HARD HITS: Johansen gets paid, Crosby biggest bargain


Sidney Crosby

No Kidding: Sidney Crosby is congratulated by teammates at the Pens bench after scoring in their 2-0 Game 3 win over the Rangers in 2016 first round. He’s led the Pens to consecutive Stanley Cups and is the biggest bargain. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

The latest big contract was handed out by the Predators. They gave an eight year deal worth $64 million to restricted free agent Ryan Johansen. The top center becomes one of the highest paid players. He’ll make an average of $8 million per season signed all the way thru 2025.

It sure is a nice birthday present with the former Blue Jacket acquired by the Preds last year for defenseman Seth Jones, blowing out the candles 🎂 tomorrow on his 25th birthday. A pretty nice way to end July.

A very talented offensive player who makes teammates around him better, Johansen had a breakout playoffs tallying three goals and 10 assists in 14 games before acute compartment syndrome in his left thigh ended his postseason with emergency surgery. Somehow, the Preds still had enough to get past the Ducks and give the Pens a series before falling in six for the Stanley Cup. What if he had been healthy? Does Nashville become another magical Western eighth seed like Los Angeles to win a Cup? We’ll never know.

Johansen is entering his prime. So, locking him up makes sense. Even if it’s overpayment. The cost of doing business these days is more expensive when it comes to investing long term. If you are going all in on a young player who’s a Group II, you’re going to spend more to buy up free agent years. It’s a good gamble for Nashville with Johansen being a legit top center who’s already topped 60 points twice and 70 once. There’s no telling what his ceiling is on a very deep team that also features Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Craig Smith and added Nick Bonino. Good depth pieces such as Colton Sissons, Calle Jarnkrok, Austin Watson, Kevin Fiala, Pontus Aberg and Frederick Gaudreau provide secondary scoring. Especially if Fiala recovers from a broken femur. Scott Hartnell is also back for a Music City reunion.

Boasting the game’s best blueline anchored by Roman Josi along with Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, the Preds are strong favorites to get back to the Stanley Cup. They also acquired Alexei Emelin from Las Vegas. As long as Pekka Rinne stays on top of his game, there’s plenty to like. Juuse Saros is his understudy.

With Johansen done, it’s funny how much of a bargain Sidney Crosby is. The game’s best player, he’s led the Pens to consecutive Cups winning the Conn Smythe both times. Even if you could argue for Kris Letang in 2016 and either Evgeni Malkin or impressive rookie Jake Guentzel in 2017, Crosby is the unquestioned leader of a franchise that will be tough to dethrone. Especially as new number one goalie Matt Murray improves.

Find another trio as explosive as Crosby, Malkin and Phil Kessel. Most astonishingly, they became the first repeat champion since the Red Wings who did it in ’97 and ’98. They did it without Letang. One of the league’s premier defensemen. They did it thanks to Guentzel stepping to the forefront with Conor Sheary and Carl Hagelin not what they were due to injuries. Bryan Rust scored some big goals but wasn’t consistent. No back-to-back championships without proud vet Chris Kunitz scoring in sudden death of Game 7 to beat the pesky Senators. He’s now with the Lightning, who could present the strongest challenge.

The Pens did this with Brian Dumoulin leading a D corps of mostly second and third pair guys by playing extended minutes. He was rewarded with a huge raise going from earning $800,000 to getting a whopping $4.1 million average over the next five seasons. To think they stole him from the Caps. Speaking of steals, Justin Schultz stepped up as a top offensive D in Letang’s absence scoring and setting up timely goals. He now makes $5.5 million. Edmonton couldn’t wait to get rid of him. The Pens essentially swapped rental Ron Hainsey with Toronto for Matt Hunwick. An upgrade. Ian Cole also remains. So does Olli Maatta.

What it really comes down to is Crosby. A legendary player who when he’s done will stake claim as one of the all-time GOATS. He’ll likely still be behind Gretzky, Orr and Howe. But after that, he should be in the top five even if it means unseating Mario Lemieux.

Crosby is everything and more as a player. He’s so complete that there isn’t any situation he can’t be trusted in. Need a big face-off won? He’s your guy. A huge back check that starts a transition the other way leading to a big goal? It’s Sid. Who is better at deflecting pucks around the net or whistling backhands past goalies like Pavel Datsyuk? A great unselfish play to find the open man for a tap in? Crosby does it all. And he does it at a bargain making $8.7 million AAV. A deal that doesn’t expire until 2022.

In eight days, he’ll turn 30. Somehow, even with all the concussions, he’s survived and thrived winning two Harts, three Cups, two Conn Smythes, two Art Rosses, two Rocket Richards and two Olympic gold medals including the memorable golden goal that broke American hearts in Vancouver. In 782 career games, he has 382 goals with 645 assists for 1,027 points. He’s only been a minus once going minus-one his rookie year when he still went over the century mark in scoring. He’s a plus-165 for his career.

There isn’t anything else Crosby needs to accomplish. But he still has plenty of time left to attain more. Imagine if he can lead the Pens to a three-peat. Even the Great One never achieved that with the Oilers dynasty. Steve Smith still lingers in ’86 costing them the chance. The Islanders are the last team to win three straight making it an immeasurable four in a row from ’80-83.

At times throughout his career, Crosby has pushed the envelope with his play between whistles. Whether it be chops to the groin area of unsuspecting players or hacks and whacks, he isn’t squeaky clean like Gretzky. But how many are? Mark Messier was a chip off the old block like Howe with his elbows and dangerous sticks to opponents. It didn’t stop him from cementing a legacy as the greatest leader winning six Cups including the memorable run with the Rangers in ’94.

Crosby has been labeled a whiner or cry baby. A few years ago when he and the Pens were underachieving, that was true. But ever since Mike Sullivan arrived in the Steel City, that’s changed. He still works the refs but not as blatantly. He still gets more leniency which sticks in fans’ minds. But that is not his fault. Crosby plays the game hard whistle to whistle. The playoffs remain a place where you can mix it up more during scrums. Not exclusive to just Crosby.

In a salary cap era with escalating salaries and teams locking up young stars for insane amounts of money, Crosby is way underpaid. He is a team player allowing sidekick Malkin to make more. The physically gifted Russian gets $9.5 million AAV also thru 2022. Despite a much better points-per-game clip along with two more Harts, he’s excluded from the NHL top 100 while Jonathan Toews is included for his leadership, two-way ability and three Cups. It wouldn’t be because he’s Canadian and Malkin is Russian?

With Crosby, it’s about winning. Look how much Connor McDavid will make once his rookie contract expires in 2018. The rating Hart winner will be worth it. But imagine how much Crosby would get today on his second deal. It makes you wonder. While Toews and Patrick Kane each make a identical $10.5 million AAV, Crosby gets nearly two million less. I’m not saying the Hawks duo didn’t earn it. But look what’s happened in Chicago. They are broken.

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That’s what happens when you pay up the wazoo for your best players. What if Henrik Lundqvist had taken a little less from Glen Sather instead of that record extension that pays him $8.5 million AAV until he’s 39? It could’ve helped the Rangers as a team improve to maybe win that first Cup since ’94.

Every team has their own way of doing business. The sooner you do it, the better over the long haul. Crosby is the best example I can think of. The best in the world at a bargain.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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