Will Long-Term Contracts Ultimately Hurt the L.A. Kings?

Mike Richards has one of the Kings' league-high nine long-term contracts. (Photo by Bridget Samuels).
Mike Richards has one of the Kings’ league-high nine long-term contracts. (Photo by Bridget Samuels).

To the average fan, management’s general strategy of locking up key players to long-term contracts is not only pleasing, but often downright exciting.

Witness this ESPN.com report from 2011:

The Los Angeles Kings agreed to terms with Drew Doughty on Thursday after the star defenseman skipped the first 13 days of training camp, the team announced via Twitter.

Fans across the Southland rejoiced. The 22-year old Doughty, already widely considered one of the best defensemen in the NHL, was now under contract for eight years. Not only were there celebratory posts on message boards as well as throughout social media, but some (presciently, as it turns out) went so far as to declare that the Kings were now primed to win their first Stanley Cup:

After hoisting the Cup in 2012 and again in 2014, there is no question that the decision to lock Doughty up to a long-term contract was the right one by Dean Lombardi and the Los Angeles Kings.

Long-term contracts in the NHL carry considerable risk

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote in his poem The Rainy Day, “Into each life some rain must fall.” To put it mildly, not every decision works out as intended.

Witness the terrible contracts of the following NHL’ers:

– Alexander Semin: Once a 40-goal scorer with the Washington Capitals (2009-10), the 30-year old Hurricanes forward carries a $7 million cap hit through the 2017-18 season. Not only has he been inconsistent and injury prone, but is now a shell of his former self with just one goal and eight points in 26 games this year.

– Dion Phaneuf: Hey, I like Dion. He was a monster on my NHL ’09 division-winning team, although just like the real version, he was a bit underwhelming when it really counted. That being said, when Leafs fans were decrying his 7-year, $49 million contract extension about ten minutes after he inked it in 2013, you know it’s an overpayment.

– Brooks Orpik: At 34 and arguably in decline, Orpik’s $5.5 million cap hit is an anchor around the Capitals’ necks for the next 3.5 seasons.

– Kris Letang: Don’t get me wrong — Letang is good. He’s just not $7.25 million for eight years good.

David Clarkson may have the worst contract in the NHL. (Josh Smith/THW)
David Clarkson may have the worst contract in the NHL. (Josh Smith/THW)

– David Clarkson: Perhaps the quintessential ‘Exhibit A’ of bad contracts, Clarkson was never a prolific producer and not surprisingly, has just 14 goals and 24 points in the 106 games since signing a gigantic 7-year, $36.75 million deal with Toronto in 2013.

The list of bad contracts goes on and on, and unfortunately for the Kings, includes a number of their very own players.

Los Angeles has little salary cap flexibility

To preface this discussion, it should be noted that Dean Lombardi has clearly placed a priority on locking up key players to very long deals. When considering the acquired long-term contracts of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards and counting this season, L.A. has nine players under contract for at least five years: Carter (8), Richards (6), Marian Gaborik (7), Dustin Brown (8), Drew Doughty (5), Slava Voynov (5), Alec Martinez (7), Jake Muzzin (6) and Jonathan Quick (9).

Notice one name conspicuously absent: Anze Kopitar. The Kings’ center will need — and certainly get — a new long-term deal before the end of the 2015-16 season.

With several extensions kicking in starting next year, the combined cap hits of those nine players will be in excess of $53.5 million. As of today, the NHL’s salary cap is $69 million.

Other teams have substantially greater flexibility. Division-rival San Jose has just three contracts of that length or greater, and cross-town foe Anaheim two. The Pittsburgh Penguins carry four such contracts, Detroit five, the Rangers five, Boston three and Montreal three. In fact, as of this writing the Kings have the most five+ year contracts of any NHL franchise.

