As Saturday's marathon NHL negotiating session dragged into the early hours of Sunday morning, the call for compromise on a key issue from those tired of waiting seemed perfectly reasonable. The decisive negotiation over next season's salary cap threatened to be the thorny issue that prevented a deal. When negotiations started, the players wanted a $65 million salary cap for next season, and the owners offered $60 million. As the talks eked forward, the owners moved to $62.5 million, but the players weren't willing to move much more from their position. This was too key an issue for them.
And they're not the only ones who'll benefit. While the league was trying to keep the salary cap maximum closer to the floor ($44 million) in part to foster more parity moving forward, there were those in charge of running teams perfectly happy to see the players hold firm. According to colleague Pierre LeBrun, next year's salary cap will be $64.3 million, and that's no small win for the players.
Dropping the salary cap to $60 million next season and allowing two amnesty buyouts would have been a great reward for teams with mistakes on their rosters and those looking to get out of bad deals. But what about those general managers who have successfully built a roster without any bad deals? They would have been scrambling.
"It's sports answer to socialism," said one NHL front office executive when discussing the possibility of facing a $60 million salary cap next season.
The players held firm, and there are most certainly benefactors as a result on the owners' side as well.
The biggest winners are those players set to hit free agency next year. By getting the league to move from $60 million to $64.3 million, the players created an additional $129 million in potential available salary cap space this summer.
That's huge for big-name potential free agents such as Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Alexander Edler, who would likely get paid either way but now should face a much broader base of suitors. But the bigger impact is on the middle-class player. If a team wants Perry, it'll find a way to give him what he wants in free agency, but it would have come at the cost of squeezing out another player. That extra cap space could be the difference between retaining another depth player on a contending team and cutting him loose.
The defending champion Los Angeles Kings are a perfect example of a team that benefits greatly from the players' standing firm.
According to CapGeek.com, they have 13 players signed next year with roughly $50 million in salary cap money committed to key players such as Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Jonathan Quick. With a $60 million cap, the Kings would have had no choice but to let players such as Simon Gagne, Dustin Penner and Rob Scuderi walk. They might even have had to look at moving one of their high-paid forwards, considering Dustin Brown can start talking contract extension on July 1.
It's still going to be a squeeze for GM Dean Lombardi to carve out $6 million from this year to next, especially considering Quick's salary jumps from $1.8 million to $5.8 million. But that extra $4.3 million in cap room could be the difference between retaining a key defenseman such as Scuderi and letting him walk. And make no mistake, it's often guys such as Scuderi who are the difference between winning a Stanley Cup and falling short. Just ask the Penguins players who won the Cup in 2009; they still talk about a goal-saving play Scuderi made during their title run.
The Rangers are another team that benefits from the players' stance on the salary cap. Their cap number next year is $51.8 million with 16 players signed. Signing restricted free-agent Michael Del Zotto becomes the immediate focus right now for the Rangers, with Cam Fowler's annual salary of $4 million the high-end comparable. Assuming they buy out Wade Redden, the Rangers have roughly $12.5 million to sign seven players this summer, including restricted free agents Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh. Still a squeeze, but much more manageable than having to do it for $8.2 million. It could be the difference between trading Del Zotto this summer (or earlier) and keeping that young defense intact for the long haul.
The Canucks benefit, too. With a $60 million salary cap next year, it would have been hard to imagine Edler fitting in. Under GM Mike Gillis and assistant GM Laurence Gilman, the Canucks have done a fantastic job of convincing players to stay at reasonable salaries, with the promise that they will spend to the max and build a strong team around them. But there are limitations to how low players will go. Plus, if parity is even more widespread, that argument becomes less effective as more teams can compete with the Canucks.
Vancouver has a salary cap payroll of $55.4 million next season with 13 players signed. They're certainly not out of the woods, but if they trade Roberto Luongo, that drops the cap number to $50.1 million. If they buy out Keith Ballard, that cap number dives further to $45.9 million.
Suddenly, the Canucks have $18.4 million to sign 10 players. Had the players accepted one of the league's earlier offers that held firm at $60 million and didn't include the salary-cap-dodging buyouts, Vancouver would have looked dramatically different next season. The Canucks' Stanley Cup window now stays open.
It was a long negotiating fight -- longer than anyone wanted and undoubtedly one that could damage the game. But it came with a payoff.