Agent Pat Brisson sounds nostalgic when recalling that “we did Jaromir Jagr for $11 million – remember, it was eight years, $88 million.”
At the time, the Jagr deal with the Capitals was the richest contract in NHL history. It was 2001.
Eighteen years later, and 14 years into a salary-cap system, Connor McDavid’s record salary cap hit of $12.5 million per season is only 13% higher.
With Mike Trout nearing a new professional sports high with $426.5 million deal over 12 years with the Angels, it is interesting to wonder where NHL salaries would be for top stars without a salary cap.
“I’d say in excess of $20 million for sure,” said Brisson, who represents several stars, including Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.
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Agent Allan Walsh said in a free market system, “franchise players would be making upwards of $25 million per season.”
“While NHL player salaries for elite players have been severely constrained by the salary cap since 2005, the value of NHL franchises are skyrocketing,” Walsh said. “In just a four-year span, even the value of an expansion franchise has jumped from $500 million (Vegas) to $650 million (Seattle). Shockingly, top NHL player salaries today are comparable to what they were in 2002-03.”
Brisson bases his guess on the fact that hockey’s revenue, in the range of $4.6 billion, is still less than half of what baseball’s revenue is. But there are larger-market teams, such as the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Rangers, for example, that have the revenue to support lucrative contracts.
Today’s team salary cap is $79.5 million, but Brisson surmises if teams were unchecked, there would be five teams with budgets of $100 million or more.
“Then you’d probably have another five teams at $85 to $100 million and the rest would be below,” he said.
Donald Fehr, the NHL Players’ Association’s executive director, said it would be difficult to know precisely what players would be paid without a cap.
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“But we have to recognize that the purpose of caps is to artificially restrain spending,” he said, “to prohibit individual owners from spending what they otherwise would think would be in their own team’s best interest on players that produce the best possible product. That’s why players don’t like salary caps.”
USA TODAY Sports talked to three general managers who requested anonymity in order to speak freely on the topic
One NHL general manager believes top players would be closer to $15 million.
“A young guy like Connor McDavid — a team would be willing to give him $15 million for 10 years,” the GM said.
The second GM first said a player would earn in the $15 million to $17 million range, and then added: “I understand baseball gave Trout ($35.5 million average per year) and he’s still undervalued. I don’t think the economics of our game, or the culture of the sport, allows someone in our sport to be paid like. But maybe we would pay a guy in the low 20s if we were allowed to.”
Steve Bartlett, a longtime agent, believes top players would be paid 25 to 30 percent higher without a cap.
“Every time I see one of these deals in other sports, I do go, ‘Wow,’ ” Bartlett said. “But I still think some of the TV revenue generated by these other sports makes it a different economic bird.”
Former NHL general manager Brian Burke, now an analyst on Canadian television, believes the star rate would be $16 million to $17 million.
“Pre-cap there were teams spending three or four times what other teams were spending,” Burke said. “If there were no cap, you would have teams with budgets that were excessive.”
The NHL’s salary cap allows a team to pay up to 20 percent of the cap to a single player, which would mean $15.9 million this season.
“It’s the nature of the sport and the culture of hockey players not wanting to be selfish,” the second GM said.
Brisson said he represents stars who refused to push for more because they wanted to leave money to build a strong team.
“Guys look around and see their peers and understand their circumstances and they know if I do this that it restricts opportunities elsewhere,” Fehr said. “Each player goes through a balancing exercise, amplified by what the club is saying.”
Historically, general managers use teammate salary comparison in negotiating tactics.
“One of the problems of the cap is that it pits players against one another and that’s one of the reasons why owners like it in bargaining,” Fehr said.
Burke said the frequency of that occurrence is overstated. “I don’t see much in the way of hometown discounts,” he said. “And I’m not saying they should give them, either.”
The third GM declined to say specifically what he thought stars would get without a salary cap, but he said he believes the current system, with revenue sharing and the salary cap, is why the sport thrives.
Regarding what McDavid, Crosby, Auston Matthews or others might be earning without a salary cap, he said, “Guys like that might be at $20 million, but we’d be a six-team league.”