Kovalchuk contract and more (cont.)
We recently speculated in this space that it made perfect sense for the San Jose Sharks to go after Antti Niemi once the Blackhawks walked away from an arbitrator's decision to award the Stanley Cup-winning goalie $2.75 million in a one-year deal. The intriguing part is whether the Sharks intentionally made this happen with an economic power play.
Earlier this offseason, San Jose made an offer for Chicago's restricted free agent defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to the tune of $14 million over four seasons. The Blackhawks, already cashed-strapped and dealing off players because of salary cap problems, felt obligated to match the offer and keep the talented Hjalmarsson in the fold, but it was at far more cost than they were hoping to pay at this point in his still-brief career. It was so expensive, in fact, that the Hawks felt they had no choice but to walk away from the Niemi arbitration award and sign veteran goalie Marty Turco for a million dollars less than Niemi would have been paid.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson will no doubt deny it (he denied interest in Niemi after he signed Antero Niittymaki on the first day of free-agency), but in nixing Evgeni Nabokov's request for $6 million per season for each of four seasons, Wilson now has a quality backup in Niittymaki (who can push any starter) and a Cup-winning goalie in Niemi. He did it all without trading a player off his roster and for less than he was paying Nabokov last season. That represents a tremendous swing in the balance of power in the Western Conference and it was done not on the ice, but by prudent salary cap management and a willingness to take a risk.
Lest anyone forget, it was Niemi who stonewalled the Sharks in the Western Conference Final, a performance that carried the young Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Final where they prevailed over a Philadelphia team that didn't have near the quality of goaltending necessary to beat them.
Last week we posed this question: Why does the Kovalchuk contract offer fall under "subverting" the intent of the salary cap while Chicago's impending decision to pass goaltender Cristobal Huet's near $6 million hit off to a team in Europe falls under what Bettman calls cap "maintenance"?
A goodly number of you replied via e-mail that it was so obvious it defied my even asking the question. You said that, at the end of the day, Chicago didn't get to use Huet's services while the Devils will have Kovalchuk every day. One reader was kind enough to point out that if I couldn't see that, then I needed to get a new job and "not be the person writing for Sports Illustrated."
With all due respect to all who wrote in, I get the use-no-use argument.
Of course, the Blackhawks don't get the use of a player they have overpaid and didn't even use in the playoffs last spring, while the Devils get Kovalchuk's talent. That's not the issue. The issue is that you can make a case that both teams are circumventing the intent of the salary cap as outlined in the CBA. The Devils attempted to push the Kovalchuk deal over 17 seasons, thereby lessening the overall cap hit and allowing themselves to keep more of their already-under-contract team intact.
A great many NHL GMs would argue that the Blackhawks are attempting to do the same thing. They are willing to eat a contract they can't move and don't want by burying a player overseas. (Lou Lamoriello of the Devils actually opened this door quite a few years back when, in order to get under the cap, he sent all-star forward Alex Mogilny to the AHL in order to create space for others to stay with the NHL club.)
GMs in small and mid-size markets feel that what Chicago is doing is not maintenance, but a circumvention of a different sort that gives them an unfair advantage over smaller market clubs who couldn't have afforded Huet's free agent contract in the first place (let alone that of defenseman Brian Campbell, who set the bar even higher as a signee) and they certainly could never afford to bury that kind of contract in the minor leagues or Europe.
Their argument is that there should never be a distinction between a salary cap "dodge" and what Bettman called "maintenance" because, in essence, they both do the same thing: they reward bigger budget teams with an avenue for burying their mistakes while the smaller market teams can't do the same.
Since the original lockout fight was supposed to be about leveling the financial playing field and putting all teams on an equal competitive footing, where is the relief for smaller market teams? They can't move a bad contract, they can't afford to bury one and, under the current rules, they can't even eat some of it while moving the player to another team. That was a somewhat common practice in the past, but Bettman took that away with the current CBA.
That's what the fight is about, not whether Kovalchuk plays in the NHL and Huet doesn't.
I believe the small and midsize market GMs have a legitimate case.
Finally: It's been published in numerous outlets that Bettman, once the Kovalchuk contract gets done or at least comes to a conclusion be it in Russia or elsewhere, still has to sort out circumvention penalties for the Devils that, under the current CBA, can be extreme. We ask, why?
Arbitrator Bloch went to extraordinary lengths to make certain that, in his eyes and via the strength of his ruling, the Devils did absolutely nothing to circumvent the CBA regarding player contracts. He published whole paragraphs on this issue and noted in his overall ruling that the Devils, in constructing their initial bid, did not violate a single provision of the many rules laid out in the articles of the CBA that deal with circumvention.
In essence, Bloch said the Devils acted quite responsibly in adhering to the letter of the rules. That couldn't have been clearer if Bettman had written the language himself. He might not like what New Jersey owner Jeff Vanderbeek was attempting to do, but you can rest assured that he welcomed the power to negate the contract without having to fine or take away draft picks from one of the 30 principals who happen to pay his substantial salary.
The idea that the Devils are going to be punished is about as realistic as the chances that Bettman will ban fighting from the NHL because it is a violation of the rule book.