Bank breakers

There’s a very disturbing trend going on in the post-lockout NHL, one that could threaten the smaller-market teams down the road.

Given that the league shut down for the entire 2004-05 season, the numbers on some recent contracts are nothing short of mind-boggling. The trend started in September 2006, when the New York Islanders signed goaltender Rick DiPietro to a landmark 15-year, $67.5 million contract.

At the time, the top overall pick in the 2000 NHL draft was coming off his first 30-win season, but his goals-against average was still just north of 3.00, and remember – these were the Islanders, a team always in turmoil under owner Charles Wang. Garth Snow had just resigned as DiPietro’s backup to become his new boss as general manager after Neil Smith was fired after a six-week tenure.

"It means the owner is a moron," one NHL executive told ESPN.com after DiPietro’s deal was announced. "It makes no sense. This is all about Charles Wang's ego."

Furthermore, this was a team that quickly forgot how it was being burned by a long-term deal. In September 2001 – three months after acquiring Alexei Yashin from the Ottawa Senators -- the Isles inked him to a 10-year, $89.9 million deal. Following two successive 40-goal seasons in Canada, Yashin had 32 goals and 43 assists in his first season on the Island, but never exceeded those stats.

Less than six years later, Yashin’s contract was bought out and he’s now playing with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in mother Russia.

In sports, a contract that pays $4.5 million per season is not hugely exorbitant for a budding star. So far this season, though, DiPietro has 14 losses after totaling just 19 in 2006-07. He’s also headed to the All-Star game later this month in Atlanta.

Christmas came a little early last month for the Philadelphia Flyers’ Mike Richards.

Coming into 2007-08, Richards had just 21 goals and 45 assists in his previous two seasons. On Dec. 13, he was signed to a 12-year extension worth $69 million.

"Mike has become an integral part of our core group and we are extremely happy to have him under contract long term," general manager Paul Holmgren said. "We believe that he will continue to grow as a player and as a leader."

Holmgren may have to exhibit a lot of patience.

Since becoming a multimillionaire, Richards has tallied five goals and seven assists, with Philadelphia posting a 6-4-3 record. He leads the Flyers in scoring this season with 19 goals and 28 assists, but three other players have at least 16 goals this season, including Daniel Briere – who joined the team after signing an eight-year, $52 million free agent deal.

About 2 1/2 hours south on I-95, the Washington Capitals this past week locked up Alexander Ovechkin in a big way.

13 years. $124 million.

And like Wang in New York, Washington’s Ted Leonsis didn’t think twice about signing a megastar to contract – according to Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Eric Duhatschek, Leonsis is still paying off a huge chunk of Jaromir Jagr’s $88 million contract signed in October 2001.

A surefire Hall of Famer, Jagr had 83 goals and 118 assists in 2 1/2 seasons with the Capitals before being shipped to the New York Rangers for Anson Carter.

Yes. Anson Carter – a journeyman who’s never scored more than 33 goals in a season and has been with eight teams, including two stints with the Capitals.

While eyebrows may have been raised with DiPietro’s deal, and the jury is still out when it comes to Richards’ contract, there is no doubt the Capitals had to overpay for Alexander The Great.

Washington general manager George McPhee said the decision was simple.

"We knew when we drafted Alex that we were getting a phenomenal player," McPhee said. "What we soon saw first-hand was what an outstanding competitor, teammate and person he is. This contract further demonstrates his dedication to our team and the organization's commitment to building a consistent winner here in Washington."

A 52-goal scorer as a rookie in 2005-06, Ovechkin is prepared to smash that number – he’s got 32 in 43 games and is on pace to be the first 60-goal scorer since Mario Lemieux (69) and Jagr (62) did it for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96.

Want more? In 2007, the Senators committed $94 million combined on a seven-year deal with Jason Spezza and six years for Dany Heatley. Ryan Getzlaf of the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks gave Ryan Getzlaf $26.5 million over five years. In between periods of a recent game, the Dallas Stars announced they signed Mike Ribeiro for five years, $25 million.

Now, the problem … and this will be felt in places like Edmonton, Nashville and Columbus, where the pursestrings are held a little more tightly. Also in Boston, which is notoriously cheap.

The smaller markets, as of right now, cannot compete with the bigger boys at the bargaining table. The revenue streams are not there. When Ilya Kovalchuk’s five-year, $32 million deal with the Atlanta Thrashers ends in 2010 – and as he prepares to break the bank – can you truly see him pulling on a Blue Jackets jersey? A Predators sweater?

And what of this guy?

At just 20 years old and with a Calder, Hart and Art Ross Trophy to his name, the Penguins have “Sid the Kid” in the fold for the next six seasons after he put his name to a $43.5 million contract last year. But when he’s 26 and just entering the prime of his career, will it take an Alex Rodriguez-style contract to keep the face of the NHL in Steel City?

More importantly, will the Penguins have the money to pay him?

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