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Greg Wyshynski

Hockey's money bummers: cap drop, pending CBA headaches

Greg Wyshynski
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There's an underlying vibe to this offseason that's been a total bummer, and one can't help taste the familiar bile of impending doom that gurgled up before the lockout.

This summer, it's the precipitous salary cap deflation that will allegedly cause Armageddon for teams that are carrying large payrolls next summer. (Or the drop won't be as bad as expected. One of the two.) It's not the level of gloom that infected everything NHL-related before the lockout; it's just that nasty aftertaste for every offseason transaction.

Like when Marian Hossa(notes) is signed to a long-term deal by the Chicago Blackhawks, and there's more talk about what it means for their salary cap next July than what it could mean on the ice for them next June.

This is a symptom of cap culture: transforming the debates that make sports delightful escapism for fans into sullen evaluations of business practices from armchair financial analysts.

But such is our current hockey culture: The business side is securely tied to the competitive side, and every conversation about the Game is anchored by its financial implications.

Like when Chris Pronger(notes) signed his new contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, and the well-documented conflict between the structure of the deal and the 35-and-over clause in the CBA could have ramifications years down the line. Forget whom his defensive partner might be next season; his contract has gotten the biggest headlines of the summer, following his trade from the Anaheim Ducks.

But in examining the Pronger issue in today's edition, Larry Brooks of the NY Post looks ahead to both the expected decrease in the salary cap and the next CBA, which is expected to be negotiated around 2012. In doing so, he wonders how many current NHL contracts will be dramatically altered or eliminated in "bridging the gap" between the current CBA and the new one -- which promises to be an uncomfortable battle between the PA and the NHL.

Brooks writes that the Flyers won't suffer the $4.921 cap hit when Pronger is likely retired in 2016 -- the aforementioned goof in signing him before the 35-and-over clause kicked in -- because the current CBA won't be in use by then. So the assumption is that by 2012, when Pronger is 38, there's a chance the Flyers could clear the rest of the cap hit through some new CBA-influenced contract loophole, like a one-time buyout.

From Brooks:

The Flyers will not take the hit because the CBA will be long extinct by that time, with another round of rollbacks and amnesty buyouts expected to bridge the gap between the current labor agreement and whatever comes next.

There are no guarantees, of course, but no one knows the fate of contracts that run beyond 2011-12, which is when the CBA will expire once the NHLPA exercises its pro-forma option to extend the deal through that season.

It would, however, be a shock if the league doesn't recalibrate as part of a battle that's certain to include a laundry list of givebacks from the union intended to shrink the cap. Indeed, several general managers have told Slap Shots they believe a rollback of up to 15 percent plus a round of amnesty buyouts will be necessary at the end of next season in order to accommodate a decrease in the 2010-11 cap that is expected to be meaningful.

Re-read that last part: If the cap drops like a stone, the PA and the NHL might work together for "a rollback of up to 15 percent plus a round of amnesty buyouts" in order to accommodate the hockey recession.

You think a guy like Dale Tallon might be interested in that kind of cap relief?

In thinking about next year's cap drop, we recommend a great analysis and news roundup by George James Malik on Snapshots that deals with several issues, including how the NBA's recent cap drop works as a harbinger for the NHL's. But he also points to an Adam Proteau piece from The Hockey News that should send a chill through hockey fans worried about another potential labor war in the next CBA negotiation:

Certain people in the industry believe the league is going to attempt to remove guaranteed contracts in the next labor negotiations - a move that almost certainly would result in another work stoppage. If that happens, I think the owners will be in for a far rougher public-relations ride than they experienced in the canceled 2004-05 season.

The salary cap was held up by Gary Bettman as a panacea for virtually all of the game's financial issues, but the league's collective playing field remains almost as uneven as it did before the lockout. And though many fans say they'd "play for free" if they could, I think even the most hardened heart out there would concede that, given the physical sacrifices made by NHLers in their day-to-day on-ice duties, guaranteed contracts are a fair and deserved contractual stipulation.

Agreed, except for the uneven playing field remark; there's parity in the League and well-managed teams will excel, CBA be damned. But agreed that it's absolutely insane to think that the players would ever concede on guaranteed contracts, nor should they.

The NHLPA and the NHL would seem to have a rather sunny relationship right now; how would that change in this fight?

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That's one battle; but there's another.

It's expected that the NHL might attempt to fight these front-loaded, long-term deals like the Pronger one in the next CBA as being something bad for hockey. It's not an easy argument to make, when they allow teams to retain their talent at a reasonable price rather than having players poached by huge-money offers elsewhere (an essential plank in the competitive balance platform for the NHL). They also allow strong teams to thrive, giving the NHL powerhouses instead of a collection of B-grade teams.

The salary cap is a baffling animal. It's meant to establish parity through hockey socialism: a redistribution of "wealth" (re: talent) from the haves to the have-nots. It exists to maintain financial order and fairness. Yet owners, GMs and agents are in a near-constant search for loopholes around it.

These front-loaded, long-term deals aren't in the spirit of the cap. It's hard to defend them when you have the intentional hilarity of Chris Pronger not only playing until 2015 by making a whopping $525,000 for doing so. But the ability for the Detroit Red Wings to retain their talent is good for that market and, as a flagship franchise, is good for the NHL.

Plus if you close one loophole, smart fellows like Ken Holland will find another. They always do.

No matter what the salary cap looks like or the new CBA looks like, it all comes down to the triumphs and tragedies of management and owners, some of whom are born to blunder no matter the system in place.

A bad decision is always going be a bad decision; the CBA and the cap simply magnify or lessen the consequences.

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