Somewhere, Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele must have been kicking himself.
The big news in the NHL this week — the breathtaking eight-year, $76-million contract extension right-winger Nikita Kucherov signed with Tampa Bay — will have come with particular resonance for Scheifele.
Both men were drafted in 2011 — Scheifele in the first round, seventh overall; Kucherov in the second round, 58th overall — and their careers have been on somewhat parallel tracks ever since.
Scheifele has played 366 career NHL games, Kucherov has played 365. Kucherov has more goals (147) than Scheifele (113) and more overall points — 334 versus 287 — but he also had the luxury of playing on a better team, at least until now, and with linemate Steven Stamkos, a future hall of famer.
One guy is an elite winger with a lot of points, the other guy is an elite centre with slightly less points. Scheifele and Kucherov have had, by many measures, comparable careers.
But as of this week, they are no longer being paid like it. Because with that massive new contract, Kucherov will earn almost as much in signing bonus in the first year of his new deal in 2019-20 — $11 million — as Scheifele will earn in any two years of his current contract, which pays him $6.1 million per season.
And so it will go. Kucherov’s new deal carries an average annual value of $9.5 million, better than 50 per cent more than Scheifele will earn annually over the remaining six years of a deal he signed with the Jets on July 8, 2016.
And that’s before the monster break Kucherov will also get by playing in Florida, which has no state income tax. Add tax breaks into the equation and Kucherov will soon be taking home closer to double what Scheifele earns.
Now, none of this is to cry crocodile tears for Scheifele. He is a fabulously wealthy young man whose eight-year, $49-million contract is, to this day, the richest sports contract in the history of Manitoba.
He’s going to be all right, is what I’m saying. Hydro will not be turning out the lights on Chez Scheifele anytime soon.
But it is a monument to just how much the economic landscape has changed in the NHL since Scheifele signed that deal — not to mention how much he has grown into the role of an elite NHL centre — that Scheifele’s record-breaking contract looks like chump change when you consider the money being thrown around the NHL at the moment.
Indeed, Scheifele’s deal — already regarded by many NHL GMs as one of the shrewdest contracts in recent years — has now graduated to steal-of-the-century status.
Count your fingers the next time you shake hands with Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.
Consider, for context, the money that’s been thrown around the league over the past couple of weeks:
The seven-year, $77-million deal centre John Tavares signed with the Maple Leafs. The eight-year, $64-million extension the Sharks gave Logan Couture. The seven-year, $49-million deal the Sharks gave to (cough) Evander Kane. Thee five-year, $35-million deal the Flyers gave James van Riemsdyk. The three-year, $19.5-million contract Paul Stastny signed with the Golden Knights as his reward for being the second-line centre behind Scheifele to end last season.
Heck, even 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk signed a deal with a higher annual average value than Scheifele, hoodwinking the dopey L.A. Kings into giving him $18.75 million over the next three years.
Adding it all up this week, I counted 11 different players over just the last two weeks who signed NHL contracts worth more than Scheifele’s deal on an annual basis.
And those are the deals that have been signed outside the Jets dressing room. Where all this is going to really hit close to home — literally — for Scheifele is when his teammates soon start signing monster deals, too.
To this point, Scheifele has been the second-highest paid player on the Jets roster, behind only the $7.6 million a season the Jets are paying defenceman Dustin Byfuglien. Forward Nikolaj Ehlers is now right behind Scheifele at $6 million.
But that’s about to change. Both defenceman Jacob Trouba and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck are restricted free agents, have filed for salary arbitration and are due big raises that could easily push both men into the $6-million per season range and beyond.
And then there are extensions to be done over the next 12 months for captain Blake Wheeler, who seems likely to get a substantial raise from the $5.6 million a season he is currently earning, and phenom Patrik Laine, who will almost certainly be the highest-paid Jet around this time next year.
Put it all together and there is a plausible scenario in which Scheifele heads to training camp for the 2019-20 season as the team’s top-line centre but sixth highest-paid player.
Those two things don’t usually go together, and if you don’t think that will sting, you don’t know the mind of the highly competitive professional athlete, a bunch who compete almost as much among themselves as they do against their opponents.
Now, in a bigger market, a guy with Scheifele’s high profile could make up some of the difference in endorsements and appearance fees. But players in Winnipeg “fly under the radar,” as Wheeler lamented last season, and so the national opportunities don’t often make it inside the Perimeter Highway and the local endorsement deals are few and far between.
Some of this, of course, is simply in the nature of long-term contracts. Scheifele was just 23 when he signed, but his agents surely advised him at the time that a deal like his was going to pay him very well on the front end — he’s been earning about $1.4 million a season more than Kucherov over the last two years — but the value would dwindle, on a relative basis, as the years unfolded.
But what nobody could have expected is that just two years into an eight-year contract that was already considered a bargain is increasingly looking like the deal of the century — for the Jets and for Winnipeg, if not necessarily Scheifele.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press — 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets — long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.