The Helmsman Steered Us Through

In one of the scenes in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a sailor shoots a friendly albatross, which brings upon the ship and its crew poor wind and still tides. As punishment for this offense, the albatross’ carcass is hung around his neck. This has become a metaphor in modern language, “an albatross around my neck,” representing a lingering, painful burden borne of unsound judgement.

Remember that, we’ll come back to it.

The excitement about who the Seattle Kraken will target in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft is in full swing, and with it comes social media speculation about possible deals that could arise with teams residing in the financial circumstance known as “cap hell.” This is all just for fun, and of course it’s not going to affect the overall outcome in any way. But as this unfolds there needs to be some measure of sanity in our speculation.

Perpetual Cap Hell

We need to start this discussion with a brief review of the collective bargaining agreement concerning the calculation of the salary cap. The salary cap is calculated based on league profits in a single year from hockey operations. The full scope of the agreement takes up dozens of pages outlining the details, but what we need to know for our purposes is, any league profits are divided up 50/50 between players (in the form of salaries) and the teams.

This year and next year are the exceptions: per an addendum to the CBA agreed to by the league and the players’ union, the cap has been made “flat” at $81.5 million for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons regardless of what profits or losses the teams might post. But once that ends, barring a subsequent agreement on this topic between the NHL and NHLPA, the initial 50/50 profits salary cap calculations kick in again in the 2022-23 season.

Here’s the problem. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the economy in general and spectator sports specifically, there may be no profits for that season, or the next, or the next. Teams are currently bleeding tens of millions of dollars, without a dime coming in from ticket sales, concessions, sponsorships, etc. The economic damage from this pandemic is only just beginning, with waves of job losses and small business failures continuing to reverberate for years.

In the worst-case scenario, when teams are finally able to put butts in the seats again, there will be a far smaller pool of buyers for those tickets. Demand could crater, prices would be depressed, and teams could see season ticket subscription cancellations by the thousands. Businesses who suffered and/or incurred additional debt to survive the pandemic will be watching their pocketbooks very shrewdly, which means a flood of sponsorship contract dollars being pulled. The news is bad, and getting worse, with each passing day.

But even in the best-case scenario — where the U.S. Congress acts decisively to control the virus, distribute a safe and effective vaccine, shore up unemployed Americans’ household incomes, and ensure small businesses have a means to stay afloat — there is very, very little chance that the league will return to aggregate profitability anytime soon. For every Canadiens, Maple Leafs, and Rangers, you have 4 Wild, Avalanche, Lightning, Flames, Jets, and Panthers. The top 6 teams essentially carry the rest of the league on their backs, and with cities like New York and Chicago being hard-hit by the Coronavirus, you now have two of the league’s primary cash cows struggling to stay out of the red.

What this means for the salary cap is, when the temporary agreement expires and the normal calculation kicks in again, there is the very real possibility that the salary cap will go down. You read that right: the salary cap can — and given the economic calamity that the league will be navigating in the next 5 years, very possibly will — go down. There is no provision in the CBA that puts a floor on the salary cap, even in extraordinary circumstances such as these. And after the owners sustain operations for two full seasons bleeding cash like a stuck pig, they will be eager to right the ship and return to the original CBA that splits profits down the middle. That’s bad news for players, and for team GM’s.

The Economic Landscape

Every team in the league has a full roster of players, contracts set in stone for the upcoming season, and further contractual commitments on the books for the foreseeable future. Ironically, some of the poorest teams — both in financial resources and performance on the ice — are in the best position for the impending economic downturn. Ottawa, for instance, has $12.5 million in available cap space for the upcoming season, and only 7 players signed past 2021-22. On the other end of the spectrum is Arizona, who is $2.5 million over the cap for this upcoming year, and will be in financial difficulty for years to come, even in the unlikely possibility of a miraculous return to profitability and an increasing salary cap.

