With the NHL’s 2013-14 season at an end, teams will immediately embark on making changes to their roster. In addition to trades and free agency, GMs will have, for one last summer, the option to buy out contracts with no salary cap penalty.
The amnesty buyout period, which began last off-season but starts again today, provides each franchise with the opportunity to buy out two contracts; four teams (Chicago, Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto) used their two buyouts last season, while ten (Detroit, Edmonton, Minnesota, Nashville, New Jersey, the Islanders, Rangers, Tampa Bay, Vancouver and Washington) have bought out one contract. That leaves 16 teams (Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo, Calgary, Carolina, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, Florida, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis, Winnipeg) with two buyout options), but there’s no guarantee any of those franchises will utilize them.
That said, it’s a virtual certainty a handful of players signed to expensive contracts will be amnestied. In reverse order, here are the top five NHLer contracts likely to be bought out:
5. Anton Volchenkov, Devils. At $4.25 million per season for the next two years, Volchenkov is the fourth-highest paid player on New Jersey – ahead of goalie Cory Schneider ($4 million) – and their top-earning blueliner. However, the 32-year-old Russian plays an average of just 16:47 per game – dead last among Devils D-men. He’s also missed at least 10 games every season since 2006-07.
The Devils currently have $57 million in used salary cap space for the 2014-15 campaign; if they hope to bring back unrestricted free agent defenseman Mark Fayne – and when they need to sign Schneider to a new deal next summer – using Volchenkov’s money will be a big help.
4. Marc-Andre Fleury, Penguins. Maybe new Penguins GM Jim Rutherford will find a taker for the final season (and the $5 million cap hit) of Fleury’s contract. However, there aren’t a slew of teams looking for a No. 1 goalie whose performance has been spotty when the games matter most.
The Pens are another team with major cap challenges – they’ve got decisions to make on UFA blueliners Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, as well was UFA winger Jussi Jokinen and restricted free agent Brandon Sutter – and freeing up cap space via a Fleury buyout makes sense. It also makes sense from a personal perspective for the 29-year-old, who could use a change of scenery at this point. Rutherford has said he doesn’t expect to use his compliance buyouts, but things can change, especially if he makes a move for different look in net – say, Carolina’s Cam Ward – and can’t unload Fleury in a trade.
3. David Booth, Canucks Booth is a shadow of the player he was when he signed a six-year, $25.5-million deal with the Florida in 2009 and was a source of buyout speculation last summer. With goalie Roberto Luongo dealt to the Panthers, Booth’s deal becomes the main contract on Vancouver’s roster worth amnestying. He’s got one year left on it (at a $4.25 million cap hit) and new GM Jim Benning can use that money to ease his team’s cap burden, which already is hefty at $59 million.
If, after a buyout, Booth gets more than half that salary on the open market, many would be surprised; this is a player who was on the ice an average of 13:28 last season.
2. Brad Richards, Rangers Is Richards a husk of a talent former Rangers coach John Tortorella was justified in scapegoating in the 2013 post-season? No. His 20-goal, 51-point regular season was respectable and his veteran leadership would benefit any team. Unfortunately for him, the specter of the NHL’s punitive cap recapture penalties is too ominous for Blueshirts GM Glen Sather to ignore.
If the Rangers find some way to justify keeping Richards around, it should be the last straw for Sather’s tenure. The team’s cap situation isn’t pretty ($63.5 million in salary already committed to next season, and new contracts needed for RFAs Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello) dictates the organization needs to bid adieu to Richards, even in the immediate wake of its Stanley Cup Final appearance. Ultimately, this is all about Sather’s typical largesse coming back to bite him again.
1. Ville Leino, Sabres The Sabres are the only one of the teams on this list who aren’t in cap trouble, but the Leino contract stinks like a limburger cheese factory destroyed by a collision with a curry truck and must be disposed of this off-season.
Buffalo fans have over the years been accustomed to good players leaving town for big money paydays elsewhere, so seeing a bad player leaving town for a fraction of the payday with another NHL team – if the 30-year-old Finn doesn’t leave for the KHL or another pro league, that is – will be a novelty. The only question about Leino’s future is what day Sabres GM Tim Murray announces the buyout.