In January, when the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association agreed to a new collective agreement, they included a provision for amnesty buyouts, designed to make big, bad contracts go away, in the context of a falling salary cap. The Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers exercised their rights to compliance buyouts once already – to make the contracts of the overpriced Scott Gomez and Wade Redden disappear.
Generally, it was believed these buyouts would deal with only the most disastrous of contracts – such as the 15-year deal Rick DiPietro signed with the New York Islanders.
The reality is, there’s nothing to prevent teams from using amnesty buyouts to make smaller contracts go away either – which brings us to the curious case of Miikka Kiprusoff, the Calgary Flames goaltender, who has soared to the top of the leaderboard, with the NHL trade deadline set for 3 p.m. (ET) on Wednesday.
Kiprusoff, 36, is entwined in a contract mess of his own. Next year, he will enter the final year of a front-loaded six-year, $35-million (all currency U.S.) contract that will pay him a miniscule $1.5-million for the final season, 2013-14. Even before former Flames coach Mike Keenan confirmed it on the air, most believed Kiprusoff would retire rather than play a year for that comparatively small sum of money.
The problem, of course, is that how Kiprusoff imagined his career arc going back in 2008, when he originally signed the deal could be far different than how he feels now. Maybe he wants to keep playing and if he does, then some smart GM somewhere is going to need to figure out how to make the final year of the contract go away and leave everybody in a state of happily-ever-after.
Thankfully, there is a way that it could happen and the best way to illustrate it is in the context of the Toronto Maple Leafs interest in Kiprusoff’s services (although the St. Louis Blues better be in their bidding for him as well, given goaltender Jaroslav Halak’s uncertain health status).
The Leafs, who have permission to speak to Kiprusoff’s camp, could offer him a choice of two options if he were to accept a trade to Toronto and played well for them for the remainder of the season. In exchange for that the Leafs could promise to either a) buy him out at that point, if that’s what he wanted; or b) extend his contract and pad the deal with a big signing bonus.
Either way, Kiprusoff wins. If he accepted the Leafs’ buyout, he could then go on to play wherever he wants – for any of the other 29 teams in the NHL, in Russia, back home in Finland, or some small village in the Swiss Alps. The only team he couldn’t sign with would be Toronto.
If Kiprusoff played well and happened to like it with the Leafs, they could go the other way – sign him to a new deal and make it worth his while financially by paying him a lot of cash up front in the extension.
Beyond the financial hoops that they’d have to jump through, Toronto would need to see value in landing a player with Kiprusoff’s pedigree for the playoffs. They would have to be convinced Kiprusoff’s struggles this year are not part of an overall decline in his game, but the byproduct of playing for a losing team going nowhere.
At his best, Kiprusoff is wholly engaged in every game he plays. Head up, head on a swivel, moving quickly and acrobatically from post to post, battling for every puck. That player – remarkably consistent from night to night – has been absent for large stretches this season. Mostly fans in Calgary have seen him at his worst, when half-a-second behind the play, a little disengaged and not nearly as focused as he needs to be.
Toronto was trying to get answers about his intentions from Kiprusoff in the final 48 hours before the trade deadline. Last week, his position was he didn’t want to go anywhere this year for family reasons – because he and his wife just had a new baby. But if he can be coaxed into changing his mind, and be convinced that a move somewhere – to Toronto, St. Louis or elsewhere – would give him an elusive crack at the Stanley Cup, then maybe he’d consider it.
Kiprusoff, as a personality, is a bit of sphinx. In his 10 years with the Flames, he hasn’t said much of consequence, preferring to let his play do the talking. But for the better part of a decade, his play also propped up a series of average-to-below-average Calgary teams, making them better than they should be – and was a force in the 2004 playoffs, something Leaf general manager David Nonis will remember only too well, because his old team, the Vancouver Canucks, was one of Kiprusoff’s victims that spring.
The reality is, the end is coming for Kiprusoff in Calgary and the Flames want to get something for his rights, even if it’s only a second-round draft choice. They are in the midst of a fire sale which has already seen them trade away their two highest-paid players, Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester, for prospects and draft choices.
The Leafs, meanwhile, have a long history of doing well with older goaltenders, going all the way back to the Johnny Bower/Terry Sawchuk era. Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour both joined the Leafs in their 30s and paid huge dividends. It might be time to go back to that strategic well one more time and see if it still has some merit.