How do you get rid of a contract?
That’s the question on every San Jose Sharks fan’s mind right now: The Sharks have five active players on their roster with contracts seven years or longer, third-most in the NHL, tied with the Islanders, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Vegas, just behind Nashville’s six and Tampa Bay’s seven.
Of course — case in point, the 2020 Stanley Cup champion Lightning — it’s not the contracts themselves that are the problems. It’s the players underperforming relative to cost and term.
On San Jose, at the moment, Evander Kane is the only player of the five living up to his price tag.
Two years into his eight-year contract, Logan Couture has suffered back-to-back injury-plagued seasons.
Halfway into his eight-year pact — and just two campaigns removed from a Norris Trophy nomination — 36-year-old Brent Burns is slowly but surely looking his age.
Three years into his eight-year deal, Marc-Edouard Vlasic was dropped to the Sharks’ bottom pairing this past season.
Two seasons into his eight-year agreement, Erik Karlsson is still a shadow of his 2018-19 form.
So are the San Jose Sharks simply carrying these anchors for the next half-decade? How do teams get out of long contracts?
Let’s look at all the seven season-plus contracts signed since the 2004-05 lockout and how franchises cut bait. I’m going to concentrate on how the initial signing team got out from under: For example, Matt Niskanen was inked by Washington to a seven-year deal in July 2014. He was traded to the Flyers in June 2019, then retired the following summer with another season on his pact. My emphasis is on how Washington, the first team, moved on from Niskanen.
That’s San Jose’s position right now.
Looking at 65 seven-year-or-longer contracts from 2006 on, there are five typical ways that teams get out of these agreements: Sometimes, the players complete the contract on the same team. Trade, buyout, retirement, and Long-Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) are other options.
Let’s look at all these methods, from least likely to likely for the Sharks.
In July 2013, 30-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk opted to retire from the NHL, leaving the 12 years and $77 million remaining on his contract with New Jersey to go back to his native Russia and the KHL.
Because of Kovalchuk’s departure, the Devils were hit with an annual $300K cap restructure penalty until 2024-25 — a consequence of the winger’s initial cap-circumventing deal — but it also opened up a ton of cap space.
Kovalchuk returned to the NHL in 2018, but that’s another story.
As for the San Jose Sharks, there’s no sign at this point that Kane, Karlsson, Couture, Burns, or Vlasic are going to walk away from multiple years and tens of millions of dollars, so there’s no reason to further explore this path. Kovalchuk’s was a special case.
17 of the 65 seven-years-or-longer contracts that I looked at were completed by the players on the same franchise that signed them.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Alex Pietrangelo, Gabriel Landeskog, Tuukka Rask, Roman Josi, and Ryan Getzlaf recently completed pacts inked in 2013, in their original colors.
Pekka Rinne, Niklas Kronwall, and Drew Doughty finished contracts agreed to in 2011.
Zdeno Chara, Mikko Koivu, and Nicklas Bäckström wrapped up deals signed in 2010.
Anze Kopitar, Marc-André Fleury, and Alex Ovechkin completed contracts signed in 2008.
Ditto for Pavel Datsyuk in 2007 and Patrik Elias in 2006.
Not relevant to the San Jose Sharks: Nine of these 17 “winners” were signed by players 23-or-under, Pietrangelo, Josi, Fleury, Bäckström, Ovechkin, Doughty, Kopitar, Nugent-Hopkins, and Landeskog.
So their squads, with the exception of the exceptional Ovechkin — who signed a 13-year contract when those were allowed — got these players’ best campaigns without the risk of age-related decline. Not so with San Jose, of course: Burns was extended at 32, Vlasic 31, Couture 30, and Karlsson 29. Perhaps not shockingly, Kane’s deal, given at 26, has aged best.
It’s not impossible to play well into your 30’s, but it’s harder, for sure. It would be an upset, at this rate, if Karlsson, Vlasic, Burns, or Couture complete their contracts in teal playing a standard of hockey commensurate with their price tags.
Long-Term Injured Reserve
This is a likely destination one day for the Sharks’ contracts that we’re talking about.
But not yet: There’s nothing to suggest that Kane, Karlsson, Couture, Burns, or Vlasic will be hitting LTIR anytime soon. You never know, of course, but even the oft-injured Karlsson has suited up for 77% of San Jose’s regular season games over the last three years. And that’s the least among these five Sharks.
But there’s plenty of time yet on these contracts, plenty of time for some serious breakdowns. Nobody’s rooting for a career-ending injury, it’s just the circle of life for many an athlete.
Just four of the 65 long-term deals that I looked at ended with the player on LTIR with their original signing squad: Johnny Boychuk (signed 2015), Mattias Ohlund (2009), Johan Franzen (2009), and Henrik Zetterberg (2009).
But a number of these lengthy contracts were traded to another team, then buried, most recently, Marian Gaborik who was sent from Los Angeles to Ottawa to Tampa Bay’s LTIR.
Tomorrow: Let’s look at how likely it is — and when — that the San Jose Sharks will be able to buy out or trade Kane, Karlsson, Couture, Burns, or Vlasic’s contracts.
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