There is a brand new sub-species of NHL players. These are the ones who have been bought out, released or hidden by their NHL teams because the team in question no longer feels the player is worth their cost to the organization.
Usually, as a result of a General Manager's fear or folly, a player has been signed for too much, too long or both. A team that does that more than once or twice is likely to end up in cap trouble. The scramble to get under the cap results in more and more bizarre NHL personnel moves. Perfectly good hockey players are left begging for work because their cap hit exceeds their value. NHL teams convince some players to accept the league-minimum salary.
Alexei Yashin was one of the original poster boys for players paid too much for too long. The talented Yashin was traded from Ottawa to New York for Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt and a first round pick who turned out to be Jason Spezza. The Islander GM at the time, Mike Milbury, immediately signed Yashin to a ten year 87.5 million dollar contract. By 2007 though, the Islanders had had enough with Yashin's diminishing offensive production and bought him out. They still owe him 4.755 million dollars this season and 2.2 million a year for the next four years.
Yashin unhappy with offers he got in North America has been playing hockey in Russia while pocketing Mike Milbury's mad money. This cautionary tale is probably the only thing keeping the Islanders from buying out their other long-term contract bust Rick Dipietro. Rick has looked at times like a pretty good goalie but he just can't play at an NHL level and stay healthy. He's still on the Islander payroll for a decade at 4.5 million dollars a year and he's played in 13 games in the last two years.
Yashin was all alone out there when his contract was bought out. Now however almost every NHL payroll is carrying at least one bought-out contract. Throw in the players who have been asked or pushed to play in Europe or the minors to keep their salary from counting against the cap, and the NHL is spending tens of millions of dollars for players to not play in the NHL.
Whatever math you use, this is not the way to insure that the best talent in the world is playing in your league. All this money could be going to pay talented players to play in front of NHL spectators.
You could outfit a complete team with these players. Not a good team, but still a team of mostly veteran talent.
Cristobel Huet is scheduled to make 5.625 million dollars a year for the next two years. The Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks could not afford to pay the erratic goaltender so they bustled him off to Switzerland to play the next two years while not counting against the cap. Huet has had some great moments and numbers in the NHL, but in the end he's not good with a heavy work-load or pressure. When his game falls apart and it always does it falls apart completely. There is probably a niche for him somewhere earning minimum wage as a quality back-up in the NHL.
Evgeni Nabokov was a very good goalie who was paid highly to be San Jose's number one starter. After nine seasons with little playoff success, the Sharks left him unsigned. No one rushed in from the NHL to pay Nabokov in the fashion he had become accustomed to, so he has gone to the KHL. This is a loss of a quality goalie from the league. The league can't afford to be losing too many other players of his ability and experience.
Ray Emery made it back to the NHL after a year in Russia. The volatile Emery suffered a hip injury that he's still recovering from. He still could probably find a spot as a back-up at a league minimum salary. He's still earning at least that much from Ottawa for the next two years.
Martin Gerber looks to have reached the end of his career. Edmonton signed him back from Russia, and have put him in the minors. He will likely only make it back to the NHL if all the Oiler goalies get injured. It's unlikely any other NHL teams will claim him.
Sheldon Souray has also been assigned to the minors by the Oilers.
The talented power-play specialist has a terrifying point shot and is tough as nails. Injuries, his defensive-zone short-comings, a bad attitude and a 5.4 million-dollar salary have lead to his demotion.
Edmonton hasn't been able to trade him because no one else wants a 5.4 million dollar cap hit for a mouthy, power play specialist.
If he can prove he's healthy in the minors, teams will probably be happy to claim him if Edmonton tries to bring him back to the big club. In that case, his salary will be cut in half with the claiming team and the Oilers each paying Souray 2.7 million a year.
The Oilers might choose to bury him in the minors for two years just to avoid having to pay him 2.7 million a year to play for someone else. That would be a waste because he's a great player to watch, exciting in the offensive zone and in his own zone. When Montreal's power play falters, as it will, Souray would be a great plug-in on the point.
Wade Redden is a victim?
Of one of the best contracts in hockey, maybe. He's still a legitimate NHL defenseman, if only a fair one. He is a poorly-aging puck-mover whose offensive numbers have become anemic. He's scheduled to make 6.5 million a year for the next four years and he's likely to make all that money in the minors. No one will take that contract from New York. No one wants to pay him even 3.25 million to play defense for them. Hopefully he does a good job mentoring the kids in Hartford.
The problem is he's still good enough to play in the NHL, but no one is going to pay him more than two million dollars a year to do it.
Frantisek Kaberle is playing in the Czech republic now but is still earning three quarters of a million dollars from Carolina. He probably was at the end of his NHL career but that money could be better spent elsewhere.
Tom Preissing will make 2.75 million dollars from Colorado this year. Preissing, still only 31, had half a point-a-game seasons in 2006 and 2007. It's hard to believe he can't contribute on the NHL level. He had a great rehabilitation stint last year with Lake Erie of the AHL with 31 points and 9 goals in 49 games. Tom is currently off playing in Europe while he earns his 2.75 million dollars from Colorado.
Jay McKee is a veteran defenseman brought to Pittsburgh to replace Hal Gill. McKee really can't skate anymore so the one and a third million dollars he's still earning from his St. Louis buy-out has to be seen as pretty good retirement bonus.
