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NHL Salary Cap

While my summer declaration that the NHL’s Central Division was the strongest from top to bottom has been decimated by Columbus’ awful season, the other eighty percent of the division have far outperformed even my biased expectations.
As far as point percentage goes, which paint a clearer picture of the true “standings,” the top four in the Central are all in the top six of the Western Conference.

Team
GP
Pts
P%
Detroit
53
72
0.679
Vancouver
52
69
0.663
St. Louis
51
67
0.657
Nashville
53
68
0.642
San Jose
50
64
0.640
Chicago
53
65
0.613
Los Angeles
53
60
0.566
What does this Central Division 50+ game dominance mean? Well, very little, if we’re honest. There still will be an 8-team playoff for the right to not touch the Campbell Bowl and play the champion of the other conference for the Stanley Cup. But one thing to at least acknowledge is that if this lopsidedness continues through the 82nd game, the way the playoffs are seeded will force at least one mistimed intra-divisional quarterfinal series.
If the playoffs started today, Nashville would have to travel to St. Louis in the first round, despite the fact that the two teams place third and fourth in the conference, respectively. This is of course because Vancouver and San Jose, as division winners, are guaranteed top three seeds. I have no beef with this, and I’m not unaware that it may be the Central champ that ends up as the 3 seed. Just pointing out that the 4th place team would be on the road, and the 3rd place team would have to face a team they may have some argument for avoiding.

Defense Wins Championships?

One surprising thing to me about the order of these teams is that Chicago is bringing it up the rear, largely thanks to the fact that they’ve been taking it there every time they score less than three goals in a game. Jesse Rogers pointed this out some time ago, but as of today the Blackhawks have won only one game in regulation when scoring less than three goals. And that one game was against the Kings, where a 2-1 score is sort of like a 3-2 or 4-3 game given L.A.’s penchant for keeping the flow nonexistent.
A response to the above stat is that Chicago has the 4th best offense in the league, and therefore don’t need to win a lot of 1-0 or 2-1 games. But the fact is the Hawks are 4th in the league with 3.1 goals per game, which makes failing to tally thrice just a below average game. In the playoffs, prolific offenses tend to have to find other ways to win games that are shrunk by the better opponents and heightened intensity. I’m not saying Chicago can’t win the Cup, but they almost certainly will have to win more than one game by a score of 2-1 or even 1-0. Haven’t been able to do that so far through 53 games against the entire league. We’ll see if they can do it in less than 30 against only the best.
In an All-Star Game of Front Offices, the Central Division Would Mercy Rule Everyone Else

The stat that impresses me the most about these four teams is the one in which they’re not that prolific: player salaries.
Despite placing first, third, fourth and sixth in the west in points taken per game, if the standings were determined by blowing through cap space, only one of these central giants would even make the playoffs.
Amongst on Western Conference teams, Chicago’s payroll ranks eighth; Detroit comes in ninth; St. Louis eleventh; Nashville thirteenth. Their on-ice success may not be in total contrast with their thriftiness — as information has moved us all closer to being general managers (in our daydreams), we may have overvalued the correlation between dollars spent on players and wins.
To both comment further on the distinction that we should all make between the two paper figures and pile on Columbus, it is actually the Blue Jackets who lead the Central Division in salary cap hit this year. The Jackets have spent the fourth most on player personnel in the Western Conference, ahead of such Stanley Cup contenders as San Jose, Boston, the New York Rangers and of course, the rest of their divisional brethren.
The reward for the conservatism of Detroit, St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago? The freedom to buy this month in the trade market, for one. The ability to sign the cream of the free agent crop this summer, for two. In Nashville’s case, the latter seems more urgent, as it is their players who count for two of the premier names in the upcoming FA pool (Shea Weber & Ryan Suter). Detroit and Chicago figure to be immediately much more concerned with the former effect, as there can be only one Stanley Cup champion each year, and after all, there is only one Ales Hemsky (or Travis Moen, or…).
St. Louis is a little harder to figure out, as they are in that awkward position of being better than their name. Call it punching above their weight, quote Shakespeare or The Departed, the point is: the Blues are a contender right now, but may not be in the financial condition yet to go out and make splashes. Time will tell, but I expect the Blues to go forward with mostly the same players that have been the best team in the NHL since the hiring of head coach Ken Hitchcock.
Before the other three teams get involved in a loaded NHL Tuesday, the Red Wings travel to Glendale for a game against the Phoenix Coyotes tonight at 8 p.m. EST on NBC Sports Network. Detroit has eliminated Phoenix in the first round of the last two playoffs, and will try to improve upon their 15-14-1 road record this season.
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Every now and then, an idea comes along that revolutionizes a company, an industry, or even the world. I’d like to present you with an idea that will probably never come to fruition, but is worth a minute or two of contemplation based simply on the possibility that it could.
There has been a lot of talk regarding the situation on the Nashville blue line this season. More specifically, everyone is wondering when and where Shea Weber and Ryan Suter will sign on the dotted line.
One of my favorite hockey people, Jeff Marek, recently brought up an interesting possibility on his and co-host Greg Wyshynski’s podcast regarding the fates and futures of the Preds’ two young defensive studs.
All of the upcoming speculation is entirely dependent upon the mindsets and personal preferences of Weber, and to a greater extent, Suter. Since nobody who will talk really knows, all we are left to do is speculate.
The majority view is that Ryan Suter probably does not want to sign a contract with the Predators for a single cent less than Weber’s. Perhaps Suter has been the good sidekick long enough, and wants to be paid in a way that reflects the quality of player that he knows in his mind that he has been and will continue to be. Maybe there’s even a little excitement at getting away from “big brother,” in the same fashion that I believe exists with Bobby Ryan in his relationship with Anaheim Ducks teammate and fraternity president Ryan Getzlaf.
To take it a step further, maybe Suter thinks about legacy. The man is already the son of a man who helped to perform the Miracle on Ice, as well as the nephew of NHL great Gary Suter, who tallied an impressive 845 points in 1,145 big league games as a defenseman. Gary’s 1,349 penalty minutes don’t foster a legacy of Suters playing second fiddle to a big, bad caveman force of a blue liner either.

