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Even with a salary cap, the well-to-do teams dominate the free-agent market by offering front-loaded deals to stars
JUST AS Gordie Howe used his infamous elbows, rich NHL clubs have come up with a tactic to shove their less-well-heeled competitors out of the way in the free-agent market. The concept of front-loaded contracts is neither new nor nefarious, but in the 2007 free-agent bonanza, it did give franchises that generate considerable revenue—the Rangers, Flyers and Avalanche, for example—an inherent advantage. Multiple factors played a role in steering marquee free agents such as centers Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to the Rangers, center Daniel Bri�re to Philadelphia and left wing Ryan Smyth to Colorado, but the means to pay large sums up front helped grease deals for the same teams that had been unfettered spenders in the pre-salary-cap era.
Take the Bri�re contract. The former Sabres co-captain, who turns 30 in October, signed an eight-year, $52 million deal to join a team that is rebuilding at warp speed. Philadelphia will be charged the annual average on the contract, $6.5 million, against what is now a $50.3 million salary cap. But because the deal is front-loaded, Bri�re will make $10 million next season, $8 million the following two years and $7 million for three years until the final two seasons of the deal, when he will be paid $3 million and then $2 million. Certainly a deal like Bri�re's or Smyth's, which will pay him $7.5 million this season even though his salary-cap charge is $6.25 million, is a way of adding value to the contract without adding to the cap number.
While front-loading might not frighten off all suitors—"I've never looked at front-loading as a nuclear bomb just to scare teams away," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi says—it can work as a deterrent. "Clearly it's a negotiating ploy for teams that have that kind of revenue," says Hurricanes G.M. Jim Rutherford, who kept his payroll $4 million under the cap last year. "With our business model, it doesn't make any sense. We don't have the cash flow."
The front-loaded deals can be win-win for the player and the team. The player earns a surfeit of dollars in 2007--08—Gomez will get $10 million of his seven-year, $51.5 million deal this season—but there can be a windfall for the teams near the end of these contracts. Under the collective bargaining agreement, if a player signs a multiyear deal before the age of 35 and retires before it finishes, there is no salary-cap charge for the unplayed seasons.
"This is a creative way of trying to steer people your way, but it's obviously meant for top-end, high-profile free agents," says Red Wings G.M. Ken Holland, who has told agents he will not front-load offers because he thinks Detroit offers an attractive enough environment without additional inducements. "The third-line guy isn't going to command this. But for me, you're still primarily looking at the cap numbers. We all have the same amount we're allowed to spend. We can spend it any way we want."
Not Hot Spots For Free Agents
Consider the plight of the Canadiens: With a history of 24 Stanley Cups in a vibrant, bilingual city that offers unmatched hockey ambience, Montreal shouldn't be a tough sell to premium free agents. But since 2005 the team has failed to land several high-profile free agents it targeted, including forwards Paul Kariya, Brendan Shanahan and, this season, Ryan Smyth and, most tellingly, Daniel Bri�re.