When the NHL publicly released its latest labor proposal this week, more than a few longtime industry observers were surprised that owners hadn’t offered some form of an amnesty buyout. Such an option was for years rumored to be coming, so eyebrows rose when it wasn’t on the table. But some of those same industry watchers aren’t convinced there won’t be an amnesty option by the time a collective bargaining agreement is finalized.
“Don’t forget, this is a negotiation that’s as much between owners and owners as it is between owners and players,” one player agent said. “The league has to navigate a number of different minefields and one is finding a balance between keeping both big- and small-market owners happy.”
What did he mean by that? Think of it this way: when you consider some other elements of the owners’ proposal – namely, sticking teams with the average annual value of long-term, front-loaded contracts for players who have retired, regardless of whether or not they’re still part of that organization – it becomes clear those elements are being offered to address the complaints of small-market owners who believe their free-spending big-market peers had an unfair advantage.
But ask yourself this – do you think a powerful owner such as Philadelphia’s Ed Snider is happily going to sit back and allow his beloved Flyers to take one in the goolies? Of course not. This is still a league driven by big-market teams like Snider’s. That’s why NHL commissioner Gary Bettman should have something to off-set that bitter taste – something like, oh, I don’t know, an amnesty clause – when the owners and NHL Players’ Association next sit down and work their way closer to an agreement. The NHLPA also is likely to see an amnesty mechanism as a positive development, meaning Bettman & Co. can please a number of parties by offering the buyout later in negotiations.
For argument’s sake, though, let’s assume there won’t be an amnesty opportunity when it’s all said and done. Which teams will suffer most because of its absence? Here are my choices, in alphabetical order:
Montreal: Although it is best at this stage for beleaguered center Scott Gomez and the Canadiens to part ways, he doesn’t pose the same problem as other players because he’s got just two years remaining at a cap hit of $7.3 million a season. Gomez would have been one of the favorites to receive a buyout, but the Habs could live with gritting their teeth and bearing him until the summer of 2014 if they had no other choice. (And no, nobody’s trading for him).
New York Islanders: Isles owner Charles Wang was the originator of the decade-plus-long contract and given that the player he bestowed one upon was hard-luck goalie Rick DiPietro, he’s probably come to regret it. The oft-injured DiPietro is signed through 2021 and although he doesn’t have a front-end-loaded deal – his salary is an even $4.5 million throughout the life of the contract – the cash-bleeding franchise was a long shot to buy him out anyway.
Philadelphia: It was a rough first season for colorful goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and everyone knows how fickle the Flyers are with their netminders, so he was a subject of amnesty speculation. Bryzgalov has speculated about his fellow Russian players deciding to stay in the Kontinental League after the lockout, but even if he chose to do so, the NHL’s current offer stipulates his $5.6 million cap hit would still count until 2019-20. That would be a gigantic pain in Snider’s posterior, which is another reason why people expect an amnesty clause to eventually work its way into the CBA.
Toronto: The Leafs have a number of buyout candidates, including Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi and Mike Komisarek. However, GM Brian Burke’s policy of not signing (or trading for) players on gigantic long-term deals has Toronto in a relatively good spot. Only Komisarek, who is under contract for this and next season, has more than a year remaining on his pact. Having no amnesty option doesn’t make Burke’s life any easier, but he’s not all that concerned about it in the grand scheme of the organization’s plans.
Vancouver: Canucks GM Mike Gillis might attempt to spin Roberto Luongo’s long-term contract ramifications as a reason why the star goalie is now a more attractive asset – and, more importantly, why teams should improve the trade offers that didn’t impress him this past summer – but why would Leafs GM Brian Burke or Panthers counterpart Dale Tallon believe him? As we saw with the Rick Nash saga in Columbus, Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson talked tough, but settled for a mediocre trade package in the end. A lack of amnesty wasn’t going to make Luongo more saleable, but it would’ve given Canucks owners a pricey, but important fix for their long-term cap outlook.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays during the regular season, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.
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