Ice time is one of the few weapons a coach has at his disposal, and sometimes, scratching a guy is the only way to shake him up. Judge for yourself whether these expensive healthy scratches got the message by sitting out a game or two.
There’s no shortage of ill-advised contracts in the NHL. Most teams have at least one player earning more money than his contributions warrant. But while it’s disappointing to watch a $4-million player toil on the fourth line or third defensive pair, that disappointment reaches new levels when the player becomes a healthy scratch – when he’s getting paid not to play.
A coach’s greatest weapon is his ability to control his players’ ice time, and sometimes, sitting an under-performing millionaire is the perfect way to get him motivated.
Other times, becoming a healthy scratch simply signals that a player is on the down side of his career.
Either way, a healthy scratch inherently sparks questions about a player’s future. Is he on the trading block? Will he walk as a free agent this summer? Is his career in jeopardy? And how is the team going to deal with his big-money contract?
Here are the most expensive players to draw a pay check from the press box this season.
5. Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Gardiner is the second-highest paid defenceman on the Toronto Maple Leafs at $4.05 million for this season and four more after that. He makes more money than coveted trade chip Cody Franson, yet he’s been a healthy scratch three times already this season.
Granted, those three occasions were under the now-departed coach Randy Carlyle, but they weren’t unwarranted. Gardiner is a defensive liability who makes poor defensive choices, and at 24, he’s running out of time to deliver on the promise he showed as a standout at the University of Wisconsin as a teenager.
Gardiner’s best season was his rookie one, a seven-goal, 30-point campaign that saw him appear in 75 games.
He’s well short of that pace this year, with just two goals, 11 points and a minus-20 rating in 47 contests on the Leafs’ blueline.
Franson, meanwhile, has six goals, 29 points and a minus-6 rating making $3.3 million this year.
The Leafs played hardball with the far superior Franson during his last contract negotiations, and now appear poised to lose him to free agency this summer. This after handing Gardiner a lucrative deal last off-season.
Gardiner, meanwhile, has failed to impress after his stints in the press box.
So who would you rather bet on long-term: Franson, or Gardiner?
4. Andrej Meszaros/Cody Hodgson/Chris Stewart, Buffalo Sabres
When Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres a few years ago, the hometown boy promised to invest millions of dollars in the team and its facilities.
Well, a considerable chunk of that money has been spent in the press box of First Niagara Center – though not in the way you’d think.
Sabres coach Ted Nolan doesn’t like to lose, and he’s been trying everything he can think of to get his players to shake off their doom-and-gloom forecast for the season. That means sitting under-performing players. And there have been a lot of those.
It starts with center Cody Hodgson, the once-promising Vancouver Canucks first-rounder who has struggled mightily in Buffalo this year. Hodgson looked like an absolute steal when Buffalo acquired him from Vancouver for Zack Kassian three years ago, but the 24-year-old’s growth has stunted this season.
Hodgson has just two goals and seven points through 48 games with a wretched 3.2 shooting percentage.
His struggles landed him a seat in the stands on Dec. 11, when Nolan scratched the $4.25-million center for a game against Calgary. That experience appeared to do little for Hodgson’s performance upon his return.
But Hodgson’s not the only one struggling. Chris Stewart earned part of his $4.15 million salary as a healthy scratch on three occasions in December, and his name is a fixture in the rumour mill these days.
Stewart actually broke out on Friday for two goals in a 5-2 loss to Vancouver, but he still has just nine goals and 18 points in 48 games with the second-worst plus-minus rating on the team (minus-26).
And then there’s Andrej Meszaros, the expensive journeyman defender who always seems to tantalize and disappoint. He’s on a one-year, $4.125-million contract with the Sabres this year, making this his fifth team before the age of 30. Meszaros has been scratched four times this season, and he’s failed to register a point in each game after returning from a scratch.
After 34 games, Meszaros has one goal and six points.
3. Martin Erat, Arizona Coyotes
Martin Erat had a pretty good niche in Nashville. He played there for parts of 11 seasons and posted several 20-goal, 50-point seasons for the Preds as one of their better offensive forwards on an offensively-challenged squad.
But he’s had a little dark raincloud following him around these last few years – a raincloud he might as well call Filip.
