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 trade that saw Matthew Tkachuk head to Florida for a package that included Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.

The Blackhawks are rolling openly while the Senators are charging, 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 trade Kevin Fiala to the Kings. We may not be done as trade rumors revolve around guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Pierre-Luc Dubois, JT Miller and David Pastrnak.

All of these moves were amazing 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. That’s potentially bad news for fans in Ottawa, Calgary or Carolina, as well as any team that might be tempted by guys like Miller or Kane. It also makes it feel very likely that we’re about to see at least a few teams make crushing mistakes that they’ll regret for years to come.

Let’s explain what is happening, how it has played out in the past, and what we can learn from it.

What is a shiny new toy?

Negotiating a contract in the NHL is all about leverage. Sometimes the team has, 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 franchise stalwart has an expiring deal and needs an extension before leaving for nothing. In these cases, teams often overpay because they may feel they have no choice.

As a big fan of the bad contract debate, 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 it or not, but I’m pretty sure the NHL GMs didn’t, because the list of mistakes just got worse, either way.

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

This puts the team in crisis. Sure, it’s great that they added a new player, but now they have to keep him. Their fans are excited. The CEO reads the media about what a great job he did. They might even sell a few more subscriptions. But all that positivity goes away if they let this new star go for nothing in a year or so.

The team must 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 the shoes of a GM. You just held a press conference to show off your new acquisition and brag to the world about how awesome he is. You probably gave up valuable possessions to get it. Are you really going to sit down at the negotiating table and act like you’re not sold?

Can not. You must pay. And very often, that leads to disaster.

What are some examples of Shiny New Toy disasters?

OK, so you understand what 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 draft picks and Adam Boqvist. Jones was heading into the final year of his deal with UFA status on the cards, 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 worst in the league, with Dom ranking it second on his list of bad deals.

We don’t have to scroll very far down the list to find more shiny toys. The Sabers traded for Jeff Skinner in the 2018 offseason, knowing he had one year left in his UFA status. In the end, they paid to keep him, giving him eight years and $72 million, which Dom ranks as the third-worst contract in the league right now.

An even greater example can be found a little further down the list in Erik Karlsson. The Sharks traded for him in 2018 heading into the final year of his contract and ultimately gave him a whopping eight years and $92 million to stay. Now holding the best shot for a defenseman in NHL history for another five years, he was injured and has only been occasionally effective since.

Let’s continue. How about the Rangers trading for Jacob Trouba in June 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 offered him seven years and $49 million a few months later. Jonathan Drouin got six years and $33 million from the Canadiens on the same day they waived Mikhail Sergachev for him.

Justin Faulk received 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 remaining on his deal. Finally, the bloated Ryan McDonagh contract that the Lightning had to throw at the Predators was signed just months after they got him from the Rangers for a package of picks and prospects, proving that even teams intelligent can fall victim.

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

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

We could go on, even going back to the pre-cap days, where possibly the worst trade and contract ever seen was a classic Shiny New Toy scenario. But I guess you get the point. When a team makes a trade for a big name in need of an extension, they are in very dangerous territory.

Does a Shiny New Toy contract ever work?

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 give you some optimism with a list of Shiny New Toy contracts that have worked well.

The problem is, I’m not entirely sure there is.

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

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

It’s too early to tell about guys like Kevin Fiala from Los Angeles (on a deal that most of us seemed to think was OK) or Hampus Lindholm from Boston (who might be a little more difficult). Going back further, we can find a pair of team-friendly deals from 2015, such as 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 perhaps 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 with Calgary as part of the league’s first sign-and-trade, but I think we can allow that’s in the spirit of it. Tkachuk has yet to play a game under that contract, but he is I’m already getting positive reviews.

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

Mark Stone. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

So what did we learn?

Would “don’t trade stars who need extensions” oversimplify? I think it could be. And given how much time I spend complaining about GMs not trading, I don’t want to rule out an entire category of them.

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

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

Attention buyer. Because the track record here is absolutely abysmal.

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

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