Sep. 10--RALEIGH -- When negotiations conclude on a long-term contract extension for Carolina Hurricanes superstar center Eric Staal, a process that could end soon, there are two certainties about what that contract will look like.
One, it's going to be for a ton of money, the most the Hurricanes have ever paid a single player. Two, it's not going to be for any longer than seven years.
Not because the Canes don't want Staal around any longer than that -- clearly, they do -- but because the NHL's leaguewide insurance plan will only insure player contracts for seven years.
Beyond that, if the player gets hurt, the team is on the hook for the full amount of his contract. Seeking private insurance to cover a longer deal is prohibitively expensive, Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said.
Other teams have signed players to longer contracts -- the New York Islanders signed goalie Rick DiPietro for 15 years and the Tampa Bay Lightning this summer extended Vincent Lecavalier's contract for 11 years -- but most NHL teams, the Canes included, want to remain under the insurance umbrella, costly and complicated as it may be.
Teams are required to insure a handful of players through a "temporary total disability" program administered by the league. That program has been in place for about 15 years, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, and is designed to make coverage more easily available to teams.
"It provides the underwriters with 'scale,' spreads the risk and allows them to provide more favorable rates," Daly said in an e-mail.
The league purchases its disability insurance through the BWD Group, a Long Island, N.Y., insurance broker that also obtains coverage for the NBA, WNBA and Major League Baseball. (One underwriter, the Chubb Corporation, touted its relationship with the NHL in its 2001 annual report.)
Each team pays a premium based on the salaries of its five highest-paid players, but is free to allocate that coverage how it wishes. Typically, a team will extend coverage to as many as seven players, Daly said. Coverage kicks in when a player misses at least 30 games.
Beyond that, individual teams are free to pursue additional coverage, but the heavy premiums make it a losing proposition. To insure a player under the league program, it costs about 5 percent of his salary. To insure additional players, it would cost substantially more.
"Usually it works out that we have five players under the league program," Rutherford said. "When you get to a certain dollar amount, the premiums keep skyrocketing. I wish it was easier to get each [player] insured, but we can't do that. ...
"If you wanted, you could insure all the contracts, but it would be very expensive."
So when David Tanabe suffered a concussion that appears to be career-threatening, the Hurricanes moved in June to buy out the final year of his contract, even though injured players cannot be bought out. Within 10 days, the NHLPA filed a grievance against the team. (No hearing has been scheduled.)
Because Tanabe's contract was not insured and the team disputed his injury status, it was cheaper for the team to pursue a lump sum settlement through the grievance process than pay him his full salary.
This season, the Hurricanes will pay almost $1 million for $19 million of coverage through the league program, but even that process isn't simple. Insurers may balk at something as specific as an individual body part.
The Hurricanes were able to insure Justin Williams last season despite a previous injury to his right knee, Rutherford said. They received insurance payments when he missed more than three months with a serious injury to the same knee, but they wouldn't be able to insure that knee again this season.
(The Hurricanes used the payout from Williams' insurance policy, about $600,000, to cover their share of Sergei Samsonov's contract after they claimed the forward on waivers in January.)
While Staal's new contract would almost certainly be one the Canes chose to insure under the league policy, only the first seven years would be covered. If he suffered a career-ending injury in the first year of a 10-year contract, the Hurricanes would be owe Staal upwards of $20 million for the last three years of the deal.
In September 2006, the Islanders signed DiPietro to a 15-year contract worth $67.5 million. The deal was held up for more than a year, in part by insurance issues, according to reports at the time.
The league policy, at that point, would only insure six years of the contract, leaving the Islanders potentially responsible for more than $40 million in the case of a catastrophic injury -- and in the first two years of the deal, DiPietro has suffered two concussions and undergone two hip surgeries.
An Islanders spokesman declined to comment on the insurance issues surrounding DiPietro's contract.
Insurance was responsible for one critical piece of salary inflation that led directly to the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. The Boston Bruins started the trend of extravagant bonuses in entry-level contracts with Joe Thornton's massive deal in 1997.
The Bruins insured all of Thornton's bonuses at a bargain price, as did the San Jose Sharks with No. 2 pick Patrick Marleau. Other teams tried to follow their lead with the bonuses in future years, but the insurance became increasingly expensive after insurance covered all but $230,000 of Marleau's $2.4 million in bonuses during his second NHL season.
The Hurricanes have insured bonus clauses twice, through different insurance companies -- with Arturs Irbe in 1998-99 and Staal in 2003-04. In both cases, the players cashed in on their performance bonuses but the Hurricanes were protected financially.
"We've done it," Rutherford said. "It's a long process. There's no perfect science to how we make the decision."