The 2012 lockout was one of the low points in the NHL’s recent history, and one could assume that the league would do everything in their power to avoid another one. However, signing bonuses intended to protect players from the financial fallout of a potential lockout at the end of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) have all but sealed the league’s fate of another work stoppage.
It’s become a trend since the last lockout for players signing long-term contracts to structure them so that the highest salary is paid in years surrounding 2020-21. Salary then drops sharply during the 2020-21 season, and the player is paid most of their income via a signing bonus.
Of note — the number of players choosing 2020-21 is an interesting wrinkle, as both the NHL and the NHLPA can choose to opt out of the CBA for the first time in September 2019.
As signing bonus money is paid out during the offseason, players will still receive that money even in the event of a work stoppage, thus protecting at least some of their income. It makes perfect sense.
Rather than miss out on more and more paychecks as a hypothetical lockout stretches on, why not get paid in the summer?
This new structuring of deals isn’t a coincidence. At the Sports Management Worldwide Conference at the 2016 NHL Draft, Rick Curran of Orr Hockey Group said that, at least in his experience, it’s intentional. He also noted that we should expect to see more long-term deals signed this year and over the next couple of years structured this way.
Some big-name examples include:
- Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, whose current contracts with the Blackhawks were signed in 2015 and include a steep drop in salary and rise in signing bonus in both the 2020-21 as well as the 2021-22 seasons
- P.K. Subban, who has a $1 million drop in salary in 2020-21 and 2021-22, but a $6 million signing bonus in both years
- Evgeni Malkin, who has no drop in salary but does have a $5 million signing bonus in both 2020-21 and 2021-22
- Malkin’s teammate Phil Kessel, who will see a $1.7 million decrease in salary but receive a $5 million signing bonus in both 2020-21 and 2021-22
- Both Derek Stepan and Marc Staal of the Rangers, who each will receive a $3 million signing bonus before the 2020-21 season
Claude Giroux bucks the trend slightly with no salary drop and no signing bonus in 2020-21, but he still has a $3 million bonus in 2019-20 and a $1 million bonus in 2021-22. It seems Giroux isn’t as optimistic as many of his fellow players about the league not choosing to opt out of the CBA the first chance it gets.
These players are only a few examples of many who have chosen to structure their contracts to protect themselves, and the me-first mindset isn’t necessarily going over well.
Some in hockey, particularly the ‘Old Guard’, aren’t fond of this tactic. They feel it removes any impetus these players would have to negotiate and resolve an end to any work stoppage that may occur. Essentially: if they’re being paid anyway, where does the urgency come from for them to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement and start the season?
In theory this concern is a sensible one — lockout protection removes that immediate need for resolution for several players, because by that point they will have already received a large paycheck.
However, if you look at the individual players involved, none of them seem like the type to sit back simply because they’ve already got their money. Some may even be more likely to stick around and negotiate to end the stoppage sooner if financial concerns are relieved by that summer payment.
Sure, you won’t see Malkin in the middle of the negotiations — but when would you ever?
Guys who were already going to stay out of the spotlight and out of the fray are going to do that whether they’ve got their money or not. Guys like Toews, however, who were right in the thick of things last time, undoubtedly will be again.
After the last lockout, players seem to believe this behavior has become a pattern, and that another lockout at the end of the current CBA is inevitable. Those who are signing long-term deals are merely doing what they can to protect themselves and their income.
Unfortunately, in doing so they’ve pretty much removed any chance of said work stoppage not happening. It’s an awful Catch-22, and one that we’re all avidly keeping an eye on.