Another week and another NHL team blatantly plowed through a CBA loophole in order to circumvent the salary cap.
And no, we're not talking about the Chicago Blackhawks, who signed three players - including defenceman Duncan Keith - to multi-year contract extensions Thursday worth a cool $135-million in total. The NHL gave the deals, including Keith's 13-year extension, its blessing - which is not to say that the Blackhawks are in the clear on the Marian Hossa extension signed this summer.
Keith's $72-million contract received the OK, after it had been vetted by the league and tweaked so that the dollars at the back end are defensible.
Instead, the contract that the league will scrutinize is the seven-year, $28.5 million extension signed by Marc Savard with the Boston Bruins.
On the surface, it looked as if Savard granted the Bruins a large home-town discount.
After all, in today's marketplace, an average annual salary of just over $4 million is relatively modest for a player that - when healthy - averages more than a point per game.
In point of fact, the 32-year-old Savard is getting fair-market value in the first four years of the deal, when he'll be at his most productive. Those years came in at $7 million, $7 million, $6.5 million and $5 million. From there, it drops to $1.5 million - and then goes down to just $525,000 in each of the final two years of the deal, at which point Savard will be 39 and almost certainly retired on a golf course somewhere in Florida.
It was an obvious and egregious attempt to keep the salary-cap charge down, so that the Bruins can keep their other star players under contract - and mirrors almost exactly the contract that Chris Pronger signed last summer with the Philadelphia Flyers, which also starts high ($7.6 million) and ends with two final years at the same $525,000 that Savard took at the end of his deal.
Pronger will be 42 when the contract expires; chances are the NHL minimum salary may even exceed half-a-million by then.
Beyond gritting its teeth in silent frustration, the NHL's challenge will be to unearth evidence - by examining e-mails and other details of the contract negotiations - to prove what everybody already knows; that the structure of these contracts is designed strictly to circumvent the salary cap.
Investigations are ongoing into the Hossa, Pronger and Roberto Luongo contracts to see if anybody involved tipped their hands as to their real purpose. If so, penalties - including fines and forfeited draft choices - could be applied after the fact.
Sources indicate that Savard's deal with undergo a similar hard review.
The only fundamental difference between Chicago's overall signing strategy and Boston's is that the Bruins are trying to head-off a potential cap crisis ahead of time - getting core players signed, but trading away others (Chuck Kobasew, Phil Kessel)). The Blackhawks dug themselves a hole two years back by signing Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet to contracts that average $7.1 and $5.625 million respectively; and next year, won't be able to retain every player on their current roster, no matter what happens with the salary cap. In short, general manager Stan Bowman has a whole lot of work ahead of him.
In the end, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed identical deals worth $31.5 million apiece, which average $6.3 million - or roughly what it took for the Anaheim Ducks to sign Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to their extensions a couple of years back.
The Ducks had to hold off on completing the Perry contract because they lacked the so-called 'tagging room' needed to get the deal done. Under the CBA, a team cannot commit to a payroll in a coming year that will exceed the salary cap for the current year ($56.8 million).
Eventually, to make the numbers work, Anaheim traded a player off its current roster, Andy McDonald, to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Doug Weight, a player with an expiring contract - a trade that hurt the Ducks in the long run.