Cap and trade, NHL style
The league's salary regulations have created a strange and unintended secondary market for wounded players and costly contracts
The annual pilgrimage of NHL players to training camps begins in mid-September – and it will include former Toronto Maple Leaf Dave Bolland, making his way to Arizona to take his preseason physical.
The only difference is that Bolland's stay with the Coyotes will last only a day or two – just enough time for him to fail that physical, and be declared physically unable to compete during the 2017-18 season.
Debilitating ankle and back injuries have turned Bolland, who was a key playoff contributor to the Chicago Blackhawks'$2 2013 Stanley Cup championship team, into an NHL salary-cap casualty. He is one of the league's Lost Boys, players who've disappeared into a weird form of NHL limbo. All still get paid and all are still technically on active NHL rosters, but they are unable to compete because of their varied incapacitating medical issues.
The names are familiar to hockey fans when they drift into a "Whatever Happened To … ?" mode.
There is Sheldon Souray and Ryane Clowe. Nathan Horton and David Clarkson. Johan Franzen and Stéphane Robidas. Chris Pronger spent six years on an active NHL roster, even though he was told back in 2011 that he'd likely never play again. Then there is Bolland, who turned 31 earlier this year, far too soon to reach this career crossroad.
"That's the age where, for a lot of guys, they're just coming into their primes," Bolland said. "To have my career cut short like that was disappointing. I was looking forward to hopefully playing until I was 40 and maybe getting another Stanley Cup under my belt.
"But that's the way life goes sometimes."
And the physical examination is real – players must show up to have their injured areas tested to see if there is an improvement and to see if they're physically fit to play.
Bolland's story has become increasingly common, as the NHL enters the 11th season of the salary-cap era. Under rules of the collective agreement, NHL teams must fully meet their contractual obligations to players, even if they're hurt.
Over time, a swap market developed for these contracts. Teams that needed to create extra cap space started to find willing trading partners in teams with salary-cap room to spare.
Think of it as the NHL equivalent to a carbon-tax-credit program.
In effect, all these players are receiving the hockey equivalent of a golden parachute – getting paid not to play. But it is an uneasy sort of existence, according to Souray, the ex-Canadien, ex-Oiler, ex-Devil, who was still being paid by the Anaheim Ducks until 2015, when his contract finally expired.
One year into a three-year, $11-million (all figures U.S.) free-agent deal with Anaheim, Souray suffered an injury to his wrist training for the 2013-14 season, and never played again. The biggest splash Souray made this NHL off-season was selling his Las Vegas home in to Marc-André Fleury, goaltender for the expansion Golden Knights. He is moving back to Los Angeles to figure out the next chapter in his life.
"We're all big boys here," Souray said. "With the money you're making, no one feels sorry for you. But with the [rapid] turnover of guys, it's really easy to get lost in the shuffle. Once your career is over, as soon as you're done, you're a forgotten-about dude.
"You get hurt and they tell you in the blink of an eye that your career is over. It happens that fast. It's crazy. I had my [wrist] surgery. I went home – and I was done. The only person who checks in on you is your agent."
So many players fell into the injured/unable-to-perform category last spring that the NHL sent out a clarification notice in advance of the Vegas expansion draft – designating 12 players as ineligible for selection as a result of injury. Three were still technically on the Coyotes' roster back in June – Bolland, Craig Cunningham and Pronger, though Pronger's contract subsequently expired and he is now working in the Florida Panthers' front office.
The others were Horton and Robidas (Toronto), Clarkson (Columbus), Mikhail Grabovski (New York Islanders), Cody McCormick (Buffalo), Franzen and Joe Vitale (Detroit), Clowe (New Jersey) and Pascal Dupuis (Pittsburgh).
Horton signed a free-agent contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013 after helping the Boston Bruins win the 2011 Stanley Cup and has played only 36 NHL games since. Horton may be the most expensive Lost Boy in history – and if he isn't, it's only because Clarkson fits the bill. Horton and Clarkson were once traded for each other, back in February of 2015. Horton joined the Leafs and Clarkson joined the Blue Jackets in a widely discussed trade that had zero impact on the ice, only on the balance sheet.
Horton, from Welland, Ont., has missed three full seasons now. He turned 32 last May. But he is still listed in the NHL Official Guide & Record Book under the tag line 'Did Not Play – Injured.' Clarkson, from Toronto, did get into three games for Columbus in 2015 and 23 more in 2016. This past year, he didn't play at all. In June, Columbus gave the Vegas Golden Knights a first- and a second-round draft choice to keep their hands off a handful of players – and just as important, to take Clarkson's contract off their books. Vegas also received a first-round pick from the New York Islanders to take on the last of their financial obligations to Grabovski.
The Golden Knights currently have four players earning $5-million or more on their NHL roster. Two – Clarkson and Grabovski – won't play a minute of hockey for them this season.
Grabovski and Clarkson ended up on the Vegas payroll, because the returns Golden Knights general manager George McPhee received in the trade offers from his peers proved irresistible.
"Cap space is a valuable commodity," McPhee said, "and it can become a dilemma for teams with cap issues because certain contracts can get in the way of putting your best team on the ice. So teams with cap space are willing to absorb those contracts for a price.
"I can't speak to why other teams do it, but for us, it was logical from a business standpoint. We looked at it as a resource to try and make our team better, as part of our overall operating strategy."
Arizona took on Bolland's contract from Florida because the Panthers sweetened the deal by including Lawson Crouse, a highly regarded prospect, chosen 11th over all in 2015. The Coyotes saw the deal – which cost them a 2017 second-round pick in addition to picking up Bolland's salary obligation – as a financially sound investment.
