Price is high for NHL free agents Suter, Parise

If the reports are accurate – and they’re coming from reputable sources – then Predators free agent defenseman Ryan Suter could receive a contract that would pay him $14 million in each of the next two seasons, a number that would be just $400,000 under the maximum allowed under the NHL’s salary cap and which also could make him the highest-paid player in the NHL next season.

Let’s put that in perspective for a minute. Last season, Preds captain Shea Weber had the highest cap hit of any defenseman in the NHL, as his one-year deal was worth $7.5 million. There were higher-paid defensemen, like Buffalo’s Christian Ehrhoff, who earned $10 million, but Ehrhoff’s 10-year deal averages $4 million. While Suter ranked third in the NHL last season in average time on ice, 2011-12 was the first time he had ever made the All-Star team.

The report of Suter’s offers came from TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who said that Suter and New Jersey left wing Zach Parise, the top two free agents on the market, each were receiving contract offers in the $100-million range over about 12 years, which comes out to a cap hit of $8.3 million per season (annual average value, or AAV, in the hockey lingo).

Those are staggering sums, especially considering the highest Suter has finished in the voting for the Norris Trophy, which is given to the NHL’s top defenseman, is eighth, which he did this past season.

“Sutes is an enviable position in that he’s got everyone coming after him,” Predators general manager David Poile told reporters in Nashville on Sunday evening, according to audio posted on the team’s Web site, “and the money, obviously, is going to be whatever he wants it to be.”

Yes, agents are racing to get contracts front-loaded before the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15 out of fear that terms of a new CBA could limit such actions. But $28 million over the first two years is starting to enter the territory of quarterbacks in the NFL, a league whose revenues are king among North American pro sports.

That means Suter would substantially out-earn, for example, Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who will make $9 million next season. In 2009 after leading the NFL in both passer rating and touchdown passes, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers signed a six-year extension worth $92 million for an average of $15.3 million – which is within spitting distance of Suter’s offers. One difference is that NHL contracts are guaranteed while NFL ones are not, but NFL deals often contain enormous signing bonuses. Rivers’ included about $38 million guaranteed.

Consider the deals in terms of television revenue. The NHL’s new television deal with NBC pays it $200 million per season or roughly $6.7 million per team. By comparison, last year, the NFL’s television deal paid it $4 billion, or about $125 million per team. Yes, NFL rosters are about twice the size of NHL ones, but $14 million for a single season remains an astonishing salary.

Here’s another way to look at it. If the Predators sign Suter to a deal that pays him $14 million next season – even if the cap hit becomes far less than that – they would have to do likewise to Weber, their captain and the two-time Norris Trophy runner-up. (Poile said on Sunday that he has been in contact with Weber and is getting ready to offer him similar terms to what his offer will be to Suter.) The Preds also awarded goalie Pekka Rinne a seven-year, $49-million extension last fall, meaning that they would pay their top three players $35 million alone next season. In 2005-06, the first season after the NHL lockout, the Preds spent less than $32 million on payroll, which was then about the midpoint between the league’s cap ceiling ($39 million) and floor ($23 million).

Two factors are driving up salaries so massively. One is that the league’s revenues continue to rocket up, reaching $3.3 billion for 2011-12. After the lockout they were about $2 billion. The expiring CBA included provisions so that as revenues increased, so did the players’ share of the revenue: It started at 54 percent and now stands at 57 percent.

The second factor is teams’ locking up their star players to long-term contracts. To make contracts more cap friendly, teams added years with Buffalo’s to Ehrhoff being a prime example: He earned $10 million last season but will earn $1 million in each of the final three years. As a result, teams are locking up the players they consider to be at their core and for very long periods of time; thus, fewer top players are hitting the market. Suter – like Parise – now stands in position to cash in in a big way.

Poile said term is not a factor for the Preds and that the team will be competitive on money.

“I’m hopeful that he’s going to make his decision based on his team and his teammates and the city of Nashville compared to everything else that is out there,” Poile said. “I’ve always felt that, having done all that, that he will come back. I must admit that on July first it’s going a little slower than I’ve anticipated and it’s a nervous time for our franchise because we’ve got all of our eggs in this particular position — his basket right now.”
Increasingly, those eggs are looking like Faberge eggs.