The Ottawa Senators are circumventing the salary cap.
OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole, which I believe is legally allowed when opining about hockey in early August. It’s more accurate to say that the Ottawa Senators are circumventing “the spirit” of the salary cap.
They currently have a projected cap number of $65,859,999 (per Cap Friendly), with restricted free-agent forward Colin White yet to sign. That’s snugly above the lower limit of the 2019-20 salary cap, which was set at $60.2 million. Technically, they’re above the floor, much like, say, a cat’s litter box is technically above the floor.
The “spirit of the CBA” is that phantasm the NHL evokes whenever a team does something not in keeping with the cap system’s intentions. Like when the NHL retroactively went after those back-diving long-term contracts — Roberto Luongo‘s, for example — in the last collective bargaining agreement because, despite being totally legal at the time of their signing, they violated “the spirit of the CBA.”
What the Ottawa Senators are doing with their payroll this season violates the spirit of the cap, too.
Also in this week’s Wysh List: Jersey Fouls | Puck headlines
Winners and losers of the Fenton firing
The lower limit of the salary cap encourages the dregs of the league to spend money on player salaries to ensure that total salaries remain in the range targeted by hockey-related revenue each season. “Spiritually,” it also encourages these smoldering dumpster fires to ice a competitive team each season, even during years in which they’re rebuilding.
On the one hand, the Senators are doing something that’s no different than what teams like the Arizona Coyotes have done in the past, which is using a combination of healthy rostered players, “dead” cap space from injured players and buyouts to crest over the cap floor. Without the injured Ryan Callahan ($5.8 million AAV), Marian Gaborik ($4.875 million) and Clarke MacArthur ($4.65 million), the Senators have a total cap number of $50,534,999.
Under this current financial system in the NHL, cap space is the coin of the realm. In the league’s grand scheme for parity, it allows teams with low payrolls to acquire big-salaried players from capped-out contenders. This trickle-down redistribution of talent was always expected under the cap. The unexpected benefits for the teams selling their cap space were the draft-pick incentives that arrived in trades with those players, or as enticements to take on toxic contracts that teams need to get off their cap, such as when Arizona accepted in-name-only players like Chris Pronger and Marian Hossa, when Vegas and then Toronto accepted David Clarkson, and when Ottawa accepted the last inactive year of Ryan Callahan’s contract.
It all ends up being mildly embarrassing: At this moment, the three injured players the Senators have on their cap carry a larger combined cap hit ($15.325 million) than the seven defensemen they have under contract ($12,618,333).
But the real embarrassment for the NHL when it comes to Ottawa and its salary structure isn’t in inflated cap figures but in real money.
As in, they’re not paying much of it for the product they’re putting on the ice.
Insurance will cover much of the salaries for the three injured players. Ottawa saves $10.1 million there. They’re paying Nikita Zaitsev $1.5 million because the Maple Leafs paid $3 million in bonus money. The Leafs also paid $500,000 of Connor Brown‘s salary. They’re paying Artem Anisimov $2 million, because the Chicago Blackhawks paid $2 million in bonus money.
According to Cap Friendly, the Senators’ actual NHL salary expense will be $47.5 million, with the potential for just over $4 million in performance bonuses. To put that in perspective, the Tampa Bay Lightning will pay Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh ($47.8 million) more than the Senators will spend on their entire roster.
And let’s be clear: A portion of that $47.5 million in salary will be supplemented by revenue sharing. Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that asking teams to hit the salary floor is a reasonable request when they’re being buoyed by revenue shared by the “haves.” Essentially, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning will help Ottawa pay the salaries of the players whose cap hits they’ve taken off their hands. It’s all quite a Ponzi scheme.
For more context on the paltry payroll, consider the “minimum team player compensation” as defined by the NHL CBA. Essentially, it’s the “presumed” minimum amount of money a team will have on hand to compensate its players in a given season. Run the numbers on that — $42 million, or 70% of the cap floor, plus a pro rata “benefits portion” — and you get to around $46 million to $47 million for next season.
In essence, by the NHL’s own calculations, the Ottawa Senators’ payroll in actual dollars is around what’s defined as the “minimum team player compensation” by the NHL. Or “the bare minimum,” if you will.
Not exactly something you bold-face in the season-ticket drive advertisements.
Once again, the victims of this farce are the Ottawa fans, for whom “long-suffering” is an understatement.
Yes, there’s a youth movement afoot; and to GM Pierre Dorion’s credit, the team is absolutely stacked with draft picks for the foreseeable future. But there’s a world of difference between embracing a rebuild and icing a product that’s nearly $20 million cheaper than its inflated cap figure, and only a few dollars above the minimum amount the NHL expects its teams to pay players.
