In widespread fan frustration about the 2017-18 New York Islanders season, attention has turned to what new boss Lou Lamoriello can do to avoid repeating it. When not focused on the coaching staff (partially done), lack of team defensive discipline (pending, see coaching) and goaltending (also pending), that attention often coalesces around that favorite salary cap era escape valve: the buyout.
Like most teams, the Islanders certainly have some heavy contracts on the books, some uglier and worse — even without hindsight -- than others. But just because a player is on a big deal and frustrates fans doesn’t mean he automatically makes sense as a buyout candidate.
Noel went into this with a few candidates on the Islanders roster yesterday. With the buyout window officially kicking off this morning, I wanted to dig into three of those candidates and why the Isles can’t or shouldn’t buy them to the curb.
For pure value for (expected) production, the two-time Stanley Cup champion Ladd’s contract was a nerve-wracking reach the moment it was signed. The buyout/lockout and no-trade protection, which we only learned of a little later, only made it worse.
Although, to get a sense of why a team would enter that agreement, it is best viewed in the context of what was on the market that summer (the Islanders let Kyle Okposo walk, and though he’s younger he’s already facing the same “yikes...buy that one out?” rumblings).
It also helps to think of the Johnny Boychuk extension: In both cases, a team that previously tended to let it’s older free agents walk as they entered post-prime years, instead felt the risk of ugly aging in expensive contract years was worth the benefit they’d get in the early years of the contract.
(I’m not defending either of these approaches, be it Ladd over younger Okposo, and this tendency to throw caution to the wind on long contracts into a player’s late 30s. But it should be recognized that this is the decision-making involved on the UFA market. And then you’re stuck with it. Now let’s sign Tavares for eight years because we don’t have a choice.)
Ladd’s first season with the Islanders was stalled as he played through an injury, though he rebounded in the second half to reach 23 goals. Still, his 31 points were the lowest he’s had in a full NHL season since his age 22 season, split between Carolina and Chicago. His second season with the Isles was worse: just 12 goals and 29 points.
Nonetheless, there is a two-part case for standing pat with Ladd: he’s still a useful player — overpaid, sure, but useful — and his bonus-laden contract was designed to be lockout- (and incidentally also buyout)-proof. The amount of money and cap saved from a Ladd buyout wouldn’t actually afford a comparable player.
As Noel noted in yesterday’s post, burying Ladd in the minors would actually save more on the cap than buying him out.
Brief Interlude: Why Bonus-Heavy Contracts Prevent Buyouts
In an introduction to his list evaluating 25 players teams might consider buying out this summer, Jonathan Willis at The Athletic explained why Ladd is not on the list, just like Okposo, Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, Matt Martin, David Backes, all of whom signed bonus-laden contracts that summer.
Why do the signing bonuses make the buyouts not worthwhile? Because they’re guaranteed money and guaranteed cap-suckers, thus a buyout doesn’t save the team very much in either category. As Willis explained in the intro to that post:
The biggest problem with the buyout is that it still forces teams to pay out a lot of money: two-thirds of any existing contract, though spread out over twice the term of the original. In the absence of some kind of salary cap crisis, for a buyout to make total sense the bought-out player needs to be replaceable at one-third of his original Average Annual Value.
These players and their agents may have been chasing big signing bonuses — which are spread out and awarded annually in the summer, rather than all at the time of the signing — to avoid losing money in the next presumed lockout, the deals also had the effect of essentially keeping them employed with a team even after it might no longer find a use for them.
Cal Clutterbuck: 4 years remaining, $3.5 million annual cap hit
Clutterbuck’s contract was another puzzler: locking up a forward primarily used as a fourth-line winger and penalty killer. This deal was made during the “best fourth line in hockey” days with Casey Cizikas (who also received a handsome extension, but does more to earn it) and Matt Martin.
It’s as if the Islanders under Garth Snow congratulated themselves for determining that of the three, Martin was the least valuable — not rocket science, that — by overpaying the remaining two.
Clutterbuck has always possessed a deceptively accurate shot off the rush — something really helpful if a forward is on a line where the majority of its offense is going to come off the counterattack — and he regularly put up goals in the teens with Minnesota. With the Islanders he’s had seasons of 12 and 15 goals (though the latter was with a crazy spike in shooting percentage to 18.8%), but the last two seasons he’s had five and eight goals, and he’s been less effective in his primary roles.
So what’s really made a head-scratching contract worse is that Clutterbuck has declined — or if they’re lucky, simply struggled or fought through injuries — even worse than would’ve been projected when the contract was signed. In other words, Clutterbuck at age 30 is already performing in the first years of his contract like you would’ve expected from its final years, or maybe even afterward. This contract takes him through his age 34 season.
But is it so bad that the Isles should buy him out?
I would suggest not, unless they are really tight against the cap (Johnny T is back?!) and need every savings they can get. A buyout now would save nearly $3 million on the cap in 2018-19, but the savings would begin dropping — along with Clutterbuck’s actual salary — in the years afterward. The savings on the cap would dip to $2.46 million in 2019-20, then down to $1.46 million in the remaining two years of the deal.
And keep in mind, that would be followed by four more years (after Clutterbuck’s contract would have expired) of cap hits of $1.04 million.
Thomas Greiss: Expensive, but not Buyout-level Expensive
Greiss is the only Islanders candidate officially on Willis’ list, and he makes the argument against a buyout quite succinctly:
The thing is that because he wasn’t paid like a real No. 1 goalie, a buyout doesn’t actually open up all that much room. The replacement number here is a modest $1.2 million, and as an NHL GM looking for a backup goalie, I’d be pretty comfortable rolling the dice on Greiss at that price-point for a year.
What he said.