Connor McDavid, Carey Price and shaming the rich (Trending Topics)

Earlier this week, Carey Price and Connor McDavid signed two of the richest contracts in NHL history.

In a few years, when neither team has won a Cup — well, Edmonton might, but Montreal almost certainly won’t — talk will immediately turn to how their contracts are onerous and maybe they should have taken less money if they wanted their teams to be competitive. You might even hear talk about how they can’t win under pressure and all that sort of thing, which is of course nonsense.

When those teams don’t win, it’s not because they “overpaid” an elite goalie and a guy who, by some reckonings, is already the best player alive. Doing so is effectively impossible in a cap system where the top guy can only make 20 percent of the total ceiling. It’s impossible to say what the cap ceiling will be for 2018-19, but it’s tough to see the increase exceeding 4 percent. As such, Connor McDavid’s AAV being more than, say, one-sixth of the cap.

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That’s with him having reportedly done Edmonton a big favor because he wasn’t “comfortable” taking an extra $750,000 or $1 million out of his teammates’ pockets. That’s his prerogative, and other elite-level talents have done the same in recent years — one wonders if Sidney Crosby will ever take more than $8.7 million — but someone put it perfectly on Twitter:

That money left on the table is what it’s worth to him to not get shanked in the Edmonton media every day for the last six years of his new contract.

To be fair to his future detractors, McDavid’s contract taking up 16 percent or so of the cap will be the largest share in quite a long time; only back in 2008-09 and 2009-10 (based on full salary data from NHL Numbers that only goes back to 2007-08) did a player make more than that portion of the total cap. Alex Ovechkin’s teammates did little to help the perception that you can’t win making that much of the cap.

Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby won a Cup when their big deals kicked in, but they had to wait another several years for the percentage of their AAVs to come down before they could do it again. Likewise, no one said it about Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, whose $10.5 million cap hits are still tied for second-highest in the league’s history, when they went and won another Cup in the first year of those twin deals.

But boy are people ever starting to say it now, aren’t they?

The lesson here is clear enough: People are more than happy to blame the richest players in the league when their teams can’t compete, but not so much when overpaid journeymen cash their big tickets.

Should Connor McDavid shave $1 million off his AAV to make Edmonton better, or should Kris Russell? Seems to me in a fairer cap system both of them split the difference, but that is inexplicably not how it works. McDavid is somehow embarrassed to be making so much more money than anyone else on his team — literally more than double the next-biggest cap hit — but in terms of the value delivered per dollar spent, he should make considerably more.

After all, how many guys can attribute their mid-eight-figure career earnings to Crosby or Malkin or Alex Ovechkin or Kane or, hell, even lower-paid elite guys like Ryan Getzlaf or Joe Thornton? Lots of guys get richer than they “ought to” riding shotgun with Hall of Famers. Maybe you say Leon Draisaitl, who didn’t do much scoring away from McDavid last season, is about to join that crew.

Crosby did the Penguins a favor taking $8.7 million. Did James Neal think of the salary cap when he took $5 million? Did Pascal Dupuis or Chris Kunitz feel bad when they started cashing $4 million paychecks every year?

That’s not to say they should have, of course. The market bears what it bears. Hell, if a GM calls you and says, “All evidence suggests your output comes because you play the majority of your minutes with a mega-star, but how does $6 million sound?” you’d be a fool not to take the money and run.

Though McDavid will soon make more as a percentage of the cap than the league’s highest-capped player has in eight seasons — and there aren’t too many guys who you’d say could even come close to threatening a top-five cap hit of $9.5 million in the meantime — the number of wins he effectively guarantees you in a given season far exceeds that of all but Crosby-in-his-prime in terms of what you can reasonably count on.

Rob Vollman recently crunched the numbers and estimated McDavid’s output over the length of his upcoming contract, and figured that McDavid would clear 100 points four or five times in those eight years. This is an incredible number. We have no real frame of reference for this in modern hockey. Since the first Dead Puck Era began around 1995, only two guys have cleared 100 points five times: Crosby and Jaromir Jagr. Ovechkin did it four times. Four more did it thrice each.

McDavid, at 20, has already done it once. The guys who do this kind of thing more than once are basically all Hall of Famers, except Dany Heatley. If, as Vollman suggests, McDavid is pushing 1,100 points before his 30th birthday, you have to imagine the pure value he delivered to Edmonton just in terms of goals and assists leading to wins well outstrips his $100 million total payout.

That’s before you factor in the “draw” he provides in terms of getting some free agents to take slightly less (such as Milan Lucic) than they would have commanded elsewhere to just get a little piece of that McDavid-driven glory. That value, too, adds up over time.

The same is true of Price in Montreal. Goalies are obviously different animals in terms of quantifying their value. They save x number of goals over the league average based on the difficulty of the shots they face, and then you can say x number of goals is worth y wins. Elite goalies like Price, or Henrik Lundqvist, are easily worth their AAVs in terms of the number of wins they deliver. Or would be if they weren’t on the wrong side of 30.

(In both cases, what were they gonna do? Not pay them and let them go instead?)

How often did they make the defensemen in front of them rich? God, look at the Rangers’ cap hits the past few years and you’ll get the message pretty quick. It’s not Lundqvist’s fault the Rangers can’t win a Cup, but you might be able to say it’s indirectly his fault that he made so many mediocre guys look like elite shutdown defensemen who therefore needed to be paid as such.

Now, you can often look at these high-AAV contracts and say, “Ah, that’ll be a problem in a few years.” But that’s not their fault. Look at just about any team with high-paid talent and it’s the same story. You have success and you pay for it. Players ride shotgun on elite talent and cash in.

So when doling out blame for playoff failures, it’s important to think rationally. McDavid and Price and Crosby and Lundqvist and all these other guys are giving it their all, and providing significant return on investment. It’s the players they make look good — and the fiction that it’s “hard” to play with guys like them — who deserve the criticism.

They’re interchangeable parts. Widgets that can be swapped in and out while the top guys produce just the same as they always have. And as always, you shouldn’t break the bank on products like that.

Put another way: You pay for quality, or at least you should. What you really need is a GM who can tell the difference.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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