The game that emerged from the lockout was so vastly different than the decades of hockey that preceded that its impact is still, to this day, shooting ripples out into the conventional hockey wisdom. The rules changed, the game got faster with a heightened emphasis on skill, and so this new, faster, more artistic game simply left a large portion of its former stars in the dust, and this created a level playing field for rookies who were once muscled, hooked, hacked, slashed and obstructed out of the league.
There has been an absolute explosion of young talent hit the scene, and it gets bigger and more rapid every draft. This is killing the mature UFA market. It's a young mans game, and now, we will start to see the average career length shrink because of the influx of rapidly improving young talent pushing for jobs in the NHL. Some GMs hate it. They loathe signing young stars to contracts that will pay them for what they might accomplish, rather than the old system of overpaying a diminishing asset for the things they have done in their prime. But for the collective hockey brass this should be viewed as a good thing.
Lets use John Tavares's signing this past offseason as an example. The 6 year, 33 million dollar pact JT inked with the Isles is the kind of contract GMs around the league are loathing because there was a time that Tavares would be destined to make far less than his production on the free market would net him, but now with the gloves off between GMs you can't afford to have a disgruntled young star walk due to a hold-out or offer sheet. Tavares was the consensu #1 pick in the 2009 draft since he forced his way in to the OHL as a 15 year old, ammending the league rule book in the process. Even the Islanders couldn't screw up a pick like Tavares, who hasn't put up Crosby-esque numbers yet, but his supporting casts over his first two seasons makes Sid the Kids ealry Penguin teams look like the Oiler Dynasty. All Tavares did was lead his team in scoring for each of his first two seasons, and this year he is set to do so again. What other team has a leading scorer making just 5.5 million/year? What makes this deal even more amazing is that Tavares signed it this past offseason, while he still had this year to pile on points under his original rookie contract which pays him 900,000 plus bonuses.
Think Chuck Fletcher would rather be paying a 21-year-old Tavares 5.5 million for 70 points a year than the 7 million he pays Mikko Koivu for similar production on a better team? How 'bout the Habs? They're paying two players more money annually for worse production than JT. The list goes on and on.
The level of disdain that NHL GMs have for this growing trend is mind boggling, and it borders on agism. Shouldn't a player be paid what he is worth regardless of age? If Tavares was free to sign with any team next season you have to think he would be getting offered a lot more money, term and perks than just 5.5 Million. Sure, it takes him to the end of his unrestricted free agency, but he's also bound to the most embarassing franchise in the league until that contract is up. The Isles are so awful I doubt they'd ever be able to attract a free agent of comparable skill and production level to Tavares for any ammount of money.
Another thing to consider is that a young star signing what is now considered a bigger contract then he would've ten years ago is also a better player than most were at that age ten years ago because of the changes to the game, and, the obvious fact is that as they get older they'll get better, as opposed to expensive free agents in their late 20's or early 30's. Does Brad Richards look like he's stepped it up a notch in New York this year? How about Marian Gaborik when he landed in NY? Ilya Kovalchuck a better player now in New Jersey than he was as a young goal scoring machine in Atlanta? At the end of Tavares' contract the Islanders will be dying to figure out how they're going to retain his services, unlike most big UFA signings whose employers are going to, more often than not, be trying to trade them, send them to the minors, release them or buy them out.
Having to spend more money on the young stars that deserve it might even save NHL GMs from continuing to repeat the failed pattern of shelling out big bucks for fading stars and ultimately wasting the ownerships money and valuable cap space.
Part 2 coming up shortly.