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Wave of the future: NHL stars sign career-long contracts lasting more than a decade @NHLdotcom

NEW YORK (AP) -Mike Richards greeted enemy fans as he walked out of Nassau Coliseum and graciously autographed a team photo of the host New York Islanders, a club for which he likely will never play during his NHL career.

The young Philadelphia Flyers forward is one of a trio of franchise players - MVP contender Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro are the others - who have signed contracts lasting longer than a decade.

Despite the threat of injury, and a continually changing financial landscape, teams are entering into long-term deals with stars they hope to build around for years and years.

DiPietro and the Islanders started the trend in the summer of 2006, agreeing to a 15-year contract that will pay the goaltender $67.5 million. That's $4.5 million a season until 2021, when he will be a few months shy of 40.

The laughs and scoffs came from all ends of the hockey world. Those stopped when other teams crunched the numbers and hammered out deals nearly as long as DiPietro's.

All signs point to more teams entering into extended contracts with cornerstone players. The NHL's salary-cap world is still evolving three seasons since its creation, and these deals suddenly seem smart and prudent.

"The way this CBA will work is if you have affordable good young players, it's smarter to wrap them up longer term than it is to go into the market and then sign marquee free agents to take their place," said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who negotiated a 13-year, $124 million deal with Ovechkin.

DiPietro's deal is cap friendly now, and he isn't among the highest-paid goalies, but the reality is it could become a weight around the necks of the Islanders in five, 10, 12 years. DiPietro recently underwent hip surgery for the second straight year, and neither side of his body has been spared.

His season was also interrupted last year by concussions.

"Every team has got insurance, so it's not like the owners are going to be paying it out if the guy gets injured," Richards said. "Rick has stood up to his end of the deal. He's playing really well for them every year."

But suddenly 15 years seems a lot longer than it did when the healthy, brash, 25-year-old DiPietro signed his contract a few summers ago.

"That's just the nature of the game," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. "It's a physical game, and players are going to get injured. You just cross your fingers and hope that none of the injuries that players get aren't long-term or career-ending, but that's the risk you take."

Holmgren knows of what he speaks.

With the blessing and help from Flyers ownership, Holmgren locked up Richards - a dynamic 23-year-old forward - last December for 12 years and $69 million.

"When I heard the contract that Rick signed, I was definitely surprised," Richards said. "Then I signed mine, which was not too far after, and then Alex signed his right after that. You're starting to see it a little bit more now.

"I'm not sure if it's going to keep snowballing more and more, but it's definitely an option when teams are negotiating with different players."

Richards is wrapping up his third NHL season and is already being groomed to be the captain of the Flyers. By the time he gets that title, he could have a whole new set of teammates and a new GM calling the shots.

A lot can happen in 12, 13 and 15 years. There will be at least one more collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players' association in that time, and likely two.

What started as a $39 million salary cap per team back when the lockout ended in 2005 rose to $50.3 million for this season, and is expected to be upward of $54 million for next season.

The cap hits on these contracts could be cost-effective for years to come. If DiPietro, Richards and Ovechkin can still produce at the All-Star level they have already reached when they get to the back end of the deals, the decisions will prove to have been brilliant.

"We were actually talking about even longer than that," Holmgren said of the Richards' negotiations. "You go through a whole bunch of different scenarios trying to find a cap number that you think is going to work and still be fair to the player.

"You don't just hand them out to anybody, that's for sure. We thought long and hard and we thought this was a fair deal. It was a good number, and something we could live with. Mike is a good player that we think is going to continue to get better and better."

Ovechkin's seems to be the safest of the three landmark deals. He already edged Sidney Crosby for rookie of the year honors two seasons ago, and has emerged as the favorite to be the NHL MVP this year.

He broke the single-season record for goals by a left winger and became the first player of any position to score 60 times since Pittsburgh Penguins teammates Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr did it in the 1995-96 campaign.

More importantly to him and the team, Ovechkin has powered the Capitals' playoff surge that had them in line this weekend to secure a postseason berth for the first time since 2003.

"It's a long-term deal around a superstar. A historic deal, and it could be a really great thing," Leonsis said. "It could end up being a good deal or it could blow up. That's the risk. If this wasn't Alexander Ovechkin, I would not be giving away a 13-year deal."

Ovechkin was coming to the end of his three-year, entry-level contract this season when negotiations began. The Capitals started talking about a five-year deal that would carry him to the point when he could become an unrestricted free agent.

The sides then agreed to go one year further. After a night for both sides to sleep on it, the Capitals came back to Ovechkin to award him his big free agent deal years before he imagined he would think about.

"The risks are, you take the hunger away from a player because they are going to get paid whether the team is winning or the like," Leonsis said. "So far for us the opposite has happened. His play has elevated and his comfort with (putting the) team first has elevated.

"Never once since the deal was signed have I heard him talk about individual achievement. All he wants to do is win, and that's what I want. We are aligned on the same side."

Crosby, who along with Ovechkin has become the marketing face of the NHL, also neared the end of his entry-level deal. There were talks between him and the Penguins about a really long contract, but in the end five years became the length both sides felt best about.

"The negatives are, there could be potential poor play by the player or the team over a certain period of time and either party might not be happy," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "There could be injuries, certainly, but there's a benefit of having a guy locked up for that period of time and knowing your costs and knowing you have that player and that trust that you can build around that player.

"I don't think you can really look at this thing short-term. I think in a few years we'll see the long-term contracts and what the ramifications are before we make any long-term judgments."

Crosby, coming off a season in which he won the scoring title and earned MVP honors, is earning $850,000. That will jump to $9 million for each of the next four seasons, and $7.5 in the final year of the deal.

"I think it benefits everyone," Crosby said of the mega-contracts. "As a player you get security when you get a longer deal. It makes sense for both sides, especially with the cap, depending on how much the player makes. But with the cap maybe going up each year, that gives a team a good opportunity, too.

"It's not something you're probably going to do with a lot of guys, but someone that you have a lot of confidence in and really want to have as part of your future for a long time."

New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur is two seasons into the longest contract of his career, a six-year deal that likely will carry him to the end. By then, he likely will have become the winningest goalie in NHL history.

If it had been en vogue way back in 1993 when Brodeur began his first full NHL season, he might just be wrapping up a 15-year deal of his own.

"As a player, you want an organization to make a commitment to you," said the 35-year-old Brodeur, who has spent his entire career with the Devils. "When they make that commitment to you, you feel comfortable. You don't have that headache.

"I was fortunate. I never had to deal with the last day of my contract and become a free agent. We always did it the year before that. I never showed any interest in going anywhere and they never showed any interest in me not staying here. So for me it's a lot different."

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