Wednesday, July 31, 2013

New CBA Hasn’t Killed Free Agents … Yet

By Mike Chen

During the NHL lockout of 2012-13, pundits worried that greater salary cap restrictions would create greater individual salary disparity between the haves and have-nots. Theoretically, this would squeeze out the NHL's middle class — more dollars would be assigned to top-tier free agents, leaving precious few salary cap dollars available, meaning that teams would have to use low-paid journeymen, young players, and AHL callups to fill in crucial support roles.

However, one year into free agency, it appears this hasn't happened. In fact, if anything, the middle class appears to be the group that's getting more money. A significant contributor to this has been the new CBA's lowering of the salary cap from $70 million (pro-rated for a shortened season) to $64.3 million.

When the doors opened on NHL free agency in early June, middle-class players received some startling offers. Consider the comparables between the upcoming 2013-14 season and the 2009-10 numbers. In 2009-10, the salary cap was at $56.8 million, and $4.75 million usually got you a two-way forward capable of 20-30 goals and 30-40 assists (e.g. Patrice Bergeron).

This past July, $4.85 million per season brought Ryane Clowe to the New Jersey Devils (40 GP, 3 G, 16 A). $5 million per season brought Val Flippula to the Tampa Bay Lightning (41 GP, 9 G, 8 A), and $4 million per season brought Derek Roy to the St. Louis Blues (42 GP, 7 G, 21 A).

These are examples of players being paid at the same salary tier if you went by their best-of stats, not what they did over the last year or two. When you look at the big picture, this first year of free agency under the new CBA hasn't actually changed things that much. You can point out specific outliers, but the middle class still got its money; it's just that the quality of middle-class player has started to cost more.

In 2009-10, the top 25 player salaries ranged from $9.5 million to $6.6 million. As of July 2013, the top 25 player salaries for the upcoming season ranged from $9.5 million to $6.8 million. GMs are still respecting the self-imposed limits of top-tier players, and no player has eclipsed Alex Ovechkin's contract.

Perhaps GMs are hedging their bets after seeing disaster big-money deals require gigantic buyouts. Vincent Lecavalier, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Danny Briere all earned too much per-year money and term for their situations, and their respective teams wrote big checks to get away from their contracts. So the difference, at least for this past free agency period, is a group of mid-tier players that got paid based on hope and justifications using past stats, not current stats. The rich stayed the same level of rich while everyone else seemed to get a raise.

Of course, the big test remains the next few offseasons as the NHL salary cap starts rising again. GMs may continue to feel that higher-quality depth is a better model than a top-heavy roster. Since GMs are constantly in copycat mode, the recent Stanley Cups by the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, and Boston Bruins showcase this in different forms, as all three teams attacked in waves rather than a specific focus on just the top line. Should the next Stanley Cup champion be a team with top stars, cheap role players, and no middle class, then there's a good chance that the predictions during the lockout will start to come true.

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