It could be that Ryan Suter wants to win Stanley Cups, which many people argue probably will not be accomplished in Nashville given the Preds’ paltry payroll policies. It could also be that he wants to go down in history as a number one, which many more people assert can never be achieved as long as Weber is on the same roster, let alone pairing. If this is the predominant emotion going through Suter’s head, then he probably will not be playing with Weber next season.
But regardless of how perpetual man’s need to be perceived as a top dog and remembered through the generations might be, not all people are governed by such insecurities. What if instead of going all Anakin Skywalker and crying about Shea Kenobi holding him back, Suter instead is moved by being half of a whole? What if he realizes how the pairing is in many ways the perfect pairing for today’s NHL? Suter shoots left; Weber shoots right. Both skate flawlessly. Weber drops the hammer to the tune of 89 hits through 42 games this season. Suter is slightly the more technical defensive player. Both have 15 points on special teams this season. Weber has 63 blocked shots; Suter has 60. They each have a responsible 26 penalty minutes this year. They both register in the plus department regularly (each has had just one minus season since being in the show, and both are scheduled to go plus again this time around). They were even drafted within hours of each other in 2003 — Suter went 7th, while Weber went 49th. And as is indicative of his slightly more threatening offensive game, Weber has 9 goals and 23 assists to Suter’s 5 and 20. The gap isn’t nearly what the “Shea Weber is by far the better player” camp would lead you to believe.
So despite being the son of a man on the 1980 Miracle team and the nephew of an all-time great, being drafted ahead of his now-more-coveted playing partner and putting up extremely similar numbers, Suter remains subservient to Weber in the minds of all the people that don’t matter. Hell, he even deferred to Brian Rafalski whilst the U.S. was cruising to the gold medal game in the 2010 Olympic Games largely behind Suter’s lockdown defensive play and smooth transitions to offense.
But what if Suter doesn’t care? What if he’s able to see the forest through the trees and decides that he rather enjoys playing with another great defenseman who is as talented and dedicated to his craft as Suter himself? Perhaps most importantly, what if Suter decides that his best chance at winning a Stanley Cup is making the move that also ensures he’ll never be nominated for a Norris? After all, playoff hockey shrinks the rink, and the teams that win are the ones that are able to play a tougher style than those that perenially flame out to lower seeded teams. What better way to keep the puck out of the net than to roll with a stud like Weber?
If Suter and Weber are open to the possibility of playing together for many more years, the question then becomes where. The first and most obvious answer is Nashville. For one, Weber is only scheduled to become a restricted free agent this summer, meaning it would be more difficult to get out of town if he wanted to do so. But secondly, the Preds have more than enough cap space to sign both players to whatever contracts they reasonably wanted. The real question revolves around whether the Predators actually have the cash to make the deals, and also whether they would want to. They have young defensemen to restock the shelves with, and it would be hard to imagine a franchise that perennially hovers around the salary cap floor to up and give $24 million or so to three players every year (goaltender Pekka Rinne of course being the third).
If the Predators can’t or won’t pay Weber and Suter like kings, and for argument’s sake we are assuming that the two would like to play together, what team could and would sign them?
At this point, many fans write this Miami Heatles-esque scenario off as not within the framework of the honor of the hockey player, but I disagree. First of all, this league is a business. Second, to go to separate teams in the name of garnering that maximum contract amount and top dog on the blue line status would actually be less “honorable” the way I understand it. It would be putting money and perception ahead of winning and professional or even personal friendship. 
Third, we’ve seen this before. Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne became so intertwined that “Kariya & Selanne” became an actual phrase in the late ‘90s while the pair sunburned opposing goalies’ necks by turning the red light on so often for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Pairs like these exist throughout the sporting culture — Kareem & Magic, Shaq & Kobe, Michael & Scottie, Montana (or Young) & Rice, Freeney & Mathis, Brady & Belichick, Xavi & Iniesta, or even Henrik & Daniel if we’re especially lazy. But Kariya & Selanne were a real thing; such a real thing that after Anaheim traded Selanne to San Jose in early 2001, Kariya skipped town in the summer of 2003 to chase a Cup with his bestie for a season in Colorado despite having just been to Game 7 of the Finals with a Selanne-less Ducks team. The Avalanche experiment didn’t work out for the pair, and they were both on separate teams the following season and never played together again, but deciding to take a pay cut to join forces with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy and your former flame is a story that lays the foundation for a possible Weber & Suter tag team signing this summer.
So if both Weber and Suter decided to do this, where would they go? It would have to be a team that could win it all immediately and have sustained short-list relevance. It would have to be a team that not only had the cap space, but also the desire to spend to the cap while also being able to field the rest of its roster. And given their success as the liaison between a limited offense and one of the best goalies in the world, it would probably have to be a team with both its goaltending situation in good standing and substantially more offensive potential than the current Predators.
You could play around on CapGeek to try to find the perfect match, or just go the lazy route and assume that Philadelphia is the one and only team that would fit one or the other (or both, if they could just move that Bryzgalov contract…), but I believe there is one glaring match for all of these characteristics: the Washington Capitals.
If your response is anything like mine, you’re probably saying “shut up guy, you obviously haven’t done your homework as the Caps have a ton of long-term, big money contracts and there’s no way they could add two more and stay within the confines of the salary cap.” Well, actually it’s very doable. Let’s look at how it would get done.
As far as those long-term deals go, Alex Ovechkin is signed forever at a $9.5 million cap hit. Nicklas Backstrom checks in at $6.7 million for a similar time period. Brooks Laich will cost $4.5 million for five more seasons. Joel Ward is on for three more years at $3M per. After those four forwards, only Jason Chimera and Jeff Schultz are locked up beyond next season. That’s for the whole team.
The players who are coming off the books this summer are Alex Semin (who costs $6.7 million this season), Mike Knuble ($2M), Jeff Halpern ($825K), Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perrault ($1M combined), Mike Green ($5.25M), Dennis Wideman ($3.94M), John Carlson ($845K) and Tomas Vokoun ($1.5M). I know that looks like a lot to lose and/or replace, but the Caps are in the fantastic position of having 17 players under NHL contract for next season while still being just more than $19 million under the cap ceiling.
There are some questions that would need to be answered before the Weber / Suter coup could be pulled off: 1) Is Vokoun willing to play another season while being severly underpaid; 2) is Vokoun even in the Caps’ plans beyond this season, or is Braden Holtby ready to be a full-time backup to Michal Neuvirth; 3) how much do the Caps love Mike Green; 4) are the Caps crazy enough to make Semin a priority; 5) will new coach Dale Hunter force GM George McPhee (fellow Falcon, what up) to bring Wideman back; 6) how much of a raise does Carlson want, and how highly do the Caps value him; 7) are the Caps willing to force themselves to fill out the rest of the forwards on a budget akin to the wintery stages of the Oregon Trail; and perhaps most importantly, 8) do Weber and Suter believe in Alex Ovechkin?
These are a lot of questions to answer, and the mere existence of them may cause this article to look more like something that should have been published by Eklund, but I’m basing this analysis on math, reason, opportunity and absolutely no proclaimed inside information.
Let’s try to answer those questions. First, Vokoun signed with Washington last summer at an extreme discount. Most people assumed $5 million per season was a realistic price for Vokoun’s services, and that number even looked low after the Flyers inked Bryzgalov to that outrageous $5.6M-for-the-next-9-years contract. Instead, the Czech netminder took a 74% pay cut in the name of trying to do something he has yet to do: win in the playoffs. One could argue that Vokoun would probably be happy to come back and do it again next year, especially being a 36 year-old whose hourglass is getting bottom-heavy coupled with the prospect of signing the two beasts who have each blossomed since played their rookie and sophomore seasons in front of Vokoun in Nashville.
