‘You’re great. You suck’: The good and the bad of landing that big NHL contract


Staff member

Darnell Nurse insists he has more important things to care about than what people think of the money he’s making.

The veteran defenseman does a little bit of everything on the ice and is a key cog on an Edmonton Oilers team primed to win the Stanley Cup. He finished second on the Oilers in average ice time during the regular season and played the second-most minutes on the penalty kill. He got reps on the No. 2 power-play unit, too. He’s big, he has a mean streak and he’s a smooth skater.

But is he worth his $9.25 million cap hit? Some might say no.

Nurse, 29, cashed in at the perfect time, finishing the COVID-shortened 2021 season second among NHL defensemen in even-strength points (29) while in an elevated role because of a career-ending injury to fellow left-side blueliner Oscar Klefbom. He scored 15 goals and finished seventh in Norris Trophy voting. The Oilers simply couldn’t afford to lose him. That summer, they gave Nurse an eight-year, $74 million extension that allowed his parents, Richard and Cathy, to retire.

“That’s how it works. That’s what you have agents for,” Nurse said. “I played on a couple bridge deals and bet on myself a couple times. It worked out.”

Financially, unquestionably. The tricky thing is when big-ticket players like Nurse have their paydays used against them.

He became a lightning rod for criticism in Edmonton the moment his new contract was announced on Aug. 6, 2021. That criticism continued in a variety of fashions over the next three seasons — from anonymous fans using pseudonyms on X to a guy who once walked into the Oilers rink wearing a No. 25 jersey with a nameplate that read “NINE MILLION.”

Even if Nurse tries to ignore the scorn, hearing it is unavoidable. And it stings.

“Sometimes, I feel like I’ve been blamed for everything from a goal against to the traffic on Stony Plain (Road),” Nurse told former teammate Luke Gazdic on the podcast “Mitts Off.” “So, yeah, there’s pressure that comes along with that (contract).”


Getting “blamed for everything,” as Darnell Nurse puts it, is part of the burden of landing a signature NHL contract. (Harry How / Getty Images)

If there’s a retired player who understands that kind of pressure, it’s Scott Gomez.

Gomez jumped right from the Western Hockey League to the New Jersey Devils in 1999-2000 and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie thanks to a 70-point campaign. He helped the Devils claim the Stanley Cup that season and another one three years later.

He tested the open market as a free agent in 2007 and signed a seven-year, $51.5 million deal (14.6 percent of the salary cap at the time) with the New York Rangers — the Devils’ hated rivals.

“The market’s set where it’s at and you’ve earned the right,” Gomez said.

That deal, worth more than $7.357 million on average per season, came with heightened expectations.

Gomez had surpassed 20 goals just once in his career — scoring 33 in 2005-06 — but he felt like he had to justify his new contract by trying to become more of a goal scorer. Uncertainty crept in. Am I doing this right? Did I want this?

“Everyone’s seeing this. You’re pressing. You’re in New York City,” Gomez said. “But once you find a groove — and I did — it was fine. I didn’t change the player I was. My thing was to pass the puck.”

Gomez matched the 70 points he had as a rookie in his first season with the Rangers — tying the second-best output of his career. He followed that up with 58 points the next season.

Then everything took a drastic turn on June 30, 2009, when Gomez was dealt to the Montreal Canadiens. Getting traded to a hotbed like Montreal with that price tag was probably the worst thing that could have happened.

His first season was fine. Gomez surpassed his point total from the previous year and the Canadiens reached the Eastern Conference finals. But things got ugly from there.

“You talk about the ultimate test with your life,” Gomez said. “Everything at that point had been just crazy — playing in the NHL, making money, playing good. And then when you finally get to see the rock bottom, and you see how you’re treated different — especially in a market like that.”

The low point came in the 2011-12 season. Gomez, mired in an awful goalless slump, became a target for fans.

A tongue-in-cheek fan website asking, “Did Scott Gomez score last night?” was created. Some fans came to the Canadiens arena dressed in sombreros to mock Gomez’s Latino heritage.

By February, a year had passed since he’d last scored a goal and Canadians fans serenaded him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

“I remember sitting on the bench thinking, ‘Wow,’” Gomez said. “But I’m in a place where I’m making what I’m making. People pay. I’m a big boy.”

Scott Gomez’s career challenges multiplied under the spotlight in Montreal. (Richard Wolowicz / Getty Images)

Gomez got lots of check-in calls from former Devils teammates like Randy McKay, Ken Daneyko, Jay Pandolfo, Turner Stevenson and Bobby Holik. Holik, in particular, knew full well what Gomez was going through.

Holik also left the Devils for the Rangers in free agency, signing a five-year, $45 million contract in 2002. This was before the salary cap, but there was still plenty of sticker shock.

“It was career-changing and life-changing. I couldn’t refuse it, obviously,” Holik said, laughing. “A lot of people at the time were very upset that it shouldn’t have happened that way.”

Holik was a respected bottom-six center in New Jersey, a solid 50- to 65-point producer at his peak who helped them win two Stanley Cup titles. He enjoyed his role and felt he was good at it.

But he was miscast as a first-liner on Broadway making an average of $9 million a year.

“You just sign with a team that’s willing to pay you a lot of money,” Holik said. “Everything around you changes — the media’s perspective, the fans’ perspective, the coach’s perspective, the general manager.

“It’s like, ‘We’re paying him all this money and he’s only doing what he did last year.’ Yeah, because that’s the player I am. That’s who I am. That’s the biggest problem with the big contract.”

Holik was 31 when he signed his megadeal. He feels like he was worthy of that contract and isn’t concerned with what others think.

“Everybody who’s saying, ‘He’s overpaid,’ I would ask them, ‘Would you turn it down?’ Of course, there’s crickets,” he said.

