This is going to be a losing effort, but let’s go for it anyway.
It feels like there’s room for nuance in this discussion. Even if this is the internet, and half of the people who clicked on this article have already scrolled down to the comments to call me an idiot, there are still some salient points related to this contract signing that make it worth a second look. And it’s either this or another “Please let Corey Crawford be OK by October” article. So, let’s dive in.
The crux of this discussion is the label of “overpaid” that Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews has been assigned as his production has slid during the last two seasons while his salary cap hit nearly doubled from his second NHL contract to the 8-year, $84 million deal he signed (along with Patrick Kane, who received the same extension) on July 9, 2014. And while the “overpaid” moniker is virtually impossible to shake, it’s worth taking a second look at the circumstances involved in that deal and what’s transpired since then.
Start by considering the timing of the contract extension.
This was on Toews’ career highlights when the negotiations began for that extension:
- Two Stanley Cups
- Two Olympic gold medals
- 2013 Frank J. Selke Trophy
- 2010 Conn Smythe Trophy
- Three appearances in the top 10 of the Hart Trophy voting
- Zero signs of regression
A fluky bounce off Nick Leddy is the only thing that prevented Toews from having three Cup victories by that summer. Toews was third on the team with 68 points in the regular season and second to Kane with 17 points in 19 playoff games. Toews’ agent, Pat Brisson — who also represents Kane — could’ve named whatever price he wanted in those negotiations and the Hawks’ brass would’ve been required to listen. Toews had all the leverage because no one else in the NHL, at that time, had accomplished what he had.
Here’s the average annual value of contracts for some of the NHL’s top players in the 2013-14 season:
- Alexander Ovechkin, Washington ($9.5 million)
- Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh ($8.7 million)
- Corey Perry, Anaheim ($8.625 million)
- Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim ($8.25 million)
Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin signed a deal one year before Toews that paid the Russian star $9.5 million annually for eight years. Around the same time, Claude Giroux signed an 8-year deal with Philadelphia that paid him $8.275 million per year. While some of those players may have more individual abilities than Toews had/has, none of them could match Toews’ career achievements. It was the Toews’ contract that would set the bar for future negotiations, not the other way around.
The NHL’s salary cap increases fell well short of expectations.
This may be the most crucial point.
In the 2013-14 NHL season, the salary cap was at $64.3 million. It jumped to a nice $69 million mark the next year, an increase of about 7.3 percent. But those increases flattened during the next three seasons. For the 2015-16 season, the cap jumped just $2.4 million, a 3.5 percent increase. In 2016-17, it went up only $1.6 million, a paltry 2.2 percent rise. Last season, the cap moved up by $2 million to $75 million (2.7 percent increase) before the move to $79.5 million for the 2018-19 season (6 percent increase).
If the NHL had stayed at a 6 percent increase in the three seasons of stagnation, the cap would be sitting around $87 million this season, nearly 10 percent above its current mark. And had that happened, player salaries likely would’ve followed suit. Anze Kopitar probably would’ve received more than the $10 million AAV he signed in January 2016 with Los Angeles — ditto for Jack Eichel’s October 2017 extension with Buffalo at the same price or Steven Stamkos’ $8.5 million AAV with Tampa Bay, signed in the summer of 2016. But that lack of financial growth by the NHL meant that, four years later, only Edmonton star Connor McDavid ($12.5 million) and Toronto’s John Tavares ($11 million) have higher AAV contracts than Toews, on a deal that Toews signed four years ago. This part of the plot was completely out of the control of both Toews and Hawks general manager Stan Bowman. Several other contracts handed out between 2014 and 2018 should’ve surpassed the AAV of both the Kane and Toews deals by now. But the stagnant cap prevented it.
The contract also put unrealistic expectations on Toews.
This is where the argument is going to get significantly less convincing, but stick with me. It revolves around this thought: Toews was never an elite offensive producer. Yes, he scored a ridiculous goal in his first season and has several other signature goals throughout his career. But he was never going to put up points like Crosby or Malkin, who each have multiple 100-point seasons. Toews’ highest mark was 76 in 2010-11 and he’s only averaged a point-per-game once: the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
The appeal of a player like Toews is that he’s a true No. 1 center, something that a surprisingly low number of NHL franchises have. And he’s versatile. Toews plays offense well. He plays defense well. He wins faceoffs. He can handle minutes on the penalty kill or the power play and thrive in each role. There really isn’t much that a No. 1 center in the NHL would be asked do that Toews couldn’t handle. All of this was true when Toews signed back in 2014.
But he’s just not a 100-point player and no salary increase was going to fix that. The question, though, is whether or not we’d be having this conversation if Toews had stayed in the mid/upper-60s point total that he’d generated for the first nine seasons of his career, if a $10.5 million salary for a captain is acceptable for a 68-point season on a team that didn’t make the playoffs. Wouldn’t the complaints be the same? Wouldn’t the blame start with Toews and work their way down the depth chart at forward? I think they would. I think the only way that these complaints about Toews are going to be silenced is if the Hawks win again.
So, yes, if you’re adamant about slapping Toews with the “overpaid” label, then I’ll concede it’s justified. But I’d counter by pointing out that several of the circumstances that have resulted in Toews still having having one of the NHL’s highest cap hits had nothing to do with his play on the ice.