The question of whether Washington will actually welcome Vokoun back depends almost entirely on how this playoff season goes. If the lefty buckles or is usurped by his teammate and countryman Neuvirth, it could spell Czech-mate for the old guy in D.C. Perhaps the bigger issue will be whether Holtby is seen as a partner for Neuvirth or more of a tradable asset in the final year of his entry-level contract. Only the Caps know the answer to that one, but a capable and willing Vokoun can help to answer the one about Holtby in the latter.
On to Mike Green. The stocky defenseman was once hailed as the surprising new point scoring blue liner, in the likeness of Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey. Then the watchful eye of playoff scrutiny focused on Green, and it became obvious that his lack of defensive responsibility (or maybe even ability) was costing the Capitals when it mattered most. And now, we’ve moved from the “Green can’t play on a responsible, winning team” to “Green actually can’t play.” The guy has worked on his all-around game and actually gotten a little better at keeping opponents off the score sheet, but now he can’t seem to keep himself on the ice. Green has only managed to appear in 59 of a possible 126 regular season games over the last year and a half, and just yesterday underwent sports hernia surgery, which is expected to sideline him for a rather optimistic reported time frame of just 4-to-6 weeks.
I’m not trying to pile on Mike Green or act like I’m the first to say that his defense has contributed to the Caps’ recent playoff disappointments, but at some point Washington may want to decide to move in a different direction. That point would logically be in the next six months, since Green’s contract is up July 1.
Ah, the Semin thing. Just when it was universally decided that the winger is a bum, he goes and plays inspiring hockey that has some Caps fans second guessing whether telling him to take a hike is the right move. Let me answer this one: if he wants anything close to his usual $6.7 million, thank him for his services, shake his hand, and move on. If we’re considering the possibility of the Weber / Suter splash, there’s really no money for a guy like Semin, and that’s okay. In fact, if winning is the goal, I’d argue it’s perfect. And Caps fans, as much as you’re coming around on Semin right before decision time comes up, how would you feel about him knowing that bringing him back killed any chance of pulling what could be a historic defensive coup? I’m giving you this one chance to get a grip and decide if you truly want to shift the identity of the Washington Capitals hockey club. This stuff is time-sensitive too, so decide quickly and choose wisely.
Now onto the Hunter – Wideman issue. First off, Dennis Wideman has been good for the Capitals this year. In fact, he’s been very good. The D man seems to have taken past criticism to heart and actually improved his game markedly, and is no longer putting up disappointing point totals following his 50-point campaign in 2008-09, nor is he playing the crap defense that allowed him to go -33 the past two seasons. On top of his resurgence (31 points in 44 games this year, for those wondering), there is also the connection with new head coach Dale Hunter, who coached Wideman during the defenseman’s last three seasons with the OHL’s London Knights. The two seem to be good for each other, and the argument can be made that signing Weber and Suter while losing Wideman and most of the rest of the free agents might not even be that good of a trade off for the Caps. The Caps’ blue line would be rather thin after the top pairing if they were to pull the Nashville coup while losing Green, Wideman and Carlson.
Carlson himself remains a question mark moving forward. On the one hand, he’s far outplayed his entry-level contract, which expires this summer. On the other hand, he’s sort of not that amazing defensively and it’s not the Capitals’ responsibility to pay players for past performance. While Carlson is always highlighted by NBC during Washington’s numerous nationally televised games, there is the sense that the front office might be more wed to Karl Alzner, whose game falls more in line with what the Caps claim they want to become. Alzner is signed through next season, but after that the decision will have to be made on him.
Assuming Weber and Suter take about $15 million in salary cap hits, Washington would be left with about a million bucks a piece to fill out four roster spots. Additionally, they would already have Roman Hamrlik, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and Alzner under contract, in addition to Weber and Suter if our fantasy land becomes reality. That’s seven right there, albeit possibly not as deep a seven as a team would love, but certainly a serviceable corps. If they were able to move any of the other contracts, especially Hamrlik or Schultz, that would free up some more cap space to sign either Wideman, Carlson or a better forward. But it isn’t totally necessary. Besides, GMGM can surely pawn some bad contracts off on Colorado, right?
Okay, we’re almost there. We’ve parried most of the attacks on the possibility of inking both Shea Weber and Ryan Suter to contracts in the nation’s capital. Now we have that issue of having not a lot of money to fill out a few forward spots. In reality, I don’t think that would be a problem that Washington couldn’t overcome. For starters, they already have the big boys locked down. Ovechkin and Backstrom are taken care of, as is Laich, Ward, Chimera, Marcus Johansson, recent hero Matt Hendricks and Cody Eakin. Of that crew, only Johansson is a real concern, as the second-year center is stepping up large for the Caps and scheduled to become RFA in the summer of 2013. A pay raise for him is all but certain, but the possibility exists that Washington values the opportunity to bring both Nashville big boys in more highly than they do locking down a player with only second-line opportunity given the existence of Backstrom on the roster.
As far as the rest of the forwards go, it’s funny how you can usually find a solid team guy willing to play for a million bucks under the premise that his team should be awesome. They don’t have to be all that offensively talented either, as coach Hunter is renowned for his willingness to “play the shit out of” his star players (a Wyshynski quote). If fewer minutes per game are required, all of a sudden players that are lower on the NHL totem pole become acceptable fill-ins.
The numbers work themselves out. Washington signing Weber and Suter can be done. It cannot be done without making some tough decisions, but pointing that out is not exactly a counter-argument. This is life. Tough decisions have to be made all the time. McPhee has shown an ability to do just that, and it doesn’t hurt that his job security is being warmly debated. Making a move like the one we are talking about guarantees a couple of things. One, it buys you a year or two. Two, it guarantees your spot in the unemployment line if it doesn’t work out quickly. Like the great Jim Rome is always saying on his radio show, “Give me an A, or give me an F.” A coup like the one I’m talking about could turn out to be an A or an F for the franchise, but it certainly wouldn’t be a lazy C.
Speaking of which, the man wearing the C in Washington hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed or without lots and lots of criticism. In my heart of hearts, I believe that Alex Ovechkin is a winner. I’m just not sure he’s a captain. While I’ve talked about the possibility of Ryan Suter putting his pride aside and continuing with his pal Shea Weber, I wouldn’t expect the same out of Ovie in voluntarily relinquishing the C on his sweater. But it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing he could do. It also may convince the Nashville duo that he is committed to winning above all else in this league, and might even be the catalyst to the formation of one of the great squads of his time. But like I said, let’s use math and reason to analyze this game we love. No rational bone in my body feels like this is an action that Ovechkin will actually take. Therefore, we are left to wonder and speculate as to what is going through the minds of all of these individuals acting out the drama that we call pro hockey. Suter may not even want to play with Weber, let alone actually pack up the car and hit the road with him. But as interested observers, wouldn’t it be something?
Less than two weeks ago Brad Richards was still an unrestricted free agent. There were cameras that tracked his entrance to his agency’s Toronto office, and then sat around to film representatives of various teams shamelessly beg hockey’s best free agent to sign with them. It was all supposed to be the NHL’s version of “The Decision,” except that it was Brad Richards who was the prize, and not a name like Alex Ovechkin. Coverage was beaten to death, and by the time Richards signed where everyone figured he would, it was time for the story to go away.
Except now, the story won’t go away, and it might have repercussions that border on the unspeakable. Actually, screw it. We need to talk about it.
Lockout.
There, I said it. What has up until now been a laissez-faire attitude toward long-term contracts and the CBA in general is starting to become more ominous. People within hockey are talking about the fact that there has become one big problem issue with regard to getting a new CBA done by July 1, 2012: salary cap circumvention.





