THIRD MAN IN: Two Longs don’t make a right

Behind the Bench/Sports by

Does anyone else hear that laughing? It’s coming from the south, somewhere below the 49th parallel. That sound is our American counterparts buckling over at our blind devotion to this pastime of ours-one which, yet again, has embarrassed us for taking it seriously.

That laughter is a direct result of the actions of the New York Islanders. Do the Isles realize that the lockout produced a new salary system? Under the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement, salaries were to be regulated by multiple caps on player earnings. A direct by-product of this new rule was supposed to be the extinction of long-term contracts. With a hard cap system, teams could no longer afford to bind themselves to one player for an extended period of time as that salary would count against the cap each year. Now, NHLers would have to settle on frequent trips to unrestricted free agency and shorter-term engagements with any team.

But clearly, the Islanders missed that memo. Maybe their former general manager Neil Smith shredded it on his way out of town. Either way, it’s led to problems. Last week, Charles Wang-the enigmatic owner of the once dynastic Islander franchise-signed goaltender Rick DiPietro to a 15-year contract worth $67.5-million, amounting to roughly $4.5- million per season. So for the next 15 years, no matter the level of DiPietro’s play, he will be earning $4.5 million. When this goalie is 37 and on his last legs, the Islanders will have to shell out $4.5-million each season for another three years. The contract is sheer lunacy and shows a total lack of foresight.

DiPietro, a former first overall draft pick, has been, at best, an average goalie in the NHL up to this point in his career-he has a .900 save percentage and a goals-against average of almost three. Additionally, and probably most tellingly, he has won exactly one playoff game in his career. Finally, DiPietro’s strongest attribute-his puck handling ability-is a skill that has been severely restricted under the new NHL rules. The simple truth is that DiPietro isn’t very good.

Now, the Islanders are stuck with a mediocre goaltender for the rest of his career. Why the rest of his career? Because the way the contract is structured makes DiPietro untradeable. No GM will ever take a player under contract for such a long term, and no GM will ever relieve the Islanders of a signing that will cripple them for the next 15 years and, possibly, beyond. When DiPietro’s skills inevitably decline due to age and the Islanders become interested in a new goaltender, Ricky D’s $4.5-million will still appear on their balance sheet, eating up a large fraction of now valuable cap space. And for good measure, Wang, being the nice guy that he is, included a clause which allows DiPietro to receive the full value of the contract should the goalie suffer a career-ending injury. Hypothetically, if DiPietro blows out his ACL this year in preseason and can never jump in the crease again, the Islanders will be stuck paying a ghost $4.5-million each year for 15 seasons. Also, DiPietro has ultimate job security now. Where is his incentive to play? He will never have to elevate his game to earn a new, higher-paying contract.

What is happening on Long Island? Wang is already paying hack Alexei Yashin top dollars because of an ill advised 10 year contract he signed when he first arrived on the Island. One would have thought that experience would have been the ultimate teacher.

What else is there to say? Charles Wang signed Rick DiPietro to a 15 year contract!