Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Big Fat Cheaters

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. :)


Shan said...

This is hardly news for us to get up in arms about it now. Unless there was collusion, it's perfectly fair. The NHL would've reacted to it before had this type of contract really been unethical in itself. If Zetterberg gets paid $7M a year for most of the contract, but they only take a $6M cap hit, they shaved $1M off the cap, right? It's not like there's unlimited savings potential here. They still have to take a big cap hit on a big player. The question is, why ISN'T Bob structuring contracts this way? For shorter term contracts, it's not as effective for them to have the huge dropoff because they can't realistically hope the player will be done and not play that cheap season. Meaning this type of thing will be something reserved for players you know you want to retain for a long time. And if there's an incentive for teams to produce longer term contracts and keep great players on their team, that's probably better for the NHL in terms of fans being able to become attached to the players wearing their team sweaters. It just needs to be regulated well enough that players aren't secretly setting their retirement dates a decade in advance. If teams all do this, the cap will still be fairly regulatory (assuming you can't tack 4 or 5 artificial seasons of dropped pay to lower the average, but I'm sure the NHL would deal with something so outrageous). But even then, if teams all shave a million dollars or so off their cap hits, but have to take on long contracts to do it, it won't be a bad thing. Let me know if there's a factor I'm missing here.

If it IS a problem though, you have to wonder why the NHL didn't have the foresight to prevent this when they instituted the cap.

Anonymous said...

To summarize Shan's comment: if something is legal, it must be good. Having said that, he leaves a couple of hints that even his own argument is unsatisfactory. I will try to fill in the blanks.

Why regulate? The idea is to be equitable with everyone who participates in a particular society. A benefit is offered, but it is restricted and the participants must make certain sacrifices.

The salary cap, like any regulation, is only worthwhile if it is effectively enforced. If this loophole is not a clear violation of the agreement, then you should not expect swift and visible punishment.

Even better than enforcement is to have players who are internally motivated to behave with charity and courage (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis). Since modern hockey players, like the rest of the population, cannot agree on a moral standard, they will continue to degrade each other. This can be seen on and off the ice.

The NHL will try to fill this loophole with more regulation, and it will repeat this process every time someone tries to exploit some other aspect of the current agreement.

Shan is right to say that this is nothing new and that we should not be surprised. However, I would say that while we should not surprised, we can be disappointed.

Shan said...

I'm not trying to say hat because it's legal it's good. I offered a couple reasons why it might be good. However, the fact that it is legal and a fairly legitimate technique (that the NHL should have foreseen, quite frankly) means calling anyone a cheater is at least a step too far.