NHL contracts, salary cap will lead to CBA issues in 2012

ST. PAUL – It’s fair to say Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon bristled when he was asked whether his acquisition of Brian Campbell was tied to his organization’s need to essentially spend like drunken sailors in an effort to get up to the salary cap floor. Picture in your mind what someone looks like when he bristles and that’s how Tallon looked.

“The floor is going to get in the way of us trying to become a good team,” Tallon said. “The focus is not the floor. The floor is going to accidentally get in the way. I’m not doing this to get to the floor. I’m doing this to become a good team. Period.”

What Tallon was getting at is that with the floor at a ridiculous $48 million for next season, he’s likely going to have to sign a bunch of veteran players for outrageous money that will almost certainly take roster spots away from the plethora of young talent his organization is stockpiling. We don’t doubt he likes Campbell. After all, it was Tallon, when he was GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, who signed Campbell to the deal that will pay him $7.1 million for the next five seasons. And it makes sense for Campbell, who goes to a place where there are no state taxes.

But it illustrates how flawed the system is in the NHL when a contract that was considered onerous for one team (the Blackhawks) is one another team can use to elevate itself to the bare minimum spending levels.

You can argue the NHL’s overall revenues are trending upward and that’s undeniably true. But they aren’t for teams like Florida, one whose ability to even come close to turning a profit is eliminated because it is being forced to spend so much on players. Even with the Panthers getting revenue sharing, plus a dollar-for-dollar rebate on every dollar they spend below $56 million next season, it simply doesn’t work.

Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford was able to at least look at the brighter side of being forced to spend more money than his owner can afford.

“I don’t know, it’s kind of the way business is run in the United States lately these days,” Rutherford said. “That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.”

And like the economy in the United States, that kind of spending hurts a lot of teams. And with a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon after next summer, teams are going to be wedded to contracts that will take them up to the floor this season, then will have to deal with the repercussions that will come with a new agreement. That means the same NHL Players’ Association that has insisted on bumping up the salary cap every year with its inflator will almost certainly have to accept a league-wide rollback in salaries as part of the next negotiations.

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“It’s an unusual landscape right now,” said Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney, “because I’m quite frankly not sure what’s going to happen, whether teams will just go berserk and the teams that have money blow their brains out…whether it’s guys who you think should be paid at $2 million are making $4 million or $5 million, time will tell.”

Well, isn’t that nice. A collective bargaining agreement that was supposed to solve so many problems doesn’t seem to have done a thing for anyone. The league was hoping to get away from crazy contracts, but now you have teams spending more money than they want just because they have to do so. You have players taking more every year, then complaining about paying escrow and you have as big, perhaps even bigger, chasm between the haves and have nots of the NHL.

None of this will matter July 1 when teams trip over themselves to sign Brad Richards to an enormous long-term deal. We’re thinking eight years at about $50 million, heavily front-loaded with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers beating each other’s brains out to get him.

Six years after all of this was supposed to be solved, the market again needs a correction. The NHL talks about tweaking the CBA, but it’s going to take a lot more than that for this league to get it right.

The clock is ticking. The league and its players’ association has one more year to make it work. From this vantage point, it sure looks as though they have an awful lot of work to do.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to with his column

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