Commentary

In the cap age, loading up on veterans still comes with risks

Updated: September 11, 2008, 1:06 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Question: How much can NHL teams "load up" in the salary-cap age?

Answer: As much as they can, as long as the numbers work. But depending on the definition of "loading up," it only works if the marquee names involved still can deliver sufficient bang for the buck.

The Rangers, already up against the $56.7 million cap for the upcoming season, still seem to be one of the many teams in the mix for the elusive and indecisive Mats Sundin. Meanwhile, Brendan Shanahan is skating with Rangers veterans and still hoping to return for at least one more season. There's at least an outside possibility, though an extremely unlikely one, that they could find ways to open up room to have a lineup that includes former unrestricted free-agent forwards Shanahan and/or Sundin, Markus Naslund, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. If they were to do so, it would follow the expensive and long-term signing of defenseman Wade Redden.

Can that all work?

If they go that route, and it's a big "if" given the maneuvering that would be necessary to pull it off, the Rangers are getting back into what, at least relatively speaking in the cap age, is the fill-the-marquee approach that was such a resounding failure in the years leading up to the lockout. It's not necessarily a reprise of the blank-checkbook approach, because at some point veterans especially have to be less than financially ruthless to be able to fit under the cap in situations they find palatable.

Going into the fourth postlockout season, the NHL deserves credit for coming up with a system that: (a) doesn't have the loopholes, exceptions and built-in absurdities of the NBA system; and (b) as near as anyone can tell, hasn't been skirted with such things as stars' being promised artificially high-paying endorsement deals from a team's arena naming-rights sponsor or an owner's additional company if the players sign with certain franchises.

Still, there is an art to the system, especially because of the layering and chemistry principles. That art is evolving.

I remember talking to NFL general managers after the hockey labor settlement, and they noted that the NHL system, at least on paper, seemed markedly different than football's, which is based on the realities that contracts aren't guaranteed and the generally huge signing bonuses are prorated. They also emphasized that football executives learned that every year, someone comes up with new ways to tweak contracts and push the envelope. And they wondered out loud whether the NHL's hard cap would hold up to that sort of process.

It has.

We think.

Score one for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his hard-line owners in the lockout.

The system is a work in progress, and to this point, nobody seems to have found ways to beat the system as they all try to find delicate balances. With the cap going up nearly 50 percent since its implementation, some of the pressure has been alleviated. But the benchmark figures have gone up, too, much to the consternation of some.

Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning conceded that committing 39 percent of their cap space to three forwards -- Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis -- wasn't a formula for success or bottom-line justifiable, at least not within the context of their goaltending problems and other personnel judgment issues. If they had kept all three (Tampa Bay traded Richards to Dallas at last season's trade deadline), they would have combined cap figures of $19.9 million, or 35 percent of the cap space, and maybe that could have been a starting point for the new ownership, management and coaching regimes. In the wake of winger Ryan Malone's signing, the Lightning have $16.6 million committed to their top three forwards this time around.

As it stands now, the Rangers have $18.4 million in cap space, or about 32 percent of the total, committed to Naslund, who accepted a significant pay cut to sign a two-year, $8 million deal to come to New York; plus Drury and Gomez. So that threesome comes in at less than what Tampa Bay would have been paying if it had retained its big three.

The Rangers and Lightning are among 11 teams on the hook for more than $15 million in cap space allotted to three forwards. The others: Washington ($19.0 million), Ottawa ($18.8), San Jose ($17.8), Philadelphia ($17.5), Detroit ($17.2), Colorado ($16.2), Pittsburgh ($16.0), Dallas ($15.9) and New Jersey ($15.1). The catch and looming consideration, of course, is the pending restricted free agency and contract extensions for young stars, such as the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and the Avalanche's Paul Stastny, who are huge bargains at this stage of their careers. Malkin already has an extension, and his cap number jumps to $8.7 million in 2009-10, while Stastny will make only $710,000 this season and is destined to sign for much more at some point in the next year.

And that's part of the formula, too, having a roster of complementary elements and players making contributions that, relatively speaking in this age, outstrip their salaries. You can't get caught with "dead" money on the payroll, and it's "dead" money even if that big name is in the lineup, making $4 million and producing no more than a 22-year-old on a two-way contract would if he were to have the chance.

In recent weeks, the Avalanche re-signed Joe Sakic for $6 million, representing a $750,000 pay cut; the Wings re-signed defenseman Chris Chelios for $750,000, representing a win-win when he can be a virtual assistant coach and, if it comes to it, even an insurance policy. If Sakic has a good season and ponders returning for 2009-10 to get him through the Vancouver Olympics in his hometown, the Avalanche would have a tougher time staying under the cap following a Stastny signing, but at that point, Sakic likely would be flexible. Shanahan won't play for peanuts this year, but the Rangers in theory will find out how badly he wants to be a Blueshirt for one more season.

And that's the kind of accommodation necessary under this system, to make it work for the benefit of all.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."