The basics of an NHL lineup that features forward lines and defense pairings in itself makes for unlimited opportunities to play armchair GM or coach. But the legalese of the CBA and its implications on the league in total and differently on individual teams is perhaps even more fascinating.
To burn another slow hockey day in August (barring a surprise trade), here are some of the angles that have interesting impacts for the Hurricanes.
Escalating and decreasing contracts
The fact that salary cap is based on average yearly salary but salary does not need to be paid evenly definitely has a Hurricanes angle to it. When at all possible, the Hurricanes should look to pay contracts on an escalating basis. The rationale is simple in that the Canes are much more likely to pay the early years of the contract but at least somewhat less likely to pay the later years. Every time the team signs a deal with escalating amounts, there is at least a potential that it saved some $ on the back end if the player is later traded. And in most cases, the trade partner will mostly care less about actual cost and focus only on salary cap hit.
For a simple example, let’s say the Canes sign a player to a 3-year, $3 million per year contract and compare simply paying $3 million each year to instead paying $2 million, $3 million and $4 million in each of the 3 years. If the Hurricanes trade the player after 2 years, the salary cap effect is the same, but the team actually saves a significant $1 million cash.
Obviously there are some limitations in that the players will mostly prefer to receive more money upfront and also that it is obviously impossible to predict which players will be traded later and are especially good candidates for a backloaded contract.
Limited goalie slots for development
Between prospects in Canadian juniors, the NCAA and overseas plus roster slots in the AHL and even ECHL if necessary, it is fairly easy to make enough room for forwards and defensemen to play get enough ice time and play where best for their ongoing development.
Doing the same for the goalie position can actually be quite challenging especially if a team drafts a reasonable volume of goalies like the Hurricanes have. There is still an unlimited number of development slots for pre-professional development for Canadian junior, NCAA and overseas players. But things can become more challenging finding room for players 3 years plus after their draft year.
For non-NHL players, NHL teams basically have 4 slots for goalies between the 2 at the AHL level and usually the ability to use up to 2 more at the ECHL level if necessary. But the goalie position is different in that if you assume the goal for a young player is to get him about 55 starts (2/3 of a season) that means in reality teams have only 2 full slots of 55 games and 2 more 1/2 slots of the remaining 27 games.
There are a couple of interesting upshots. First, there is some incentive to draft many goalies but sometimes a need to cull the list of older ones still in the system simply because of the ice time available. I think the more interesting impact could be drafting strategy. Canadian junior goalies generally have 2 years of junior eligibility and sometimes a third if they stay as an overage player before they require a professional level slot. But with NCAA and overseas players, there is a greater opportunity to let them continue developing without jumping to the professional ranks for 4 years. So the best way to support a larger number of goalies in the system is to make sure at least some selections have the longer stay possible in the NCAA or overseas. This would not greatly outrank ‘best available,’ but I think there is some merit in having a college player (i.e. Jack LaFontaine) in the mix to increase the goalie pool without negative impacts from not having enough ice time.
The 50-contract limit
At any point in time, NHL teams can only have 50 players signed to NHL contracts. This includes players like Nicolas Roy last season and potentially now also Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier if they stay in juniors this season and of course all of the AHL players on 2-way contracts of the Hurricanes. Right now, the Hurricanes are at 48 contracts. This leaves some flexibility for Francis to pull off a deal or 2 even if it means adding another contract (i.e. a trade of a draft pick for a player).
At first, 50 contracts sounds like plenty, but when you consider 22 each to net rosters at the NHL and AHL level and then also consider a handful of players signed but actually playing in Canadian juniors or overseas and suddenly there is not that much slack to carry unnecessary players.
With the Hurricanes collecting extra draft picks and prospects of late, it is important that Ron Francis and his team plan out a few years contract-wise at the AHL/prospect level and maintain year-to-year flexibility. This season the team made room by letting a few veteran AHL players go. And this summer, Francis also maintained maximum flexibility going forward by signing all of the veteran AHLers to 1-year deals such that they could be let go next summer if another slot is needed for a younger prospect. All of Keegan Lowe, Patrick Brown, Dennis Robertson, Andrew Miller, Brody Sutter and Jake Chelios were signed to 1-year deals this summer.
Entry-level contract slides
Arguably the most significant contract legalese for the Carolina Hurricanes is the way that 3-year entry-level contracts work. I included this in a different salary and contract post on August 22. First, the salary amounts are more or less formula-driven such that there is minimal negotiation and the price is pegged south of $1 million per season for the 3-year term. (There are bonus options that are more relevant to top players, but those mostly come into play only for players who jump into the NHL at an elite level.)
The discounted price of less than $1 million is significant in its own right, but even more noteworthy is that the team has some ability to select when the 3 years happen. For Canadian junior players, they can generally play 2 years in juniors. If they do this, the first year of the 3-year term of that first contract can actually be postponed until the start of the third season after they are drafted. So instead of having the player spend 2 years developing at the professional level (i.e Elias Lindholm) and burning entry-level contract years in the process, the player can instead spend the first 2 years in Canadian juniors and then be 20-23 for the years of the entry-level contract. In theory, the player should be much more productive at this later stage of development and an even bigger bargain relative to his modest entry-level contract.
Because of the need to work with a less than salary cap budget but still ice a good hockey team, there is significant incentive for the Hurricanes to push players like Nicola Roy, Julien Gauthier and Jake Bean back to juniors to mature and improve. Last week Cory Fogg noted the potential for Julien Gauthier to make the NHL roster this season. If Gauthier shows in training camp that he can make the Hurricanes significantly better in 2016-17 that trumps all else, but I do think it is true that there is and should be a natural bias to send him back to juniors to save the first year of his ELC if he is only equal to or marginally better than the next best option for 1 of the last few roster slots.
The salary cap
Such a discussion of NHL legalese would be incomplete without at least mentioning the salary cap. The NHL salary cap is the single biggest driver of teams’ success other than the basics of players and coaches. It has forced the Blackhawks to build around a small core of stars but constantly divest good complementary players because of the financials. The Hurricanes were a direct beneficiary of this situation in each of the past 2 summers. Last summer the Hurricanes added Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom for virtually nothing when the Hawks were trying to squeeze under the salary camp limit all the way into mid-September last offseason. Then this summer, the Hurricanes were rewarded with a good young player in Teuvo Teravainen for only second and third round draft picks for taking on Bryan Bickell’s contract. The salary cap should continue to challenge the bigger market teams and hopefully continue to create opportunities for the Hurricanes to capitalize on the situation.