Although Nate briefly addressed it in the 10/10 edition of Devils in the Details, I wanted to touch upon a controversial subject today, and how it affects the Devils and other teams in the league; that topic is of course the NHL's hiring of Chris Pronger to the Player Safety Department. I understand the department had lost some staff in the past few years, (most recently with Brendan Shanahan joining the Maple Leafs, which deprives us of using the term "Shana-Ban(ned)" for at least the foreseeable future) so they need some fresh bodies, but is a man still under contract to an NHL team the right move?
Now my reasons for addressing this topic are twofold; one, I think it is unfair to 29 teams in the league not named the Philadelphia Flyers, and two, I think it is specifically unfair to our New Jersey Devils. How is it unfair you ask? Simply put, this hiring proves that the NHL is selective in punishing teams that violate its rules, and that the league favors certain teams over others. Is it fact? Is it fiction? Am I trying to make something out of nothing due to my dislike of Pronger? Let's find out!
Salary Cap Circumvention
Salary cap circumvention in its simplest definition is just what is sounds like; finding a way to get around the salary cap, usually to make a team stronger. There are many ways that teams can get around the salary cap, but we're going to look at three "popular" ways to get around the salary cap:
Long-Term Injured Reserve
For a quick explanation of how LTIR works, I will reference from Capgeek.com:
Teams are eligible to receive cap relief when a player is considered to have a "bona-fide long-term injury" - injuries that cause a player to miss at least 10 games and 24 days. In such cases, the team can place the player on long-term injured reserve (LTIR).
The placement of a player on LTIR does not remove the player's cap hit from the team's cap payroll - the cap hit continues to count toward the team's cap payroll as it always did. The placement of a player on LTIR also does not provide the team with any additional cap-space savings that can be "banked" for future use while the team operates below the upper limit.
So if a team loses a player for an extended period of time due to injury, they can gain additional cap space to sign players to replace them. Seems fair at first, until you get to the teams that twist the rule to their advantage. There are certain players that due to long-term injuries they suffered will never play in the NHL again. While it stinks to see players' dreams being taken away, it certainly doesn't excuse their team from their responsibility of paying the player, nor the cap hit/recapture penalty.
The main culprits here are Boston with Marc Savard, Tampa Bay with Mattias Ohlund, and Philadelphia with (you guessed/know it) Chris Pronger. If the players were to retire, the teams would be responsible not only to pay them, but they would not be eligible for the extra cap space provided by the LTIR designation. The problem here lies with the fact that separate news outlets have all reported at one time or another (Savard here, Ohlund here and Pronger here with a quote from former Flyers GM Paul Holmgren that Pronger will never play again) that these men would never lace up a pair of skates again. If they can not play, they should be made to announce their retirement, not continue this charade that their injury might one day heal to a point where they can resume their career.
"Burying" a Contract
Prior to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, if a player was demoted to a team's minor league affiliate, their salary cap charge would no longer count against the team's salary cap. While no longer a viable option, Our Hated Rivals famously used this option to remove Wade Redden's cap hit from their total. New York removed $6,500,000 from their salary cap, giving them an unfair competitive edge in the process; they were removing a declining player that they had committed to so that they could free up salary and sign better players. If teams are worried about players declining in later years of their contract, then the logical thing to do would be to stop signing them to those deals, right? Wrong; instead it would lead to the problem below.
With the "Wade Redden Rule," and other changes in the CBA, teams needed to become more creative to get around the salary cap; while not explicitly illegal, teams began to load up player contracts with more "real" money during players' prime years, and less during their twilight seasons. The result would be the player's cap hit becoming much more salary cap friendly while at the same time said player still gets paid an (in most cases) obscene amount of money. Here's a small sampling of contracts that were front-loaded:
I used Kovalchuk's rejected contract, as it was the one that officially circumvented the cap, not the later agreed upon 15 year contract. Now these are not the only front-loaded contracts handed out, but they are some of the more famous and less balanced ones. Now looking at these contracts, they're all fairly similar; I'll be the first to admit that the Devils pushed the limits with the original Kovy contract, but they all follow the same pattern. All of these contracts are loaded for the first half of the deal, and then in the later years as the player is older, the money drops off. Despite numerous amendments to the CBA after the Kovalchuk contract, teams were still (Richards' contract for instance) circumventing the cap!
So herein lies one question; why weren't Our Hated Rivals punished the same way we were? Oh sure, know that Richards' contract wasn't nearly as long, or nearly as ridiculous in terms of how much was being paid in the last few years, but his salary drops for the last 3 years from $7 million to a paltry $1 million; if that's not skirting the cap I don't know what is.
I don't think there is any doubt that I have proven that roughly one third of the NHL (including us) at one point or another has circumvented the salary cap in one way, shape or form, and that was without even digging deeper for less referenced cap-circumventing contracts. I will personally admit that the Devils attempted the same as many other teams when they signed the Kovalchuk contract, but that point circles us back to the problems I have with Pronger's hiring.
If the NHL is alright with paying Pronger (which they obviously are since they hired him) it firstly brings about a conflict of interests with a man on the Flyers payroll, that while not ruling on Flyers discipline, can make rulings on matters that could possibly involve rival teams.
The second problem with Pronger's hiring is the simple fact that the NHL is willing to allow certain teams to circumvent the salary cap without punishment. The NHL is acknowledging with this hiring that Pronger's career as an active player is over; he's also on a 35+ contract, which means if he retired, the Flyers would have his entire cap hit counting against their salary. So either Pronger should be forced to retire immediately with the Flyers being forced to become cap compliant immediately, or the NHL needs to come out and admit that they're okay with certain teams maneuvering around the cap; they can't have it both ways.
I say certain teams again because this hiring shines new light on "Kovalgate;" New Jersey was forced to forfeit their 2011 third round pick, a first round pick of their choice, and they were hit with a $3 million dollar fine. While the fine was reduced, and the draft pick loss was changed to the Devils picking last in the 2014 NHL Draft, I have to ask again where the penalties are for the rest of the teams who are similarly dodging the cap? If you're going to penalize any team, why not make it one of the big market teams? Not only would they not feel the effects as much, but it would set an example around the league; if New York/Chicago were to be penalized wouldn't that be more of a deterrent? Hitting the Devils did nothing to discourage other teams; if you want further proof, just go look at the contracts that "Benedict" Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed with Minnesota well after "Kovalgate."
The biggest issue that this whole situation addresses is how inconsistent the NHL is with any form of discipline. When you have players in the league wondering why two players get different punishments for very similar crimes, you know you have a real problem. While I've addressed two separate issues here in the same article, I think the underlying theme of both is consistency; if you punish one team/player for doing something illegal, then any other offenders committing the same crime should be treated the same way.
Pronger's hiring only makes the possibility of consistency lessen; if Ryane Clowe (sorry Jordin Tootoo fans, but I'm picking someone a bit more relevant to New Jersey's success) throws a hit that merits a suspension and Pronger rules on it, isn't it a conflict of interest that he's ruling on a case involving a rival team of the Flyers? Who is to say he won't be easily swayed by his former team who is still paying him? The hiring raises a lot of questions about both cap circumvention and supplemental discipline and if I know anything about the NHL and the consistency of their rulings, those questions will go unanswered.
While this news piece isn't specifically related to the Devils, I think Chris Pronger's hiring raised some red flags in regards to things that have affected the team in the past and quite possibly will in the future. Now I'd like to hear your opinions; what do you think of Pronger's hiring? Of the NHL's consistency with any form of discipline? How can the NHL become more consistent in the future? Please leave any comments below, and as always thank you for reading!