Kovalchuk’s Next Contract and the Max Salary Debate
There has been considerable discussion regarding what exactly might have led to Kovalchuk turning down Atlanta's 12 year, $101 million offer. Some have hypothesized that he was more than willing to play in Atlanta, but not without making as much as he could over as long a term as possible to compensate for the team's lack of projected near-future competitiveness. Others have suggested that he simply didn't want to play for the Thrashers any longer, but also didn't want to unnecessarily burn any bridges. Instead, he simply asked for a number Atlanta wouldn’t pay so he could turn around and say “I wanted to stay, but we couldn’t make the money work." I like option "C", the “I’d like to play for a winner, but I’d also like to make as much money as possible so why sign with ATL now before I hear whatever other options might exist. I can probably go back to ATL if I don’t receive a better offer from some other team, and if some team in the KHL throws $15 million per year at me I wouldn't mind living back home either.”, but then again I’m not a mind reader.
I'm not sure what I'd be willing to pay Kovalchuk if I were an NHL GM, but I'll suggest that Kovalchuk* would not necessarily be overpaid if he signs for more money than Crosby or Ovechkin. To be fair, I’m not really arguing that Kovalchuk is worth $11 million per season (maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but I’m ignoring that discussion here), but more for the general case that a player can, in theory, be paid more than Crosby or Ovechkin and still be worth his money. Being worth that money would only require that Crosby and Ovechkin are underpaid at their current salaries. My guess would be that they are. That said, how much are they “really” worth? Is Ovechkin worth $13 million/season? $15 million/season? Even more?
Elliot Friedman, in discussing Atlanta's options when it came to Kovalchuk**, wrote " Plus, it’s borderline impossible to win with one guy taking that much of your space." This bit of conventional wisdom has been circulating for awhile now, probably since the lockout, and I'm not really sure why. In fact, I think the suggestion is kind of bizarre when you consider how easily it can be dismissed with a simple look to the top of the NHL's standings. The 1st overall team in the NHL, the Washington Capitals, have the highest cap hit player (Ovechkin at ~9.6 mil) in the league. True, he's isn't making the max, but the Capitals aren't spending to the cap either. If Ovechkin were paid 2 mil more per season to bring him up to the current maximum salary, the Caps still wouldn't be over the cap. If Friedman meant Kovalchuk specifically when he wrote "one guy", maybe that's fair enough, but don't the 2009/10 Capitals "prove" that a team can be competitive paying one player the 20% maximum?
I don't know exactly how to quantify the worth of the superstar class player, if such a thing is possible. I also don't know how many players in the league (if any) may be worth the 20% max. All this Kovalchuk contract talk did lead me to wonder about the following questions, none of which I see any easy answers for.
What compensation is appropriate for a star player?
How much do they have to be paid before it's too much?
What factors, besides on ice production, affect "reasonable compensation" for a star player?
Can a truly elite forward be overpaid in this CBA?
*Kovalchuk is probably a poor example because I don’t think he’s as good a player as Crosby, Ovechkin, or Malkin at making his linemates better.
** This article was, I believe, written just before Kovalchuk was traded to the New Jersey Devils.