Take your hands away from your areas, it’s not that. It’s of course the term that relates to these long-term deals that are so front-loaded that they could be objectively described as nothing short of farcical. James Mirtle and Greg Wyshynski both recently wrote articles that detail what cap circumvention is, and why some within the league believe it’s a problem. We all are smart enough to know that paying a guy nine or ten times as much money up front as on the back end is designed for one purpose only: to pay the player enough money up front to lure him to sign, while also lowering his cap hit to a more manageable number. If Christian Ehrhoff’s cap hit to the Buffalo Sabres was $10 million this year and $8 million the next, they may not be able to field a team. But alas, his cap hit is $4 million in each of the next ten seasons, thanks largely to those last three years in which Ehrhoff is scheduled to earn $1 million a piece.
Before I get hate mail, my Detroit Red Wings are guilty of the practice as well. Everyone cites Johan Franzen’s contract as an example of cap circumvention, and while I couldn’t vigorously deny that, I would say that Franzen’s contract is nothing like the ones we’re seeing now. Henrik Zetterberg’s contract has also been cited because of the two garbage $1 million years on the back end. I would offer that at least he gets paid in the same $7.5M range for the first 9 of 12 years. Today, his contract would be considered angelic due to the fact that he isn’t raking 50 percent of the contract’s total within the first two seasons. But, as less wrong as the Wings’ two examples are, they are still clearly some lesser form of cap circumvention given the two back end years.
Regardless of your take on these contracts, the fact remains that the league approved them all. Hossa, Zetterberg, Franzen, Lecavalier, Pronger, Ehrhoff, Richards, Keith, Luongo and all the rest have been allowed to go on the books. Whether they remain there after the signing of a new CBA, only time will tell.
One reason cap circumvention seems to be such a problem in today’s NHL is that there seem to be stark ideological differences within the front offices of the various teams regarding the legality and morality of these foolishly front-loaded contracts. In the link above, Mirtle references Leafs GM Brian Burke, who is morally opposed to offering such contracts despite being in charge of the richest team in the NHL (a.k.a. the team best situated to pay huge money up front). Burke actually states that his refusal to sign what he sees as a dirty contract was a big reason the Leafs were unable to sign Richards.

