Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Playing The System

GMs That Are Ahead Of The Curve

Every time you hear that Saku Koivu is gone because he couldn't fit under the cap, think again.

Koivu, by virtue of celebrating his 35th birthday this November and not earlier was eligible to sign one of those brain-bustingly long salaries that could have been averaged out to a minimal cap hit.

You know the ones that Detroit and Scotty Bowman's Blackhawks are handing out?


Now, I fully believe that Gainey wanted the space on the team and not the space in the balance book when he waved goodbye to Saku, but what about some of his other signings? Where was the creativity when he signed up 30-year old Brian Gionta to a financially tying $5 million cap hit for the next 5 years?

It got me thinking about the better GMs in the NHL and what they have been doing to show up their slower peers.


The long contract

This summer has seen the advent of the extended contract beyond the age of 40 years old.

The idea behind the long contract has been a round a while now. The Islanders broke the ice with a 15-year deal to Rick DiPietro back in 2006. The Flyers gave out a few, most notably to Mike Richards.

But it was not until the Red Wings came along and signed Henrik Zetterberg that the manipulation of numbers really came into effect.

The DiPietro deal, you see was the same salary for every year of the contract. At the time, one could argue that it was an overpay for the player, an argument that only seems to take on more credence as time goes by. It was in effect, just a really bad long contract.

Ditto the Mike Richards deal. The Flyers handed out the deal to a 22-year old who'd had one decent year earlier in his breakout season. They ended up paying him a wad more than they could have been for the past year and by virtue of his age, the benefit of retirement is unlikely to help them. It opened the door for a trade later in the contract, but Holmgren just didn't have the same grasp on the possibilities as his sleeker peers. After all, a two-way forward like Mike Richards (if he's all we have to hear is from Flyers fans) will not be an untradeable asset by the age of 34. If he is, who would take on the $5.75 million cap hit anyway? Only teams covering the minimum...

The Zetterberg deal was different. It used term to reduce the average to a superstar player. Henrik will be paid a worthy salary of $7+ million for the next 9 seasons, then when he turns 37, he'll drop to half with 2 seasons at $1 million for the flourish. The drastic drop means the Wings pay the player over $7 million, but at a $6 million cap hit. Should he do the Forsberg and opt for cruising the Stockholm archipelago by his late 30s, the Wings have a minor cap coup and Zetterberg gets most of his money.

Always a team to push limits, the Wings went further with their next extension. Johan Franzen is tied to the team until the age of 39 as well, but at a bargain price just under $4 million a year on the cap. He will of course be paid well over $5 million a season (like Gionta) until his late 30s, but then opens the window to Scandinavian motor-boating with 4 final seasons where he'd only be collecting $7 million in all.


The Red Wings have set a revolution in place in this regard, but leave it to the master (and Holland's teacher) to show everyone that it can be done even better than that. The Marian Hossa contract is that masterpiece. In designing a contract that pays Hossa $3.5 million over the last 4 seasons, they were able to secure a $7.5 million dollar player at 2/3 the cap hit. Not only that, he stole Hossa from under the Wings' very noses.

While heralded in some quarters as madness, the reality is closer to genius. As this Ottawa Citizen article stated a few weeks ago:
"The unspoken reality. GMs expect players to retire before those contracts are actually fulfilled -- but that seven- or 12-year term brings the average of the contract down to a very manageable level."

Retirement is the key, and right now the possibilities to push this kind of salary are almost limitless. One blogger asks why stop at 12, 15 years; why not 30 years?

And he's right for asking, because although there are limits on contracts offered to players over the age of 35, there's no current limit as to the number of years a player of age 22 (like Carey Price for example) could be signed for. 30 seems ridiculous, but really why stop there?


Loophole will be closed

Upstanding NHL citizen, rarely jealous, spiteful or arrogant, Brian Burke is upset about the lack of fair play. And, he, along with other slowpokes, will probably see the loophole closed so that they can continue to get to grips with 1-year deals.

Funny how some loopholes seem more despicable than others to ole Brian.

Incidentally, as a Habs fan, I want this loophole closed and fast. It hardly seems fair that we be the only team still paying what the cap hit says to players whose performance is far from guaranteed. I think it's only fair that other teams, no matter how good their GMs should also be held to terrible contracts instead of being able to wriggle out, just because they are better at their jobs than their rivals.



"You're not thinking 4th dimensionally"

Gainey it seems is not in the same plane as his mosre successful rivals, at least not as a devious pursuer of vitory at all costs. After all, in addition to adding one of the worst value contracts in the whole league to his roster, he also gave out two of the most questionable deals of the summer to Cammalleri and Gionta.

I think he's failed us in this regard, he's not near the head of the class. And, just as Doc Brown scolded Marty for being such a simpleton (even after 2.5 movies worth of time travelling), I could see better GMs scolding Gainey for his summer:

Bob: "But I don't want Gionta for 22 years, I only want him for 5."

Doc Bowman: "Sign him for 22 years with every year after 40 at current league minimum. If he retires, you don't pay him."

Bob: "Still, that's almost 5 years of Gionta that I don't want."

Doc Bowman: "Bob, you're not thinking 4th dimensionally. Have you ever made a trade? Have you ever thought about how to become the best GM? Cap hits are important. By averaging salary over more time, you can reduce the cap hit for a future suitor. You make an untradeable asset tradeable, even within your ridiculous $5 million per year period..."


The man who tries so hard

Speaking of rivals, it's hard not to chuckle at poor Paul Holmgren who tries his very best to keep up with the Detroits and Chicagos of the world.

It started with Richards, whose contract we deem just expensive and unnecessarily unbalanced. It got even more comical with Briere and then Timonen. But this summer he really took the cake.

Taking his inspiration from Franzen and Hossa, Holmgren promptly signed newly acquired Chris Pronger to a long-term deal, well past the date where he'd be on the team. He even overpaid in a trade for the privilege.

At first glance what he did was OK. He signed a 34-year old defenceman to several years, the final ones (which he hopefully wouldn't play) at league minimum. What Paul didn't grasp was this – Chris Pronger had a contract already. His next contract will come into force next summer (and here's the tragedy) after he turn 35. If there was any doubt, it was cast aside when the league said that's how it would treat the deal.

Oops.

While trying to put together one of the best contracts in history, he has unwittingly added another chapter to the comedy of errors in the Flyers organization post-lockout. If Pronger retires instead of playing for $500 K, Holmgren's successor will be taking a $5 million cap hit for an empty locker – which would probably be up there for worst NHL contract ever. All's not lost though, he could force Pronger to play as he slows down and just have a really slow and ineffective defender for the very same cap hit.


Maybe Gainey missed saving a few million on Gionta, but at least he didn't Holmgren his team into a hole. Oh, it'll be fun to play those 2014-15 Flyers...

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