Alex joins NHL's upper class

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The Washington Capitals followed in the footsteps of many NHL teams on Thursday, as they committed vast amounts of money to a single player.

The player is Alexander Ovechkin, who at the age of 22 has signed the richest contract in league history, inking a 13-year, $124 million deal that will keep him in D.C. for a long, long time.

This strategy of throwing loads of money and years into a deal is one that is becoming increasingly popular amongst NHL clubs. The idea is to identify a franchise player and lock him up before any other team tries to pry him away through free agency.

The Capitals shouldn't have to worry about getting bang for their buck on Ovechkin, who despite his youth is already one of the most prolific scorers in the league. The Russian sniper has recorded 250 points (130 goals, 120 assists) in the first 206 games of his career and is off to another stellar campaign in 2007-08 with 52 points (32g, 20a) through 43 contests.

Still, whether or not this contract is considered a smart move for the Capitals will likely be determined not by Ovechkin's point production, but rather his ability to get Washington into the NHL's elite.

Alexander Ovechkin
Alexander Ovechkin has recorded 250 points (130 goals, 120 assists) in the first 206 games of his career.
Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie in 2005-06, but he has yet to lead his team to the postseason. The Capitals are currently outside the playoff picture once again this year, but still have plenty of time left in the season to change that.

What Ovechkin should be concentrating on currently is how he can take a greater leadership role on a team that is now clearly designed to go only as far as he can take it. His talent and competitive drive should already command a significant amount of respect in the Washington locker room, but now Ovie has to show his teammates that he also knows how to lead a team to victory.

The signing of Ovechkin is reminiscent of previous deals inked by other NHL superstars, including the blockbuster pacts agreed to by Rick DiPietro of the New York Islanders and Philadelphia's Mike Richards.

DiPietro is really the pioneer in terms of lengthy NHL contracts, as the goaltender shocked the world by signing a 15-year, $67.5 million deal with the Islanders prior to the 2006-07 season.

The Flyers then took a page from the Isles book earlier this season when they signed centerman Mike Richards to a 12-year, $69 million deal.

In all three cases, the Isles, Flyers and Caps were simply setting the gold standard for their clubs. The franchise player is clearly the high-water mark in terms of money on those teams and everybody else needs to fall in line behind the leader.

As stated before, the DiPietro deal was the first of these monster deals, but what led to this new NHL trend? And, is this strategy ultimately a good idea from the viewpoint of individual franchises?

First of all, these huge deals came about in the salary-cap era and are therefore a by-product of the NHL's most recent collective bargaining agreement. Owners and general managers in the post-lockout era are always wary of the cap and the implications of signing a single player to a lucrative deal must have been considered. The deals are usually structured in a way that will allow a team to hold onto a franchise player for the foreseeable future, while at the same time not exerting too much of a strain on the cap.

Also, it's obvious that these deals happen when elite players get closer to becoming restricted free agents. If Ovechkin was allowed to reach the free- agent market on a restricted basis, there is no telling what kind of bidding war would emerge for his services.

Just ask the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks about what can happen if you wait too long to sign young talent to a long-term deal. Last offseason, the Edmonton Oilers tried to sign away players from these teams, and in one case succeeded in luring a prospect with huge amounts of money.

Last summer the Oilers offered Dustin Penner, who was then property of the Ducks, a five-year, $21.25 million deal. Anaheim had the right to match the offer and retain Penner, but had cap issues and was instead forced to let the young winger walk and accept compensation draft picks in return.

The signing of Penner actually caused a great deal of animosity between the Ducks and Oilers as Anaheim general manager Brian Burke all but accused Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe of theft. Burke felt it was bad business etiquette to take advantage of a team's cap predicament in order to grossly overpay for a young player from the opposition. Still, the deal was fair and square in terms of the league's new CBA.

Lowe also tried to pull the same trick on Buffalo, as the Oilers offered Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek a seven-year, $50 million deal. However, the Sabres matched the money put on the table by Edmonton, since Buffalo had already lost Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency.

The Sabres would have been able to keep Vanek for less money if they signed him to a Richards-esque deal, but weren't prepared to make that commitment because they still wanted to re-sign either Briere or Drury. In the end, Buffalo lost both veterans to free agency and was forced to sign their talented youngster for much more money then expected.

In case you're wondering, Sidney Crosby is not in danger of being snatched away from Pittsburgh, as the Penguins signed the NHL's top phenom to a five-year, $43.5 million deal this past offseason. Who knows what kind of money Sid the Kid will command when his deal ends after the 2012-13 campaign.

As far as whether or not these mammoth deals make actual business sense is hard to say at this stage. It will be easier to tell when players like Ovechkin near the age of 30 - at that point, a quick glance at the health of the Capitals' franchise will reveal whether or not it was a good idea.

However, if a club incorrectly identifies someone as the face of their franchise, and signs the wrong player to a deal loaded with years and zeros, that would be a huge problem. Imagine carrying something like Ovechkin's contract around for well over a decade if a player turns out to be unworthy of the deal. A mistake like that would cripple a franchise for years and years.

In the end, owners and GMs are going to take risks because, if done properly, these colossal deals can set a team up for many seasons of success. It's a gamble, but one that so far seems worth the shot.

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Dan Di Sciullo
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