Photo courtesy nhlsnipers.com
Brad Richards from his Dallas days
Wyshynski also names Capitals owner Ted Leonsis as another who is against circumventing the salary cap. In fact, Leonsis’ two star forwards on long-term contracts, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, are scheduled to make more money as the contract goes on. Those who oppose front-loading often cite it as in bad faith and not “within the spirit of the current CBA.”
I must agree that these negotiations do make an ass of the salary cap and are all a big farce, but I have to wonder if eliminating them is worth the fight. Unlike the NBA, which needed a lockout much like the NHL needed one in the summer of 2004, the NHL neither needs nor can afford a lockout at this time. The game is growing and succeeding thanks to the changes that were made six years ago. As I wrote yesterday, eighteen of thirty NHL teams sold at least 98% of their tickets in 2010-11. The NHL just signed a huge (by comparison) ten-year television deal that provides a revenue stream that is much deserved after the league had to eat Ramen noodles for a while. Things are going well. Fans are starting to get involved again, and I still have yet to meet a person who gave hockey an honest try and decided it wasn’t something that at least sparked some interest.
Aside from the number one reason that the league shouldn’t fight this too hard — the lockout — I want to ask a few more questions that might devalue this issue.

The rest of this section asks a lot of questions, and I use the word “you” often. It’s not pointed at “you” specifically; it’s supposed to be the royal “you.”