This is the world that teams are living in now: long-term contracts are the enemy, as are big-dollar contracts; and long-term, big-dollar contracts are to be avoided like COVID-19. Any contract you have on the books right now, you had better get used to working around it or eat the cost of a buyout, because nobody will be willing to take that player off your hands at any price. Right now about a dozen teams are in cap hell. With the economic landscape pointing towards a severe recession, it is distinctly possible that nearly every team will be teetering on the brink of cap hell within the next 18-24 months.

Every team, that is, except one. Ours.

Clean Slate

Right now the roster for the Seattle Kraken is zero players, with a total cap hit of $0. We have the most cap room in the league at $81.5 million. We also have zero long-term contracts, zero contracts over $5 million AAV, and zero long-term contracts over $5 million AAV. It’s a completely clean slate, without the kinds of encumbrances that the rest of the league’s teams are dealing with. That’s great news, and it bodes well for us to have a competitive and sustainably profitable team even through these economic difficulties.

But that financial freedom will disappear instantaneously if Kraken GM Ron Francis decides to turn Seattle into the dumping ground for idiotic mistakes made by other teams. Taking on just one bad contract — taking the albatross from around the neck of one of the other teams’ GM’s and hanging it on his own — could paralyze the Kraken for a half-decade or more. Unfortunately, with the upcoming expansion draft on the horizon, most teams will be looking to craft deals with the Kraken to help them solve cap problems. You can expect them to be enticing our GM with draft picks, prospects, retained salary, and whatever else they can think of in exchange for assuming responsibility for an albatross contract. The Kraken are, in a very real sense, their only way out of these nightmare deals.

What constitutes an albatross contract, you ask? More than one year remaining on the deal, $5 million or more AAV, and performance that doesn’t justify the money the player is being paid. We looked over the league’s rosters and identified everyone who fell into this category.

Most of these names will not surprise you, and we earnestly hope that all the scouts in the Kraken front office have drawn bold black strokes through each one of them. In our opinion, these 10 guys represent the worst albatross contracts in the NHL, and should not be considered no matter what shiny baubles are dangled in front of the club as incentive.

(A note quickly about no-movement clauses. Nearly all of these contracts include a full NMC. That means the player would have to waive that clause for the expansion draft for any deal to be made. But make no mistake: waiving the NMC for the draft does not mean the NMC is no longer in force. The NMC remains part of the underlying contract, and clamps right back down the minute the ink is dry on the transaction. All the more reason to steer clear of these players — once they’re in Seattle, we’re stuck with them.)

Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres, $9 million AAV, expires 2027. We start off with what arguably comes in a firm second behind Rick DiPietro’s 15-year, $67.5 million deal (in 2006, mind you) as the worst. contract. ever. Jeff Skinner performed well during his years in Carolina, but nothing approaching the levels that would have legitimately earned him an 8-year, $72 million deal with Buffalo. The first year of that deal saw him pump in a mere 14 goals, adding just 9 assists, logging a minus-22, and a career-low shooting percentage. Skinner will never be a franchise player, but he will be earning franchise player money for the next 7 seasons. Even if Buffalo gives us Jack Eichel as an enticement, the Kraken should not touch Skinner’s contract under any circumstances.

Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames, $6 million AAV, expires 2023. Lucic’s best years were in Boston, a team he was traded away from in 2015. His first year in Edmonton he posted 50 points; the next 34, and the last just 20 — while staying firmly entrenched in negative plus-minus territory. There are only two more years on his deal at $6 million AAV; but two teams have actively and deliberately rid themselves of this inconsistent and under-performing left winger. He’s the Flames’ problem now, let it stay that way.

Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks, $6.875 million, expires 2024. So what would you pay a 35-year-old free agent defenseman who had just undergone surgeries on one hip, then the other hip, then his shoulder all within weeks of each other? At best you’d be offering him a 2-way deal at league minimum with some performance bonuses if he was healthy enough to play in 40 or more games. Seabrook gets $6.875 million even if he never puts skates on again. There is no question he’s an exceptional locker room influence and team leader; but you can’t lead from the Mercy Hospital Rehabilitation Center.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers, $10 million AAV, expires 2026. “WHAT? A Vezina Trophy winner? Are you crazy?” I don’t care what kind of a goalie he used to be; last year he posted a 23-19-6 record, with a 3.23 GAA and save percentage at .900. For $10 million? There are guys earning one-quarter that amount who have better stats. He’s 32 years old, he won’t be improving from here. This is another case of an idiotic Dale Tallon signing (no doubt a factor in him getting fired), so let Panthers’ new GM Bill Zito deal with this albatross.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings, $10 million AAV, expires 2024. The aging Kopitar is a two-way center, so his numbers aren’t necessarily going to reflect his total value. The problem is, you never know which Anze Kopitar is going to show up that season. Is it the one that posts 35 goals, 92 points, and a plus-21? Or 12 goals, 52 points, and a minus-10? Those were recent back-to-back seasons, so it’s reasonable to question his consistency. Arguably even his best years aren’t worth his $10 million salary. And as if the Kings don’t have enough problems…

Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings, $11 million, expires 2027. Doughty is in decline following his 2017-18 season, when he put up 60 points and a plus-23. The next year he still put 45 points on the board, but his defensive effort plummeted to a startling minus-34. 6 more years at $11 million would be too much for even the best defenseman in the league — which, clearly, Doughty is not.

I will add in here that there are two other contracts flirting with the edge of the albatross category that the Kings might be eager to shed, but which the Kraken might actually want to take a chance on — at the right price. Forwards Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter will have one year remaining on their deals, and each is north of $5 million AAV. However, if Los Angeles was willing to throw in, say, Rasmus Kupari or Tobias Bjornfot plus a draft pick, taking one of those senior citizens off their hands might be worth considering.

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild, $7.5 million AAV (each), expires 2025. The Wild surprised everyone in the league with these identical 13-year, $98 million signings in the summer of 2012. Those acquisitions were supposed to put Minnesota on the map as a force in the league. Note that was 8 years ago, and have you seen the Wild in the Conference Finals since then? Verily I say unto thee, you have not. You’ve only seen them clear to the 2nd playoff round twice. Parise and Suter were overvalued at the beginning of these deals, and as a pair represent the longest and most expensive albatross contracts for a single team. Either one would be a catastrophe for the Kraken.

Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens, $7.85 million AAV, expires 2026. 990 games, 570 points, a combined plus-83, what’s not to like? In this case, age and injuries. Weber only managed a total of 84 games over the two seasons prior to this last one, and at age 34 that problem is only going to get worse. He’s arguably the one player on this list who is still producing; but I’d still be hesitant if he were earning only $4 million — he’s a definitive “no” at his current price, especially with another 5 years remaining on his deal.

Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks, $8 million AAV, expires 2025. Brent Burns is 35 years old. He was a point-per-game player in 2018-19; then last year he put up half the number of assists, and watched his plus-minus plummet to minus-22. Anyone think he has another 4 years in him that would justify gobbling up one-tenth of the salary cap for each of those seasons? I, for one, do not.

Uncharted Waters

The Seattle Kraken is a brand new NHL team. No players, no contracts, and as a result, no bad contracts. The smartest thing for Kraken GM Ron Francis to do during the expansion draft is, keep it that way. This is not the same world as the one in which the Kraken were willed into existence; nor the same world as when Francis was given the reins of the fledgling club. We’re in uncharted waters, and the economic uncertainty specifically surrounding the salary cap mandates an abundance of caution in order to keep the flexibility necessary to create and sustain a competitive roster.

There will be plenty of time for Francis to make dumb mistakes and sign players to overvalued contracts. He signed Scott Darling once; figuratively speaking, he is bound to do it again. But he needs to ensure he doesn’t handcuff himself with somebody else’s mistakes before the logo is even painted at center ice. We look to thee, O Helmsman, to steer us through, without a breeze, without a tide, she steadies with upright keel. And make sure this ship is guided safely to harbor, avoiding the ill fate of others currently adrift in the murky depths of cap hell.

Author: Tim Currell

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