Monday, April 23, 2007

Skirting The Salary Cap

I am against the NHL salary cap, but if they are going to have one, it should be fair. There are a few "loopholes" built into the system. It appears some are by design. For example, since a team's payroll over an entire season is capped. This means that a team can add players at trade deadline time so that in playoff time they can have a team that has a payroll that would well exceed the cap (although they paid under the cap earlier in the year). This rule was used in trade deadline deals such as Todd Bertuzzi to Detroit and Peter Forsberg to Nashville. This allows the possibility of a Stanley Cup winner that only exists from the trade deadline until the free agency period begins in July. This prevents the formation of memorable teams. These teams are only together for a period of weeks and thus have no chance of defending their Stanley Cup victory. This increases the possibility of Stanley Cup finalists missing the playoffs the next season.

This rule, though undesirable to the fan, is fair to all teams. There is a rule which is more unfair. It is the problem of regular season longterm injury exemptions suddenly becoming healthy at playoff time. If a player is hurt longterm, his replacement can have a salary that allows his team to go over the cap by the amount paid to the injured player. As soon as the injured player gets to be back in the lineup, some roster move must be made to bring the payroll back inline with the cap. The problem is that players are paid for the regular season, but not the playoffs (they may earn some bonuses for the playoffs but no regular salary). Thus a player who was out on a longterm injury exemption can be added back into the lineup with no salary cap problem. Thus, a team that had a longterm injury that ends around the end of the season can fudge the date of return for the player (so that he comes back during the playoffs) and exceed the salary cap in the playoffs.

Two teams played this game. The least successful in this game was the Vancouver Canucks. Ryan Kesler had been on a longterm injury exemption since his January hip surgery. The portion of his $1.9 million salary (made larger by an RFA offer sheet from Philadelphia) came back for the first game of the playoffs. His injury exemption had allowed Vancouver to acquire Bryan Smolinski from Chicago at the trade deadline. Unfortunately for Vancouver, Kesler broke his finger in his first game back and is likely out for the rest of the playoffs.

The team that has been more successful with this loophole has been New Jersey. New Jersey has been in salary cap trouble all season. In order to get under the cap, they made several moves at the beginning of the year. One was making Richard Matvichuk a longterm injury exemption with back problems. His return would have created new cap problems when Matvichuk was likely ready to return in December or so. It turns out that the Devils did not play Matvichuk until the final game of the season when they sent Andy Greene and Cam Janssen to the minors to make cap room. Since Lowell missed the playoffs in the AHL, they could immediately call them back up for the NHL playoffs (neither needed to clear waivers). Matvichuk has played well in the playoffs. He has averaged over 22 minutes a game in four games played and has been a tower of strength for the Devils. Andy Greene has also played in all six games so far scoring 2 points and averaging better than 15 minutes of ice time per game. New Jersey has benefited from the longterm injury exemption in the salary cap and by holding a healthy Matvichuk out for several months; they are able to ice a team that would violate the salary cap in the playoffs.

In an ideal world, there would be no salary cap. Its main purpose is to raise owner profits (which leads to the breakup of good teams and thus a lowering of the calibre of the best matchups to the detriment of the fan). If the NHL insists on a salary cap, it should be fair. Teams should not be able to skirt the cap by keeping longterm injured players out of the lineup until playoff time to allow them to ice a playoff team that would violate the cap.

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