By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
Imagine you play sports professionally and your team’s owner decides to offer you a 15-year contract at a rate that would never put you in a position to worry about anything having to do with money again.
What would you do? Honestly? If you liked the area where the team was located, had no issue with the direction the franchise was heading and felt a sense of loyalty due to the fact that this same organization also decided to make you the first at your position to go No. 1 overall in the draft, would you seriously say no?
What Rick DiPietro did back in September 2006 was probably what any of us would have done. He secured his future. He made sure no one in his family would ever face financial issues again.
And anyone who blames him for that, regardless of how his career turned out, is just a fool.
Charles Wang, being the neophyte NHL owner that he was back then, gave his young, brash, star goaltender a decade-and-a-half-long, $67.5 million deal, and in the process set into motion a stigma his young, brash, star goaltender could never shake.
The contract defined him. The contract still defines him. The contract likely will always define him.
On Friday, the Islanders effectively put an end to DiPietro’s career, with eight years still remaining on the deal. They didn’t use the amnesty buyout, a clause in the new CBA that allows a team one-time forgiveness for what can be considered a nuisance contract, once the lockout ended, a decision that irked many. They instead allowed him to back up Evgeni Nabokov, but it became evident pretty quickly that DiPietro’s skills had eroded to the point where he had little to no value. So, on Friday, following a few more less than scintillating starts, they put him on waivers.
If he clears waivers and returns, he’ll be sent to Bridgeport to live in obscurity until the offseason, when the Islanders will almost assuredly begin the process of using amnesty, buying out 80 percent of what he’s still owed over what’s left of the deal, with no cap hit going forward.
It’s sad what’s happened to this young man. And what’s worse, for the rest of his life, no matter where he goes, people that know sports will always remember him for the Benjamins in his bank account, money that many will unfairly say he basically stole.
The silver lining here, as far as DiPietro is concerned, is those that know him and played alongside him will always remember him as a team guy. This player wanted nothing more than to live up to the contract’s lofty standards, while at the same time help lead the Islanders back to prominence.
His body wouldn’t let him. And that’s cruel irony considering just how great of an athlete DiPietro was. He definitely wasn’t the biggest, fastest or strongest to ever play the game, but he certainly had all the tools to be one of the greats. He just couldn’t overcome countless hip and knee surgeries. I’m sure if you ask him he’ll tell you no one was more frustrated by his brittle circumstances than he was.
DiPietro became the poster boy for the dysfunction that has enveloped the Islanders for the past 20 years. Forget the fact that the franchise has had ownership problems, well-documented arena issues and a lack of star power that still exists even with John Tavares tearing up the league. The combination of DiPetro’s contract and his injury problems cast a dark shadow across everything related to the franchise, almost made people forget about all the other things that have contributed to what many would describe as a God-awful mess.
And, believe it or not, the scrutiny of the contract was not entirely the media’s fault. Fans can be cruel, as we all know, and they didn’t hesitate to bash DiPietro at every turn as this great and all-powerful bust, this albatross that did nothing but sink what in truth was already a bottom-dwelling franchise.
The truth is the DiPietro contract was only brutal in length, not in dollar compensation per year. the Islanders were always on the hook for roughly $4 million per season, a somewhat modest sum considering what other franchise goaltenders make, even back when he signed the deal. The Islanders owe DiPietro $3.6 million this season and will take the cap hit for it assuming no one picks him up, but because this franchise operates at the cap floor all the time it’s not anything close to a financial burden. In a sick and perverse way, the Isles could use the cap hit, but that’s a story, or better yet, a rant, for another time.
Wang made it entirely too easy for DiPietro to say yes. Heading into when the contract was offered and signed, this goaltender had had just one very good season — 2003-04. That season he showed the promise, going 23-18-5, with a 2.36 GAA and .911 save percentage, and five shutouts. The other three seasons prior to signing the contract he went 35-44-3 with a GAA well north of 3.00 and a save percentage well south of .900, which is considered the absolute bare minimum of acceptable for NHL goalies.
Yet Wang saw something that almost everyone else didn’t. While an extension was warranted considering where DiPietro was drafted, the hype and because goalies tend to get better and more trustworthy as they get older, the idea of 15 years stunned everyone. And it coincided with an already-highly scrutinized 10-year contract Wang had given Alexei Yashin.
This owner has made his fair share of mistakes over the decade-plus he’s owned the team, but people seemed to be understanding of the problems with Nassau Coliseum leading up to the announced move and 25-year lease signed with Barclays Center in Brooklyn. And many were willing to accept the fact that Wang’s decision not to spend has been directly linked to the fact that he’s reportedly lost a quarter of a billion dollars since taking over full control of the team.
But fans and media have not let Wang forget about the DiPietro and Yashin contracts. To them, those two deals have defined this owner more than anything else he’s done or been a victim of, because he freely chose to give those deals out, operating more on a hunch than true hockey sense. As talented as Yashin was, everyone knew he was a problem when it came to money due to his episode up in Ottawa, holding out for an entire season. Yet Wang laughed in the face of popular sentiment. And though Yashin did have some good seasons he never lived up to the deal he signed with the Islanders.
And now there’s DiPietro, a player that produced absolutely zero bang for the buck.
Maybe it’s time Wang puts himself on waivers. Reports have begun to surface that he’s explored possibly selling the team. Well, ridding the franchise of a problem and unprecedented contract could very well be a true indicator of his intentions.
As much as DiPietro will be forever linked to the contract, he’s also linked to Wang. The nice man with the best of intentions has also proven from time to time to be a great enabler. And while this owner had nothing to do with the physical misfortune his goaltender endured, he sure played a big role in putting undue pressure on a player that really just wanted to belong.
Yeah, sure, DiPietro is a rich man and will always live better than 95 percent of us, but he won’t be doing it while enjoying the one thing that that should have defined him.
And that ‘s the real reason why this story is as sad as it is.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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