1.  Who cares? Why is front-loading a contract for a star player and adding a few joke years on the back immoral? Is it because that allows only the richest teams to land these players by offering them $9+ million early? We all know that nobody can carry a player with a cap hit of $10 million, so obviously the number has to be lower. So does that mean that we cannot allow an NHL star to make that kind of money in a season? Here’s the thing: the St. Louis Blues weren’t going to sign a player that had to be front-loaded whether it was legal or not. Even if rules required the cheapest year of a contract to payout half the amount of the most expensive year, the teams that aren’t capable of signing overpriced stars aren’t going to anyway. These teams aren’t paying $10 million this year, and they aren’t paying $7 million for seven years. Yes, these contracts cheat the salary cap and also shouldn’t be able to come off the books later, but in the end if everybody is allowed to do it, what’s the difference?

2.  If the NHL becomes contract police, will star players leave for the KHL? My gut tells me that not many would, at least not yet. By all accounts, the NHL is still where most players want to play. The facilities are better, the level of play is higher, and the championship trophy is constantly cited by foreign players as the holy grail of hockey. But still, the key for any league’s continued success is being understood as the best in its sport. Americans don’t watch MLS, but they do watch the English Premier League. Why? Because the EPL is a far better product. Some big name hockey players, including Jaromir Jagr, have left the NHL for greener pastures in Russia. While the KHL is still regarded as the second best professional league, the question is really whether the elimination of all circumventing contracts would push the early player payments down enough to have them choose to leave for Russia. I don’t know enough about the salaries of entire KHL teams to wisely predict how this would go, but I think all parties should be aware of this question before they crusade to limit how much dough a star player can bank, especially when teams are willing and able to pay it.