The bad contracts

Since the Kings have more long-term contracts than anyone else, it stands to reason that they have more high-profile bad long-term contracts than anyone else. Funny how that works, right? A few borderline ones won’t be included below, but the contracts that should be inarguable are as follows:

– Mike Richards: As stated above, Richards has six more years at a cap hit of $5.75 million. 3.5 years removed from his last 20-goal season and even with his veteran savvy and leadership, there’s no way Richards’ contract can be looked at as anything other than a financial albatross for Los Angeles. Rumors of the team shopping Richards have made the rounds, but quite obviously money is a huge hurdle.

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

– Dustin Brown: Admittedly one of my favorite players, Brown’s production has fallen off the table over the past year and a half, not long after he agreed to an eight-year extension.

– Slava Voynov: It couldn’t have been foreseen, but Voynov’s legal troubles put his deal on the “bad” list, at least for now. Depending on the outcome of his case, it’s possible Voynov’s deal will ultimately be voided.

What to do about it?

Assuming the above players don’t pick up their games, there is no easy solution to the problem. The compliance buyout windows are now closed, and although the new CBA allows for a team to retain some of a traded player’s salary, there are strict limitations. The salary cap should continue to rise, of course, but only to a projected $73 million in 2015-16.

Furthermore, although the other six long-term contracts appear acceptable for now, it’s possible (if not likely) that at least some of those will be considered problematic within the next few years. The Kings have traded cost-certainty and core stability for inherent contract risk, which decreases salary cap flexibility going forward, especially when a player isn’t earning their deal.

Granted, with two of the last three Cups on their mantle, long-term overpayment on a number of contracts might be down the list of problems for Dean Lombardi to worry about, at least for now. And yet, for Los Angeles to continue their impressive run over the past five+ seasons and even though it’s an issue of his own creation, it’s one he’ll probably be forced to confront head on.

What do you think? Should the Kings try to trade Mike Richards and/or Dustin Brown? Are the long-term deals that Marian Gaborik, Jonathan Quick, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez and the others currently enjoy worrisome to you?

Post your thoughts below, or send me a message @McLaughlinWalt.

13 thoughts on “Will Long-Term Contracts Ultimately Hurt the L.A. Kings?”

  1. Well Dean Lombard is a GENIUS. EASILY the best GM in the game today. I don’t disagree with the choices he’s made as GM, ESPECIALLY the contracts that he has handed out to his players. His players SHOW UP IN THE PLAYOFFS WHERE IT MATTERS THE MOST. The Los Angeles ARE GUARANTEED to make the PLAYOFFS this year and will keep the Stanley Cup until 2018! FACT!.

  2. Personally, I don’t know why so many writers, bloggers, etc. see’s long term contracts as a problem. It’s cost certainty. Unfortunately, they bake them in with performance and conclude that a long term contract for an underachieved player is bad. The difficulties for any GM is balance the gambling on players, specifically those who come off a great season in a contract year. Can they sustain? Was this a fluke? etc. Just like you and me, most players are evaluated on past performances. In Brown’s case, he was severely underpaid for 5 years and he was a key player in bringing 2 cups to LA (which seem to escape most writers and bloggers in their analysis). Are you not going to compensate that success? Are you going to say “another $3.5M for 5 years is what you deserve”? Seriously doubt that. You would not accept a stagnant salary in your job if you over achieved your goals, would you?

    Carter and Richards: 2 player traded to LA with long term contracts that (for the time) was well within acceptable. They could have gotten so much more on an open market but they settled for less with longer term. DL knew both players from his days in Philly East, saw what they can do and did not hesitate to take on those contracts. Both players were key in LA’s 2 cups. This list goes on and on for every player.

    Rewards come with success and I don’t understand why people would ask that DL turn face and just dump every player that has accomplished anything with LA? We’ve spent years and years under DL being frugal, collect picks, assemble the best team we could possibly imagine, just to turn around and dump on them when things aren’t going as it should? Fans ask for loyalty, but I have to question fans’ loyalty, as well as writers and bloggers knowledge. *ugh*…now I’m just rambling…

    The point I want to make to you, Walter is that you just can’t look at contracts and base it on length and money. Kings paid what they needed in order to bring as many cups as they have. There’s a cost to everything, just look at the nightmare Chi had after their first cup. For that matter, look at them next year with their “albatross” contracts…just because they play well now doesn’t mean that next year they won’t struggle…but no one will talk about the contracts now because they are successful.

