a situation that Montreal faces right now. His comments indicate that he is acutely aware of the situation.
We all love Carey Price and the solid play he has brought to the organization but his contract has put Montreal in a tough sport. Even if he returns and has a career year, it his highly unlikely it will be enough to vault the Canadiens into playoffs’ contention. It might not even be enough to get them out of the bottom ten. It’s the elephant in the room that almost no Habs’ fan wants to talk about.
In the meantime, his contract – along with those of a couple of other veterans – has hamstrung Hughes. Montreal can’t add assets of any kind whether it be in the UFA market or the trade market without shedding significant salary.
It might be a useful exercise to see how the goaltending position is handled across the league from a contract point of view.
A quick glance at the goaltending situation for all teams who have two goaltenders already signed for the upcoming season is revealing. Arizona, New Jersey and Dallas each have one goaltender signed so their numbers aren’t included in the calculations.
The Canadiens have $13.375 million committed to Price and Jake Allen for next season with Price set to earn $10.5 million and Allen coming in at $2.875 million. The league average is just under $7 million for a goaltending tandem with the starters averaging around $5 million and the backups averaging around $2 million per season.
That difference of over $6 million is the expected salary of a very high quality hockey player – maybe a 1st line forward or a 1st pairing defenseman – either of which could have a huge positive impact on a team.
Value for Dollar Spent
Another way to look at it is to examine how much playoffs’ teams spent on their goaltending. And perhaps surprisingly, they only spent marginally more on average than the league as a whole. That doesn’t necessarily mean that their goaltenders were better but perhaps by keeping their goaltending costs reasonable, they were better able to surround them with better players.
Off the top thirteen teams in the league, only two spent more than $7.25 million on their goaltenders. The starting goaltenders on those teams averaged slightly less than $5.5 million. There might be a message in there somewhere.
Starters and Backups
It also remains to be seen how the salary differential between starters and backups may change. With so many goaltenders suffering debilitating injuries teams may gradually adopt a 1A/1B goaltending tandem rather than a starter/backup situation.
That could actually lead to a greater percentage of the cap being dedicated to goaltenders but with the 1A earning a smaller piece of the pie and the 1B a larger piece of the pie. Despite the higher ongoing cost it could paradoxically lead to more cap flexibility (goaltenders with $6 million cap hits are easier to move than those with $9 million cap hits).
At the moment, the difference in salary between a starter and backup is about $3.25 million for NHL teams. The biggest discrepancy is Florida with a difference of over $8 million between starter and backup while San Jose has the smallest discrepancy at $75,000.
In a more evenly shared situation it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see 1A goaltenders still averaging around $5 million and 1B goaltenders averaging $3 million with the supposedly “elite” goaltenders earning closer to $7.5 million rather than $10+ million.
Not only are goaltenders already difficult to evaluate, the style of play employed by the team in front of them and the overall skill level of that same team can dramatically impact their numbers. Success can be fleeting or, as we are seeing more often, careers can be cut short by injury.
Because of that, eight year contracts represent a huge risk and that is another contract feature that may become less common or even non-existent for goaltenders.
Future Cap Structure
For all those reasons I believe general managers will look harder at the goaltending situation from a salary cap point of view than they ever have – both in terms of salary and contract length. In the case of Kent Hughes, he is learning early in his tenure as general manager exactly how that can effect his efforts at building a team.
When the Canadiens goaltending duties are passed on from the current tandem to their successors, I expect the salary structure to be radically different from what we see today. In the meantime, the Canadiens are going to be at a salary cap disadvantage when it comes to bidding for positional players.
Note – all calculations are based on the current salary cap. As the cap rises, expect the absolute numbers to rise as well.