Sources: Hossa, Pronger deals probed

Updated: July 31, 2009, 7:41 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Because of growing concerns over the manner in which teams are locking up top players to front-loaded, long-term contracts, the National Hockey League has launched an investigation into the recent signings of Marian Hossa and Chris Pronger, sources told ESPN.com.

The NHL will hire an outside firm to determine whether the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers discussed a timeline for Hossa's or Pronger's potential retirement before the long-term contracts were signed.

At the end of the investigation the NHL will decide whether to pursue charges against the the teams for circumventing the collective bargaining agreement. The teams could face fines, the loss of draft picks or both.

Hossa signed a 12-year deal with the Blackhawks that begins with payments of $7.9 million for the first seven years and finishes with four years at $1 million annually. The overall cap hit for the Blackhawks is a completely manageable $5.275 million a year.

Hossa will turn 42 if he plays to the end of the contract, which raised red flags for the NHL and was one factor in calling for a probe of the deal.

The NHL is also concerned about the dramatic drop-off in the payments. The last four years at $1 million a year represent just 6.3 percent of the total contract even though that's one-third of the years on the deal.

The problem, from the league's perspective, is if a player is locked in to a deal for $1 million between the ages of 38 and 42 it could be incentive to retire because he cannot renegotiate.

One NHL executive suggested the average salary of most 40-year-old players is about $1 million a year, so the back end of the Hossa deal isn't out of line.

The Pronger deal is different because even if Pronger, who will turn 35 before the seven-year extension kicks in next summer, retires, the Flyers will take an average cap hit of $5 million annually for the life of the contract. At least that's the league's take on the deal.

Still, the league is likewise examining the Pronger deal that has him making $7.6, $7.6, $7.2 and $7 million in the first four years, $4 million in the fifth year and then $525,000 in each of the last two years. That makes the cap hit manageable at a shade under $5 million annually.

The Blackhawks released a statement on Friday denying any violation of the CBA.

Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren was unavailable Friday.

For a number of years the NHL has been warning GMs that the league will be watching these kinds of front-loaded, long-term contracts -- a warning that was expressly made again at the general managers meetings in Florida in March -- to try to curb what agents and GMs acknowledge is a loophole in the current collective bargaining agreement.

Although most people point to contracts tendered by the Detroit Red Wings earlier this year to top players like Henrik Zetterberg (12 years) and Johan Franzen (11 years) as other examples of what the league is trying to eradicate, it's believed the NHL has examined those deals and concluded they were negotiated within the spirit of the CBA.

Still, numerous sources believe the NHL's investigation is nothing more than a chill tactic by the league to try to bring GMs to heel.

These sources point out that both the Pronger and Hossa contracts were registered by the league which, they believe, suggests the contracts are compliant with the CBA.

If the league does try to sanction either of these teams, watch for the NHLPA to involve itself as it will view such punitive action as a move by the league to limit players' rights.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.