The Tampa Bay Lightning made the entire hockey world have a collective heart attack when it was revealed they would indeed be giving Vinny Lecavalier his long-called-for buyout.
It was obviously something that needed to be done, but the belief was that it wouldn't. Price tag was too big, and all that.
It took considerable chutzpah for owner Jeff Vinik to actually get the money together to pay Lecavalier the almost $33 million he's now due over the next 14 years (though one supposes it's preferable to the $38 million in salary and bonuses they would have had to pay him over the next three seasons alone).
It also took about the same amount from Steve Yzerman, whose idea this must have been and who had to go to the guy cutting checks and ask him to cut rather a big one. Moreover, even though the move is clearly being made out of necessity, it's probably going to hurt his team in the short term because you don't just find 0.8 point-per-game centers on the market every day, no matter how old they are.
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Levacalier, at 33, was a prime buyout candidate for at least two years, and for reasons partially out of his control. Now he's going to hit the open market just four and a half seasons into his massive 11-year, $85 million deal that everyone but his general manager and owners at the time knew would never work the day he signed it.
It's just another one of those contracts that was intended to circumvent the salary cap but ended up coming back to bite the teams that signed them once again; and at some point you have to imagine teams would have realistically woken up to how awful they were for everyone except the player.
But no, it took a lockout and a new collective bargaining agreement, rife with terms like "recapture" and limits on how long contracts can run, to legislate away GMs' ability to shoot themselves in the foot, and in some cases repeatedly.
Thankfully for the owners, and their clubs as a matter of fact, the longest a player can sign for at this point is seven years, or eight if he's doing so with his previous team. However, there should still be some unease out there about this kind of thing, because of the 50 contracts in the league with the longest term, more than half fall into that seven- or eight-year category. Many have also turned out to be pretty ugly already.
Laugh all you want about the Rick DiPietro and Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk deals being hilariously long. You're right to do it. With the exception of DiPietro, Sidney Crosby's and maybe Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom's, I'd argue that most deals in this league exceeding 10 years — of which there are a whopping 19, the earliest of which expires in 2020 — were signed with the intention of having that player skip town or retire before the deal concluded. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are both already on their second teams after signing them. DiPietro would have been moved years ago if the deal wasn't so bad in the first place. Roberto Luongo and Johan Franzen and maybe Duncan Keith fall into that category. Lecavalier did as well.
Others were intentional overreaches to obtain free agents (or guys just recently traded for) they otherwise would not have been able to get under the cap. Marian Hossa, Kovalchuk, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, Jordan Staal have all become crazily rich men as a consequence.
For the most part, these contracts have been disastrous or will become so within a few years. Ilya Bryzgalov will be bought out in just days. So will Danny Briere, whose deal, signed when he was 29 but who turned 30 before the following season, stretched eight years. Now Lecavalier is on the outs just a handful of years into a deal he signed at 28. Scott Gomez was already bought out of his seven-year deal, which he signed at 27. Brad Richards' current contract, which he signed at 31 and will pay him until he's about 40, is likewise being considered for a buyout.
Obviously, the reason for many of these decisions is largely down to the idea of recapture. Most teams probably predicted that guys would lose a step during the length of those deals, signed so close to the age of 30 as they were, but GMs who signed them in 2009 or 2010 could not have known that the league would go big-game hunting in an effort to bring them down by effectively killing their cap flexibility. Jay Feaster, for instance, is lucky Miikka Kiprusoff's intentionally-cap-circumventing pre-planned retirement (to hear Mike Keenan tell it, anyway) didn't run afoul of these new rules. Minnesota, I could argue, probably should have known better.
There were some limits in place, of course: 35-plus deals, the amount of variance in pay from one year to the next, and so forth. But all the talk during the lockout was about hills upon which each party would die, and it seems that this was the one where owners were most willing to drop dead.
Again, the thing with these deals, even during their heyday, was that they were always acknowledged as being ridiculous. Every time one came down the pike, fans of the teams in question expressed optimism and tried to shine up the fact that they'd be paying a guy $7-something million against the cap when he was 36 by saying, "Yes but look where he is right now." Owners and GMs were willing to do that as well. Everyone else, though, just laughed. The contracts were brazen in flouting the CBA and no one in the league really cared unless it involved the Devils, at which point it became a big deal for reasons that still mystify.
That these limits are now in place in their current form seems at least a little unnecessary. While the huge contracts very clearly represented a problem within the free agent market, they were at least something GMs in the league seemed at long last to be learning from.
Granted, things could all go sideways on July 5, and given that this is the NHL we're talking about, they almost certainly will. However, Ray Shero, just to use a recent example, dealt Jordan Staal rather than give him 10 years, and let Carolina do it instead. He might soon do the same with Kris Letang.
I understand that it's pretty early yet, but the only long-term deals signed under the new CBA are not terrible in most cases. Yes, Travis Zajac got a ludicrous extension through 2021 that goes into effect next year; eight years for $46 million for someone who's 28 years old. However, the Roman Josi and Taylor Hall deals, also signed under the new CBA, don't really fall into this category as both will end before either player turns 30.
If you want to talk about what this does to the idea of the second contract, which GMs like Greg Sherman and Marc Bergevin have recently tried to bring back to their detriment, that's another matter. Sherman's role in the protracted Ryan O'Reilly saga ultimately cost him his job (even if he's still employed by the organization) and almost his player, while Bergevin is already looking under couch cushions for money to give now-Norris-winning PK Subban after trying to go cheap on a "bridge deal" that ultimately cost him a lot more than he would have had to pay otherwise.
These long-term deals, just based on what we've seen with Hall and Josi, will still exist in the NHL going forward. They'll just be reserved mostly for guys coming off their entry-level deals because they remain, in theory, the best way to keep players fairly cheap for long periods of time during the years in which they'll be most effective.
This is the kind of thing over which Brian Burke almost fought Kevin Lowe in a barn, but the good news for the CBA is physical attacks have relatively little effect on big stacks of paper, and that Burke is no longer around to do the punching.
While relative newcomers to the league will be cashing in, meanwhile, veterans will have to settle for deals that probably max out at around five years. Whether that's to anyone's benefit in particular remains to be seen, but top-end guys — let's face it, the ones who matter most to owners because they sell jerseys — will probably make slightly more over the course of their careers rather than trying to cash in with one last big contract before they turn 30.
Under this new CBA, the world at large will no longer have to say, "They gave Jordan Staal HOW much?" In three years' time, you'll probably be able to sub in Nathan MacKinnon's name instead.
Tough to say it's better this way, but it's certainly different.
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