Five years ago when the "New" NHL was still new, the NHL bosses wiped the sheen of nervous sweat from their foreheads and got back to business as usual. They'd seen the abyss: a world in which the NHL stopped play for a year and many, many fans didn't care. They came back in the summer of 2005 and set out to make a splash to convince the fans their teams would be stronger and better than ever.
The Senators made the huge Hossa-for-Heatley trade. Other teams threw money at the raft of free agents available after the lockout. Big names like Peter Forsberg and Joe Nieuwendyk signed new deals, some for big coin. In New Jersey, Lou Lamoriello brought in three players to help bolster his young core. He signed bruising defenceman Dan McGillis for $4.4-million over two years, and all-star Alexander Mogilny on a two-year, $7-million deal. Then the reality of the salary cap hit home.
Uncle Lou, Hall-of-Famer, one of the most respected GMs in the NHL, decided he'd made a couple of mistakes by signing those guys for millions in the off-season. The New NHL wasn't like the old one, and money not so freely spent. When Patrick Elias came back from a bout with hepatitis after Christmas in the 2005-06 season, the Devils were stuck financially. They had to find a way to fit him under the cap, and something had to give. "Something" turned out to be McGillis and Mogilny. They, and their combined $5.7-million cap hit, were jettisoned to the Albany River Rats within two weeks of each other. Neither ever played an NHL game again.
McGillis was the first to go (Gerry Warner, a smart and thougtful Habs fan on the Canadiens usenet group, coined the term "McGillisized" for NHL players who get dumped to the minors for cap reasons), but his demotion didn't raise too many eyebrows. He was, after all, a low-scoring defenceman who'd already bounced around a few teams. Mogilny, however, was a different story. This was a possible Hall-of-Famer; a guy who put up better than a point a game in nearly a thousand NHL starts. His unceremonious booting to the AHL was heralded as a harbinger of things to come. The new reality would be "perform or get out." Only thing is, it hasn't really worked out that way.
Just about every team, including our Habs, has gone crazy with free agent contracts at some point since McGillis and Mogilny were McGillisized five years ago. A lot of GMs have regretted a signing too, but most have found a way to dodge the bullet without having to McGillisize a player. Brian Burke signed a 38-year-old Mathieu Schnieder to a $5.5-million a year deal, then dumped him on Atlanta after just one season. Burke did try to waive him first, but didn't actually send him to the minors when he cleared. Daniel Briere went to Philly for eight years, with a cap hit of $6.5-million. Within a year he was the subject of trade rumours, after not living up to huge expecations based on his contract value. The Flyers ducked the lowering cap boom when Briere ended up requiring hernia surgery, effectively removing his salary from the team's payroll for most of the next season. The Rangers stuck themselves with several huge contracts, but managed to unload Scott Gomez' remaining five years at $7.3-million per on Montreal.
The time for those kinds of lucky solutions to ill-advised contracts may be ending, though. The flush years of the cap increasing by several million dollars have ended because of the global recession. While it'll go up again this year, it will be by a much more modest amount than we've seen in other years.
There's an element of distaste involved in McGillisizing a player. The thinking is that if a player signs the contract handed to him by some crazy GM, it's unfair for said GM to dump the player when the team's circumstances change, or if it's later deemed the player doesn't live up to the amount on his paycheck. It's not the player's fault, critics reason. He's hardly going to say, "No thanks, I think I should take a million less so I don't become a liability two years down the road." It's considered "unclassy" to send a veteran player to the minors for cap reasons. The thing is, ask any player and he'll tell you the NHL is a business first. Yet, the older managers seem to be much more sentimental about the realities of business than the players do.
What's interesting is that Burke and Lamoriello, two of the biggest promoters of class in their business dealings, viewed dumping a contract in the minors as a reasonable solution to their cap problems, even if, in Burke's case, he ended up trading the player before burying him in the AHL.
What's more interesting is the Blackhawks' situation this summer. The Cup champs are seriously over the cap, and with player bonuses kicking in, the vise tightens. They have a $5.6-million a year goalie in Cristobal Huet who didn't play a minute in the playoffs. No team can afford to keep a backup goalie at that price. Stan Bowman is seriously cash-strapped and, if it comes down to a choice between unloading one of his young stars or dumping his expensive backup goalie in the minors, what's he going to do? I expect Huet will be starring in Rockford come October.
The thing is, if the champs have to take to McGillisizing players to stay under the cap, it may set an example for other GMs with similar problems. Right now, a general manager will do whatever he can to trade a player, or simply keep some young talent in the minors until a bad contract runs out. But if Bowman expediates his cap solution by dumping a rich contract in the AHL, it may become more socially acceptable for other GMs to do the same thing. There are lots of them who'd like to try.
Glen Sather wouldn't be overly reluctant to ditch a contract like Wade Redden's or Chris Drury's. Lamoriello has proven he'll McGillisize if he has to, and Patrik Elias' six million is getting painful in Jersey. The Canadiens have the unmoveable Hamrlik contract at $5.5-million, as well as the Gomez deal. The Oilers wouldn't be adverse to burying Sheldon Souray or Shawn Horcoff. It's only a matter of time before Steve Yzerman looks at Vincent Lecavalier's giant contract and wants an out.
McGillisizing isn't going to work for every team. Some of them aren't rich enough to pay millions to a minor leaguer. But, if you look at who's cap-stuck right now, it isn't the poor teams, for the most part. Those teams are prudent about spending in the first place, because they can't afford to throw money away. It's the wealthy teams like the Rangers and Canadiens who fling money around when they get the chance. And it's the wealthy teams who subsequently regret their big signings and want a do-over. Those teams' owners can afford to pay a couple of years of major league salary to an AHL player.
I think a lot of NHL general managers are looking at Chicago this summer, because the 'Hawks have the worst cap crunch in the league to deal with right now. If, as expected, Bowman dumps some salary to the AHL, expect others to take that as a green light to do the same without being labelled "unclassy" (a death-knell in the NHL's old boys' club). I hope Pierre Gauthier is paying attention.
There will come a point when the niceties of keeping a guy around because he's "a great team player" or "used to be a star" aren't enough to prevent demotions of established players. The cap is a business reality and GMs will have to become hardened to sending guys to the minors for salary reasons. It's not the players' fault; it's the general managers'. They gave the contracts, and the contracts are bad. They're going to have to admit it and risk getting a reputation for being jerks.
The Canadiens are in cap trouble. They risk losing good young players like one of the goalies or Tomas Plekanec because of the Hamrlik and Gomez contracts. McGillisizing may become a necessity. I just hope, in the business that is hockey, romantic feelings of class don't prevent Gauthier from doing what he must. The GM's job is to ice the best players possible, not the players with the most expensive contracts. If the GM can convince the owners to pay a big-league salary to an AHL-calibre player who no longer cuts it, he's got to do so. The players aren't naive. They know very well the NHL is a business. They have no problem leaving a team for another when money calls. The managers have to take the same cold-blooded view of things for the good of their teams.
Sure, it's their own fault they get into these cap-restricting situations. But they have a way out if they choose to use it.