It’s almost ironic that the National Hockey League let its collective bargaining agreement expire to try and write another one with the intention of eliminating the long-term, back-diving deals that circumvented Gary Bettman’s salary cap.
Not in that the NHL would look for ways to get rid of the deals. It was bad for players, mostly, who had to eat up the difference between what teams spent and what the players’ share of hockey-related revenue. Not to dwell too much into those terms; I’ve already mis-read the document this week and don’t have any sort of legal training or economic training that allows me to properly understand these terms.
That said, had the NHL simply extended the existing agreement, situations like Roberto Luongo’s this week would have become more common. It would have been the norm for players with multiple years left on their deals found themselves in limbo with no team wanting to pay them.
In the 2007 offseason, the three biggest prizes were Daniel Briere, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. All three signed on July 1, the first day of free agency. In retrospect, Glen Sather is lucky as hell that it took a couple of days for the details of Briere’s contract to leak, because they changed the game.
Briere was given $10-million and was the highest paid player in the league. There was a catch, though. He signed for two extra years, through 2014 and 2015, those seasons seeing him paid $3-million and $2-million, ultimately bringing the average value of the salary cap hit down to $6.5-million.
Scott Gomez had a back-diving deal, but it wasn’t as drastic. He had a seven-year deal worth $7.4-million. Chris Drury’s five-year deal was pedestrian by comparison: it was actually back loaded, with $16.05-million coming in Years 3 and 4 of the deal, and an overall cap hit of $7.05-million.
Sather has probably signed some of the worst deals in hockey history. The Gomez deal, for one, and the Drury deal, and neither player made it close to the end of their contract while being effective hockey players. He also signed Bobby Holik to the five-year, $45-million contract back in the summer of 2002, Brad Richards’ nine-year deal (Richards is third in team scoring this season, and has a $6.7-million cap hit) and the Marian Gaborik contract that he managed to trade away to Columbus.
(Related: holy smokes, Marian Gaborik is a Columbus Blue Jacket)
Brad Richards is an interesting case. The first year after the lockout, Richards was re-upped by Tampa Bay to one of the first long-term superstar deal for an upcoming unrestricted free agent at the time. The length was five years, a flat-rate of $7.8-million across the board. That deal was easy for Tampa Bay to trade away, even though it was the maximum player salary at the time. By the end of the deal, while Richards was still highly-paid, it wasn’t a team-friendly deal with hard years at the back of the deal. Easier to sell, in some respects.
I did some work during the lockout trying to figure out how goaltenders age. Others have done it too. There is no suitable conclusion since it’s rare goaltenders will play consistent minutes into their late 30s and early 40s. It’s just guesswork. Unless you’re sure that Luongo will retire after Year 6 or 7 of his 12-year contract, it’s just too much of a risk to bring on.
There’s no reason why Luongo should have been signed to that deal in the first place, but that was exactly the point. The 2005 collective bargaining agreement was written in a way to discourage superstar-friendly deals that saw teams compete against each other in the offseason to sign the best players. When the Flyers signed Danny Briere to his eight-year deal, they weren’t thinking about Years 6, 7 and 8. The idea was that they’d get value in the first half of the contract in exchange for the down years.
Luongo is in his third year of the deal. His actual paid salary at the end of this season (ignoring the fact the third season is pro-rated) is about $7.5-million more than his salary cap hit. That’s allowed the Canucks roster flexibility in those seasons, when they’ve spent to the cap. It’s allowed them to add deadline additions Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre. It’s helped bring them to a Stanley Cup Final and more wins than any other team in the first two years of the deal. By exchanging the risk of the back years of the contract against the rewards in the first years, the Canucks made themselves better.
They didn’t win a Cup, and now they want to trade Luongo, and it’s hard to convince a team like Toronto or Florida to give up anything reasonably close to Luongo’s value as a player because he won’t benefit the new team like he would the Canucks. Luongo’s cap cost compared to his salary is much closer. We’re only in Year 3 of 12 and I see no way this ends up as a positive between Years 4 and 12. The good years of the deal are gone. The team-friendly deals are gone. They’ve been used up, the Canucks had the best season in franchise history, and that was it.
So that’s dead. Now Luongo goes to contract limbo, and he should have some visitors soon. Brad Richards may be the first, but the next ones could be a little late to the party. We won’t really know, since players that fall out of favour sort of happen sporadically and it’s hard to take note unless we have a reason to. Maybe Mike Richards? Duncan Keith? Surely Ilya Kovalchuk or Shea Weber are going to one day face the same challenges of not being wanted and impossible to move.
I don’t know about this one. The NHL owners weren’t losing any money by this happening. If these deals were affecting league parity, you probably could have waited two or three more years, had a decent number of examples of the contracts not working out on the back end, and owners may have been less willing to sign off on them.
Daniel Briere, incidentally, is out with a concussion. He has just 5 goals in 26 games so far this season, and had just 16 goals in 70 games last season. Maybe it’s just a slump, and maybe he’s in his mid-30s.