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Bryan Murray is a cheater but the NHL doesn’t care

Greg Wyshynski
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The National Hockey League, apparently, has a statute of limitations on cheating.

Riddle me this: If a general manager admits, on the record, that he circumvented the salary cap with a contract to an aging veteran -- a deal with a $1 million year at the end that team and the player agreed he wouldn’t play out -- wouldn’t you expect some semblance of punishment to befall that executive and his franchise?

During the back-and-forth between Daniel Alfredsson and Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray on Thursday regarding the timeline for the star winger’s departure to the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent, Murray admitted he intentionally circumvented the salary cap in signing Alfredsson to a 4-year contract in 2009.

From Alfredsson:

“When I (signed) my last contract, for four years ending in the 2012(-13) season, I was asked to help the team manage the salary cap by adding on an extra year to my contract. I agreed,” said Alfredsson. “Each side fully expected I would retire and not play the 2012-13 season.”

From the Toronto Sun, Murray said:

"He said we asked for another year to make it cap friendly? He asked for a four-year deal with up-front money. It so happened there was the fourth year at $1 million. Both of us talked and he didn't anticipate playing and J.P. didn't anticipate him playing so I said, 'That's fine.' He played."

Again: Both parties conspired to build a fictitious year into Alfredsson’s contract to bring down the cap value. Year 3 was at $4.5 million base salary; Year 4 was the $1 million year. Take that out, and it’s a cap hit north of $6.1 million for a 3-year contract, or over $1.2 million more against the cap annually than his 4-year deal.

That’s a Nick Foligno cap hit’s worth of savings.

So boom!, roasted!, how much is the fine for Murray, right?

Wrong. Evidently, the NHL has decided the era of cap circumvention has been punished enough.

Chris Johnston of Sportsnet spoke with Bill Daly, NHL deputy commissioner, about the cap circumventing elements of Murray’s admission:

At this point the league has no intention of going back and trying to punish those who might have broken the rules no matter what evidence surfaces now.

“We certainly believe that clubs and players are violating the terms of the collective bargaining agreement when they talk about ‘mutual understandings’ relating to retirement and ‘adding on a year’ for salary cap purposes,” Daly said. “And we advise our clubs accordingly.

“Having said that, I don’t think it would necessarily be a productive exercise to go ‘back in time’ on these – my guess is the practice was rampant and we have taken steps in the new CBA to try to address it in a more meaningful way.”

Once again: Team admits cheating. Player admits cheating. Agent is implicated in cheating.

But punishing any or all wouldn’t be “productive” for the NHL.

It was productive during the lockout, mind you.

While the NHL was closing loopholes on cap circumvention – and the new rules on salary variance would not allow the Alfredsson contract to exist today – it was also crafting the “Luongo Rule” that turned a dozen or so long-term, cap cheating deals into toxic contracts, punishing the team that signed them.

It was Gary Bettman’s revenge on those owners and general managers that undermined the previous CBA and made losing a full season to a work stoppage look like a gigantic waste of time, money and fans who still haven't come back.

Those long-term deals were legal contracts under the previous CBA, mind you. And not one of those players or teams has gone on the record and admitted they added a pseudo-year to the end of their contracts like Murray just did.

But, apparently, the NHL is now out of the retribution business.

When the New Jersey Devils circumvented the salary cap on the first rejected Ilya Kovalchuk contract, the team was fined $3 million and lost two draft picks. That came after an arbitrator’s decision, rather than an admission of guilt – the Devils maintained the “negotiated in good faith” with Kovalchuk, whose contract ended six seasons at $550,000 apiece and stunk like a skunk’s commode.

Yesterday, Alfredsson and Murray admitted they conspired to circumvent the cap with their contract. The NHL’s response: That the behavior used to be rampant, and that there’s no point in levying a fine now because it wouldn’t be “productive.”

Translation: It’s productive when it means making an example of a contract like Kovalchuk’s to scare off other teams, and it’s productive when Gary Bettman wants to retroactively change the accounting rules on existing contracts to punish those teams that dabbled in the dark arts of cap circumvention from 2005-2012.

Those were grand larceny, while Murray’s circumvention was petty theft, apparently.

Which doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s all criminal.

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