Jaroslav Halak found out how things can go off the tracks with certain organizations when he was demoted to Bridgeport of the American Hockey League by the New York Islanders during the 2016-17 season.
At the time, Halak was in the third year of a four-year contract with an average annual value of $4.5 million. Neither the goalie’s term, nor his rich compensation nor the fact that his stats were being negatively affected by the Islanders’ porous defense could save Halak from the disfunction.
Now in the midst of his second season with the Boston Bruins, at 35 years old, Halak has decided to stay with an organization that respects him and puts him in a great position to succeed. He agreed to sign a one-year contract extension with a cap hit of $2.25 million that can increase the value to $3.5 million if he meets some performance bonuses. Halak could’ve become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.
With the uncertainty of what the NHL’s financial landscape will look like after it returns from the coronavirus pandemic, Halak might not be the only high-end goaltender taking a team-friendly deal.
Halak had a .919 save percentage in 31 games when the NHL season paused for the coronavirus pandemic, and in his two seasons with the Bruins he’s compiled a .921 save percentage. He had a 14.37 goals saved above average last season; a 8.83 GSAA this season.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said his club was “appreciative” Halak was willing to take a one-year contract, and Halak explained how security in an uncertain world got him to put his signature on such a short deal.
“It made me think a lot because not knowing what’s going to happen this year, or not knowing what’s going to happen next year, having two kids, having family, there are always positives that the team is great, teammates, the city of Boston fans,” Halak said about the NHL pause and the uncertainty of what the rest of this season and the next couple seasons will look like. “So it wasn’t tough to think about it and take a one-year deal. Like I said I’m really happy that we got it done and now I don’t have to focus on what’s going to happen in the summer or with this season and not knowing what’s going to happen next season.”
A lot of Bruins have famously taken a hometown discount to stick around, and that’s paid off with a trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2019 and a spot atop the NHL standings when this season was paused. NHL co-leader in goals David Pastrnak counts for just $6.67 million against the salary cap, and stud defenseman Charlie McAvoy costs the Bruins just $4.9 million.
But there’s more than just the Bruins’ culture and Halak’s desire to win at play here. Regardless of what plan to complete the 2019-20 season is chosen (assuming the season resumes at all), revenue is going to decrease by several hundred thousand dollars. The league and NHLPA will be lucky to get a flat cap ceiling, which currently sits at $81.5 million, rather than a decrease in the maximum amount teams can spend on payroll.
Sweeney said the Bruins were negotiating with Halak’s camp since the start of the season. Despite his performance and the desire of other teams to upgrade at his position, Halak’s chances of finding happiness, wealth and security shrunk as soon as the NHL pause became a multi-month proposition.
Guess what? Halak will probably be a trend setter. Robin Lehner, last seen manning the net for Vegas, has been playing on one-year contracts for three straight years. Don’t be surprised if the 28-year-old has to do that again. Corey Crawford, Thomas Greiss, Mike Smith, Cam Talbot, Brian Elliott, Anton Khudobin are probably headed for the same future. The top two goalies ticketed for UFA status – Washington’s Braden Holtby and Vancouver’s Jacob Markstrom – might also be stuck betting on themselves on a one-year deal considering the expected dearth of teams with enough cap space to space to spend big on a goalie, let alone one in his 30s.
Whether this fad will trickle over to free agents at other positions remains to be seen. But you could see Bruins defenseman Torey Krug do something similar, both helping out the Bruins and lowering the bar for other UFAs. Or maybe it’ll be St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo or Arizona forward Taylor Hall that sets the tone with the next signing. Either way, the UFA market it likely to be highlighted more by players placing a Halak-like bet on themselves than the long-term, big-money deals we’re used to seeing in free agency.