Salary cap pains

NHL rosters feel the crunch this season – and so what?

21.10.2010
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The Chicago Blackhawks loaned French netminder Cristobal Huet to Switzerland’s Fribourg-Gottéron for one year. Photo: Actalis

With the NHL cap pegged at $59.4 million this season – more than $20 million above its post-lockout 2005-06 level – it would seem superficially that there’s plenty of money to go around in the world’s top league.

However, NHL economics are more complex than that. The irrepressible tendency of general managers to spend to the cap limit, and the trend toward handing out long-term deals in an attempt to reduce the season-by-season cap hit (see Ilya Kovalchuk and Roberto Luongo), has meant that not everyone is able to find his place in the modern NHL.

Particularly hard-hit have been unrestricted free agents over age 35, whose average salary in multi-year deals counts against their team’s cap even if they decide to call it quits partway through.

Hence, a still-viable power forward like 40-year-old Bill Guerin hasn’t been able to find a taker yet after a solid 45-point campaign last year with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Vancouver Canucks couldn’t squeeze in versatile centre and local boy Brendan Morrison despite his fine play during a preseason tryout. So the 35-year-old settled for a one-year, $725,000 contract with rival Calgary.

“Maybe we can look at implementing a rule like the NBA where you can exclude a couple of veterans’ salaries from the cap figure,” Morrison said, looking ahead to the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations in 2012. “That’s one way around it. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Other noteworthy, long-in-the-tooth names currently unsigned include 41-year-old defenceman Mathieu Schneider (ex-Phoenix) and 39-year-old winger Owen Nolan (ex-Minnesota), who signed a one-month contract with the ZSC Lions Zurich to remain in shape.

Then there’s the problem of those who signed big-ticket deals and failed to justify it with their performance. Defencemen Jeff Finger (four years, $14 million), Sheldon Souray (five years, $27 million), and Wade Redden (six years, $39 million) all fall into this category. They’ve found themselves toiling in the AHL to kick off 2010-11 despite having NHL-calibre skills.

The best goalie ever to come out of France, two-time Olympian and four-time World Championship participant Cristobal Huet, has been sent back to Europe this season. He’ll suit up for Fribourg-Gottéron in the Swiss National League A. The 35-year-old from St-Martin-d'Hères signed a four-year, $22.45-million deal in 2008 that was just too rich for the blood of the Chicago Blackhawks. Huet lost his starting job to Antti Niemi last year, and Niemi, too, was let go during the off-season, signing with the San Jose Sharks.

No team was more visibly affected by cap limitations than the Cup champion Hawks. Entering 2010-11, they shed 11 players from the roster that defeated Philadelphia in six games for the Windy City’s first Cup since 1961.

All this player movement (or sometimes lack thereof) prompted the following recent rant from Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons, deploring Sidney Crosby’s inability to land a quality winger due to cap limitations: “It has stepped all over the toes of the greatest players in the game. It has, in a very serious way, choked the life out of hockey, at least in the big picture, out of the game I love.”

Strong words. But let’s step back and look at the real big picture for a minute.

Granted, the salary cap may be distressing for fans who watch favourite players leave town – and bad for individual players in some cases. But really, how sorry can we feel for Souray, Finger, Redden, and Huet, who are still getting millions to play a game they love, even if it’s not in the NHL? Players also have the option to leave money on the table if they feel it’ll be better for their club’s championship prospects or for their own long-term career viability.

Yes, it would be lovely in theory if the best NHL players always got to play with other elite talents. But since the days of the Original Six are long gone, we have another forum that currently satisfies that requirement. It’s called the Olympics.

Simmons’ argument is based largely on the notion that all the best players should play in the NHL. Yet we know what happened in the pre-salary cap world, and it wasn’t even positive in a strictly-NHL context. Too often, the most-coveted names flocked to the same big-market teams. In the free-spending era between the two lockouts, for instance, at least one of these four clubs made the Stanley Cup finals every year (except 2004): the New Jersey Devils, the Detroit Red Wings, the Colorado Avalanche, and the Dallas Stars.

What would be so great about returning to a time when there was such a gap between the have and the have-not clubs? (Not to mention that the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, and New York Rangers generally scooped up the remaining “cream” talent.)

Now, look beyond the NHL. Big picture, remember? To maintain hockey’s healthy growth worldwide, we need skillful players on both sides of the Atlantic. And if the NHL salary cap sends Pavol Demitra, Denis Grebeshkov, Maxim Afinogenov, and Yevgeni Nabokov to the KHL, for instance, that’s not such a terrible thing. The NHL is still loaded.

European football survives nicely despite having top players spread out among the English Premier League, Spain’s Primera División, Italy’s Serie A, and Germany’s Bundesliga. Pro hockey may never quite parallel that picture. But it’s still worth remembering that just because your local NHL team can’t sign or retain every player it wants due to the cap, it’s not necessarily the end of the world. In fact, it might be better for the world.

LUCAS AYKROYD


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