The Salary Cap Era

During yesterday’s second period intermission, Hockey Night in Canada featured their regular Hotstove panel that included former Islanders GM Mike Milbury. When the topic of Jeff Carter’s 11-year contract extension was broached, Mad Mike chimed in with an intriguing comment.

“The whole thing conspires against guys like Brian Burke who are trying to wait for free agents. The guys are signing at post-entry level contracts to 7, 8,9, 10, 11 years and then they’re gone. They’re off the market. There’s nobody there to chase them. If Ehrhoff goes, there’s another one down the drain. A guy that Brian Burke was maybe counting on, not just him but a bunch of other guys. (You) Can’t get at them any more.

“What are they selling? Are they selling competition? I mean, Chicago went for the marbles and won the game last year. Now we got 3,4, 5 or 6 teams that are spending that kind of money and offering what? Are they guaranteeing a championship? No. Are they guaranteeing competitiveness? I don’t know.”

Considering the source is a failed GM who became renowned for his willingness to trade young assets, I suppose it’s not really surprising to hear that he’s critical of these teams who lock up the core of their team to lengthy contracts. (Especially when Milbury’s successor on Long Island, Garth Snow, inked Rick DiPietro to that 15-year, $67.5-million pact.) However, hidden within Milbury’s comments is a fair assessment of the new NHL.

I can remember when the 04-05 NHL lockout ended, pundits championed the new CBA as an agreement that would create a ton of publicity and buzz for the league because of the influx of player transactions that would occur. Unfortunately, this perk hasn’t manifested because owners conceded that the age of UFA would drop from 31 to 27 years of age. An unforeseen consequence of the hard cap system has been this emphasis for teams to retain their young players rather than risk losing them on the open market for nothing. What we have been left with is a system in which there is little player movement and an even smaller margin for managerial error. If your favorite team’s GM is wrong with his assessment of the core, you’re left with an expensive roster that’s virtually untradeable because of these long-term deals and the necessity to match dollar-for-dollar in any trade.

As much as I want to favour of any model that makes Brian Burke look foolish for misevaluating the trend to retain players before they get to free agency, I can’t help but be concerned for the Senators since they’re another team that should have some serious cap flexibility this offseason. (Note: The last thing that I want to see is the team splurge on some Tier II free agents because they have cap space to blow.)

The more I think about the current system, the more I wonder whether a hybrid non-guaranteed contract / hard cap system is the way of the future. Under such a system, the Shelden Souray and Wade Redden situations would inevitably be avoided and it would create a flurry of player transaction activity that would create some buzz and publicity for the NHL. (Note: I’m in favour of anything that gives TSN’s pundits something worthwhile to talk about. My apologies to the riveting mock All-Star draft in which Keith Jones and Aaron Ward pretended to be All-Star captains.)

I know. I know. The cynical side of you believes that the players would never go for a scenario in which they could leave money on the table. It’s a fair point. Albeit, weren’t people saying the same thing about a hard cap salary system ten years ago?

Say that the NHL were to adopt a model in which the amount of guaranteed money in a contract was negotiable, players might not necessarily be leaving money of the table. Let’s use the Redden contract as an example. When he signed his 6-year $39.5-million pact, there weren’t many pundits out there who championed the deal at the time. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks said Redden’s deal stands as the worst in the history of the NHL, if not in the history of hard-cap pro sports. (Ed. note: As a former #2 overall draft pick, least Wade will be remembered. A wise man once said that nobody remembers number two.)

Now let’s say that Redden signs that same deal with the only difference being that only $21-million of the contract is guaranteed and after one season, the Rangers determine that Redden wasn’t worth the $6.5-million cap hit. They could cut him but still be on the hook for the remainder of the $14.5-million that is guaranteed. If Redden could fetch a 5-year deal after that first season averaging a cap hit of $3-million per season, he would come close to netting the same amount of dollars that he would have netted had he played out the duration of his original contract. (Ed. note: Assuming that he wouldn’t get cut again.)

Obviously such a scenario would be beneficial for the Rangers since they wouldn’t have to absorb his annual cap hit or pay out the remaining total of his $39.5-million contract. Yet, at the same time, it’s punitive in the sense that Redden could have played one season and netted $21-million for his trouble. It helps foster some risk-reward circumstances in which teams can’t afford to mismanage money. At the very least, it could create some intrigue within the hard cap system in which there could be some diversity amongst the NHL’s haves and the have-nots.

Remember when it was fun to hate on the Leafs or the Rangers because they had the financial wherewithal to buy their players every offseason? Well, under this non-guaranteed contract / hard cap hybrid, these teams could afford to offer more guaranteed money than an organization like Nashville ever could.

I suppose that you could argue that these have teams already are afforded the luxury of being able to bury bad contracts like Redden’s in the minors but at least under my hybrid solution, Redden would have an opportunity to find another NHL gig. I’ve never been a card carrying member of the Wade Redden Fanclub, but I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that a player can’t play in the NHL because he makes too much money.

It’s all food for thought and I’d love to know what you readers think. Have at it in the comments thread.

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