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.
By waiting until Thursday to announce the contract extensions, the Blackhawks made it under the limit, even though they will be walking a fine line from now until the trading deadline in trying to stay on the right side of the cap, and may still move a player (Brent Sopel, Patrick Sharp) if it becomes necessary.
Chicago carried only 22 players on its six-game road trip at the end of November and constantly shuttled Bryan Bickell back and forth between their minor-league affiliate.
Losing Andrew Ebbett on waivers to the Minnesota Wild also saved them a few precious dollars.
Keith, meanwhile, will be the highest-paid defenceman in the NHL next year, at $8 million, followed by Pronger ($7.6 million) and Zdeno Chara ($7.5 million).
In all, Keith gets three years at $8 million. From there, it drops slightly every year: To $7.665 million, $7.6, $7.5, $6, $5, $4.5, $3.5, $2.65, $2.1 and $1.5, which takes him until the end of the 2022-23 season, at which point the NHL's newest expansion team, the Toronto St. Patricks, will be free to sign him as an unrestricted free agent.
Toews and Kane signed more traditional deals - the first, fourth and fifth years are $6.5 million; the second and third are worth $6 million each.
AROUND THE RINKS
Rumors persist that if the Philadelphia Flyers cannot shake out of a 1-6 slump in the past seven games that John Stevens will become the first coaching casualty of the season. Philadelphia's problem isn't goaltending - Ray Emery and Brian Boucher have been OK. Of late, they can't score - two consecutive shutout defeats, more than 160 minutes played without a goal. Captain Mike Richards called a team meeting after Thursday's loss to the Canucks to discuss how they can make life more difficult for opposing goaltenders. They're probably not missing Lupul in that regard; Mike Knuble might be a different story … Sometimes, those nice early season-success stories have a way of crashing back to earth when the calendar clicks over to December, but that's not happening with the Islanders' Matt Moulson, a 26-year-old who'd played only 29 previous NHL games prior to this season and signed a one-year deal last July for a modest $575,000. Moulson contributed a natural hat trick - the first of his NHL career - to leapfrog John Tavares and move into the team goal-scoring lead with 14 …The Rick DiPietro watch may finally be heading into the home stretch. Limited to only five games last season because of a knee injury that required some creative surgeries, the Islanders' goaltender is scheduled to play Saturday for the first time since this past January on a rehabilitation assignment for the club's AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. DiPietro has been a controversial figure in NHL circles ever since he signed a 15-year, $67.5 million contract in September, 2006, opening the floodgates for many similarly structured long-term deals, such as Keith's. If DiPietro's comeback fails, the Islanders can only recoup seven years of their investment in him through insurance. They are on the hook for the rest … Across town, the New York Rangers' $39 million defenceman, Wade Redden, who has been out with a shoulder problem of late, is scheduled to return for tonight's game against Buffalo … With the Great Eight, Alex Ovechkin, suspended until Monday's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Washington Capitals did get his fellow Russian sniper Alexander Semin back Thursday night and he responded with a four-point night in a victory over the Florida Panthers. Semin missed seven games with a sore wrist that may ultimately require surgery.
THE RUSSIANS ARE GOING
Nikita Filatov, who went back home to play for Red Army and continue his development at home, was named to Russia's preliminary roster for the 2010 world junior tournament and will almost certainly be a leading figure on the team, after scoring 10 points in first six KHL games. Just 19, Filatov played for Russia's bronze-medal team two years ago and scored nine points in seven games. Filatov still owes his NHL employers, the Columbus Blue Jackets, two years on his entry-level contract, when (or if) he chooses to return … The Anaheim Ducks are hoping that a change in scenery jumpstarts Kyle Chipchura's career. When the Rangers picked up Erik Christensen off waivers, it freed up the money and roster space to take a chance on Montreal's former first-rounder back in 2004 … Though he's back skating after missing two weeks with a back injury, the Ducks have not set a date for Joffrey Lupul's return to the line-up … That monster 19-game point-scoring streak came to an end for Corey Perry Thursday night, but not before rapping a shot off the post in a 3-1 loss to the Dallas Stars … Remember when the Ottawa Senators parted with a first-round draft choice to land a puck-moving defenceman in Chris Campoli from the Islanders last year? Campoli has been odd man out on the Senators recent West Coast road trip, with coach Cory Clouston opting to play rookie Erik Karlsson instead … Mike Comrie, so promising for the Oilers during the exhibition season, has missed seven games in a row now as a result of mononucleosis.
DON'T THINK TWICE, IT'S ALL RIGHT
Not just a favorite from the Bob Dylan catalogue, but a nice summation of the week that was for the Florida Panthers' Keith Ballard: Red-faced after inadvertently clubbing teammate Tomas Vokoun across the mask with his stick on Monday night, Ballard then ran over Colorado goaltender Craig Anderson in overtime of a game last Wednesday, prompting Avalanche defenceman Adam Foote to jump on him and pummel him with his fists.
While Ballard received a penalty for goaltender interference, Foote received a double roughing minor on the play. More significantly, Anderson had to leave the game with a neck injury, forcing back-up Peter Budaj to come in cold off the bench to finish the OT and then face the Panthers in the shootout. Florida eventually won on a goal by Stephen Weiss, who'd earlier scored a hat trick in the game.
Colorado had forced extra time by scoring twice in the final minute of regulation with the goalie on the bench for a sixth attacker. For Thursday's date with Pittsburgh, Colorado called up Tyler Weiman from Erie because Anderson couldn't go.
What Brendan Shanahan will bring to the mix as the NHL's new vice president of hockey and business development is a balanced voice, freshly removed from the playing arena, that can address some of the contentious issues floating around the game now - concussions, head shots, injuries of all sorts. Shanahan was both skilled (a 600-goal scorer) and tough (a 2,000-penalty minute man), the only player in history with a foot in both camps.
As such, Shanahan should bring a measured response to change - protecting the physical play that makes hockey so appealing, but acting as an advocate for players where protection is needed. Example: Last year, the NHLPA - of which he was a member - voted overwhelmingly to support a rule limiting contact to the head. The league rebuffed the overture. Maybe, with Shanahan in the hen house, it'll now get a second look.