The Vegas Golden Knights got a bad rap around NHL fans. Many claim their success is entirely due to favorable expansion rules, not any special teambuilding. The Seattle Kraken botched their expansion draft, though, and their struggles prove that theory wrong. So what can we owe Vegas’ elite status to?
Sure, general managers panicking and shoveling assets their way helped a lot. But what’s made them go from plucky upstart to perennial contenders is how they used their prospect capital and salary cap. Vegas hit the gas and made bold moves to acquire elite talent. In a league where GMs play 200 Hockey Men’s version of checkers, Vegas plays the NBA’s chess.
It’s how you get stars like Mark Stone, Alex Pietrangelo, and Max Pacioretty headlining in the desert. On Wednesday, you can add Jack Eichel to the list, as he’ll make his highly-anticipated debut. They take risks, add talent, and let the rest sort itself out.
Their attitude towards the salary cap is similar. Vegas spent the last two or three seasons teetering at the cap’s upper limit but always found ways out of their problems. However, once they acquired Eichel’s $10 million salary, it was clear that they had to finally trade a player they could ill-afford to lose.
Except now that might not happen. The Golden Knights have Stone on Long-Term Injured Reserve with a back injury, where his salary doesn’t count against the cap. That’s standard procedure for injured players, but what might happen next is a more recent development.
There’s speculation in the NHL that Vegas may leave Stone on LTIR for the remainder of the regular season. That would allow him to return in the playoffs, where the salary cap isn’t enforced. Stone’s $9.5 million cap hit cancels out Eichel’s $10 million, allowing Vegas to be cap compliant without a trade.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Tampa Bay Lightning executed a similar maneuver with Nikita Kucherov. The Russian missed the regular season to injury and returned in Game 1 of the playoffs. Waiting until then bailed Tampa out of cap hell because Kucherov’s $9.5 million cap hit vanished.
Now, Stone has dealt with back issues all season long. He’s entered and exited the lineup three times since the initial flare-up. I’m not speculating on the validity of his injury.
But you’ve got to admit that it’ll sure be convenient if Stone’s return to the lineup coincides with the exact date it doesn’t affect Vegas’ cap.
Is this legal? Basically, yes, even if it exploits a gray area of the collective-bargaining agreement (CBA). Is it cap circumvention? Basically, yes. If everyone is healthy, Vegas will field a post-season roster with a cap hit of approximately $89.2 million. The NHL salary cap is $81.5 million. That’s about an $8 million advantage over a cap-compliant team in the playoffs.
Or, in the Minnesota Wild’s case, effectively a $12.5 million advantage. The Wild are carrying $4.75 million in dead cap hit this season, with that number set to increase to $12.75 million in 2022-23 and $14.75 million in the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons. The worst years are yet to come, but this is already a challenge for the Wild.
On the one hand, this is mostly Minnesota’s doing because they decided to execute the buyouts. But the NHL essentially forced the Wild into at least one of these unwieldy buyouts by retroactively punishing them for exploiting a CBA grey area.
Parise and Suter signed 13-year contracts worth $98 million each. Why 13 years? To artificially lower the cap hit. By tacking on years of low cap hits at the end, teams could reduce the AAV of a deal on the reasonable assumption players wouldn’t play to the end of the contract.
Is this cap circumvention? You bet. Was this legal? You bet. Well, at least until the 2012-13 lockout, when the CBA was re-written. That new CBA came with a “cap recapture” clause. Basically, it was meant to punish teams that exploited back-diving contracts retroactively, with severe punishments for those players retiring early.
Unless they exploited the LTIR loophole, of course. That’s why the Detroit Red Wings’ Johan Franzen and Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa were able to not play the last four years of their deals with no repercussions whatsoever.
Neither Parise nor Suter were ready to retire, which tied Minnesota GM Bill Guerin‘s hands. Were it not for cap recapture, the Wild may have been able to, say, trade Parise to the New York Islanders while retaining 50% of his salary. This would’ve kept his dead money on Minnesota’s books limited to about $3.75 million. Or even the full freight, if he retired after this season.
Instead, the threat of cap recapture forced Guerin to buy out both contracts. While Minnesota won’t feel the full weight of this for another year or two, it certainly affects them now.
If Minnesota doesn’t call up top prospect Marco Rossi, who’s dominating in the AHL, it’s because of this. Sliding his contract to next season prevents him from getting a raise until 2025, when $13 million of dead money comes off Minnesota’s books.
It could also cost them players like Kevin Fiala soon. Most teams would love to keep a 25-year-old who scores at a 68-point pace over the past three seasons. Now, that’s in jeopardy because Minnesota will have to make room for contracts to Rossi, Matt Boldy, Calen Addison, and more going forward, all against the dead cap from Parise and Suter.
This isn’t all due to the NHL retroactively instituting cap recapture, but a good amount of it is. And this petulant, selectively-applied revenge from the league is yet another example of the NHL botching it.
Minnesota should be one of the NHL’s premier American markets. They aren’t, mainly because the Wild have fielded uninspired teams that play boring hockey. The NHL should’ve been thrilled that they signed Parise and Suter, just to give an expansion team some juice.
And now, just as that expansion market threatens to gain a real foothold with a national audience, this punishment threatens to thwart it. Instead of marketing a team with Kirill Kaprizov, Fiala, Boldy, Joel Eriksson Ek, etc., a goofy decision from a decade ago will all but ensure the breakup of one of the most exciting young cores in the league.
Meanwhile, other CBA exploits in Tampa Bay and Vegas are going unpunished. If cap circumvention is so important, why hasn’t the league acted there? Why didn’t they enforce cap recapture on Detroit or Chicago? It almost sounds like cap recapture was poorly thought out and unnecessary to begin with!
Does this mean the NHL should punish Vegas or Tampa Bay for cap circumvention? No. They’re acting within the rules of the CBA, and smart GMs always will (and arguably, should) be able to push the rules of the CBA to the limits.
Suppose Vegas can find a way to roll into the playoffs for one last shot at the Cup before needing to shed serious salary, great. It’s not against the rules, so why not do it? If teams can launder big-ticket players through intermediary teams to squeeze in their salaries at the trade deadline, more power to them. They had to pay a price to persuade teams to take on salary for nothing.
But that should’ve also applied to teams that legally signed long-term, back-diving contracts. Should the NHL have made them illegal? That’s between the league and the players. But retroactively punishing some legal means of cap circumvention and not others puts the league in the position of picking winners, even if they’re not doing so intentionally. The NHL has effectively put its thumbs on the balance of power in the league.
Minnesota signed two legal contracts in 2012. As a result, the NHL will be punishing a team with completely different players and management well over a decade later. That alone will leave a bad taste in the State of Hockey’s collective mouth. But seeing a team like Vegas ride similar CBA grey areas to victory will make it all the sourer.