Erat has registered just 11 goals and 54 points in 125 games since leaving Nashville for Washington in a trade that sent soon-to-be-star Filip Forsberg the other way. Erat disappointed in two seasons with Washington before he was traded to Arizona last year, where he’s regained some measure of his scoring touch (though not much). The 33-year-old Czech inked his current contract with its $4.5-million cap hit back in 2009, and he’s only now in the final year of that pact.
The cap number made sense when Erat was scoring 50 points a season for the Preds, but there’s no way he gets that money again in the NHL. He has seven goals and 22 points in 46 games this year.
Erat was a healthy scratch in back-to-back games for the Coyotes this January after a down stretch of just two assists through eight games. He returned after the All-Star break to score a goal and an assist, showing that maybe coach Dave Tippett’s message got through.
2. Vincent Lecavalier, Philadelphia Flyers
No player on this list has been scratched as often this year as 34-year-old Vincent Lecavalier. The former first overall pick in 1998 has sat out seven Philadelphia Flyers games this season, earning a total of $225,806.45 to watch instead.
Lecavalier has just seven goals and 14 points in 35 games, and is behind the pace that saw him pot 20 goals and add 37 points last season. He’s also in just the second year of a five-year deal with a cap hit of $4.5 million per. However, Lecavalier is making $6 million in actual dollars this year.
The Philadelphia Flyers knew Lecavalier was damaged goods when they signed him in 2013, fresh off his big-money amnesty buyout from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Lecavalier had a so-so season before his Tampa buyout, scoring 10 goals and 32 points in 39 games in 2012-13. That’s pretty good for most forwards, but it’s nowhere near good enough for a player making $10 million in cash with a $7.727-million cap hit.
Nevertheless, Philly was confident it was getting a deal in landing the former Rocket Richard Trophy winner on a five-year, $22.5-million contract that summer.
Bet they wish they had another amnesty buyout for that contract now. And with $10.5 million and three years left on Lecavalier’s deal, he may well become a buyout candidate again this summer.
That would make him the only player in the league drawing pay checks from two buyouts.
1. Alexander Semin, Carolina Hurricanes
You know things are bad when the third-worst team in the league would rather pay you to watch the game than play in it.
Alexander Semin has been scratched repeatedly this season and hasn’t broken double-digits in goals, assists or even points. And no, he hasn’t been injured.
The 30-year-old Russian may simply be the kind of player who needs dollars to motivate him. George McPhee seemed to recognize that when he signed the winger to multiple short-term contracts with the Washington Capitals before the last lockout. And while McPhee is routinely roasted in Washington these days for trading away Filip Forsberg, the Caps are lucky he never inked Semin to a long-term contract.
Not so the Hurricanes, who fell in love with Semin after a point-per-game season following the lockout (13 goals, 44 points in 44 games). The Canes signed Semin for five years at $7 million a tick, and they’re still suffering for it.
Semin nearly matched his 2013 totals last year with 22 goals and 42 points – albeit in 65 games, not 44.
Nowadays he’s a total write-off, with one goal and eight points in 26 games on a dismal 3.0 shooting percentage.
Coach Bill Peters has repeatedly banished Semin in the press box, but that hasn’t moved the needle.
It’s hard to have sympathy for the $7-million man, but you’ve got to feel bad for Hurricanes GM Ron Francis. He inherited one of, if not the worst contract in the league when he took over from Jim Rutherford last summer. Semin is an absolute black hole, a non-factor on the ice and a millstone around Francis’ neck for three more seasons after this one. Even if the Hurricanes land a top guy like Jack Eichel or Connor McDavid at the draft, their return to respectability will be hampered by the $7 million in cap space that Semin eats up for the next three years.
If I’m any of the KHL’s general managers, I look at Semin and say “Geez. At least we didn’t sign him.”
Colorado’s Danny Briere and Ottawa’s Milan Michalek were $4-million healthy scratches for single games this season, while Dallas’ Ales Hemsky sat twice ($4 million a year) and Erik Cole sat once ($4.5 million). Edmonton defenceman Nikita Nikitin also sat a game this season on a $4.5-million salary.
Throw Tomas Fleischmann and his $4.5-million salary in, too. He’s sat multiple games for the Panthers this year.