Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A giant loophole discovered in the salary cap?

This past Monday, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that they were sending struggling forward Radim Vrbata to his native Czech Republic for this season. The Lightning cited issues with Vrbata's confidence, and that returning home would be a better option than heading to the American Hockey League.

The kicker to this transaction- Tampa Bay is not responsible for the contract at all. It does not count against their cap this season, nor do they have to pay it. If Vrbata does not come back to the NHL for the second and third seasons of the three year, $9 million deal, the Lightning are not responsible for those years, either.

I have a problem with this. The salary cap is in place for a reason, and that is to control spending and try to place an even playing field between the teams. It also serves as a consequence if a team makes a bad decision, like Vrbata for instance, they have to live with it and either solve the problem or work around it.

In the National Football League, they have a hard cap, much like the NHL, meaning that, under no circumstances can a team's payroll exceed the cap. There are some differences- mainly in contract language and how the player's cap value is calculated, but they are very similar to each other. For example, if a team in the NFL releases a player, no matter what happens to them afterwards, a players' guaranteed money (which is a signing bonus) counts against the salary cap until it's paid off. For the NHL, if a player is claimed off waivers or is released, the team is on the hook for a portion of the players salary as well.

Tampa Bay has discovered that they can bypass that salary cap hit by sending the player away, and fashioning it as the players decision. Whether or not this was Vrbata's decision remains to be seen, but we may never know. He may genuinely wanted to go home, or was faced with the choice of playing in the AHL or going home, and took the one that appealed most to him. If he was forced, that could potentially open up a completely different can of worms that we won't even get into.

I have no ill will towards the Lightning as a team. I may not like the direction that their ownership is going, as I've witnessed firsthand what a hotshot owner can do to a franchise. What they did is, as of this moment, allowable by the CBA, and it happened. Can't be angry about something that is legal, can you?

However, Gary Bettman and the guys in the league office need to act very fast to close up this loophole, as the salary cap is dangerously close to being circumvented. If I was a betting person, I would have my money on these situations, or something similar.

Cristobal Huet? The Chicago Blackhawks will say goodbye to nearly $5.5 million this season, and have cap space to add the second center they've been rumored to be interested in.

The Philadelphia Flyers wanting Mats Sundin? Not a problem, we can send someone packing if we can't get a trade or two completed to free up cap room.

Of course, the Lightning can come back down and try and unload another off-season mistake to free up some more cap room.

These were just guesses, based off a couple rumors. Still, my point remains. The cap is supposed to prevent bad decisions being brushed aside, in order to create a balance between the teams that traditionally spent wildly like the New York Rangers, or operated off a strict budget like the Buffalo Sabres.

Despite the loophole, it does come with a consequence. This only erases the contract in future seasons if the player does not want to return to the NHL. If they do, the player will return to the team that sent them packing, with their cap hit and remaining years on the contract. However, this is a more than acceptable consequence for a team looking to win right now.

Judging from the silence from the main hockey media outlets, they are likely doing their due diligence scouring the CBA and making phone calls to league officials trying to determine what's the deal before writing more. To be quite honest, I'm probably more in the dark than most of you. I'm just a guy with an opinion and a feeling. A feeling that this could become a seriously problem. So, Bettman and Co, do what you need to do to solve this problem quickly.

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