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NHL Free Agency: The unfortunate myth of the elusive cap space trade treasure

It's an enticing concept in theory, but in reality rewarding cap duress trades are rare.

"We have cap space, and he's available! Who cares if he can't beat Nilsson anymore?"
"We have cap space, and he's available! Who cares if he can't beat Nilsson anymore?"
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

For as long as the NHL has had a salary cap -- you know, the thing that was supposed to ruin hockey, I swear Larry Brooks called that one -- there has been an annual summer hope for the fans of teams that don't blow past the cap ceiling each year: Maybe other teams' mistakes will fall to us!

I'm as guilty as the next guy in that hope, or at least I was a few years ago.

Alas, in reality, it rarely happens. Part of that is because each year the cap has generally gone up more than expected (because somehow this awful evil gadget did not ruin hockey, and revenues have continued to grow along with salaries). Part of it is because teams have been good at buying out bad contracts and Lou Lamoriello-ing loopholes to get out of cap problems of their own making.

So while New York Islanders GM Garth Snow was one of the few GMs to outright say, "We view our cap space as an asset" several seasons ago, he and his peers have rarely been able to cash in that asset. Snow did it a few times, most notably in deals with fellow budget team Anaheim, who sent the Islanders James Wisniewski and Lubomir Visnovsky in separate cap offloads in exchange for draft picks.

But ironically one of the most famous cap offloads was conducted by the budget-is-immaterial Canadiens and Rangers, who managed to get rid of Scott Gomez's onerous contract and steal Ryan McDonagh from Montreal in the process. If Gomez-for-McDonagh is what happens when a team with an albatross contract and a team with cap space come together, then maybe I withdraw my request to play this game. (Yes, you can say this judgment is 20/20 hindsight. But many, including yours truly, viewed that McDonagh deal as senseless robbery at the time. History has proven it to be so.)

So as July 1 free agency beckons and bodies are expected to be flipped for pennies on the cap dollar, the temptation is to hope the Islanders can again play the cap-space-leveraging game. (Does Anaheim have anyone left to give...please?)

Yet the reality is there is mostly garbage out there. No way anyone was taking Brad Richards' contract, so the Rangers bought him out. He would come free, because his next deal is going to be better than the baggage the Rangers were holding. Meanwhile, a typical "hey, the cap could force value trades" article cites none other than the washed-up Vincent Lecavalier, who was over the hill the moment the Flyers signed him to a totally Flyers contract:

The Flyers, technically over the cap by a couple hundred thousand dollars, have some room with defenceman Chris Pronger bound for long-term injured reserve. But they’re still reportedly shopping Vincent Lecavalier to rid themselves of at least part of his $4.5 million cap hit for the next four seasons.

There are outliers, yes. The David Perron trade last summer was one, as the Blues simply needed to re-allocate their budget and took a lesser player for Perron to get it done. And we saw some more extreme deals yesterday: The Lightning were so intent on shedding salary that they shed a useful player for Sam Gagner, then shed Gagner for a 6th-round pick. (To add minor insult to sheddery, they then cast off ol' Isle Nate Thompson too.)

And Daniel Briere, who is basically Montreal's Gomez Part II, was somehow flipped for the still-useful P.A. Parenteau. But that required a GM to want to dispose of Parenteau for some reason.

For a nice example of how bizarre that was, I point you to Habs Eyes on the Prize discussing Briere-for-Parenteau rumors back in the winter:

"Colorado is not going to be interested in Bourque or Briere. Don't fool yourself into thinking either of those guys are going to net a top-6 forward return at this stage. "

Ha! Turns out, you can never predict when an NHL GM will go crazy.

Still, you can't count on crazy, and you can't expect your team's GM to find it. You can only hope it shows up on your doorstep, like Bob Gainey coveting Gomez in his last brutal act as GM.

For the most part, it's hard to see the cap treasures out there. As free agency begins, the Islanders shouldn't be blowing the doors off the bank safe to acquire free agents who are likely to be bought out like some such Richards, Ehrhoff or Volchenkov a few years into the deal. And they shouldn't be taking on any cap headaches (see: Lecavalier) just because they have the cap (if not budget) room.

Instead, they need a backup goalie. They could use some forward and D depth if it looks right. And if whoever 2014's version of Bob Gainey rings, they should definitely answer the call.