clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Time to Kill Guaranteed Contracts

Yes, I'm serious

Rick Stewart

I've already killed two posts today. I first tried to write about how Gary Bettman flat out told Gary Lawless that the intent was to get to a 50/50 split when the NHL made their insulting July offer and what that means in relation to the fact that the league didn't actually get around to making a proposal based on that intent until October 15th (after the regular season was already supposed to have started).

Then I tried to write about the stupidity of the "Record revenues do NOT equal record profits!" parrots who cleave stupidly to the apparently self-evidence of an aphorism which really serves more as a call to question than an end to a discussion. What evidence is there to support that the league hasn't enjoyed record profits after cutting off a quarter of the spending which last forced them to burn off a season and then ensuring that the biggest expenditure they have would index at a set cost against those revenues? Yeah, don't tell me... everything ELSE just got 300% more expensive, right? Let's see the books.

But really, those two paragraphs were all I had to say, so let's talk about something else. Specifically, as unapologetically pro-player as I've been, I wanted to challenge myself to write about something the players actually SHOULD give back in these negotiations.

Guaranteed contracts.

This is pretty much their Maginot Line though, right? I mean, everywhere else that contracts aren't guaranteed, the players are just replaceable cogs for an unfeeling machine and nobody cares about them the second they're no longer useful.

Gosh, I hate to be mean to the group I like a hell of a lot more than the owners, but at the heart of it, isn't that kind of how real life works?

Sure, players work very hard and for a very long time in order to get the contract that's going to make their career and it's hard to say they don't deserve it, but if we're going to be forced to keep looking at what is and isn't the business side of the game, I'm continually faced with the reality that, while I really like individual players and want them to get paid infinity money forever, I...well... I just don't want that to be my money. I like seeing hockey played at the very-highest possible skill level and I appreciate the hard work and sacrifice of the people who bring that to me, but once they're done bringing it, I want them replaced with the next guy who's going to bring that level of play.

The thing is that we're not even talking about replacing them necessarily. We're talking about giving hockey an opportunity to fix mistakes which hurt everybody: players, owners, and the game itself. I'm talking about contracts specifically like the Wade Redden and Cristobal Huet deals.

The proposal is simple: If you put a guy on unconditional waivers and he clears, you can cut him. That's that. The contract is over and he immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent (regardless of his age/years of service).

The thing about unconditional waivers is that the choice of 29 other teams to leave a guy on the waiver wire is the ultimate test of his value. If not a single team is willing to take on a players' contract with zero strings attached, then he's free to sign with somebody at the value the market can actually set for him. If Wade Redden were worth a $6.5M cap hit to anybody, he would have been in the NHL for the last two seasons (as evidenced by the fact that he had to clear waivers to go to the AHL). That doesn't mean Wade Redden is completely worthless though; it just means he's worth considerably less than the contract he's locked into through the 2013-14 season. If a team were allowed to give him $3M instead and make sure he actually plays in the NHL, would he turn that down?

Granted, the choice wouldn't necessarily be his, but as far as the good of the game is concerned, I'm not buying that Wade Redden deserves to be paid twice his value simply because the Rangers were foolish enough to offer that to him four years ago. Let it sink in that zero NHL teams want to pay him that much and then ask if it's really what's best for everybody that he simply go away with his millions instead of competing on the market for a fairer deal.

Obviously, I believe the long-term contract loophole would have to be closed as an accompaniment to this idea. I also would not at all be opposed to an NFL-like system where players can signed for guaranteed and non-guaranteed money as an added incentive to players who are valuable enough to demand such a thing (although I worry that in the NHL's current system, that might serve to create a set of "mini-albatrosses" where marginal players get overpaid in guaranteed money and we're stuck with teams that don't even want to cut a guy because they'd rather not pay for nothing).

The biggest concern about a system which allows overpaid players to be cut for the good of the game is that it also sacrifices high-risk innocent players to the machinations of an unsympathetic system. If Marc Savard were declared healthy enough to play tomorrow, does he ever play in another NHL game? You can't cut an injured player, but you certainly can cut one who's at a big risk for another one after he's been cleared to play.

I don't have an easy answer to that concern because there isn't one. Without guaranteed contracts this will most-definitely become a reality for a portion of NHLers who through no fault of their own find themselves the unlucky loser of the terrible injury lottery that takes place every NHL season. The best I can hope for is that the league and the players forge a commitment to better address those risks.

The trade-off isn't so simple as get rid of one bad thing and introduce all good. Those are easy trade-offs to make. I believe that allowing the elimination of albatross contracts instead of simply hiding them better allows the free agency market to correct itself and is a much better motivator for the worry of players who have been accused of resting on their big-dollar deal because it's guaranteed money.

Tying total player compensation directly to revenue isn't likely to go away any time soon. This system doesn't change how much the players get paid, it simply allows a better means of distributing that pay based on the individual's value to the system.