Connor McDavid, the reigning MVP and still just 20 years old, is going to be in Edmonton for a long, long time, and he’s going to be the highest-salaried player in NHL history—and he’s still a bargain. McDavid has signed an eight-year extension, to go into effect next summer and running through 2026, that will pay him an even $100 million.
The Oilers are justifiably excited. Maybe a little too excited:
The contract works out to $12.5 million a year, down a little bit from the $13.25M AAV that had been reported, but it’s still the league’s heftiest salary. McDavid blows past Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, each with $10.5M cap hits.
It’s not the biggest overall contract (Alex Ovechkin and Shea Weber each signed longer deals for more money, but the CBA now restricts contracts to eight years) and it’s not the biggest contract in the terms that matter in a salary cap league. Presuming a $75 million cap next year, McDavid’s deal is 16.6 percent of the cap; Ovechkin’s last extension was 19 percent of the cap at the time, and Sidney Crosby’s was 17.3 percent.
But McDavid is worth every penny of this, and a lot more. Already perhaps the best hockey player in the world before he’s old enough to drink on U.S. road trips, he’s dragged the Oilers back to relevance and figures to be capable of singlehandedly (if necessary) doing so for at least the next decade. The Oilers were going to give him whatever he asked for, given that the CBA limits average salaries to 20 percent of the cap at the time the deal is signed, and apparently McDavid could have sought more.
One report, and I’m not entirely sure I buy it (or at least I believe that both sides benefit from putting it out there), says McDavid forfeited an additional $6 million over the length of the deal because he “wasn’t comfortable with the number.” If it’s true, the Oilers should be grateful, because they’re soon going to need every bit of cap space.
With McDavid’s deal squared away, the Oilers will turn their attention to locking down Leon Draisaitl. If anything, Draisaitl’s skill has been overshadowed by playing with McDavid, but I think he’s every bit the 1B talent as Evgeni Malkin (and is ahead of Nicklas Backstrom, and surely even Toews.) Draisaitl is reportedly seeking an eight-year extension with an AAV around $9 million.
Sometime very soon, the Oilers are going to find themselves in salary cap hell. The same sort of cap crunch that has over the years forced the Blackhawks to jettison the likes of Teuvo Teravainen, Brandon Saad (before bringing him back), and Artemi Panarin, and just last week compelled the Capitals to trade Marcus Johansson for not all that much. (That the Penguins haven’t yet had to make a truly painful trade for cap relief is another testament to Jim Rutherford’s work there.)
With deals for Draisaitl and eventually Cam Talbot still to get done, the Oilers are already clogged up long-term. In the 2020–21 season, still so distant, Edmonton has more than $42 million in cap space already spoken for, in just seven players. Those deals for Milan Lucic and Kris Russell are probably going to be pretty ugly by then.
The more fundamental question is whether a team can win it all with so much cap space devoted to just two players. The Blackhawks and Penguins have won, but their Cups all came in seasons where their superstar pairs were earning relatively smaller percentages of the cap. The highest percentage in a Cup-winning season was in 2016, with Crosby and Malkin earning 25.49 percent of the Penguins’ cap. The projections here are necessarily based in some guesswork, but they have McDavid and Draisaitl starting out earning nearly 30 percent of the cap, and won’t drop below 26 percent until 2023–24.
Of course, they’re both young enough that they should still be in their primes then. But the Oilers may have some trouble building depth in the meantime. They’ve already begun making moves to clear the decks and give them more flexibility, trading Jordan Eberle for cap relief and buying out Benoit Pouliot.
(Another caveat in trying to project too far ahead, and I cringe to even bring this up, but we could very well be heading for another lockout in 2020. Who knows what will happen, but as with past work stoppages, teams could use a new CBA to dig themselves out from under their worst contracts.)
All of this no doubt weighs heavily on the front office’s minds this summer, but not as heavy as the more pressing dictum that you lock up Connor McDavid for as long as you can when you have the chance. McDavid entered the NHL with hype and expectations unseen in a decade, and all he’s done is surpassed them. He is a true generational talent, and he’ll be a Oiler for that generation.