The NHL’s most dangerous contract, a brief history of the Shiny New Toy deal

It’s been a fascinating offseason so far. The Flames and Panthers pulled off one of the biggest blockbusters of the last decade, a truly shocking late-night swap that saw Matthew Tkachuk head to Florida for a package that included Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.

The Blackhawks are openly tanking while the Senators are loading up, with both situations highlighted by the deal that sent Alex DeBrincat to Ottawa. The Golden Knights dumped Max Pacioretty on Carolina for next-to-nothing, while the Wild had to move Kevin Fiala to the Kings. We may not even be done as trade rumors swirl around guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Pierre-Luc Dubois, JT Miller and David Pastrnak.

All of those moves were stunning in their own way, or would be. But that’s not the most important thing they have in common.

We need to talk about the Shiny New Toy scenario.

It’s dangerous. It’s potentially bad news for fans in Ottawa, Calgary or Carolina, as well as whichever team might be tempted on guys like Miller or Kane. It also makes it feel significantly likely that we’re about to see at least a few teams make cap-crushing mistakes that they’ll regret for years to come.

Let’s explain what’s going on, how it’s played out in the past, and what we can learn from that.

What is a Shiny New Toy?

Negotiating a contract in the NHL is all about leverage. Sometimes the team has it, like when a young player’s entry-level contract expires and his rights are still under team control for years to come. Sometimes the player has it, like when an established star hits free agency, or a beloved franchise stalwart is on an expiring deal and needs an extension before he walks away for nothing. In those cases, teams often overpay, because they may feel like they have little choice.

As a big fan of debating bad contracts, I don’t say this lightly: There may not be a more dangerous set of circumstances for a team or a more advantageous one for a player and his agent, than the dreaded Shiny New Toy. It’s a category of bad contract that I first proposed in a piece I wrote six years ago. I don’t know if you read that one or not, but I’m pretty sure that NHL GMs didn’t, because if anything the list of mistakes has been getting worse.

The scenario is in play when a team acquires a star player in a major trade, usually to great fanfare, and then has to immediately contend with an extension. The player they’ve just acquired either needs a new contract immediately or has a deal that’s about to expire, making them eligible for an extension.

That puts the team in a bind. Sure, it’s great that they added a new player, but now they have to keep him. Their fans are excited. The GM is reading media coverage about what a great job he’s done. They may even be selling a few more season tickets. But all that positivity disappears if they let this new star walk away for nothing in a year or so.

The team needs to sign the player to a long-term deal. And the player, and his agent, absolutely know it. That’s why they have all the leverage.

Put yourself in a GM’s shoes. You’ve just held a press conference to show off your new acquisition, and brag to the world about how wonderful he is. You probably gave up valuable assets to get him. Are you really going to sit down at the bargaining table and act like you’re not sold?

You can’t. You have to pay up. And very often, that leads to disaster.

What are some examples of Shiny New Toy disasters?

OK, so you understand what the Shiny New Toy looks like. But how often does it really end up being as bad as I just described?

Let’s start with a recent example. Last summer, the Blackhawks traded for Seth Jones on July 23, giving up a package of high picks and Adam Boqvist. Jones was heading into the last year of his deal, with UFA status looming, so the Hawks immediately signed him to an eight-year, $76 million extension. That contract raised eyebrows at the time, and a year later it looks like one of the league’s worst, with Dom ranking it number two on his list of bad deals.

We don’t have to scroll very far down that list to find more Shiny New Toys. The Sabers traded for Jeff Skinner during the 2018 offseason, knowing he had one year left before UFA status. They eventually paid up to keep him, giving him eight years and $72 million, which Dom ranks as the third-worst contract in the league right now.

We can find an even bigger example a bit further down the list in Erik Karlsson. The Sharks traded for him in 2018, heading into the final year of his contract, and eventually gave him a whopping eight years and $92 million to stick around. Now carrying the biggest cap hit for a defenseman in NHL history for five more years, he’s been hurt and only occasionally effective ever since.

Let’s keep going. How about the Rangers trading for Jacob Trouba in June of 2019, then handing him seven years and $56 million a month later? The Sharks gave up a first-round pick for Evander Kane in 2018, then gave him seven years and $49 million a few months later. Jonathan Drouin landed six years and $33 million from the Canadiens on the same day they gave up Mikhail Sergachev for him.

