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Throwback: Looking at Paul Kariya and his First Contract

Paul Kariya was the first player to win the Hobey Baker Award for the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey player of the year as a freshman — and he was the last to do so until Jack Eichel did it this very spring.

Twenty-one years ago today, Kariya inked his first pro hockey contract with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Like most entry-level deals today, the contract spanned a three-year time frame; worth $6.5 million total, though, the deal was a bit more than NHL rookies make today. At $2.166M AAV, Paul Kariya made more than $1M more per season on average than Connor McDavid will make with the Edmonton Oilers — and that was back in 1994.

Needless to say, the deal wouldn’t fly under the current CBA; Kariya would have been just one year removed from his draft year, meaning the team would have held his contract rights and it would have been an entry-level deal.

At the time, though, Kariya wanted $12M and five years. Looking at that, especially knowing how successful Kariya would ultimately be with the Ducks throughout his time with the club, it’s easy to say that was fair — but as Eichel and McDavid head into their first NHL season on contracts that will each of them less than half of what Kariya did in his first year going pro, it’s worth looking at how the league has changed things.

Obviously, the biggest change is that teams no longer feel the pressure to pay highly touted prospects this kind of money. There’s a limit to how much an NHL rookie can be paid if he’s signing off his draft rights and not from unrestricted free agency; because of that, players like Kariya now have to wait until their career has become more established before they ask this kind of salary.

Ironically enough, of course, the threat of a rookie salary cap is exactly what pushed Kariya to join the league early and ink himself a hefty deal. When the L.A. Times reported on the deal in 1994, they alluded to that potentially being the case:

“The deal, which pays $4.775 million in signing bonuses and a $575,000 annual salary, ends a saga so drawn-out and complicated that General Manager Jack Ferreira said weeks ago that when–and if–Kariya signed the newspaper headline should simply be: “Finally.”

Kariya was relieved, too, after completing a few details so he could sign Wednesday night. That avoided the uncertainties of a new standard NHL contract that went into effect Thursday–and perhaps the threat of a rookie salary cap that could result from ongoing collective-bargaining talks.”

The article in question goes on to talk about how that made Kariya the second highest-paid rookie in the league at the time; he even made more than Hartford Whalers defenseman Chris Pronger, who had inked a four year deal with his team just the year prior. It seemed to go against the allegations that the Mighty Ducks had called Pronger’s contract, like the monstrosity signed by Alexandre Daigle, an ‘aberration’ — insisting they’d never pay an unproven rookie that much money.

Was it worth it?

As mentioned above, it ended up being worth it using 20/20 hindsight. Like taking a risk on stock on Wall Street, this was a gamble that paid off quite handsomely for Anaheim over their first few years in the league; building the club around Kariya (the team’s first-ever draft selection in 1993) clearly paid off for them when it came to establishing a strong club and growing the fanbase.

For a new club to spend that much on a rookie, though, is taking a huge gamble — and one that may not pay off in the end.

Much of contract valuation is done nowadays using a blend of intangible assets and math; even without the possession data that teams have access to now, there was even less data for the Ducks to pull from when determining whether Kariya would be worth his deal. We assume that NHL comparable stats give us a good indication of how well a player will translate from one league to another, but teams need to look no further than the London Knights of the OHL — and the duo of Sam Gagner and Patrick Kane — to realize that high-scoring players aren’t always able to replicate their success once they hit higher quality of competition. Kane has thrived; Gagner, on the other hand, has not.

You could even look at the train wreck that was Alexandre Daigle’s rookie deal. Paying players nowadays like the Ducks paid Kariya, Pronger and Daigle, back then would be even more of a gamble with the salary cap — it’s fun to think about the ‘what if’s, but also a bit imposing.

Overall, it’s a moot point; the NHL no longer permits rookie salaries that high, so long gone are the days where teams can pay a salary this high to a player that young in order to prevent him from heading off into free agency.

In the dog days of the NHL off-season, though, it’s a fun parallel to look at — and for Oilers and Sabres fans, it’s a nice story to read with a sigh of relief that they won’t have to pay McEichel any substantial kind of money for three more years.

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