FA talks, Vinny's future and those 'cheat' deals

December, 5, 2009

The NHL's list of contract investigations has apparently grown to four.

You may remember I reported a couple of times this season on the league's investigations of the contracts signed by Marian Hossa, Chris Pronger and Roberto Luongo, the so-called "cheat" deals that bring down the average salary-cap hit by tacking on years players apparently don't intend to play.

Well, perhaps not surprisingly, it is believed the league will also instruct its investigative lawyers to look into the deal Marc Savard signed this week with Boston. Given that the Bruins are owned by NHL board of governors chair Jeremy Jacobs, I guess the league really has no option but to pursue an investigation to maintain credibility with the other clubs.

Savard's deal:

2010-11: $7 million
2011-12: $7 million
2012-13: $6.5 million
2013-14: $5 million
2014-15: $1.5 million
2015-16: $525,000
2016-17: $525,000

Everyone and his grandmother knows Savard won't play the last two years of that deal, perhaps not even the last three. But the Bruins get a great cap hit out of it, just over $4 million a year instead of the $6.3 million Savard will make on average in the first four years.

At their last meeting in Toronto last month, the league sternly warned GMs not to go down this path again. So much for that warning.

Again, what the league is looking for in these investigations is any proof in the form of written communication between agent and team that the two sides conspired to circumvent the collective-bargaining agreement. But as I've said before, I'd be shocked if the league found its smoking gun. In this case, I'm sure Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli and veteran agent Larry Kelly were too savvy to ever spell it out that clearly that Savard would not play the final two to three years of the deal.

It's interesting Kelly was involved again. He was the clever agent to first find this loophole a few years back with Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. Other teams and agents have since followed suit, but the Flames' deal with their franchise goalie was the first in this CBA to help bring down the average cap hit by tacking on a $1.5 million salary for the 2013-14 season. There's no way Kipper plays that season out. The Flames won't have to pay it. While they're paying him $7 million this season, his cap hit is $5.8 million.

Penguins' contract talks
Penguins GM Ray Shero has done a superb job of locking up the core of his team to ensure it will be competitive for at least another four to five seasons, if not longer. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Brooks Orpik, Alex Goligoski, Max Talbot, Mike Rupp, Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy are all locked up at least though the 2010-11 season (most of them beyond that).

But just like every summer since the advent of the salary cap in 2005-06, Shero will again have some tough decisions to make, most notably with pending free-agent blueliners Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang. The veteran is slated for unrestricted free agency, the kid will be restricted and coming out of the entry-level system.

But both are huge parts of this club, puck-moving wizards who key the transition of Pittsburgh's dangerous attack. It's fine and dandy to have two of the world's very best centers in Crosby and Malkin, but they are rendered less dangerous when no one is getting the puck to them from the back end. Just look at Pittsburgh's offensive production when both Gonchar and Letang were out this season.

So, what to do? The Penguins believe they can get both blueliners re-signed under the cap, depending of course on whether neither player tries to blow the bank. That's always the key in these things, isn't it?

Let's start with Gonchar. His agent, J.P. Barry, held talks with the Penguins in early September. Obviously, they didn't get very far. Both sides agreed to hold off talks until January, when the Pens will have a better idea of what they're working with in terms of the salary cap for the 2010-11 season. At that point, they will have likely seen a sneak peek at the ballpark figure for the cap at the Dec. 15-16 board of governors' meeting.

It's pretty much the same story with Letang. Preliminary talks with his agent, Kent Hughes, began over the past month, but it doesn't sound like anything is imminent at this point. Again, it makes sense for the Pens to wait and see what kind of cap space they'll have to work with.

Gonchar could be the stickiest of the two to re-sign. It's certainly not because he wants to leave -- quite the opposite, he loves it in Pittsburgh. But that doesn't mean his camp is ready to take a discount. The cap number on his current deal is $5 million, and given his production and instrumental presence on this club, on and off the ice, I'm not sure how he takes less.

Here's the fly in the ointment: Because he's already 35 years old, the Penguins could not benefit from the type of "cheat" deals we discussed above.

When a player who is 35 or older signs a contract, the entirety of the deal counts against the team's cap regardless of how long he plays. Hence, the Penguins won't get any kind of cap savings with Gonchar. They need to sign him to a traditional deal; that's where I think term will become an issue between both sides. How many more great seasons does he have left? Two? Three? Four? Five?

One way the Penguins may go is adding performance bonuses in Gonchar's new deal; a team can go over the cap through the performance-bonus cushion.

As the Gonchar situation plays out, keep in mind that the rumor mill is hot and heavy from the KHL in Russia, as teams are salivating at a chance to bring him home, much like Sergei Zubov was lured to the homeland this past summer. KHL money is big and tax-free, so that's an option Gonchar can't completely ignore, even if his heart is very much in Pittsburgh.

