NHL teams need to get used to letting go of the past

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I’ve been thinking a lot about that Blake Wheeler contract. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

I mean, it makes sense insofar as the Jets rightly see Wheeler as a valuable part of their franchise that they just don’t want to lose, either by letting him walk in free agency next summer (when he’ll be 33) or via a trade that will recoup only a small portion of his value, and even then not immediately.

This is the same argument behind a lot of bad contracts in recent years, though, and not just for people who are way past 30, as Wheeler will be when this deal kicks in. Chicago basically ran itself aground trying to retain guys like Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane, and at least those guys had the built-in excuse of having won multiple Cups and being under 30 when they signed their too-big extensions.

Believe me, I think Blake Wheeler is very good and in the first two years of his deal he’ll probably continue to be effective. Maybe not at that price point, since only elite players in the entire league get that kind of money, but it shouldn’t shock anyone if he’s a top-line talent for the next three seasons, or at least produces at that rate.

The problem is that after the last year of his current deal and then the first two on the new one, he will still be signed for three more seasons. And that’s insane to me.

The number of cautionary tales here are myriad. Alex Steen’s deal stinks, and I’d argue the one before his current contract didn’t work out too well, either. Jason Spezza’s deal hasn’t worked out at all. Marian Gaborik’s was a disaster. The Bruins would fire David Backes into the sun tomorrow if they could. The Flames already bought out Troy Brouwer. You could go on and on like this.

Generally speaking, long-term deals for players north of 30 aren’t going to end up being good investments, even if those guys provide value above and beyond their actual cost in the first few years of the deal. All the extensions the Sedins signed after their 30th birthdays, for example, didn’t end up hurting the Canucks as much as, ummm, other aspects of team management did. Joe Thornton’s money has never been a problem for San Jose. Nick Lidstrom’s extensions never bit the Red Wings in the ass.

But these are Hall of Famers, y’know? Like, established, MVP-type players who had earned not only the benefit of the doubt but whose value even in decline was demonstrably above what most players at the same price point could provide.

The Winnipeg Jets have signed captain Blake Wheeler to a $41.25 million, five-year contract extension. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King, File)
The Winnipeg Jets have signed captain Blake Wheeler to a $41.25 million, five-year contract extension. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King, File)

Blake Wheeler, while one of the league’s most prolific scorers in recent years, is not a Hall of Famer and given how good Mark Scheifele has been, it’s reasonable to say that Wheeler — while still very good himself — is being helped along by playing alongside elite talent. You can make this argument, obviously, about a lot of players on the wrong side of the aging curve; Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron seem to have a great symbiotic relationship that keeps both extremely productive and effective at controlling the puck. But neither of those guys make $8.5 million against the cap with trade protections in the last two years of the deal (huh?) until they’re as old as Henrik Zetterberg is now.

And hey, if this were the Sharks or some team like that, with an aging core of high-end talent that wanted one or two or even three last kicks at the can before a more serious rebuild would be needed, then fair enough. But guys like Wheeler or Dustin Byfuglien are an exception on this loaded Jets roster; Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck are 25, Jacob Trouba (who might not be around long, to be fair) is 24, Nik Ehlers is 22, Kyle Connor is 21, Patrik Laine is 20. This is a team that could be good for a very long time, and may now potentially be hamstrung by the almost ludicrously high price tag Wheeler will carry starting in 2019-20.

These are contracts that end up being seen as regrettable in almost every case, and while the Jets may want to put a spin on this — he’s good in the room, he’s earned the money, etc. — the fact is that a reasonable and dispassionate observer wouldn’t recommend giving this much money to anyone but the very best players in the world at that age. If Sid Crosby, now 31, were up for an extension next summer and wanted $8.7 million next year, you’d have to give that to him because he’s Sidney Crosby and he’s probably going to be a about point-a-game player until he retires. (Getting out in front of it, though, the Pens have him signed to a 12-year deal that will pay him $8.7 million against the cap until he’s also 37.)

In much the same way as the NHL is almost a decade behind the curve when it comes to being able to properly exploit market inefficiencies and use statistical analysis to make better decisions — being a Hockey Man apparently poisons one’s brain — the ability to evaluate players impartially that permeates the front offices of almost all other major North American sports leagues has not yet reached ice level.

In the NFL, teams cut All-Pros and let them walk on a regular basis, and the New England Patriots have taken that to an extreme. Is it a coincidence that they’re the best team in any sport of at least my lifetime? Probably not.

In the NBA, the Toronto Raptors just traded one of the best players in franchise history this summer — and did no small amount of pissing off player and fan alike — because it got them arguably the third-best player in the world.

In Major League Baseball, many teams are willing to trade an elite talent away for prospects when they know retaining him would be difficult (for any number of reasons). And they do so despite the sport’s lack of an overarching salary cap; often it’s big-market teams poaching from small-market competitors, but this isn’t always strictly true.

So why in hockey do general managers still insist on trying to justify and equivocate on unjustifiable contracts? We all inherently understand that if we’re being generous, the last two years of this deal could be total disasters, especially if Wheeler’s age-related decline gets him moved away from Scheifele at some point between now and 2021. And if your job is to simply put the best possible team on the ice every year, and your job is as safe as Kevin Cheveldayoff’s seems to be, then by what thought process do you arrive at the decision not to go into next season accepting that Wheeler is a pending UFA?

We’ve talked a lot this summer about players and teams in this league being nervous about free agency. Players don’t want to find themselves low-balled when July 1 rolls around, teams don’t want to go without top talent if they can’t replace the outgoing player. Both positions are understandable.

But this isn’t Tyler Seguin in Dallas; Winnipeg is probably going to be good for the next six years at least, regardless of Wheeler’s presence. His $8.5 million AAV is money that could be used to mostly replace his contributions, and make sure there’s no need to try to finagle a hometown discount out of Laine next summer.

Anyone whose job it is to evaluate talent in this league should see every multi-year, over-30 contract as a potentially bad bet. The bigger the cap hit, the longer that contract goes, and the more over-30 the player is, the worse the odds that it works out. Cheveldayoff went big on money and term for a guy who’s already a few years past 30. It’s insane. And again, I think the player is really good.

I used to be one of those “What are you gonna do, NOT sign him?” guys. Now I’m starting to be more like a “Yeah, let someone else sign him” guy.

This is a hockey problem, not a Cheveldayoff problem. But it’s a problem nonetheless.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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