Thursday, July 22, 2010

Salary Cap Issues In Need Of Change

By now, we're all up on the league's stance on long and unrealistic contracts. A lot of people are praising the league for their stance on this.

But from my point of view, this is only an important stance if solid action is taken in the form of rule changes, changes to the CBA, else interpretation becomes a bit flaky (see Pronger contract). While the league is at it, I think there’s a few other issues that have come to light that they need to address too.


Contract rules

It’s not only the length of a contract that’s important. In fact, it’s not the length at all. Everything hinges on the age at which the player will receive his last payday.

Yesterday, I saw a good suggestion on the matter. A simple and elegant solution that the league could implement tomorrow:

Don’t allow any long-term contracts to extend past a player’s 39th birthday.

Why 39? Well, the number was chosen based on league averages, but the number it self isn’t that important after all, another number (36, 37, 40) would work just as effectively in setting clear boundaries.

In addition to finishing age, it appears there’s also some concern about what a player is paid at the beginning and the end of the contract. This isn’t really an issue if the player plays those years (see Scott Gomez), as the cap treats every year as equal. It is an issue if the player retires,, though, since a false cap number was calculated with the lower salary which might never be paid out.

The Kovalchuk deal was new because it had so many years at league minimum to bring down the cap hit that it seemed disingenuous. I can see the problem with it. After all, if Kovalchuk was intending to play till then, he’d already have signed for $6 million every year until 44 by now.

There might be an easy-ish solution here too. Limits could be set on how much the top salary and bottom salary in a deal could vary (e.g., 50%, 30% or something) and there could be guidelines about how many seasons at less than say 60% of the average pay there could be.

Whatever, the eventual solutions, the point is that they need to be put to paper and made clear to everyone. Until that happens, the league’s whim will be seen as the rule.


Minor league duty

Just as outrageous as Kovalchuk’s contract is the idea that the Blackhawks can simply put Cristobal Huet in the minors in order to free up salary cap space. In the event they do that, the Hawks will erase Huet’s entire salary from their cap tabulation. Other teams will be on this boat too, as Jeff Finger may be helping Brian Burke from another cap overshoot by playing in the minors.

This situation is fraught with issues as well.

For starters, it seems quite unfair to the player. Huet may be in the minors for his sketchy play, but there will be others who suffer the same fate for their big payday alone. For another thing, the player can still play late on in the season when cap spae is clearer and is free as anyone else to play in the playoffs..

It’s an extreme example, but imagine Chicago opts to sign Kovalchuk and Frolov and gets them to commit to the minors. No matter what outlandish salaries they pay them, come playoff time they could insert the two of them and then Huet back into the lineup without consequence.

Clearly this issue needs to be revisited as well, as the loophole unfairly allows irresponsible GMs to correct errors at a players expense. It also creates an uneven playing field for people who play the cap as if it means something.


Salary cap penalty

While we’re on the topic, how about the salary cap penalty?

Because of bonuses, Chicago went way over the salary cap last season. While it’s causing them some headaches now (and Huet an NHL continuance), the penalty is less than a slap on the wrist.

In a way, I can see Chicago’s point of view. They exceeded the cap for playoff bonuses. That’s hard to account for.

But what’s Toronto’s excuse? And why do they get the same free pass? If it’s true that Toronto went over the salary cap last season, it must also be true that they did so in the regular season (there were no playoffs, after all). I think we all have to ask:

a) Why was this allowed to happen?
b) Why haven’t they been punished beyond the penalty on this year’s cap?

As it stands, with regular season cap busters exceeding the cap without consequence, does it not lead to the next logical question: What is there a salary cap for?

Here, I think the league needs to take action for the next time this occurs, or rather before it happens again. Forfeit of games, draft picks and funds are no brainers. Perhaps something more drastic, though, is what it would take.


Arbitration

Did anyone else see that Clarke MacArthur was awarded $2.4 million a season from the league arbiter? Did anyone else see Jamie Langenbrunner is making $2.8 million a season?

Maybe the MacArthur case is a one off, but I get the feeling it isn’t. Because teams are so terrified of arbiter rulings like this one, they avoid arbitration like the plague. And how do they do that? Well, by overpaying, of course.

An unbalanced arbitration system is good for escalating salaries and not much else. Maybe it too needs a re-look.


Lamoriello is taking some heat and mockery now for his attempt to circumvent the salary cap. However, it must be said that he did it because the laws are loose. If the NHL is at all serious about having this cap, it's high time they took the action to see that things like salary rules, minor league demotions and cap penalties are calibrated correctly. The salary cap was meant to level the playing field, not tilt it towards the unrepentant.

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