Justin Faulk got seven years and $45.5 million from the Blues on the day he was acquired from the Hurricanes in September 2019, despite having a full year left on his deal. Finally, the inflated Ryan McDonagh contract that the Lightning just had to dump on the Predators was signed just months after they got him from the Rangers for a package of picks and prospects, proving that even smart teams can fall victim.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. We can look back at other questionable contracts from years ago, like the Hurricanes giving Jordan Staal a 10-year contract worth $60 million in 2012, just days after trading for him on the draft floor. The Senators traded for Bobby Ryan in the aftermath of losing Daniel Alfredsson to the Red Wings, then had to give him seven years and $50 million over the life of the deal a year later.

Those same Senators sent Jason Spezza to Dallas in 2014, then watched the Stars give him four years and $30 million on a deal that almost immediately felt like an overpay. Cory Schneider’s disastrous seven-year, $42-million extension came a year after the Devils traded for him in front of the hometown fans.

We could keep going, even reaching back into the pre-cap days, where arguably the worst trade-and-contract ever seen was a classic Shiny New Toy scenario. But I’m guessing you get the point. When a team pulls off a trade for a big name that needs an extension, they’re in very dangerous territory.

Does a Shiny New Toy contract ever work out?

If you’re a Flames fan who’s made it this far into this post, there’s a good chance you’re terrified right now. So this is the part where I should offer you some optimism, with a list of Shiny New Toy contracts that worked out fine.

The problem is, I’m not completely sure there are any.

Certainly, none of the contracts that are commonly mentioned among the league’s great bargains fall into the Shiny New Toy category, although those are typically ones signed by elite young players right before a breakout, and those guys are rarely traded. Besides, we don’t need to find a great contract as a counter-example — just a decent one would do.

Are there any candidates? You could make a case for Mark Stone, who got eight years and $76 million from Vegas a few days after they pried him out of Ottawa. That deal seemed reasonable at the time for a guy who was considered among the elite wingers in the league, but injuries have diminished Stone’s value in recent years. The jury is still out, but Stone might still end up working out well.

It’s too early to tell on guys like Kevin Fiala in Los Angeles (on a deal that most of us seemed to think was OK) or Hampus Lindholm in Boston (which could be a little dicier). If we go back further, we can find a pair of team-friendly 2015 contracts like Dougie Hamilton in Calgary and Ryan O’Reilly’s deal with the Sabres, which ultimately worked out better for the Blues, but still fits our criteria.

But maybe the best counter-example for Flames fans is one that will be bittersweet: Matthew Tkachuk’s eight-year, $76-million extension with the Panthers. Technically, he signed that deal with Calgary as part of the league’s first sign-and-trade, but I think we can allow it as being in the spirit of the thing. Tkachuk hasn’t played a game under that contract yet, but it’s already getting rave reviews.

If the Panthers could give up as much as they did for Tkachuk and still get him signed to a reasonable contract, maybe there’s hope for other similar situations. Or maybe Tkachuk is just the exception that proves the rule, where a team circumvented the Shiny New Toy curse by working out the contract before the trade was consummated. Look, I wanted to leave Flames fans with some optimism, and this is the best I can do.

Mark Stone. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

So what have we learned?

Would “don’t trade for stars who need extensions” be oversimplifying? I think it might be. And given how much time I spend complaining about GMs not making trades, I don’t really want to rule out a whole broad category of them.

So let’s go with this: While a star player’s expiring contract may be the only reason that they’re available to trade for in the first place, teams should be extremely cautious when it comes to making those deals.

That’s a cautionary tale for the Flames, with both Huberdeau and Weegar. It’s worth remembering for the Senators, with DeBrincat. It could be a problem for the Hurricanes and Pacioretty, although that deal could be more of a designed rental. It’s a red flag to anyone who might be thinking about pulling the trigger on Miller, Dubois or Kane, or any other stars who become available in a similar situation, even if the trades themselves seem to offer strong value.

Buyer beware. Because the track record here is absolutely abysmal.

(Top photo of Seth Jones: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today)


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