We are, at long last, inching close enough to a deal in these CBA negotiations that you can start to make out the details of it, still a ways off from finalization of said agreement though we may still be.
Included among these, as tweeted the other day by Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press, is that the NHL would very much like the salary cap to decline to $60 million after this season, if it happens, which I’m not so sure it will. This season would remain with a cap of $70 million — down very slightly from the approximately $70.2 million it was supposed to have been — and that’s a very nice concession from the league to the players that those on cap-constrained, mostly-good teams don’t have to get shuttled off to Long Island just yet.
But that day is coming, and it’s coming fast. We’re halfway through December. If you figure everyone has to have their ducks in a row by the draft or so, maybe by free agency, that gives you about six or six and a half months to figure out how they’re going to unload a ton of big-money contracts and become compliant with the new cap, which is now about 14 percent lower. The obvious answer to this question is the one to which the NHL turned in 2005: Amnesty buyouts. You get to buy out a few guys on your team with no cap implications whatsoever, and that’s a hell of a way to get under the limit, especially if you have any particularly bothersome big-money deals that expire in the near future (Scott Gomez).
But here’s the thing: Larry Brooks says amnesty buyouts are a nonstarter for the league this time around. The reason for this is that it will require teams who are not currently in compliance with the salary cap to pay money not already in the NHL’s salary system to players they no longer want to have around. Not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but this is something to which Gary Bettman and the warhawk owners object because it means that, technically, the Players’ Association is getting more than its allotted and paid-for-in-blood 50-50 revenue split. Unacceptable.
So that leaves the 16 teams who are currently at north of $60 million against the cap in an interesting spot: How do they get rid of millions of dollars in cap commitments and still keep their rosters filled out? As Brooks suggests, they might be required to offload quality players to other franchises currently less-near the cap, or even quite a ways away from it. Theoretically, this increases competitive balance, shortening the gap from the top of the league to the bottom, but isn’t competitive balance the thing about which Bettman has always crowed as being a sign that this right here is a great league. Wow 29 teams have made the playoffs since the last lockout! So what does giving the Islanders, or whoever, access to better players who would otherwise, and understandably, loathe playing there actually accomplish?
Well, as far as I can figure, it does two things, and neither of them seem especially good for anyone. Again, there are currently 16 teams in the league with cap numbers of more than $60 million (Boston, Minnesota, Vancouver, Calgary, Philadelphia, San Jose, Chicago, Buffalo, Montreal, Washington, Toronto, Tampa, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Pittsburgh). The New York Rangers are also at $59.26 million and still haven’t re-signed Mike Del Zotto. That’s more than half the league. This accomplishes the goal of punishing teams that spent to near the old salary cap — and incidentally, 12 of the 17 teams Forbes said actually had operating income last year — and many of them gave out the kind of long-term cap-circumventing contracts that got us in whatever mess we’re currently in. Or something.
Part of that offloading will come in the form of expiring contracts, obviously. This is a pretty nice list of guys who are going to be free agents this summer but are owed a lot of money for this year. However, you’d also have to think Calgary, just as a for instance, would like to re-up Jarome Iginla, even if it’s for less than the $7 million he’s making now. Therefore, the savings won’t be as significant as they possibly could be if they simply let the guy walk, so there’s still a lot of work to do even for teams with a lot of money coming off the books this summer.
The other problem with this is that it requires the other 13 teams in the league that are losing money, and stayed well back of the cap for that very reason, to take on contracts they would have to, you know, pay, through trades or waiver acquisitions. Now, the deals they’ll get on these big-money players will likely be at cut rates; it’ll be a buyer’s market’s buyer’s market, after all, given how many teams have to unload guys, which creates competition, and so forth. What can be the appetites of these franchises, already committing more than they feasibly should to player salaries, to take on more salaries? Big-money salaries? For big-name players who other teams don’t want any more? Who does that help, really?
The approach without amnesty doesn’t make sense for anyone involved except the angry owners who think players are already bleeding them dry. I’m not sure Brooks’ solution of having the buyout amount included in the contract the bought-out players eventually sign really does either, to be fair. That might help the owners who have to get out from under their cap constraints (at which they only arrived by following the rules of the old CBA), but the small-town teams, who we’ve been told are really driving this lockout, still have to take on money they otherwise might not want to, just, like, less of it.
Of course, this entire labor dispute hasn’t helped anyone yet, so why start now, I guess?