Last week, the Chicago Blackhawks announced that they had signed forward Patrick Sharp to a five-year, $29.5 million extension. Sharp was set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2011-2012 season. This new contract will pay Sharp an annual salary of $5.9 million.
Many in the media were quick to praise the deal, as well as the timing. Rather than waiting well into the season and risk it affecting both Sharp's and the team's performance, the Blackhawks inked a deal now to put it out of everyone's minds.
I'm fully on board with this. I said when the offseason began that the Blackhawks should consider arranging an extension for Sharp now opposed to waiting. That way they will know exactly how much he's costing them and they can make their long-term plans accordingly.
There's no question that Sharp is part of the Blackhawks' "core" group of players. He's one of their most valuable players, playing in all situations in different positions, and he's arguably the most versatile and underrated player in the NHL.
It's safe to say that I couldn't, and didn't want to, imagine the Blackhawks without Patrick Sharp in a couple years. So am I happy that Sharp got an extension?
The problem I have with his new deal is with both the term and the cap hit.
But before we dive into why I wasn't enthralled with the contract, lets establish a few things:
1. Sharp will be 30 in December
2. Sharp wanted to stay in Chicago
3. The Blackhawks spend to, or close to, the cap ceiling
As many in the media have pointed out, Sharp will be 35 when his contract expires, meaning that, in the final year, or possibly final two years of his deal, Sharp may not be worth a $5.9 million cap hit. It doesn't make sense to hand out medium-length contracts with big cap hits to players who possibly only have three to four prime years of hockey left.
To the second point, Sharp stated many times that he wanted to stay in Chicago with the Blackhawks. Now, I interpreted that as he wants to retire in Chicago as a Blackhawk. And that seems fair. He's won a Stanley Cup with them and he's well liked by the team, the fans and the organization. I don't think retiring a Blackhawks was unappealing to Sharp.
Besides, Sharp's contract expiring when he's 35 puts both him, and the Blackhawks, at a disadvantage. If the Blackhawks wish to re-sign Sharp, they will have to deal with the "35-and-older" clause. If they don't re-sign him, how difficult will it be for Sharp to find a job around the league, especially if he's not as spry as he once was?
To the third point, the Blackhawks don't have a ton of cap space and they never will. They are a team that will consistently spend to, or near, the cap ceiling. At the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, the Blackhawks will be the only team in the NHL with six contracts with cap hits exceeding $5 million (based on current salary cap charts from www.capgeek.com).
While Sharp's $5.9 million cap hit certainly won't strangle the Blackhawks like Brian Campbell's $7.1 million did, it won't provide them with a lot of flexibility. For example, both Toews' and Kane's contracts expire at the end of the 2015-2016 season. Meanwhile, Sharp's contract doesn't expire until the end of the 2017-2018 season.
Keep in mind that both Toews and Kane could potentially be receiving raises close to $8 million when their contracts expire. So unless Sharp plans to retire two years early, that money will have to come from somewhere else—most likely from the team's depth.
To my final point, Sharp's market value was around $6 million. Yes, on the open market he probably could have gotten a lot more, but his value in comparison with players around the league was $6 million. So the Blackhawks got it right and didn't overpay.
But the player's cap hit doesn't always have to represent his salary. Since the end of the lockout, general managers have been constructing ways to avoid being strapped with stifling cap hits, known as salary cap circumvention, usually in the form of long-term contracts.
Now, of course this only works in certain conditions. For example, the contract should last for the remainder of the player's career and be structured so that the player retires once his salary drops and he reaches an obsolete age.
These front-loaded, long-term contracts can't be offered to players that are too young because then the term gets too long. And the players have to be willing to spend the rest of their careers with that franchise.
Sharp met the criteria for one of these kinds of deals perfectly.
He was at an age where the term didn't need to be too long and he was willing to spend the rest of his hockey days in the Windy City.
Now, I'm no cap expert, but a contract like this would have been much better:
An eight-year contract worth $35 million, resulting in a $4.375 million cap hit.
In the first five years of the deal Sharp receives $30 million ($6 million per season). In year six, he receives $2 million and in years seven and eight he receives $1.5 million.
How does this work out for everyone?
Sharp gets a near identical salary to what he gets with his current deal, which is right around market value. He doesn't have to worry about what happens post-Blackhawks and has the option to either retire at age 35 or keep playing if he's still effective—in which case, he still wouldn't cost that much.
The Blackhawks save $1.525 million in cap space. The Blackhawks have Sharp for the five years they wanted him at a much lower price, plus an additional three years if they believe he can still play. Plus, the smaller cap hit makes this contract is more trade friendly.
And with this deal, if Sharp does become less effective by his third or fourth year, it's much easier to swallow a $4.375 million cap hit opposed to a $5.9 million cap hit.
Don't get me wrong, I'm ecstatic that the Blackhawks have Patrick Sharp for five more seasons. They are definitely a better team with him in the lineup. They have a core that should automatically make them playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup contenders, for at least three more years.
But the challenge of maintaining a team like the Blackhawks is excruciatingly difficult and costly, as Blackhawks fans undoubtedly know. The Blackhawks had an opportunity to help themselves out a bit. Sharp had long-term, modest cap-hit contract written all over him.
Instead, they will have less money, less flexibility and more long-term problems to think about.