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Michael Grabner Trade: The price of contract flexibility in the NHL salary cap era

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Michael Grabner has been traded and Kyle Okposo is in trade rumors, a fate that was set into motion back in 2011 when they first signed extensions.

No mo' "FNGO."
No mo' "FNGO."
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

When the New York Islanders signed rising but unproven forwards Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner to low-cap but escalating-salary contract extensions several years ago, the structures of the contracts revealed what both team and player were thinking and, indeed, enabled us to predict that this day would come.

Namely, both would be facing their "walk year" as pending UFAs, with the team having a choice to try to sign or flip either of them. You of course hope everything works out like a fairy tale and both player and team find common ground on productive, consecutive contract extensions, but the reality of the cap era (and budgets, let's face it) is that it was always likely at least one would me moved, their UFA-level money spent elsewhere.

There's a lot more on that theory in our Okposo contract extension post from 2011, but we'll repeat two salient points here:

it's another fair deal signed with an eye toward security for the player and flexibility for the team. This matters, in many ways, all the more so for a lower revenue team hoping to get a new building and put stability questions to rest once and for all.

The Isles got their use out of Grabner during the life of a contract where the salary was usually below his $3 million cap hit. Now with him due $5 million this season and pushed too far down the depth chart for their liking (signing Steve Bernier for minimum wage on the same day underlines this was a "pay our 13th forward like a 13th forward" maneuver), we've seen the other half of what looked to be in the cards many seasons ago:

Regardless, backloading the actual salaries (not the cap hit) on these deals causes the player's paycheck to steadily go up (a nice feeling for the employee) while also making the player easier to handle at the end of the contract when: a) revenues should be higher, and b) if things go south and the player needs to be dealt, higher-revenue cap-pressing teams can more easily digest a contract that pays out more in actual cash than it consumes in actual cap hit.

Today the Isles found that team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who could afford to work Grabner -- still a very useful player if healthy -- into their scheme even at $5 million per season. What the Leafs needed, was room under the 50-contract limit.

As Arthur Staple explained in Newsday:

a swap designed to give the Islanders some salary flexibility among their depth forwards and allow the Leafs some contract flexibility as training camps opened around the NHL.

[...]

NHL teams are permitted a maximum of 50 professional contracts and the Leafs were at 49 prior to the deal, needing some room in case the rebuilding club wanted to add players during camp.

Many would've hoped back in 2011 -- and indeed, all summer of 2015 -- that the Islanders would have been able to get both flexibility and some kind of talent back in a Grabner final-year salary dump. No doubt the Islanders and GM Garth Snow hoped as much.

But when you have a player on the trading block all summer long and find no takers, this is where you end up: Either eating the money or taking the filler, the bodies for Bridgeport and so on. Color me pleasantly shocked if any of Taylor Beck, Matthew Finn, Christopher Gibson, Tom Nilsson or Carter Verhaeghe ever become notable contributors to the Islanders' NHL squad. Right now they just represent one side of an agreement where two franchises shifted their assets.

On the ice, no doubt Toronto wins this deal. Whether, or by how much, the Isles were wrong to value Grabner's freed-up cash over his on-ice contributions is another matter. (He was both missing much of last year's playoff season, but also a contributor when healthy and given a chance.) But they wanted to get rid of that expense for 2015-16, and finally found a way to do so.

Incidentally, given both Okposo's pending UFA status and apparent "nowhere near" status on an extension and Brock Nelson's recent contentious RFA extension that brings him to within one year of unrestricted free agency, this other part from that 2011 post still rings in the ear -- for this year with Okposo, and for three years from now when Nelson has a bigger hammer:

The advantage of the longer, arbitration-skipping route: Security and commitment from your team, minus the often ugly arbitration process. By going long with the Islanders at an average annual value (AAV) of $2.8 million, Okposo has selected that route. He's getting a considerable raise overall, but it's with an escalating salary that pays him $4.5 million by the final year -- which would've been his first year of unrestricted free agency.

Check back in 2018 for the next chapter of this drill: Nelson Strikes Back.