Cap Trades and 2nd Contracts: Some overdue GM creativity

I'm admittedly a salary cap fan: I don't buy into the "But fans clamor for dynasties!" argument. (Which fans? The casual ones I don't care about, plus the fans of unrealized dynasties?) I don't buy that it's impossible to keep a team together in a capped world. It's harder, sure, but pick your core, don't make stupid or hamstringing bets -- in short, don't be Chicago -- and you don't have to implode your successful team. Even with their losses Chicago's core is intact. Having 30 teams with dispersed scouting knowledge is just as big a factor in thinning your odds of repeat championships.

My embrace of the cap was twofold: First, as advertised -- and despite widely touted flaws -- it keeps a relatively level playing field. Even with the rising cap, even with the $16 million payroll range, we're at a much more stable plane than the ridiculous disparity we had in 2004, when the Red Wings, Rangers and Flyers had $77M, $76M and $68 million payrolls respectively while the Islanders were at roughly $40 million. A narrower range and a hard cap frankly makes following the league more interesting to me.

But the second reason is the cap should theoretically create a lot more room for GMs to be creative with their assets, and that's a spin-off show that also makes the league more interesting. When everyone has relatively ironclad ceilings, that means in order to make moves you have to be creative -- something beyond begging your owner to spend a little more money. The "have-nots" can store some dry powder for use when a "have" has gotten into cap trouble. It's revenue disparity with a human face.

Cap Team, Meet Budget Team: Now Make a Deal.

For example, an internal budget team like Anaheim can take on two guys who have less remaining salary than their cap hits -- Jason Blake and Lubomir Visnovsky -- in exchange for two guys whose cap hits are lower than the annual cash remaining on their deal. Both teams win, and neither gains a major advantage from their revenue strength.

Or take Sunday night's (Monday morning's?) Rangers deal of Donald Brashear and Patrick Rissmiller to Atlanta for Todd White: The Rangers were stuck with The Donald's cap hit because they're run by Glen Sather, who doesn't think of things like "If I sign a fading goon who is 35+, I'm on the hook for his cap hit even when I realize he doesn't fit the team."

But by dealing Brashear for the more expensive White, they at least have a functioning hockey player for that cap hit. Meanwhile, Atlanta didn't want Todd White anymore, but buying out Brashear is cheaper than buying out White, so they'll take that deal and the open roster spot Brashear's corpse creates to make room for some of their pups to fight it out in camp.

Cap space matters to the Smurfs; cash matters to Atlanta.

But it can work even between two "budget" teams: We saw a variation of that when Garth Snow waited until arbitration season to pick up a defenseman who is of greater value to the Islanders -- a team whose high salaries are Mark Streit's $4.1 million (and Rick DiPietro's $4.5 million, if you must) -- than he is to the Ducks, who have significant money committed to Visnovsky as well as three big forwards plus, presumably, RFA Bobby Ryan. In that context, James Wisniewski's $3.25 million renewal makes more sense to the Islanders than it does to the Ducks. (And it goes a long way toward explaining why they bet a smaller annual sum on ex-Islander Andy Sutton.)

 

Second Contracts: They Don't Have to be Crazy

Finally, there's one more bit of gaming going on that bears watching:

Since the lockout, we've seen #1 overall picks and budding franchise stars get locked up to long-term deals. GMs, fearing rising salaries and predatory poaching from other teams with cap room, have taken to signing their kids for a little more (at an early age) and a little longer than they would have before. That's the undeniable trend.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

I tend to worry too much about Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey and John Tavares' next contract. I know they are all key cogs to the Islanders' future, but how key? They probably aren't "superstars" in the making. They aren't worth blowing your payroll on -- not yet, anyway, but perhaps not ever. Yet their entry level clock runs at three years just like everyone else. I'd hate to be in the situation at the end of this year to face this thought about Okposo or Bailey: "I need to lock him up for 7, 8 years at a salary that requires his development arc to continue curving steeply upward."

Maybe those guys' projection will be clearer by May, but maybe not. They aren't the superstar type who steps in and dominates at 18 or 19, but they still could be the type who enters an elite level by age 24 or so. It would be nice to have the flexibility if needed...

Shorter Second Deals

...which is why what Doug Armstrong is doing with the Blues intrigues me. In David Perron and Erik Johnson, Armstrong has two first-round picks who stepped into the league at a green age (like Okposo and Bailey), and who have shown flashes of brilliance but also reasons for reservation -- at least reservation about whether they will be franchise stars to build around. (In Johnson's case, it was complicated by the fact he missed an entire year because of golf reconstructive knee surgery.)

However, their entry level contracts expired this year all the same, so new deals were due. Yet that doesn't mean Armstrong was just going to sign them for life and hope everything works out:

"Our younger players, when they're coming out of entry level, they've all progressed, but they haven't been defined. By taking contracts at shorter term, you allow them to grow and make a fair-market value moving forward."

Now, that's not what the agent for a #1 overall pick wants to hear. He went to the trouble of attaining the kid and retaining him through his entry level years -- he'd like the cash-in of a nice commission for the life of a long-term deal. The kind of cash that buys you nice cars.

In fact, Johnson's agent Pat Brisson even pined a bit {*this is the world's smallest violin right here*} about how normally a team locks up their #1 overall pick at this stage:

"Normally after two years, whether he has offer-sheet rights or not, the trend is to explore a longer-term deal and lock up your core players. That doesn't seem to be the case with the Blues," Brisson said. "So the course of the conversation has changed a bit. This is perhaps a direction we weren't intending to go down, but the Blues are looking for a shorter-term."

So the Blues signed both Johnson and Perron to two-year extensions at significant base-salary raises.

I like this. I like this a lot. Early in the post-lockout years, GMs behaved as if the cap would rise forever and they'd need to lock in their young guns at rates that would hopefully be discounts as the cap continued to rise. Now, finally in the last two summers -- finally! -- GMs and owners seem to have digested the fact that the world's economy rather sucks and there is no divine right of salary inflation.

For Armstrong, the situation presented the risk of a mistake by betting long on the wrong player (what if Perron or Johnson level off?) as well as a mistake by betting on the right player but at too high a salary (escalating it too high while the cap essentially remains flat). There's risk the other direction, of course: If Perron or Johnson really take off and if the cap rises, maybe their next deals will be bigger than what they would've signed for now. But this way no one's taking a giant leap of faith.

I'm pretty optimistic about both Okposo and Bailey (and later, you can add Tavares, Nino, perhaps de Haan), but in the case of the first two it's anybody's guess what they'll have proven at the end of this coming season, when both will be due their second NHL deal.

While Garth Snow has long talked of his cap space as an asset, it seems like it's generally taken GMs a while to look at the long-term picture in this way. (Seems like Sather still hasn't gotten there; he just waits for an accountant to tell him he's pushing the cap and should call Bob Gainey for a bailout.) Hopefully when it comes time to re-sign the Islanders young core guys, both GM and agent will look at the big picture and the reality of an evolving landscape -- and not just fall back on, "Normally after two years, the trend is to [agentspeak for making the agent rich]."

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