So when the Chicago Blackhawks gave Corey Crawford a six-year, $36-million contract, the 28-year-old goalie saw it as a sign of management's confidence in him to "try and repeat and go for more championships in the future." Crawford will get his first Cup ring early this season after putting up a playoff-best 1.84 goals-against average during Chicago's run last spring.
And while Crawford's contract was scrutinized for his short track record of success, similar deals handed out this off-season show that this is simply the going rate for a franchise goaltender, even one who might not be seen in the same light as Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins or Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes.
"The reality is we need to have a top-notch goaltender in our organization, and we've got one right in-house here in Corey," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said on a conference call this week. "It was never a question in our minds that we want to commit to him because it's the most important position we have and we have a lot of faith in his ability to continue."
Crawford's deal is between Smith's at $34 million over six years and Rask's at $56 million over eight years. Crawford and Smith have almost identical career save percentages and are close in goals-against average. Crawford and Rask each has his name on the Cup once, but Tim Thomas was the starter when the Bruins won in 2011.
Four of the eight goaltenders to win the Cup since the 2004-05 lockout have received lucrative deals since, including Jonathan Quick getting 10 years and $58 million from the Los Angeles Kings and the Cam Ward getting six years and $37.8 million from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Reaching the final with the Bruins and taking over for Thomas as the starter with a .927 save percentage was enough to earn Rask his deal, which could set the bar among franchise contracts.
"He's turned into an elite goaltender," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said shortly after that deal was signed. "I really like what Tuukka has become as a person and as a goaltender. As a result, we felt that we were ready to commit to him to a long-term contract and he was ready to commit to us. ... He's really starting to reach his prime. Only better things will happen for him and the Bruins for years to come."
While Smith at 31 might be in his prime, the Blackhawks are hoping the same comes of Crawford, who struggled in 2011-12, just his second season as a No. 1 NHL goaltender. He was the third goalie in 2010 when Antti Niemi helped Chicago win the Cup, but the Finnish goalie wasn't as fortunate to receive a long-term contract.
Instead, when an arbitrator awarded Niemi $2.75 million, the cap-crunched Blackhawks walked away. Niemi signed with the San Jose Sharks, and Crawford took over in Chicago.
"One of the factors that went into us making the move back in 2010 was we knew we had Corey in the wings here ready to take on a bigger role," Bowman said.
The starting role, at least in theory, belongs to Crawford for the next handful of years. His new contract starts in 2014-15, and he'll count $6 million against the salary cap through 2019-20.
One of the defences of Crawford's big-money contract is the same used when the New York Islanders gave Rick DiPietro 15 years and $67.5 million — that as salaries rise, the cap hit won't look so bad. In this case, the belief is that the cap, set at US$64.3 million for 2013-14, will be at or around $70 million by the time Crawford's contract kicks in and continue to rise beyond that.
"The salary cap is something we have to certainly plan for and think about as an organization, but I don't think that's a focus right now in terms of this," Bowman said. "A lot changes year-to-year. We don't have all the knowledge of where the cap will be in two years or three years, but the one thing we do know is we're going to have a great goaltender, and that's why this was an easy decision for us."
Asked on Monday's conference call if he saw the deal as a reward or a challenge, Crawford said he believed it was more of a reward for the hard work he put in to get to this point.
"I'm not going to put any extra pressure on myself," Crawford said. "I don't want to add any extra things to what it means, but it's definitely exciting."
Rask didn't want to think about making a lot of money compared to his contemporaries. Along with big money comes big responsibility.
"Maybe it's just a challenge," Rask said after signing his deal in July. "For me, it doesn't really matter if I'm making four million or seven million or 10 million you're still trying to be worth your money and try to prove yourself every night. I don't really look at that if I'm making more or less than the next guy sitting next to me, so it definitely affected my mind-set but obviously people expect great things from me as I do from myself."
That's something Crawford could learn quickly, even before his next contract begins.