Capitals' contract talks
The recent signings of young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago (five years, $6.3 million average per season) might prove to be good benchmarks for the Washington Capitals and the Nicklas Backstrom camp as they continue negotiations for the RFA-to-be.

Like Kane and Toews, Backstrom is a front-line offensive star coming out of his entry-level contract. I don't think anything is imminent, but I'm told contract discussions have gone reasonably well between the Caps and agent Marc Levine. We should see a deal done before too long; certainly before the end of the regular season.

Alexander Semin? Well, that's another story. The Caps and his agent, Mark Gandler, haven't held talks since the eve of the season, when it's believed an offer from the team was rejected. The RFA-to-be is also generating much interest in his native Russia, but the Caps will give this another go before the season is out.

The Bolts and Lecavalier
The more I watch Vincent Lecavalier play this season, the more I start to wonder about his future with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

He doesn't look happy to me. He's not firing on all cylinders. His coach doesn't seem to know how to use him. It's just a bad fit right now. And the timing, well, let's just say he's in the first year of a massive lifetime deal that pays him $70 million over the first seven years.

Two months into the season, he's fourth on the team in scoring and making $10 million a year. That has to be tough to take -- for him, because he's a prideful player, and for the team, because they invested so much in him.

If things don't improve over the next few months, you have to wonder what happens next. Well, that's up to Lecavalier; he's got a no-movement clause, aka the hammer. He's in the drivers' seat. He decides his future. GM Brian Lawton, I doubt, will ever approach him about a trade again after what happened last season with the Montreal trade talks.

At some point over the next 12 months, he's got to decide how this is going to play out. Does he want to be a second-line, $10 million center in Tampa, or does he want to refresh his career elsewhere?

He wouldn't be easy to move given the cash, the term (11 years) and the yearly cap hit ($7.7 million), but I still think there's a market out there for him if he chooses to explore his options.

The three teams that come to mind are the Rangers, Kings and, of course, the Canadiens. New York doesn't have a No. 1 center, but it does have a coach in John Tortorella who brought out the best in Lecavalier during their years together in Tampa Bay (including winning a Cup together in 2004). And wouldn't it be nice for Marian Gaborik to have a center? The Rangers would need to move massive cash to make it work, but if it's a summer deal, it can be figured out in due time.

But we're putting the cart before the horse. Until Lecavalier decides he wants out, he's not going anywhere. He's in control of his destiny.

Peter Laviolette returns
The Carolina Hurricanes, like other small- to medium-market teams, count every dime. So imagine their pleasure with the fact the Philadelphia Flyers are paying the full freight on the year and a half still left on Peter Laviolette's contract with the Canes. Everyone goes home happy in this one; Laviolette gets a new start, the Flyers get their man, and the Canes save some coin.

Flyers and Emery
Coaching change aside, here's a little more Flyers gossip for you Philly fans. For all the struggles your team has had this season, goaltending really hasn't been to blame, which likely surprises many who saw Ray Emery as the big question mark heading into this season.

"Outside of the one game where he didn't give us a chance to win in Colorado, where he just had an off game, he's been pretty good," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told ESPN.com this week. "Ray has come in and been a model citizen. He might be the hardest-working goalie I've ever seen in practice. A lot of energy. He's been a good teammate.

"Did he make some bad decisions before? Probably. I think Ray would be the first to admit that. He's the first to admit he stopped working hard, he forgot what it took to get him to the NHL. Since he's been here, he's been a tremendously hard worker."

Emery signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Flyers after returning from a one-season stop in Russia last season. As per rules in the CBA, because it's a one-year deal, the team can't talk new contract with him until January. While Holmgren would not say when I asked him, I think it's a good bet he'll approach Emery's camp as soon as possible to get talks going on an extension.

There's one school of thought that suggests why not wait and see how Emery performs in the playoffs before extending him, but the flip side of that argument is a good playoff could also boost his contract leverage and perhaps make him a hot commodity on the open market.

Captain Canada
I exchanged text messages with Ryan Smyth on Saturday and the Los Angeles Kings star winger was in good spirits.

"Feeling good," Smyth wrote. "Skated the last seven days. Will see the doc later at the game."

Smyth has been out since Nov. 16 with an upper-body injury. He was expected to be out about a month.

St. Patrick
A final thought after watching Friday night's superb and emotional centennial ceremony in Montreal. One of the former players most warmly received by the crowd at the Bell Centre was Patrick Roy, not surprising given the way fans embraced him on his jersey retirement night in November 2008.

And the feeling, from Roy to the fans, is reciprocal.

All of which leads me to strongly believe that one day, he will come back as a coach or GM with the Canadiens. He's cut his teeth managing and coaching a major junior team in Quebec City. He'll make that next step to the NHL one day. Whether that's Montreal or Colorado or elsewhere remains to be seen, but he will be in the NHL one day. Mark my words.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer




You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?