Twitter - that bottomless reservoir of smug - always gets in a particularly joyous uproar when a team signs a goalie long-term. Today's casualty was Henrik Lundqvist, who signed a 7 year extension for nearly $60M, a deal that will finish a few months after his 39th birthday. Others have no doubt broken down what happens to goalies in their late 30s, even elite goalies, and most of them don't fare particularly well. The problem, however, is not just their faring not well - it's their faring at all. Allow me to explain.
Lundqvist's cap hit of $8.5M won't be eclipsed by another goalie anytime soon - indeed, there's a dearth of elite goalies with long track records coming to market. Still, with the salary cap going up, someone will break it, and it will continue to be broken as Lundqvist ages. I could see a world where he's the 10th highest paid goalie in 2018. Whatever the case, his cap hit isn't onerous if the salary cap rises as much as experts think it will. What is onerous is the meaning of that cap hit - it means that Lundqvist is the de-facto starter for the next 7 years. Is he playing poorly at some point, say in 2017? Well, what about the ten years of experience he has previous to this where he played well? The problem isn't just with potentially getting poor value out of the contract by Lundqvist failing to be merely elite over the course of this thing - teams make it worse when they are unable to cut bait with formerly successful players. This isn't as large an issue with elite forwards and defensemen - we've seen guys like Mike Modano, Bryan Trottier, Brendan Shanahan, Gary Roberts, Chris Chelios, etc. who have ended their careers as role players. Were they likely entrusted with too much responsibility because of their history? Yeah, probably, but it's an issue of 15 minutes versus 11 minutes per game. Chicken feed type stuff - one win at the most. You can always give a skater less ice time and less responsibility, but the picture is murkier for netminders. This is an issue of starting a goalie 60 games versus starting 20 games - issues that are enormous. We should all know the numbers - the difference between a .920 goalie and a .905 goalie, assuming 30 shots on goal per game, is 25 goals. That's roughly 5 wins, which could easily turn what should be a division leader into a fringe playoff team, or a fringe playoff team into finishing well out of the playoffs. It's especially difficult to give a guy getting starter money backup minutes if he's not playing well, and just as hard to split his ice time.
I'm not saying Lundqvist will break down like this - he's clearly one of the game's best goalies and the elite have fared better later in their careers. What I am saying is that if he does start to fade significantly, it will probably take the Rangers a year or two to figure it out, possibly more, during which time he will actively be hurting the team. Normally I'd say this is an outlandish prediction, but there's nothing more certain in sports than management hoping the past can once again be the present - the longer the legacy, the more inescapable the vortex.