3.  Isn’t front-loading a contract the fiscally responsible thing to do? Stop me if I’m making stuff up, but aren’t the L.A. Dodgers bankrupt and close to being unable to pay their players because they back-loaded every contract of financial consequence? They still owe Manny Ramirez approximately $25 million, despite the fact that he played for two MLB teams more recently than the Dodgers and is now retired. The Dodgers were allowed to defer payments and end up owing lots of money way later than it should have been due. This is a recipe for disaster, as anyone who has ever gone to school on loans can attest. I understand the time value of money should indicate that it is always better to pay someone as late as possible, because a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. But this ignores a couple key mantras that any debtor can attest to: 1) don’t go into debt over your head, and 2) pay your damn debts. If the Sabres want to be owing Christian Ehrhoff $40 million over a 10-year period, why is it a bad thing that they want to get 45% of that total paid off within the first two years? Yeah, yeah, they can invest the money and make interest on it that covers inflation blah blah blah. Have you ever heard of Bernie Madoff? Or market volatility in general, especially recently? Ask the N.Y. Mets about Madoff, and then preach to me something out of an ECON 201 textbook. If the teams have the means to pay the front-loaded salaries today, and it appears that all of these teams do, then why on earth would we want to mandate a culture that makes it illegal to make damn sure that teams aren’t going bankrupt in the future based on years 7 through 9 of some horrible contracts that force them to write checks that will bounce?
To continue off Question 3, don’t you think the teams and players factor the structure of the contract into their negotiations? So we see that Ehrhoff (and I don’t mean to pick on him, Richards’ deal was just as “circumventing”) agrees to get paid $40 million over a 10-year period, with $18 million of that coming in the first two years of the deal. Don’t you think he factored the front-loading in when he agreed to the deal? Don’t you think he (or his agent) understands the time value of money? Of course he does, and he agreed to this deal based on getting that much money early in the deal. If we took a hard line on cap circumvention, the Sabres would have had to do one of two things to get Ehrhoff signed while still staying under the cap. Either they would have had to chop off the last three years of the deal while also lowering the dollar figures per year, unless they were cool with a $5.3 million cap hit for seven years for not the best defenseman in the league, or they would have to raise the back end of the deal a lot while also lowering the front, in order to keep the cap hit in check. There’s no way on earth Ehrhoff would prefer this setup, since again, money ten years from now isn’t worth nearly what it is today. And then there’s the risk of a Dodgers situation, which no player wants to be a part of.
To finalize, I get that these deals are a farce. I understand the idea that shouldn’t be allowed to be dropped so substantially based on the tacking on of bogus years that players don’t intend to play anyway. I even get how it is technically unfair to the teams that operate within the cap, but don’t bring in the kind of local television / sponsorship money that the bigger clubs do. But to me, the risk of downgrading the level of play of the NHL to the benefit of domestic leagues in Russia, Sweden, or anywhere else doesn’t make sense for the NHL. Additionally, I’m not convinced that these offers are patently immoral, since the player ends up signing where he wants to play, and by all accounts most teams try to lure the same free agents with the same front-loaded deals. Lastly, it makes fiscal sense to pay your debts earlier so that you can be assured of a brighter financial future. Who can fault these clubs for not wanting to be $21 million in debt for the last three uninspired years of some aging former star? I won’t fault them on those accounts, but I agree the whole thing is a joke. It might need fixed, but not at the expense of a new CBA getting done. Not even close. Because remember, that means a… luh… lah… lockout.
Following the Boston Bruins’ hoisting of the Stanley Cup last week, many in the media were using the old clichés about teams beating talent and will beating skill.  I understand what those phrases are supposed to mean, but I think it’s a little misleading to insinuate that the Vancouver Canucks were not united, or that the Bruins lacked skill or talent.  The better team won the series.  Boston won four of the seven games.  They won their four games by 7, 4, 3 and 4 goals, respectively.  They lost their three games by one goal apiece.
I read a lot of opinions that the Canucks blew a golden opportunity.  I know on the surface it sounds nuts, but I disagree.  In fact, had the Canucks won Game 7 at home like the -150 money line said they were supposed to, it would have been the Bruins who blew the opportunity.  You see, when teams take each other seven games, it’s the team that lost games that it could have won that really has the burden of a blown opportunity.  Vancouver lost exactly zero games that it could have won, if we agree that the 4.5 goal margin equates to no opportunities, which of course it must.  Boston is the team that twice blew stellar one goal allowed efforts from MVP Tim Thomas, and tacked on an overtime loss to boot.  People can misremember this series all they want, and talk about how Vancouver really let it slip away, but the facts show that the Canucks truly almost stole the series from the Bruins, who would have had a hard time dealing with their blown opportunity.
With this said, I want to look ahead to next season to see which, if either, team can be expected to get back to the Stanley Cup finals.

