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THN.com Blog: Contract opt-out option fair for NHL, NHLPA

Wade Redden has 40 points in 68 games with the Connecticut Whale this season. (Photo by Chris Rutsch)

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Wade Redden has 40 points in 68 games with the Connecticut Whale this season. (Photo by Chris Rutsch)

They say money makes the world go ‘round. But it can also make it come crashing down.
Teams that can afford it are sending overpriced, underperforming players to the American League to clear salary cap space. The players still get their cake, but it’s a shot to their professional pride. NHL teams have a recourse when it comes to bad contracts, but the players who signed them don’t. And that isn’t fair.

While big-ticket guys such as Wade Redden - and/or their agents - should heed the safety net that is a no-movement clause (players have taken less money for that insurance), they shouldn’t be punished because an overzealous GM offered them more than they’re worth. Same goes for the group making less than Redden, but still too much for a cap-strapped team to swallow. If banished to the AHL, players should be able to opt out of their contracts to get back to the NHL at a more reasonable price.
 
Not that they all would. For the April 4 issue of The Hockey News magazine, Ryan Dixon wrote a feature focusing on guys earning major money in the minor leagues.

Toronto Marlies defenseman Jeff Finger is making $3.5 million with the Maple Leafs’ top farm team. He’s fulfilled his dream of playing in the NHL, but also dreamt of setting his family up for life, which he did with the four-year, $14-million deal he signed with the Leafs in 2008. Safe to say the defenseman is not looking for a do-over.

“It’s a no-brainer to me,” Finger told Dixon when asked if he’d make the same decision.
 
Finger is happy with his lot in life. Others, such as Redden, give off a different vibe.
 
The Rangers were still spiralling down the “salary cap, schmalary cap” rabbit hole when they inked Redden in ’08 to a ridiculous six-year, $39-million contract. Fast forward three seasons and the blueliner is playing for the Connecticut Whale in the AHL when he’d be the ninth-highest paid defenseman in the NHL.
 
And while Redden has done his best to make peace with the situation, you get the feeling that if a magic wand could be waved, he’d think long and hard about passing on the $16.5 million he’s still owed to get back to the big time.
 
“I know I can still play (in the NHL),” he said.

Redden has made about $55 million playing hockey and at 33 his shelf life is short. But there’s no way he gets back to the NHL in the next three years with a $6.5-million cap hit. And make no mistake: Redden is only out of the league because of his contract.

“He would be a very serviceable, very effective No. 5 or 6 guy who’d give you 20 honest minutes every night,” said a prominent player agent not affiliated with Redden.

But is an opt-out clause even viable?

The agent was skeptical anyone would leave Redden-type money behind, but said many of the guys with smaller contracts who’ve been squeezed by the cap would take advantage of opting out. They’d earn less right away with the hopes of playing their way into another contract.

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But a source told me the NHLPA would, obviously, argue the problem is ultimately created by the cap itself. If there wasn’t a cap, teams wouldn’t send players down, rather they would keep them, buy them out or search the trade market for a suitor. The union fears the existance of an opt-out clause would lead to pressure from teams, and the media, to have a player void his contract or else be sent down. Although the agent I spoke with didn’t believe pressure from anyone would be much of an issue.

You can be sure the PA wants to see its guys in the NHL if they’re good enough, but it would push for a new buyout system, not a system in which players have to leave their money on the table.

According to the agent, the NHL terms the burying of one-way contracts in the AHL as “leakage,” as in cap money leaking out of the league. Last year there was about $30 million that wasn’t counted towards NHL teams’ total cap hit. While that helps some individual clubs operate, it affects the owners’ cumulative bottom line because that’s $30 million that wasn’t counted against the league’s hockey-related revenues. It’s those revenues that dictate how much money the players, as a group, take home each year and how much money the owners don’t.

“The league doesn’t want any leakage at all,” the agent said.

So a compromise is needed and will be addressed during the next round of collective bargaining negotiations. But that’s a season away and you’ve got to feel for the guys stuck in the minors right now and wonder if they’d take advantage of opting out. Such a clause wouldn’t be difficult to write, about 15 minutes worth of work according to the agent. The only thing that would hold up the process is acrimony between the league and the NHLPA.

If it got done, an opt-out clause would be a stop gap for both sides. The NHL wouldn’t have to deal with as much leakage and players would have options if priced out of the best league in the world.

Seems like a win-win. And only fair.

John Grigg is the assignment editor with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog appearing on the weekend. Follow him on Twitter on twitter.com/THNJohnGrigg.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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