Marc Andre Bergeron is another niche player who can't seem to find a home. His half point a game and his startling point shot would seem to guarantee the 30-year-old a spot on someone's power play. He revitalized Montreal's flagging unit last year, but his defensive weaknesses are well documented.
Still, a properly managed Bergeron should be an asset and he's fun to watch.
Markus Naslund was somehow convinced by Ranger management to retire early and forego the four million dollars still owed him. I'd like to read Glen Sather's biography someday and see what creative method they used to free up all that cap room. Naslund was a point a game player last year in the Swedish elite league. He could still contribute on an NHL team.
Vaclav Prospal is still earning over a million dollars a year from the Tampa Bay Lightning for the next two years. At the same time he's earning 2.1 million a year to play for the Rangers. Nice for him and nice for us that he's still in the NHL but that million in Tampa Bay is just waste.
Sean Avery is still making two million a year for two years because of the Brett Hull contract.
Georges Laraque is getting a million and a quarter from the Canadiens to do charity work in Haiti.
Jonathon Cheechoo has legitimately played his way out of the NHL but Ottawa is still on the hook for three million this year because they took on the San Jose contract when they were forced to trade Heatley.
Robert Nilsson is still getting two million from Edmonton. Fedoruk earns a million from Tampa Bay.
Darcy Tucker was on the verge last year of being the only NHL player bought out by two different teams but Colorado stuck it out. Despite his retirement the Leafs will still be paying Darcy a million a year for the next four years.
Mark Parrish is till owed over 3.7 million dollars over the next four years by the Minnesota Wild.
The Near Misses
Jiri Hudler is back in the fold with Detroit this year. The Red Wings couldn't afford the cap hit last year when Hudler was awarded almost three million a year in arbitration. They hid him in the KHL last season and avoided the cap cost but did the lack of Hudler help them avoid a Stanley Cup as well?
The good news is a talented player is back in the NHL.
The bad news is I would have liked to watch him play last year and I'm sure a lot of Red Wing fans would too.
Anttii Niemi finally signed with San Jose and Ilya Kovalchuk finally signed with New Jersey. If your league can't sign the young Stanley Cup winning goalie or the best free agent sniper available the league itself starts to look second rate.
Jose Theodore has just signed to be the back-up goalie in Minnesota and replace the injured Josh Harding. Theodore is still a fair NHL goalie who deserves a job somewhere, but probably never again as a starter.
There are veterans like Mike Comire and Bill Guerin who are signing minimum salary contracts and try-out contracts to still play in the NHL. Honestly that might just be where those guys are in their careers but it's an abrupt change for a pack of GM's who used to sign veterans until their legs fell off because they had a track record. Now they'll sign anything on skates as long as it takes the NHL minimum salary.
Where Does this leave the NHL?
This waste of NHL cap space is critical. Each dollar mis-spent is a dollar that can't be spent on talent. More European players are returning to Europe to play because NHL salaries, certainly in the bottom halves of teams, just aren't competitive.
Highly touted young players who have managed to pick up big contracts before they've proven themselves at the NHL level now sometimes find themselves on the outside looking in. General managers are loading up with young players but they want young superstars or guys making the minimum.
Tuukka Rask took way too long to make the NHL. Part of that was probably where he was at in his career, but part of it was his contract. Because of bonuses his contract could have represented a 3.2 million dollar cap hit. Who could afford to have that on the books for an unproven goalie?
It is not getting better. Detroit, New Jersey, New York, Vancouver and Toronto all still have to do some serious tap dancing to get beneath cap. More players could still be released, bought out, sent to the minors or Europe before the season starts.
Boston is right at the cap with a couple roster spots to fill. Tyler Seguin's 3.5 million dollars is going to be hard to shoe-horn in. The Marc Savard injury helps for a while, but can/will Michael Ryder be moved somewhere?
Calgary is fine right now with injuries to Stajan and Langkow. When they come back, a three-million dollar forward like Kotalik, or a three-million dollar defenseman like Sarich needs his salary hidden.
The Stanley Cup champions have managed to get below the cap. If this injury to Campbell proves serious there might be some cap room created for the games he misses.
Philadelphia, as always, is straddling the cap. They should be able to maintain that all year. The Penguins are in the same spot.
San Jose has their cap hit down by going cheap in nets but still have three or four roster spots to fill with two million in cap space.
None of this is good news for the NHL. The cap system as it is currently devised is not working. A General Manager who makes a mistake is likely to be saddled with it for the rest of what might prove to be a very short career.
Good GMs in the past were constantly bringing in new talent and trying it out. Sometimes the players worked, sometimes they didn't, but one bad talent evaluation wasn't a death knell for an organization for years. Somehow a little more flexibility has to be built into the cap.
The NHL needs to be able to sign the best hockey talent out there to provide the best possible hockey product. Whether it's because human nature is irrational and can't work with a cap or because the NHL just doesn't generate enough revenue to sign all the world's best talent, something is limiting the quality of players that can be signed in the NHL.
There is a league of teams out there now with talent needs that don't have the cap space to fill them. This negatively impacts the product and in the end is likely to hurt revenue. Something needs to be done and it would be nice if the players and the league could work it out before the current collective bargaining agreement lapses in two years.