Vancouver Canucks


For some time now, people have been applauding the job that Vancouver has done to build such a great roster despite the limitations of the salary cap.  While I agree that the Canucks looked rather stacked, they were a team that was really built to win in 2011.  The pieces are in place for a smooth transition into next season, but the Canucks have ten roster spots to fill in the offseason and only about $13.7 million with which to do that.  This average of $1.37 million per roster opening ranks 24th in the league.
The biggest of the big names are all back for the Canucks.  The Sedins are signed for 3 more years; Ryan Kesler is locked up for 5 more campaigns.  Manny Malhotra and Alex Burrows are entering their penultimate seasons under contract, and Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond both have one more year left.  Whether or not the Canucks buy out Samuelsson’s $2.5 million contract remains to be seen, but they can probably expect some delays in production from Raymond, who is out at least four months from now after suffering that terrible injury to his back in Game 6.  The rest of Vancouver’s forwards — Maxim Lapierre, Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins, Raffi Torres, Jeff Tambellini and Tanner Glass — are all free agents on July 1.  It should be noted that Lapierre and Hansen are RFAs, which will make it much easier for the Canucks to retain them, should they want to do so.  Remember though, only $13.7 million to go around…
The situation on the blue line really makes it clear how important the 2011 championship was to this team.  Going into the free agency period, the Canucks have Dan Hamhuis, Keith Ballard and Alex Edler locked up past the upcoming season.  They have Aaron Rome on retainer for this upcoming season at a discount price of $750,000, after which he will become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) if not signed to an extension beforehand.  The Canucks’ once-heralded stable of defensemen is now down to four, and one of those players is Ballard, who brings a $4.2 million cap hit for the next four seasons, and the Canucks refuse to use him in games that mean anything.
This leaves Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo, Christian Ehrhoff and Andrew Alberts all as UFAs in eleven days, and again remember, there’s only $13.7 million to go around.  While the Canucks can bring some players up from the AHL at six-figure prices, there’s almost no way they can pay all of these defensemen the money that other teams will be able to offer.  I would assume that of the four listed above, the Canucks would soonest part ways with 36 year-old Salo, but just refusing to resign him doesn’t add money to that $13.7 M pool with which to pay the other three D men.  All three played well this season, but one would think that Alberts can be had at the lowest price.  The soon-to-be 30 year-old Alberts came with just over a million dollar price tag last year, and Vancouver seemed to get at least what they paid for out of him.
Bieksa and Ehrhoff, on the other hand, are coming off $3.5 and $3.4 million seasons, and at 30 and 28 years old, probably aren’t looking to make financial concessions.  Even if those two will sign for the same money, that’s 7 of the 13.7 in available funds.  Doesn’t seem likely, does it?
All the rumors are that Bieksa will be the one to leave, and while I understand that Ehrhoff is the better defenseman per se, I don’t particularly like the idea of a team known for being “soft” washing their hands of one of the few hard-nosed producers it has.  I mean all they would have to do at that point is trade Kesler for Ilya Kovalchuk, and the caricature would be complete.  But alas, the salary cap restrictions…
Even if Bieksa is allowed to walk and Vancouver brings back Ehrhoff and Alberts to add to the four blue liners under contract, there’s no denying that on its face the 2011-12 squad would be worse off just without Bieksa, let alone Salo.  The elder statesman from Finland wasn’t worth the money he got last year, but he was still an effective hockey player, usually.  Ehrhoff and Alberts would probably cost the team somewhere in the vicinity of $6 million next season, given that Ehrhoff is an outstanding player and Ballard makes $4.2 million.  This would leave $7.7 million for more defensemen and all forwards beyond the seven currently under contract.  What would solve Vancouver’s problem is finding a taker for Ballard’s contract.  While it would seem obvious that nobody could be that dumb, I assure you there always is that one moron who tilts the game in someone’s favor.  If Islanders’ owner Wang is serious about taking on more payroll, perhaps Vancouver should give Garth Snow a call.
The Canucks are set at goalie for next season, as Cory Schneider will turn in his 28 games with a 2.30 GAA, and all for less than a million bucks.  Roberto Luongo is entering his tenth-to-last year on his contract.  Gulp.
Boston Bruins


As far as the Bruins go, I was really impressed after looking at their roster entering next season.  I mean the bottom line here in Beantown is, damn near everyone is coming back!  The Bruins have five roster spots to fill, and just over $7 million to do it with.  Their average number, only one spot ahead of Vancouver’s, is $1.43 million per opening.  But the key difference is that the B’s don’t have a lot of big earners who need to be resigned.  Assuming Mark Recchi is serious about retiring, the only Boston forwards not under contract already for next season are Brad Marchand and Michael Ryder.  Marchand is due for something of a raise after his integral role in bringing home the Cup, but a raise is acceptable when the starting point was an $821k cap hit last year.  I expect the Bruins will do everything necessary to keep Marchand, and I also expect the price not to exceed $2.5 million.  Ryder is somewhat of a different story, as he banked $4 million in each of the last three seasons.  But I have a feeling he’s a guy that the Bruins will be alright parting ways with, since they must see Marchand as a more valuable piece in their efforts going forward.  Ryder is a very good talent, but he even still has lacked the consistency to justify such a large salary.  Ryder tallied 41 points in 79 regular season games.
On defense, Boston brings back five of its six Cup-winning regulars.  Only trade deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle is a free agent, but the Bruins are likely to bring up Steven Kampfer before giving Kaberle close to half of their available offseason funds.  Whoever the sixth D man is, he will join the ring bearers Chara, Seidenberg, Ference, Boychuk and McQuaid.  To make matters better for the Bruins, only Boychuk and McQuaid are even entering their final seasons.
Like the Canucks, Boston is also bringing back its two goaltenders, Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask.  Also like the Canucks, the Bruins have around $1.4 million per player this offseason.  But unlike the western champs, Boston only has five spots to fill, and only one must-sign — Marchand.
In order to properly evaluate which team has a better chance to return to the SCF, one would have to do a similar accounting of each’s opponents, but for now, I must say that contrary to popular belief — Vancouver is an early 5 to 1 favorite to win next year’s Cup — it is the Bruins who are better set up to make it back next year.
Thanks for being patient with me over the past week.  Like my brother’s favorite, Craig Anderson, I had to avoid burnout.  I’m strongly looking forward to doing some more of these team offseason evaluations.  Feel free to join me via comments, Twitter or email.
What do you guys think?  Will either of these teams defend their conference crowns?  Will we have a rematch in 2012?  Or are we looking at new blood next year?

I want to add, I get all of these salary numbers from CapGeek.com, and I highly recommend it for anyone desiring to know anything about player salaries, team cap restrictions, or anything related.