So, here we are in the dog days. The BBQ days. The beach days, golf days, picnic days and...if you're really desperate for a fix...ball hockey days. Outside of some cute "we're trying on our new Habs sweaters" video from the new Canadiens, and some lame speculation about dumping everyone remaining from last year's team in exchange for Patrick Marleau and his 6.3-million-dollar contract, there's really nothing happening with our favourite team at the moment.
That means it's a good time to talk about some big fat cheaters who are signing players to big fat contracts in the hope that those guys will retire before their deals end, eliminating their cap hits. I'm glad the NHL is finally deciding to investigate the Flyers and the 'Hawks for the ridiculous front-loaded deals they made with Chris Pronger and Marian Hossa respectively. You might argue that Paul Holmgren and Dale Tallon were just taking advantage of a perfectly legitimate loophole by signing those guys to long-term deals which will average out to a lower cap hit during the player's productive years and then disappear altogether when the player retires before the deal ends. The problem is, the GMs and players aren't supposed to be plotting said retirement before the deal is even signed. That goes against the spirit of the CBA and helps teams load up on good players while staying under the cap.
The NHL is looking for evidence that the Flyers and Blackhawks actually had some sort of agreement from Pronger and Hossa to retire before their deals end. Unless there's something on paper between them or one of the parties involved in the negotiations of those contracts swears an affadavit that the agreement existed, the NHL will be out of luck. But the loophole is there and the NHL is going to have to close it if only because it gives contending teams like Detroit and Philly and Chicago an extra weapon. These deals, even if they can't be negated legally, have at least opened the league's eyes to that much.
Say Montreal was only a defenceman away from being a real, true contender and, say, Dan Boyle* was available but the Habs have only a few million in cap space remaining. Right now, there's nothing (except prudence, which seems to be in short supply among NHL GMs these days) stopping Bob Gainey from offering 33-year-old Boyle a ten-year deal, with annual salaries of six, six, five, five, four, three, two, two, two and one million. Of course, Boyle doesn't have to accept, but if he does, that gives the Habs a top defenceman at a 3.6 million dollar cap hit. Assuming the Habs are already a loaded team and Boyle's only looking for a Cup, it's a way for Gainey to beat the system and unfairly stack his team still further. Meanwhile, the team knows ahead of time that Boyle plans to retire at forty, so his cap hit and actually salary disappear three years before the deal actually ends.
The thing that baffles me about all this is why the NHL's proletariat doesn't seem to mind getting stiffed out of its share of the NHL money pie. The CBA sets a limit of between fifty-four and fifty-seven percent on the players' share of league revenue. So, if a guy like Hossa is working the system to get more money up front, that means there's less money for another guy on the lower tier of player incomes. If the upper tier of salaries goes to maybe ten percent of the players in the league, you'd think the other ninety percent of guys who make less when the top ten get better paydays, it's kind of amazing there's not more grumbling about it.
This isn't fair to teams that traditionally struggle to attract free agents, or, especially, to those whose GMs play by the rules. How can Honest Bob, with his hefty five-year deals to free agents, compete with the likes of the Hossa and Pronger deals? In Holmgren's case, he's not only manipulating the cap in the case of the Hossa contract...nobody can convince me he didn't do it last year in Daniel Briere's case as well. As far as I'm concerned, Briere's injury trouble was exaggerated long enough to get him off the cap until the team only had to dump a couple of minor role players to fit him in at the end of the season. And, I think we're going to see a lot more of this kind of "creative" cap management in the next couple of years as GMs around the league have to find ways to make up for some of the mental contracts they've gotten into while still icing competitive teams.
Gary Bettman got his way when it came to getting the cap installed, but if the actual management of the cap is so full of holes, it negates the whole purpose of the thing. The league needs to either have a hard, airtight cap, or it needs to drop it altogether. Allowing the cap to be manipulated to serve the interests of the better teams means nobody's any better off than they were before the lockout.
And I can't stand the thought that we'll have ended up losing an entire year of hockey for absolutely nothing.
*Yes, for the sticklers, I KNOW Dan Boyle is signed in San Jose for four more years. It's just an illustration. :)