The NHL: When The Salary Cap Hit Dictates Playing Time

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Updated: April 5, 2013
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The statement that “money has ruined hockey” would be completely wrong and definitely misguided. Revenue has allowed the league to become sustainable and remain a light heavyweight in the North American sports market. It would mean entertaining events like the Winter Classic would never happen, and mainstream media coverage, in the United States especially, would deplete. Money runs this planet and the world of sports is no different, the richest will ultimately rise to the top.

The statement that hockey has been deeply affected by the influence of money would be true. This has occurred on many different levels. It has only become more extensive since the 2004-05 lockout where the NHL was finally able to exercise a salary cap over the league. This is when money truly became a known statistic, and player salary started to be talked about like it was goals or assists. The website CapGeek.com has been just as visited by fans as other news and insider hockey sites, because of the importance of salary in the sport today.

The numbers behind every contract became incredibly important to fans post-salary cap implementation, as their team now had a limit as to how much they could spend and therefore who they could acquire. Elite talents began to move to smaller markets in search of money that the major markets did not have available. This was, after all, the idea of the salary cap, to create parity within the league and to keep team’s numbers accountable and acceptable. On most accounts it has worked its magic.

photo credit: sarah_connors via photopin cc

photo credit: sarah_connors via photopin cc

However, as is usually the case teams found a way to get around the cap, namely adding more years to deals. Contracts with major players could reach term length anywhere between 8 to about 15 years. These contracts were regularly front heavy, with the final 3-6 years having low monetary values, usually around one million dollars per compared to eight or nine made towards the start of the deal.

The most famous such deal, at least in recent news, has been that signed by Roberto Luongo, a 12-year 64 million dollar deal that became the focal point of this most recent NHL trade deadline; especially during the retrospective portion of the proceedings. Luongo spent his post-deadline press conference bemoaning his contract and the fact that it has held him back in terms of being traded. It must be incredibly tough. While Luongo may not be the best goaltender on his team, Cory Schneider has recently taken hold of the number one position, he is clearly still an NHL calibre goaltender. In fact he would easily be the starting goaltender on at least half of the teams in the National Hockey League. But he will remain a back up this season due to his heavy front loaded contract.

This is due to the fact that his contract has become unbelievably difficult to move making teams lose interest in acquiring him. Similarly, considering his talent the Canucks still feel they should receive compensation in return for him. He should be on the ice at the moment, stopping pucks as he can clearly do so capably. But instead he must endure the frustration of sitting on the bench and waiting for a couple of opportunities to prove himself to any teams still interested.

Luongo situation created by the salary cap is not unique to him alone. Possibly one the most famous salary cap victims is Wade Redden, who was sent down to the AHL by the New York Rangers. Not because he wasn’t capable of playing at the NHL level but because his contract was too big for the team. Goaltender Cristobal Huet was sent to Switzerland by the Blackhawks to avoid becoming a damaging cap hit.

To the surprise of many, Scott Gomez is still an NHL-level player, albeit not on the top two lines of a given team. This year he almost sat for an entire season because of his contract and the fact that the Canadiens did not want him to get injured. Sheldon Souray represents another player who was sent down to the minors by his team in order to free up cap space to acquire other players. These are all players who should be on the ice in the NHL, but because of their contracts they are being forced to either sit or play at a lower level.

But wait, didn’t the NHL and NHLPA cancel half of the season partially to combat this problem? Yes, it is true that there are now a number of new restrictions put in place to avoid this sort of thing happening again. Contract lengths are now limited, players who are sent down to the AHL still count against the cap and most importantly amnesty buyouts are now available to teams. But while this limits the problem it does not stop it.

photo credit: bridgetds via photopin cc

photo credit: bridgetds via photopin cc

Luongo has yet to be helped in any way by this, and many others may suffer the same fate. While there is still a possibility that Luongo gets dealt during the off-season, and it is likely, he has yet to be traded. Should a team not pick him up then the Canucks are left with a very difficult decision, do they buy him out? The initial reaction is an emphatic “yes”; but his contract still has a lot of money left on it. While Vancouver understands what Lu is going through they may not buy him out simple for financial reasons.

There are some other examples of where situations similar to this could occur. Take Vincent Lecavalier for example. He has 7 years left on his deal at 7.7 million dollars of cap hit room per season. The Lightning only have this summer or next to buy him out, and it is unlikely that they will do it. For one, because he is their captain. But also because, like Luongo, he has a lot of money left on his deal that would be very expensive to pay. Lecavalier is dipping in terms of talent and could soon drop heavily in the team’s depth chart. Depending upon the style the team chooses to play, it is difficult to see Vinny playing in a third line role. It is even more difficult to see him playing any time on the fourth line. This could mean he may go to the route of Luongo or Redden. Playing sporadically or even dropping down to the minors could become an option a little ways down the road.

He is not the only one in this situation, and while the NHL has mind strides in this regard the Trade Deadline this year shed light on the fact that it is still a pressing issue. Money still rules in this league, and talent sometimes takes the second rung.

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Main photo credit: carsonballer14 via photopin cc

One Comment

  1. BB Hockey

    April 5, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Simple solution, TB sends Vinny to Vancouver for Lu. Your concerns about the dip in Lecavilier’s play and requirement to play a specific brand of hockey could be met with the Canucks and he could play second line centre (move another body from centre to the Wing) or take over the middle of the 3rd line. Luongo fits an obvious need in TB (even given the 2 young goalies the team has traded for over the past year, one could be shipped the other way for other parts and fit in nicely as Vancouvers backup). In situations with contracts like these you are unlikely going to find someone to take the bad deal in exchange for anything useful unless it comes with a sizable contract too. In the case of the two players and the two bad contracts you mention above there appears to be a workable solution for both sides to at least manage the large contract to fit the teams current needs.
    Will either player be bought out this summer, unlikely given your points above, will Vancouver trade Schneider as he might actually bring something back, and live with Luongo between the pipes. Unlikely but possible. More likely they will look to Florida and the Leafs again this summer to try and spark things up again. Lecavilier I am less certain there will be a big rush in TB to move him. Past years rumors of Montreal or Ottawa wanting him will quickly fade away (Montreal remembers all to well the Gomez situation, and Ottawa has Spezza). So I think his value still remains highest by keeping him on the ice in Tampa (unless a move for Luongo or another legitimate #1 goalie presents itself).

    The other question to ask is have the owners and players learned, will this off season be different? Or will we see another rash of signings to long term deals at high $ figures? Aneheim has already started that snowball rolling.

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