    2 cups in 3 years, every friggin’ contract on the LA Kings team is/was worth it.

    • I don’t see the choices as nearly black-and-white as you do. DL has limited resources at his disposal, so he HAS to cap-manage properly. I don’t have a problem with a few long-term deals, but NINE (when an average NHL team has about three) seems very excessive, especially considering that absent a significant trade, over 70% of the team’s cap will be allocated to just nine players next year.

      Loyalty can be shown with shorter deals, say in the 3-4 year range. Perhaps the cost per year would go up a bit, but think of it this way: how much better would you feel about Dustin Brown’s deal (and I have always liked him) if it were just for a couple more years, instead of eight?

  3. The Dustin Brown deal is borderline to me. Lombardi loves loyalty so he was always going to lock up his captain long term. Is the money worth it? Ehh not really, but first captain to hoist the Stanley Cup in franchise history, leader, etc.

    Marian Gaborik could probably be traded if necessary or worst case scenario, he’ll retire early with no cap recapture penalties to the Kings.

    I was an advocate for him to buyout Richards. He’s slow, he’s bad offensively and he’s not worth the enormous cap hit. I think Lombardi will find a trading partner, though admittedly, I’m not sure at which cost.

    • Agreed. As for Richards, the gamble on him rebounding this year was well-intentioned, but in this case, good sense should have trumped loyalty.

  4. I love this article. Spot on. Been screaming about contracts since the aftermath of the 2013 loss to Chicago. I insisted we trade Voynov THEN. Okay player but no HEART. Cannot handle pressure. Bad move – particularly after his Olympic comments about Quickie. Richards? My head nearly exploded. Waste of money. Heart but his skill set is now woeful. Brown? He is the heart and soul of LA and a huge part of why that locker room has ZERO quit and won three 7th games on the road. Team chemistry and work ethic seem to guide Lombardi. Losing Brown levels all that well-crafted architecture. Gabrorik and Kopi are brilliant together. Anje is worth every penny of whatever he gets and you want him for at least the duration of Gaborik’s deal. Muzzie and Martinez? Bad deals to go long. I could have seen 3-year deals at most. Again, there are far better D-men out there and clearly the Kings need some NOW or they WILL miss the playoffs. Yes, MISS the playoffs this year. But where is there room to sign Anje? Let alone a top flight D-man to spare Doughty from being over-played and consequently either injured or exhausted if by some miracle LA does make the playoffs. Trade Quick? Whoever suggested that is completely out of their minds. He is the franchise and the single biggest reason the Kings own two Cups.

    Trade options: Richards, Muzzin and Martinez and maybe even Carter.

    • Thanks! I agree, it’s been bothering me for a while as well. The very long contracts are just too risky, and should only be offered to the very top, elite-level players. Otherwise, 3-4 years should be the maximum.

      And despite his long contract, I wouldn’t trade Quick, either.

  5. I need to find out who Orpik’s agent is and bring him to my next annual evaluation.
    Compliance buyout for Richards was a no-brainer
    Maybe think about trading Quick? LA seems to be able to produce goalies at will. Might have something to do with Doughty and the rest of the blue line.

    • I’d keep Quick, although I agree L.A. does seem to be able to produce good goalies. Still, Quickie is money in the playoffs.

      Funny comment about Orpik!

  6. Yes, the long term contracts will kill us in a few years. I have no clue why DL felt he owed Brown eight years… and even Gabby seven years. Greene didn’t deserve four years either! DL’s loyalty bit him in the ass with Richards… I love DL but Houston, we have a problem!

    • I have been a huge Brown fan throughout his career and we all love Gabby, but yes, the deals are just way too long, as are a fair number of others on the Kings.

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