The new reality of overpaid defencemen

That’s an expensive check.

John-Michael Liles signed an extension this past season for four years and $15.5M, with an annual average value (AAV) of $3.875M. In a vacuum, paying a borderline second-pairing defenceman that kind of money to barely tread water possession-wise against below-average competition looks patently absurd.

Mike Komisarek signed three off-seasons ago to a contract that was to run five years and for $22.5M, with an AAV of $4.5M. In a vacuum, paying a borderline third-pairing defenceman that kind of money to not even tread water possession-wise against average competition looks patently absurd.

But with the recent defensive signings and the huge increase in the salary cap, these have somehow become workable deals.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, obviously, didn’t sign Ryan Suter to a 13-year, $98M deal yesterday. Some other NHL team did, one that didn’t have much, but one that can now boast a better defenceman than anyone on the Maple Leafs.

I don’t want to be the guy yelling in this corner “oh, oh, Brian Burke should have got his man, Burke never spends money on free agents”, but it’s just to point out how much salary cap space NHL teams are tendered in this day and age.

Without either the Komisarek or the Liles deals, bad as they are in a vacuum, without, the Leafs are below the salary cap floor and need to add on more salary. Brian Burke has stated countless times that he doesn’t like the long term, front-loaded deals. Via Sportsnet:

In addition to the Leafs, Burke also touched briefly on the current collective bargaining talks and the things he hopes the new agreement will address. At the top of his list of problems that need solving was long, front-loaded contracts designed to circumvent the salary cap.

“The salary cap is a system that was designed to build a competitive balance and parity, and I don’t want to be part of cheating that,” he said.

This is less than a week after admitting that ownership has not only allowed him, but authorized him to spend money on free agents. There’s just something about the long-term contract that Burke, in a hard cap system, is morally against.

It’s not a problem to have a different set of values as a man or woman running a hockey team. Where it gets fuzzy is if those values prevent him or her from running the team well.

I can find no evidence that the Leafs’ reluctance to pay free agents has cost the team playoff spots over the last three years. Moreover, Suter wanted to play in the Western Conference, so the Leafs could either push for an emergency realignment to the 1997 NHL, or they wouldn’t be in on Suter.

But here’s the thing… Minnesota, the Minnesota Wild, were the team that made the winning pitch for Suter, and Zach Parise to boot. They have the second highest salary cap payroll in the league, trailing only Boston. Detroit, Colorado and Dallas, former spendthrift teams in the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, are all below the salary cap floor.

The odd thing is you need one or two anchor contracts this summer in case there is an unlikely labour peace between the NHL and its Player’s Association. In the likely event their isn’t and there’s no amnesty offered to teams who have players on long deals, Burke’s stubborn view on contracts can help the Leafs in the long term.

Who knows what the next CBA will bring. Evidently, Burke is hoping for a cap on contract length or restrictions on current contracts. All of a sudden reasonable cap numbers are multiplied. That’s the theory, anyway, if he doesn’t think teams can gain an advantage.

If Ilya Bryzgalov’s contract is cut at six years, for instance, the AAV spikes from $5.67M to $7M. Ilya Kovalchuk’s goes from $6.67M to $9.5M. The long deals keep salary cap hits down, but we have yet to reach the end of a “lifetime deal” so to speak, and have yet to see how it affects the team in the waning end. Daniel Briere finished Year 5 of 8 just now, still a productive season, but his as the first front-loaded deal still has three years left. 35 next season, does Briere have enough left in the tank to still be worth $6.5M in the years ahead?

But if the salary cap doesn’t drop, does that matter? If the NHL caps the player’s cut of hockey related revenue at 50% as desired, the salary cap for this season is still $61.5M. So where’s the problem in a little extra baggage? If you overpay for star talent, Los Angeles has shown us that you can find good value in filler pieces in depth roles.

The concern is that hockey fails to grow at its current pace. In six years, the salary cap has nearly doubled. $4.5M to Komisarek looks ridiculous because $4.5M meant so much more in recent history compared to this summer. Sami Salo is 38 next year and still worth $3.5M on the open market. Brad Stuart is $3.6M. The Leafs were last year one of the top teams in spending on defencemen. With the Luke Schenn trade and other teams starting to pay for blue line help, they’ve dropped to 19th. Salary may finally be a reflection of the level of talent of the group.

Burke can likely afford another anchor to improve the team. You need this team to be better in the next two years if you want to convince Phil Kessel to stay and not make that trade three seasons ago a total loss. This goes for the 27-year old Dion Phaneuf as well. He’ll be productive well into his 30s, but if Burke is looking for the long-term future of the Leafs, he ought to make sure that the current stars on this team, of which there are few, will still want to stick around when they hit the open market in a couple of years.

  • RexLibris

    Good post, I’ve seen a lot this year on how the Leafs have ‘failed to attract’ big name UFA’s this year. This post was unique in that it referenced how the salary landscape has changed in the meantime and going forward.
    You touch on it a bit, but I think biggest issue is not the $$ that these guys are taking but the roster spots. With the Marlies making the Calder finals I think there is a strong desire to promote as many kids as you can, but the spots remaining are few.
    Fortunately the Leafs aren’t a team that has to worry about ‘eating’ money and have confirmed as much.
    I’ve also heard that the amount of superstar names available for trade this year is staggering. Who knows if Burke feels he has a much better chance of landing a Marleau, Kane or Ryan (as rumoured) than Parise who stated it was always between the Devils and ‘going home’ to Minny.
    Conclusion: I don’t consider this UFA pool a miss, I’m glad he didn’t pack in a lot more crap (Connolly, Army, Komi). Burke’s ability to not fold to pressure and not ‘Wideman’ us is what I admire about him. It seems he has finally learned his lesson, July 1 is not his cup of tea – nor should it be.

  • RexLibris

    Take it for what it’s worth but Eklund posted that Burke may be in talks with Anaheim regarding Getzlaf. If true, a big if, it is possible that Burke moves one of his rearguards in a huge package for the big center. This would then open the door for Holzer. I think that the subtraction of any of the Leafs top six d-men other than Phaneuf makes the team better. This group has been disappointing to say the least and needs a major overhaul. The departure of Schenn hopefully was just the beginning. Fransson could be a piece in such a deal provided that the RFA signs an extension in order to facilitate such a trade.

    2012-13 Defensive Pairings for Toronto could look like this:


    Not great, but possibly improved. Carlyle must squeeze more out of Komisarek and both Holzer and Kostka need to provide more defensive consistency in their own end of the ice then Schenn and Fransson did this past year.

    Anaheim needs to rebuild so here is what I would offer for Getzlaf:

    Fransson, Kadri, Devane and either MacArthur and Toronto’s 2014 2nd Round Draft selection or Kulemin and Toronto’s 2013 1st Round Draft selection.

    Think this is a fair mix of young players including a top six forward, NHL close prospects and draft opportunities.