The last time the NHL locked out its players, it was because the League's owners and general managers couldn't be trusted with their own bank accounts and needed artificial price controls in place to cap salaries.
Naturally, teams found a way around the rules they went through hell to establish. Stashing problem contracts in the minor leagues or overseas. Trading salary caps space. Most egregiously, they used some very creative math with a dash of soothsaying to sign star players to contracts that spanned more than a decade -- frontloading them with salary and ending them with an economic whimper in order to bring down the cap hit.
Like, for example, the following players (via NHL Numbers):
Final Contract Year Salary
$7.6 million ('10-11 salary)
Again, this is something that some teams (in concert with player agents) invented in order to circumvent the salary cap they fought to establish. If you're one who believes that whoever creates the monster has the impetus to slaughter it ... well, it sounds like the owners intend to do just that in their next CBA negotiation.
At least that's the feeling one gets from Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke.
Adam Proteau of The Hockey News is convinced that long-term, cap-friendly deals are over as of the next CBA, which should be negotiated by Fall 2012:
If the NHLPA comes away with a maximum term limit of more than five years - and they'll almost certainly come away with term limits of seven or eight years at the most - the players should consider that a significant labor victory in 2012. That's how strong the impetus is at NHL headquarters and among GMs to restrict all contract terms to half a decade.
His suspicions were confirmed in a brief chat with Burke:
Need more proof? Get a load of what Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has to say on the topic. "We absolutely need to look at term limits," Burke told THN.com Friday afternoon, before embarking on a week-long west coast vacation with his wife. "I personally do not believe some players have any intention of fulfilling some of these long-term contracts."
Join us next week for the further adventures of Captain Obvious ...
To Burke's credit, he's practiced what he's preached thus far; although had the Sedins showed more interest in Toronto, that would have been a compelling test for his allergy to cap-friendly long-term deals (if he would have gone past five seasons with the twins).
As we've discussed before, these long-term, frontloaded contracts aren't inherently evil. The Detroit Red Wings are retaining Zetterberg and Franzen, two players they drafted and developed, through long-term deals that finish cheaply. Is it in the League's best interest for teams like the Red Wings to keep their cores together and compete every season? It's a debatable point.
What I care about is the way these lengthy contracts - all of them - obviously circumvent the salary cap. I don't think the Flyers should be able to get a $7 MM a year defenseman for five years with a $5 MM cap hit. I don't think the Hawks should get an $8 MM dollar a year winger for a $5 MM cap hit over the next seven years. Will the Flyers pay a price for their Pronger blunder? Will the Hawks come to regret the Hossa signing?
Who cares? If the Flyers pay it is six years from now. If the Hawks pay it is seven years from now. That's too far away for a price to have any meaning. Nobody has a time horizon that long. This CBA tilts heavily in favour of the big markets without letting them cheat this way. At best, they are stealing cap space from the next decade and spending it now. At the worst, the CBA will change and they will never have to pay it back.
It's hard to argue against the idea that these contracts cheat the cap, and that the majority of GMs around the League haven't taken advantage of them with their own star players. (Hell, Ovechkin's base salary is actually higher in 2021 than it is in 2010.) So it's safe to assume that, as Burke said, long-term deals will come under scrutiny and then either be restricted or eliminated.
The players have a few fights on their hands in the next negotiation, of varying degrees of importance: Olympic participation, input on League decisions and, now, their contract statuses. As we've been saying all summer, the NHLPA needs to get on the same page and get ready for a fight. The owners are already gearing up.