It’s not easy, or lucrative, being a Hockey Hall of Fame-worthy veteran in the NHL these days.
The pandemic and its effect on NHL revenue flow has helped force a salary-cap freeze at $81.5 million (U.S.) and, with it, a generally frugal approach to free agents, even those with definite Hall credentials.
Age has a lot to do with offers to the veterans. Being in the 35-and-older bracket can put players in a position where they have to accept less than $1 million a season in salary if they want to play.
The Leafs, who already had 37-year-old Jason Spezza on a league-minimum $700,000 contract, signed Joe Thornton, 41, to a similar deal, while former Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, 43, just agreed to a one-year, $795,000 contract with Washington.
NHL rosters currently list 52 players who are 35 or older. Two of them — Alex Ovechkin and Brent Burns — are on long-term contracts that will see them earn $10 million in salary this season. Another 10 will earn $1 million or less, with seven of them at or near the NHL minimum.
That group of seven — Spezza, Thornton, Chara, Patrick Marleau, Nate Thompson, Corey Perry and Adam Cracknell — is a club with a heckuva lot of experience and charm. It’s also a club that had, at one time, paved the way to lucrative contracts enjoyed by today’s top young stars. Thornton, Spezza, Marleau, Perry and Chara are certain to get Hall of Fame consideration.
Every one in the group of seven could conduct a PhD-level seminar in hockey smarts on and off the ice. And listening to many of them in a media scrum — if they have the time to talk hockey — can be a learning experience like no other in the sport. Thornton (1,636 career games) and Spezza (1,123) have more games played than the rest of the Leafs roster. The next closest is Zach Bogosian at 644.
Their value seems almost limitless, despite the fact their best playing days are in the past. Thornton, for example, remains one of the most unique and impactful players in the game. A recent media story in San Jose had Burns and other teammates claiming that “there isn’t another player like him” in the NHL.
So, why have they had to accept such marginal salaries? Simply put, it’s economics.
The Leafs, for instance, have three players earning $10 million or more — Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner. And even with Thornton and Spezza at the league minimum, the team’s contracts are at a combined $82.5 million, according to CapFriendly, roughly $1 million over the limit.
But both Thornton and Spezza have agreed make salary concessions for the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. Of the group of seven, only Perry and Chara have won it. Thornton and Marleau have been to the final once.
Most have made plenty of money in their careers; what’s left is the love of the game and the chance to play on a winner again.
Chara indicated as much Thursday when he spoke to reporters. Chara said simply that he felt he definitely had more in the tank.
“We had a number of conversations (with Bruins GM Don Sweeney),” Chara said. “He made it clear what conditions and what role I would be taking with the organization if I returned. But I just felt that what was presented to me, and what conditions were kind of attached to it, I just felt that I had more to offer.”