"A lot of owners are business people, so they want you to present a business case for why you're doing what you're doing," said Coyotes general manager John Chayka. "We were at a certain life cycle in our organization where we had a need for high-end elite talent. Getting a high draft pick is the easiest way to find those truly special players, but there's a huge cost to that – of going through a full season where you're not very good.
"Five years from now, if we're a team of good young players in the primes of their careers, it will also mean they're probably getting paid at the highest level. At that point,we probably wouldn't have the salary-cap space to do some of these things.
"But in our current cycle, it just made sense."
Usually, a trade causes upheaval and disruption in an NHL player's life. But for Bolland, the trade changed only one thing – the salary was paid on behalf of Arizona owner Andrew Barroway, instead of Florida owner Vincent Viola.
Pronger's rights were attractive to Arizona in 2015 because his front-loaded contract paid him only $575,000 in real dollars, but carried an annual salary-cap charge of $4.9-million. That season, Arizona used Pronger's contract to meet its minimum payroll obligations (the NHL salary structure has both a maximum and a minimum spending threshold).
However, teams such as the Coyotes won't necessarily have to pay the full amount of a player's contract. Insurance sometimes covers up to 80 per cent of the salary of a player on long-term injury reserve. And sometimes a player has been paid up front. The contract figure charged against a club's salary cap, however, is the full original amount.
In all, Pronger spent six years in NHL limbo until his contract expired this past June, at which point he was free to ponder different offers. Like Bolland, Pronger said he fully understood the machinations of the NHL salary cap and didn't take it personally when the Flyers asked him to waive his no-move clause to join the Coyotes in a paper transaction.
Pronger even made a joke of it: At his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he said he might enter the Hall wearing a Coyotes cap.
But Pronger also acknowledged it was an odd feeling – to be traded from a Philadelphia team he was never going to play for again to an Arizona team that he would never play for at all.
"It's because you're in no-man's land," Pronger said. "Your rights are with a team, but you're not with the team. You're not actively participating in anything involving the team – and yet, you're on an active roster and you're on an active contract.
"I mean, I understand the salary cap – and I was getting paid. But as a player in that position, when you know you're not going to play any more, you want to move on with your life."
Instead, the mechanics of the salary cap obliged Pronger to make a trip to Arizona twice a year if he wanted to continue getting paid. Collective-bargaining agreement rules stipulate that even players who suffered career-ending injuries need to take entry and exit physicals every year to satisfy insurance requirements. Otherwise, they would be in breach of their contracts.
"I'd fly in to Phoenix from Philly to take my entry physical – which you'd fail," Pronger said. "Then you'd go back in for an exit physical at the end of the year – which you'd fail.
"You know and everybody else knows you're never going to play again. But three years after I got hurt, people were still coming up to me and asking, 'So when are you going to come back?' I mean, seriously, do you really think I'm coming back? I've been out of the game for three years. Let's take our fan cap off and put our human cap on. It wasn't going to happen."
In addition to trading for Pronger's and Bolland's contracts, the Coyotes also took on the final year of Pavel Datsyuk's contract from Detroit in June, 2016. The cost to Detroit was moving down four places in the annual entry draft. Arizona, by jumping to the 16th selection from the 20th, was able to select defenceman Jakob Chychrun in the draft, who played on the Coyotes as an 18-year-old.
In Datsyuk's case, the Coyotes didn't even need to pay his contract because he had retired and gone to play in Russia. Bolland receives the full value of his guaranteed contract, but the team can recoup 80 per cent of his salary through insurance.
Bolland's contract had three years remaining at an annual average salary of $5.5-million when the Coyotes made the deal.
"But it's only a 20-per-cent cost to us," said Chayka, adding that to get players of Chychrun's and Crouse's pedigree would otherwise be a far more expensive undertaking.
"They are unique players who bring a skill set that's difficult to trade for and difficult if not impossible to sign in free agency – especially not in that age group and at that cost control. So the way we calculated that was, if we can get a Lawson Crouse for that 20-per-cent cost [of Bolland's salary], it would be far higher price to acquire him on the open market. We've done it here recently – acquired players on the open market – and you typically have to overpay to get those players."
For Bolland, the beginning of the end came while playing for the Maple Leafs in Vancouver, where he tore the peroneal tendon in his ankle, a relatively rare injury. At the time, Bolland believed the injury would be like any other he suffered throughout his career – he would follow doctors' orders until he recovered and then would resume playing. Instead, things kept getting worse, instead of better.
"When you get injured, [doctors] give you a period of time they think you'll need to recover," Bolland said. "You do your rehab. You work hard to do whatever you can to get back. But it did feel like just another injury – and I thought I'd be back playing.
"I never had the mindset that my career would be done."
Pronger eventually landed a position in the NHL's player-safety department. But he had to receive a special waiver to work there, because he was still under contract to a team.
During Pronger's time in limbo, a number of teams expressed an interest in bringing him into their front offices, but he couldn't join the management group of one club if he was technically still on the payroll of another.
Even though Bolland can't play for the Coyotes, Chayka believes it is important to forge a relationship with his long-term injured players. Pronger is now off the Coyotes' books, but Chayka says his presence will be missed at this year's training camp.
"I remember Cam Dineen [chosen 68th over all in the 2016 entry draft by Arizona] came into his first pro camp and saw me talking to Chris Pronger. Suddenly, this young guy from Jersey now gets a chance to talk to Chris Pronger," Chayka said.
"Chris – all the guys we've had here – they've been good and we've tried to treat them with respect. They understand the situation. These guys, they'd all be playing if they still could. Sometimes they get injured and it's tough for them to walk away.
"But that's the sport – and that's the business – we're in."