A little lost amid the frenzy of free agent singings last Friday was a comment made by Toronto Maple Leafs GM David Nonis after signing Dave Clarkson to a bonus-laden deal worth $36.75 million over seven years. When asked about the possibility that Clarkson might not merit a cap hit of $5.25 million in the latter years of the deal, Nonis responded: “I’m not worried about six or seven right now. I’m worried about one. And in Year 1, I know we’re going to have a very good player.”
Now I’m not here to dump on Nonis, a good man and an astute hockey executive who has done an admirable job of cleaning up the messes left by his predecessor. But wasn’t this specifically the kind of thing the NHL was trying to avoid during Lockout, Part III? As I recall, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said at one point that contracts maxing out at five years was, “a hill we will die on.” We all know how that turned out and now we all know how the lockout turned out.
You’ll be pleased to know that after missing three months of hockey last season, NHL teams spent the first three days of free agency either signing or re-signing 66 players to one-way, guaranteed contracts totaling $419.025 million. To be fair, a lot of them were very reasonable, both in term and in money spent. Ray Emery for one year at $1.65 million? Might become the best deal the Philadelphia Flyers have done in years. But Boyd Gordon at $9 million for three years? Lauri Korpikoski and Eric Nystrom for $10 million over four years? Viktor Stalberg at four years and $12 million? At the very least, those deals make one rub one’s chin and say, ‘What the (expletive) were they thinking?!” Don’t they?
Most of all, though, Nonis’ comments and a good number of the signings that have transpired in the days leading up to and since July 5 indicate one thing once and for all. Short of imposing one-year contracts on everyone and making each player in the league a free agent every year, there is simply not an economic system out there that can save teams, owners and executives from themselves. We know this now because they all thought they had it in 2005. In the intervening seven years, we discovered that wasn’t the case. Then they were supposed to have gotten it right this time and we have GMs offering big-money, seven-year deals to players who have eclipsed 50 points once in their career…in junior hockey. And, we have said GM openly admitting that a five-year deal was not going to cut it and also acknowledging that he’s not terribly concerned with diminishing returns at the end of the deal. Isn’t that how we got into this mess in the first place?
Because if teams are going to go this gaga over guys such as Clarkson and Nathan Horton, what are they going to do in a year when there’s actually some legitimate star power available in unrestricted free agency? There’s a very real chance the Sedin twins could be available next summer. Who knows if Henrik Lundqvist is going to stay a New York Ranger? Thomas Vanek is up, as is Jason Pominville.
And then there are guys like Niklas Hjalmarsson. If the Chicago Blackhawks don’t re-sign him, he’ll be only 27 years old when he becomes a UFA next July. If the Blackhawks go on another long playoff run and Hjalmarsson is as successful as he was this past season, he’ll have five days to tour around to teams, not talk about money, then cash in on a massive, seven-year deal that will take him just past his 34th birthday.
There is clearly no end to the madness, nor will there ever be. No matter what the NHL does, it will always be thus. Their need to control spending has created a salary cap situation that has helped almost nobody but the players. It has created far more headaches than it has ever solved, forces teams to spend to a salary floor that wouldn’t even be close to their budget if they could spend as little as they wish and has done almost nothing for competitive parity. Yes, Horton signed with the small-market Columbus Blue Jackets. But the reality is it was more about him wanting to play in a city where he could live a more anonymous lifestyle than anything else. The fact is, the salary cap has not been responsible for one ounce of whatever parity there is in the league these days.
In the past five playoffs, a total of 14 cities have been represented in the conference finals – Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Vancouver, San Jose, Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit and Carolina (Raleigh). There have been a total of 20 conference final spots up for grabs and only three of them – Tampa, Phoenix and Carolina – have gone to what most people would define as small hockey markets.
The salary cap, the so-called spending limits and the term limits have all been epic fails. About the only positive is that we don’t have back-diving contracts anymore. But as always, we’re finding out that no matter how many hills the NHL threatens to die on, the players always win in the end.
And you should care about that why? Ask us in 2022. That’s a long way off, but so are the late years in a lot of these contracts. Like the teams, if you’re not worried now, you probably will be later.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.