How creative NHL teams in markets big and small use dead money to find wiggle room

The Coyotes can't afford to spend freely, but they don't mind paying half of Keith Yandle's salary while he plays for the Rangers. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

When the idea of salary retention was first proposed by the New York Rangers during the Keith Yandle trade-deadline talks last season, Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney was hesitant. The Rangers wanted Yandle and the Coyotes wanted to move him, but Arizona would have to retain 50 percent of Yandle's salary because of New York's salary-cap situation. That meant the Coyotes would be paying $2.625 million of the defenseman's salary in 2015-16 without getting the benefit of having him on their roster. For a budget team like the Coyotes, it was a big number.

While Maloney was reluctant, two members of the Coyotes ownership group in the Arizona war room with him were not.

"They were very avidly supporting the concept," Maloney said. "It's a lot of money to spend for somebody not playing. When you take a long-term view of where we were at that time and where we hope to be, it was absolutely the right decision."

The Coyotes ultimately ended up making that deal, and it was a big one in their push to rebuild quickly. They added draft picks and a prospect in Anthony Duclair who will speed it up considerably.

It has been eight years since Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke first began his crusade to allow teams to retain salaries in trades. This is the fourth season under the new CBA in which teams have that option, with the impact and strategies now starting to emerge.

"I felt small-market teams like Anaheim could use cap space to acquire assets," Burke wrote in an email on why he first started this campaign when he was the Ducks' GM. "I think it has given teams flexibility in a hard-cap system."

It certainly has. And it's not just the small-market teams benefiting.

According to salaries gathered from war-on-ice.com, 11 of the 30 NHL teams had retained salary on their books heading into this season, worth a total of $16 million. Factoring in buyouts and cap recapture penalties, 20 out of 30 NHL teams have some form of dead money against their salary cap for the 2015-16 season, worth a total of just over $33 million. That doesn't include players bought out after the 2012 lockout ended as part of the compliance buyout agreement.

It is a lot of dead money, but it comes with a big benefit: flexibility in a system that doesn't have too much of it anymore. And it's a benefit that has been shared by both the big-market and small-market teams. Small-market teams like the Coyotes, Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes all have been heavy users of the salary-retention option.

But big-market teams also have used salary retention to speed up their own rebuilding. The Bruins are paying Milan Lucic nearly $2.5 million to play in Los Angeles this season, but they received a big return in the trade with the Kings that eventually netted a pair of first-round picks.

The Maple Leafs are retaining salaries on both Phil Kessel and Carl Gunnarsson, with the Kessel deal netting Toronto high-end prospect Kasperi Kapanen and a first-round pick along with other assets from the Penguins.

"You operate in a three-year window; you try to make sure it's the right thing for the future, as well, and doesn't negatively impact affect your future," Florida GM Dale Tallon said. "It's not always an easy thing to decipher and plan.

"You're not clairvoyant; you don't know what the future is going to bring, who is going to own the team, what your finances and budgets are going to be."

Tallon has used dead money to his advantage in just about every way possible. He still is paying Carolina forward Kris Versteeg $2.2 million in a deal that brought Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen to the Panthers. In trading Hayes to Boston this year for Reilly Smith, Tallon also picked up the Marc Savard contract. The Panthers also bought out Brad Boyes, a move that will cost them nearly $1 million against the cap. The Canucks are still paying a portion of the salary for Roberto Luongo, Florida's starting goalie.

The trade of Savard, who hasn't played since 2011 and isn't expected to play again because of post-concussion syndrome, raised some eyebrows, but it was just money working its way through the system. The contract counts $4 million against the Panthers' cap, but he is owed only $575,000 per year through 2016-17 because the original deal was front-loaded.

"We were looking to make a deal to change the dynamic of our team a little bit. [The Savard contract] came along in the conversation. It started awhile back, during the talk of another deal," Tallon said. "Teams like that look at us and our situation cap-wise and want to get out from under the contracts. If we can gain an asset to do it and have the space, we'll do it."

The Coyotes similarly acquired the Chris Pronger contract from Philadelphia this summer. In exchange, Flyers GM Ron Hextall agreed to retain a $500,000 portion of Nicklas Grossmann's salary. The trade also spared the Coyotes from buying out Sam Gagner, something they were prepared to do.

Pronger, who hasn't played since 2011 for the same reason as Savard, is now working for the NHL. He still has two seasons remaining on the contract he signed with the Flyers in 2009, one that comes with an annual salary-cap charge of nearly $5 million. The actual salary being paid by the Coyotes is $575,000.

After the deal, Maloney phoned Pronger and joked that he expected him to enter the Hall of Fame in a Coyotes uniform.

They got a good laugh out of the kind of trade that is becoming more and more common in the NHL as the latest CBA start matures. A little salary retention over here, the contract of an injured player over there; mix in a player who is a buyout candidate, and you've got it all.

In doing deals like that and the Yandle transaction, Maloney is just using every tool available to him in the system.

"Hopefully," he said, perhaps only half-kidding, "we're around to enjoy the fruits of our efforts three or four years from now."