But that’s the norm in owner Eugene Melnyk’s world.
The team made an effort in the past year to reduce prices for its season-ticket holders, as it slashed costs for its on-ice product. But they don’t care about a discounted hot dog when the team can’t keep Mark Stone. They don’t really care about 20% off on a Senators jersey when they can’t be sure if the name on the back is still going to be in Ottawa when he’s due a raise. They’d gladly pay full price for a large soda if it meant the Senators’ abject parsimony didn’t repel franchise legends like Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson.
Seriously, look at this roster turnover:
The Ottawa Senators 2017 playoff run roster, only 25 months later. pic.twitter.com/DKm7VLac2P
— ryan vintage (@ryanclassic) July 30, 2019
The “spirit of the CBA” is that teams with all the money aren’t allowed to spend all of it, and teams with little money aren’t allowed to keep all of it. Ottawa fans have watched Melnyk preside over a franchise that has insulted everything from their dedication to their intelligence, while trudging through a seemingly endless mire of scandals, defections and defeats. All this while watching the NHL provide lenient support, probably out of fear that Melnyk’s the only guy who wants to own a team in Ottawa — which is impossible to confirm, unless he’s willing to sell the team.
Like the Senators, MAD Magazine was a national source of humor. One of my favorite running gags in the magazine was how MAD defined the price of each issue on its cover. Perhaps to honor the magazine’s last year of publication, the franchise could adopt it as a wholly appropriate slogan for this season:
“The 2019-20 Ottawa Senators: CHEAP!”
From reader Kelly King, at the Chicago Blackhawks Fan Convention:
Jersey Foul! (Via reader Kelly King) pic.twitter.com/ex55TyBy58
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) August 1, 2019
Kelly said the last word being obscured here is “you,” so this is a Protest Jersey statement from someone who apparently doesn’t like the legions of bandwagon fans who [checks notes] helped the franchise reach unprecedented levels of prosperity and popularity.
Sir, an Ed Belfour jersey would have sufficed.
Winners and Losers in the Paul Fenton Mess
Winner: Craig Leipold. Even the worst general managers get three or four years before the cord is pulled on their tenure. Wild owner Leipold, to his credit, waited just over a year before declaring what was obvious to the rest of the NHL: GM Paul Fenton was in over his head and had to go.
Loser: Craig Leipold. I mean, he hired Paul Fenton, so in the end, this is his mess. And his refusal to admit that they’ve squeezed all they can out of this aging roster will end up setting this team back years.
Winner: Zach Parise. He does one interview with The Athletic lamenting his lot in life — “I guess at my age, where I’m at in the career, you don’t want to be going through a rebuild right now” — and then ownership fires the general manager about a week later, having consulted with Parise. That’s some sway.
Loser: Paul Fenton. It wasn’t Neil Smith with the Islanders, but even Brett Hull had a longer run as a general manager with Dallas. Yikes.
Winner: Don Waddell. At best, the contract-less Carolina Hurricanes general manager gets a massive contract offer from the Wild that he can either accept or use as leverage with Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon. At worst, he got in before the firing to steal Nino Niederreiter for Carolina.
Loser(s): The field of assistant GMs. As mentioned here, Leipold made it clear that Fenton was a tremendous scout and executive, but not a good manager of people or departments — that despite years as an assistant GM, he wasn’t ready for the big chair. This is not exactly the best news for the Mike Futa’s and Bill Zito’s of the world — assistant GMs waiting for their shot.
Listen to ESPN ON ICE
The full-season archive of our podcast can be found on iTunes. Honestly, if you’re lounging at the pool, nothing is better than listening to two people who have had it up to here talk about playoff officiating.
In praise of Chris Kunitz, who retired this week.
Ranking the Detroit Red Wings‘ jerseys. Yes, there were more than two of them.
After that Andrei Vasilevskiy extension, the Tampa Bay Lightning still has some work to do: “There’s probably no good answer to this situation on the surface. Any trade the Lightning make would likely result in a talent downgrade, as other teams know they’re going to be in tough to afford everyone and the pool of potential destinations is likely extremely limited.”
Good look at the Seattle franchise’s dedication to diversity in hiring.
Former VHL player Artem Bezrukov went on a “rampage” during a flight to Chelyabinsk.
Brent Seabrook on having “the worst contract in hockey”: “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “People are going to write what they want to write. I’ve never been one to read media articles and get pissed off, or get too high or whatever. I’m focused on myself. I’m coming to camp to make the team; that’s what my job is. I’ve got two months left until training camp and I’m focused on being the best Brent Seabrook that I can be.” ($)
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The story of the Stanley Cup that no one won.
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My look at the continuing decline of fighting in the NHL.