Naturally, Gomez has a similar view.

“This is a business,” Gomez said. “You come into the league thinking this is all family. No, this is straight business. It’s how much green you can get out of it because we don’t do this for our whole life. You want to be set up for (retirement).”

For players with room to go before calling it quits, being perceived as overpaid does not make the years go faster.

Jeff Skinner’s first season with the Buffalo Sabres could not have progressed any better. Acquired by the Sabres from the Carolina Hurricanes in 2018, Skinner pumped in a career-high 40 goals for his new team. The timing was perfect. His six-year, $34.35 million contract was expiring.

On June 7, 2019, the Sabres signed Skinner to an eight-year, $72 million extension.

Things went sideways soon after.

Injuries hit Skinner during the first season of his new deal, limiting him to 59 games and only 14 goals.

It got worse.

In 2020-21, Skinner scored just seven goals and seven assists. On Nov. 29, 2021, a television microphone at KeyBank Center caught the Seattle Kraken’s Brandon Tanev querying Skinner, with several naughty words mixed in, how he scored his $9 million average annual payday. Tanev did not ask his question kindly.

“Confidence, in anything, goes up and down,” Skinner said. “Obviously, when you’re feeling good, it’s a little bit higher. When you’re going through a little bit of a funk, it’s lower.”

Though injuries slowed Jeff Skinner soon after his new contract, he’s found his footing in Buffalo. (Ben Ludeman / NHLI via Getty Images)

Tanev’s chirp caught Skinner at the beginning of a revival, though. He finished that season with 33 goals and 30 assists in 80 games. Skinner was healthy again. He was playing with confidence. It didn’t hurt that linemate Tage Thompson, 24 years old at the time, exploded for a then-career-best 38 goals and 30 assists.

Skinner’s game has remained consistent. In 2022-23, he scored 35 goals and 47 assists in 79 games for a career-high 82 points. This season, he had 24 goals and 22 assists in 74 games. Skinner, 31, has three years remaining on his deal.

San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Édouard Vlasic is 37 and in the twilight stages of his career on the NHL’s worst team. And one of the league’s albatross contracts is associated with him.

Things were much rosier when Vlasic signed his current eight-year, $56 million extension on July 1, 2017.

The Sharks were a year removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Vlasic was an elite blueliner. He’d won the World Cup with Team Canada the previous fall and was on their 2014 Olympic squad, which won a gold medal.

“Maybe I was underappreciated, underpaid,” Vlasic said. “At some point, I get what I deserve. But I earned it.

“I wanted to be part of the culture — a winning culture.”

It never got better than 2016 for the Sharks. Though they reached the Western Conference final in 2019, they haven’t made the playoffs since.

He summarizes things succinctly.

“There will always be scrutiny if things go wrong,” Vlasic said.

The Boston Bruins had big plans for Mike Reilly. On April 11, 2021, they acquired the left-shot defenseman from the Ottawa Senators for a 2022 third-round pick. Reilly had tallied a career-high 19 assists in 40 games for the Senators.

It looked like a seamless fit. Reilly recorded eight assists in 15 regular-season games while averaging 21:04 of ice time. He added four assists in 11 playoff games.

On July 27, 2021, the Bruins signed Reilly to a three-year, $9 million contract. It was the biggest payday of his career. Reilly, 28 at the time, thought he was secure.

In the first season of his new deal, he scored 17 points in 70 games. He played 16:55 in the Bruins’ Game 7 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Round 1. After the Bruins fired Bruce Cassidy and replaced him with Jim Montgomery, Reilly figured he was due for more up-ice opportunity under the new coach in 2022-23.

There was a problem: Reilly’s $3 million average annual value. It was the primary reason Reilly spent only 10 games in the NHL and 36 in the AHL that season.

“That was the hardest part,” Reilly said. “Couple months before that, I was playing in the playoffs, Game 7 against Carolina. Then a couple months later, you’re down. It’s almost like it doesn’t make sense.”

The Bruins won a record-breaking 65 games that year. But even using mechanisms such as performance bonuses for Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci ($4.5 million total, which could be deferred as overages in 2023-24 if necessary), the Bruins had little room under the cap.

So, to achieve compliance, they waived Reilly on the eve of the regular season. Any team could have claimed him for nothing. Nobody did.

It was a sign of things to come. Reilly appeared in 10 games for the Bruins at the start of the season. He had one assist.

On Nov. 10, 2022, the Bruins assigned Reilly to Providence. He never returned. On Nov. 18, Reilly had a goal and assist in Providence’s 4-2 loss to Lehigh Valley. It was his first AHL game since Oct. 14, 2017, when he was a third-year pro in the Minnesota Wild system.

“Maybe if I was making way less, the team would be under the cap when all those guys came back, and it would be a different story,” Reilly said. “You want to tell yourself, ‘I can play in this league.’ But there’s some stuff that’s out of your control right now.”

On June 30, 2023, the Bruins bought out the final season of Reilly’s contract.

It’ll be a long time before it’s even possible for Nurse to be in the same position as Reilly.

Nurse had the seventh-highest cap hit among blueliners in the NHL this season. There are six more years on his contract, which comes with a no-movement clause. He can’t ever be demoted to the minors. A buyout, at least for the foreseeable future, would be too cumbersome for the Oilers.

Beyond that, however, Nurse is a top-three defenseman and an alternate captain on a Cup-contending team.

Any mistakes Nurse makes or any subpar games he has —like going minus-3 in Wednesday’s playoff loss — don’t change that.

Nor do critics.

“People are going to think how they think,” Nurse said. “I’ve been here for nine years and rode the roller coaster of, ‘You’re great; you suck; you’re great; you suck.’

“I got my contract for a reason. That’s the way that I look at it. I’m pretty confident in the player I am.”