Ask Adam: Rampant rule-breaking, Kovalchuk’s NHL return, and salary-cap loopholes

Marc-Andre Fleury

This is THN’s online mailbag. Thanks for your questions, even if I wasn’t able to answer them here or in our magazine.

Adam,

Both the L.A. Kings and the Boston Bruins commit fouls non-stop throughout every game. Certainly, this must make refereeing those games a nightmare, since the stripes don’t have the stones to call everything. That said, is it a coincidence the Bruins and Kings have had continued playoff success playing in such a fashion? How much of a factor is this incessant rule-breaking in that success?
Craig Carruthers, Vancouver

Craig,

First thing’s first: the referees have “stones”, but they serve at the direction of the NHL. The league’s true power brokers – team owners, GMs, and, to a lesser degree, the NHL Players’ Association – decide what calls are going to be emphasized and relay that philosophy to the officials to implement.

Teams and players are always going to push the boundaries of the rules as far as possible until the officials/league pushes back. And so, when the NHL slowly and quietly backs away from much-heralded “crackdowns” on certain types of behavior, they understand there’s no reason for them to play a “clean” game. If other teams aren’t punished for it, why should they? If it’s successful under the rules of engagement, you don’t argue with success.

This is why more teams now talk about playing a “heavier” (the current buzzword for physical and edgy) game. If that’s the style the NHL is going to reward, they’d be doing their fans a disservice not to play it.

Dear Adam,

I was wondering what would happen if Ilya Kovalchuk tried to come back to the NHL, as others such as Alex Radulov and Jaromir Jagr have. Would New Jersey be allowed to block his move to any other team but them? As I recall, the Red Wings still held Gordie Howe’s rights when he returned to the NHL as a member of the Hartford Whalers years after he retired, but simply didn’t reclaim him.
Ryan Humphrey, Victoria, B.C.

Dear Ryan,

When Kovalchuk left for the KHL last summer with 12 years remaining on his contract, the league placed him on its “voluntary retired list” and made clear any eventual return by the would require the approval of all teams. However, when he turns 35 years old in 2018, he’ll be removed from that list and become an unrestricted free agent.

Essentially, he’s got four years where he can stay in Russia before being free to choose his fate in North America. He almost certainly won’t be as effective by then, but a star of his caliber will attract interest, either from the Devils or another team. Given his history, though, I wouldn’t expect him to sign a contract longer than one year. You know GMs aren’t going to gamble on him pulling the same move again, especially when any contract he’d sign would remain on a team’s salary cap regardless of whether he “retires” again.

Adam,

Chris Pronger and Marc Savard have acknowledged the reality that their concussion problems have effectively ended their playing careers. Because of their injuries, they cannot be bought out, and though long-term injury reserve gives teams some relief once the season starts, the contracts still cause the teams grief in the offseason.

Seems to me a solution would be for the player to retire, and be hired into the front office with some vague title (advisor?) at his player salary. The team sheds a contract and gains off-season cap space. The player gets paid the same either way, and in Pronger’s case, becomes Hall Of Fame-eligible sooner. And I’m sure the Players’ Association wouldn’t complain either, since it would reduce escrow. Is there any rule hidden in the CBA that would prevent this kind of thing? Superficially, it’s no different than when Garth Snow moved from backup goalie to GM. It seems like a win-win for everyone involved. Am I missing something here?
Adam Oystreck, Winnipeg

Adam,

I disagree with your premise that it’s no different than Snow’s situation. Snow was 36 when he retired and wasn’t locked up to a mammoth contract. But under your proposal, much younger players with longer terms on their deals would be able to retire into a vague role with an organization. That would be a huge salary cap circumvention, because big-market teams that can afford to pay veterans to not play would have a distinct competitive advantage over franchises that don’t have that type of financial largesse. This is the same reason teams aren’t allowed to hire family members of players in some loosely defined role.

Even if there’s not a direct impact on the ice with the type of maneuver you suggest, from an ownership and management perspective, teams would see it as a loophole that could be exploited.

Adam,

Do any NHL teams track “points per even-strength minute” (PEM)? It’s not fair to compare a player’s offensive contribution if they don’t get power play time or only play nine or 10 minutes a game! Even better, why not calculate a player’s salary per even-strength minute to evaluate the most undervalued players?
M. Flinkton, Whitby, Ont.

M.,

To my knowledge, no team has come out explicitly and said they keep track of players’ points per minute at even strength, but since excellent sites such as ExtraSkater.com are tracking numerous types of advanced stats, you have to believe teams are exploring all sorts of analytics as another tool – but not the primary tool – by which to evaluate players.

That said, giving a player a value rating based in part on their salary isn’t a foolproof process. Look at Chicago’s Bryan Bickell: he had a disappointing regular season (11 goals and 15 points in 59 games) in the first year of a four-year, $16-million contract. However, he’s been a playoff beast for them (five goals and eight points in nine games) in the 2014 post-season.

Would you say those playoff goals are more valuable than a dozen or more regular-season goals? I would.

Ask Adam appears Fridays on THN.com. Ask your question on our submission page. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.