Pay your stars what they’re worth, and take your discounts from the rest of the lineup
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
15 days ago
There’s a bit of an outdated notion floating around in hockey circles, and it’s one you hear trotted out virtually every time a high-level player signs a new contract these days.
“Selfish,” folks will note as said player inks a deal paying them what the market deems they’re worth, “Don’t they know they’ll never win unless they leave cash on the table for their teammates? Don’t they know they’ve got to take less for the good of the organization?”
It’s what they usually call a “hometown discount,” even though it’s only rarely applied to individuals actually playing in their hometown. Really, it’s more of a “homegrown discount,” with the notion being that the very best hockey players in the world should be giving up millions of dollars each contract for nothing more than the privilege of staying with the franchise that has held exclusive rights to their services since they were teenagers.
It’s not an expectation that strikes us as fair, realistic, or even much of a two-way street. That said, it’s also not really something that exists much anymore, if it ever did.
And yes, this is absolutely an article about Elias Pettersson and the Vancouver Canucks, but we’ll get back to him in a second.
There are, of course, bargain-rate deals for superstars to be found around the NHL. But these sorts of contracts almost invariably fall into one or more categories that don’t quite count as a hometown discount. There are those players who signed so long ago that their cap hits now look out-of-date, like Sidney Crosby at $8.7 million; still quite a deal. There are those players who were signed at an opportune time, before they fully broke out, like Jack Hughes and his $8 million AAV until 2030. There are those who were able to give up a million or two because of favourable local taxes, like Matthew Tkachuk and his $9.5 million AAV in Florida.
Beyond those circumstances, however, it’s difficult to find anyone in this league of any note who has truly taken a discount to either stay where they’re at and/or to give their team a competitive advantage.
The new norm — and, with a few rare exceptions in the past, what has always been the norm — is superstars being paid significantly more than their peers. And maybe that’s how it should be.
Now, when fans clamour for hometown discounts, they’re not just trying to save the owners a buck. They will usually cite two reasons for their want, but both are faulty.
The first is the notion that teams cannot win unless their elite players take discounts. The evidence for this is, understandably enough, all those teams with expensive players that don’t win the Stanley Cup each year. You know, your Toronto Maple Leafs, your Edmonton Oilers, and etcetera.
Well, the reality is that most teams don’t win the Stanley Cup each year, and to do so in any year is increasingly rare.
There have only been nine different Stanley Cup champions since the year 2010, after all. And almost every one of them has paid their best players accordingly.
Even before they signed their big post-championship deals, the duos of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago and Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty in Los Angeles were still cashing in at in excess of 11% of the salary cap each, and it didn’t slow their dynasties down at all.
Alex Ovechkin famously led the Washington Capitals to the Cup while still raking in some 13% of their total cap. And Crosby, long-lauded as the poster boy for taking discounts to win, was still at 12% of the Penguins’ total cap the last time they won in 2017.
We tackled this idea a bit earlier in the summer when we noted that Jack Eichel had become the first $10 million-salaried player to win a Stanley Cup. But he won’t be the last. High-paid superstars aren’t a hindrance to winning championships, it seems. They’re closer to a requirement.
The second reason fans bring up hometown discounts comes from hockey’s roots as the ultimate team sport, and generally takes the form of statements like “no one can be worth that much more than their teammates.”
The idea being that a player deserving, say, $10 million a year, could and should leave a few million in the company coffers for the bottom-sixers to share amongst themselves.
But this notion, too, is false, because the NHL’s elite players absolutely are worth that much more than their teammates. In fact, it’s borderline impossible to actually pay someone in such an upper echelon of talent.
Let’s bring it back to Pettersson and the Canucks for this example. Last year, the Canucks scored 276 goals, and Pettersson had 102 points. Right there, he’s in on 36% of the offence. And even if you want to argue that each goal should be split up into three to recognize both the goal and both assists that made it possible, which is questionable, that’s still got Pettersson to at least a share of 12% of the offence, at minimum.
And 12% of the 2024/25 salary cap of $87.5 million is $10.5 million, for those keeping track at home.
That’s to say nothing of Pettersson’s top-tier defensive contributions, either. The point is that, when it comes to the Canucks winning games, Pettersson is ultimately, like all superstars, going to be a lot more than 12 or 13 or 14% of the reason. So, when it comes to building a theoretical championship roster, paying him as such should really be no issue.
Then again, the salary cap still exists, and bargains have to be found wherever they can. So, if you pay your superstars what they’re worth, where do you take the discounts from?
The antidote to needing hometown discounts from elite talent is simply good management. Signing efficient contracts throughout the rest of the lineup isn’t just an alternative to seeking that big “hometown discount” from top players, it’s probably a means of saving more cap space in the long run.
It’s also, for competitive teams, probably an easier thing to pull off.
To have a player of Pettersson’s ilk playing for any franchise is an absolute privilege, and it’s not a privilege that he should be paying for. It makes for more sense for lesser players to take a cut in order to stay on a roster with a superstar than the other way around…and often, that’s exactly how it works.
The last time the Canucks were a true contender, circa 2011, the bottom-end of the lineup was full of players contributing far more than their cap hits would suggest. Many of these players either chose to come to Vancouver or chose to stay for slightly less than the market would have dictated, and for nothing more than the chance to play on a competitive roster with the likes of Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Roberto Luongo.
Those that would rather chase big bucks elsewhere were allowed to do so. In the end, enough wanted to stick around to almost make it work, and that’s still the best path for the Canucks to take in their next attempt at getting competitive.
Pay Pettersson now, and pay him what he’s worth. Leave the nickel-and-diming for a later date and lesser lights. It’s simply an easier, more realistic, and more efficient way of saving cap, and it doesn’t rely on the myth of the hometown discount.
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