An Islander For Life

In what will likely be the final maneuver of what has been an incredibly tumultuous summer for the New York Islanders, they yesterday inked goaltender Rick DiPietro to an eye-popping 15-year deal worth $67.5 million. The length of the contract is an NHL record, topping the one the Isles previously set when they locked themselves into a 10-year deal with underachieving center Alexei Yashin, and will keep DiPietro in an Islanders uniform until 2022, when he turns 40.

“In all of our discussions with Rick, he made it clear that he wanted to be an Islander for the rest of his career,” said Islanders general manager Garth Snow. “But it was of equal importance to Rick that we work out a deal that would allow us to continue to build a Stanley Cup contender for years to come. This deal is great news for our franchise and our fans.”

While critics might be quick to launch into comparisons between Yashin’s and DiPietro’s deals, they are in fact quite different. From the day of his signing in 2001, Yashin has been one of the NHL’s most highly paid forwards, yet his production has fallen precipitously in each year of the deal. And given the bad history he had with the Ottawa Senators – in particular with regard to contract negotiations and playoff underachievement – there were plenty of warning signs that investing in Yashin was a bad strategy. Now, with a salary cap in place, the $6.7 million Yashin is owed for each of the next five seasons makes him an albatross of epic proportions.

In sharp contrast, DiPietro’s contract pays him $4.5 million per year, making him the league’s eighth-highest paid goaltender. And as each year of the deal vests, DiPietro’s $4.5 million salary will become more and more a bargain. Much as when Magic Johnson signed a 25-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers – the only contract known to be of longer length than DiPietro’s – the deal is quite likely to become a bargain as DiPietro moves into the prime of his career.

Accounting for inflation – but no growth whatsoever in league revenues – the salary cap will grow to $58.1 million by the time DiPietro’s contract reaches its final season, at which point he will be taking up only about 7.8% of the team’s payroll. But dwelling on the last few seasons of this 15-year deal is missing the point entirely.

In 63 games last season, DiPietro posted a 30-24-5 record to go along with a 3.02 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. And with hard-hitting defenseman Brendan Witt and the experienced Sean Hill joining the Isles’ blue line, it’s a good bet that his numbers should improve dramatically this season.

The first overall pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, DiPietro is one of the league’s most athletic netminders, and should be just entering his prime. Exceptionally adept at handling the puck, DiPietro is effectively a third defenseman when the Isles are on the power play, immediately firing opponents’ clearing attempts back in the opposite direction and keeping play in the opposition’s end of the ice. Not only does this increase the amount of time the Isles possess the puck in the offensive zone, but it also prevents opposing skaters from changing on-the-fly.

Will DiPietro emerge as a franchise netminder a la the New Jersey Devils’ Martin Brodeur? At this point, it’s very difficult to say, but that has far more to do with the composition of the Isles’ roster than DiPietro’s potential. Brodeur has played behind one of the NHL’s most defensively responsible teams for the entirety of his career, and has never had to endure the strategic and positional inconsistency that plagued the Isles last season.

This season, the hard-nosed Ted Nolan takes over behind the Isles’ bench, and the lackadaisical approach the team displayed last year will no longer be tolerated. If the team’s revamped defense plays to its potential, and if skilled young forwards like Marcus Nilsson and Jeff Tambellini can quickly develop into consistent scoring threats, the Isles of 2006-07 will be very much a team on the rise.

If DiPietro’s lengthy contract yields any reason for concern at this point, it’s that he might not be very happy about being relatively underpaid during his prime seasons. If NHL revenues increase dramatically – and the salary cap subsequently rises – DiPietro could find himself amongst the lowest-paid starting goalies in the league when he’s in his late 20’s and early 30’s. But such a scenario seems fairly unlikely.

“I’m extremely appreciative of the commitment (Islanders owner) Charles Wang and Garth have made to me,” said DiPietro, a Massachusetts native and a now-permanent Long Island resident. “I won’t let them, my coaches, my teammates or the fans down.”

When the Isles traded franchise goalie Roberto Luongo and then selected DiPietro with the first pick of the 2000 draft, they became a target of ridicule throughout the hockey world. Now, for all intents and purposes, DiPietro is an Islander for life. And if he manages to outperform Luongo ($6.75 million per year) at a far lower rate of pay, that controversial day of dealing might not turn out so badly after all.

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