Flexible CBA would help lower-revenue NHL teams

Columbus Blue Jackets forwards Jeff Carter and Rick Nash have been the subject of trade rumors in recent days and weeks as the NHL trading deadline on approaches on Feb. 27.

Both have proven skill, but they also have a combined 16 years left on their contracts totaling $99.4 million after this season. You could almost buy an NHL franchise for that kind of money.

In the past, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has floated a proposal in which the team trading the player could assume a portion of his salary. This occurs all the time in Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, the practice is not written into the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement and, as a result, is prohibited.

So if you’re the Blue Jackets and you have the worst record in the NHL and you want to rebuild, you’re missing a potentially useful tool. Many teams are capped out. This, seemingly, has led to fewer significant deals in recent years. Managers complain that fewer teams are selling. This has a lot to do with so many teams being within reach of the playoffs, but it also has a lot to do with no-movement clauses and long-term contracts that are difficult to fit under the cap.

“It’s a different era from a manager’s standpoint for the trading year or, in some cases, the lack of it,” said Nashville’s David Poile. “We’re really reduced to, almost, in some cases, two periods of time” – the trading deadline and the draft.

With the CBA set to expire in September, Poile and Carolina’s Jim Rutherford, two of the longest-tenured general managers in the NHL, say they have an open mind to discussing the idea.

“I’d like to talk about that,” Poile said. “I want to see what everybody thinks, but I probably have a little bit more time for that today that after we’ve now been through this many years of the CBA. I understand my first reaction is, ‘This is another win for the wealthiest teams,’ but I’m not necessarily sure that’s the case and actually I do see reasons to do this. Not on a regular basis, but on a one-time basis, maybe, yeah.”

Poile has served for 29 consecutive seasons (with Washington and Nashville), second only to the New York Rangers’ Glen Sather’s 31 between his current team and Edmonton. Rutherford, with 18 years all with Hartford/Carolina, is the second-longest serving GM with the same team to New Jersey’s Lou Lamoriello.

The two veteran GMs also rank among the most respected with their peers, so when they speak, their words carry a certain weight – especially on matters that concern lower-revenue teams and on issues that tend to affect teams in nontraditional markets (which are sometimes intertwined).

In the past, it seems the league was reluctant to undertake what would amount to a change in the CBA before the document had expired. There was a feeling that the proposal represented a sort of salary cap circumvention that favored teams that had an ability to spend to the cap limit over those that didn’t.

Lower spending teams already do not like how their big-market counterparts can get a player off their books by sending him to the minor leagues or on loan to Europe. They can do this because they can afford to eat bad contracts. Lower-payroll teams have to live with those.

For example, the Rangers have paid defenseman Wade Redden $6.5 million each of the last two seasons to play in the American Hockey League. Undoubtedly, the Rangers, who have the best record in the Eastern Conference, would not have been able to sign the market’s top free agent in July 2011, Brad Richards, who has been a significant contributor with 17 goals, 22 assists and a plus-12 rating. Richards is in the first year of a nine-year, $60-million deal with a cap hit that is only $166,667 more than Redden’s.

Meanwhile, Nashville had to trade a perfectly good defenseman, Cody Franson, around the same time last year just to get Toronto to take the $3.5 million contract of center Matthew Lombardi, who played only one game last season because of a concussion.

But with the CBA set to expire, the timing could be right for a change. In the past, the NHLPA reportedly did not voice opposition to the idea. It would seem to make sense that they would support a situation in which a player could get out of a potentially bad situation and into a good one without taking a pay cut. Furthermore, such a practice would theoretically seem to increase player spending.

At the same time, as Poile said, there might have to be restrictions on, potentially, the time of year (not for in-season trades) and on the amount of times a team could exercise the option, as well as the dollar amount.

“Well, same as anything, there’s pros and cons to things,” Rutherford said. “And there is with this. I think, in general, people view that as something that will help the big market teams and hurt the lower-revenue teams. I don’t necessarily see it that way. I actually think it may work just as well or better for the lower-revenue teams where they can end up getting a player that they couldn’t normally get.

“With that being said, it’s not in our CBA now. I’m open to listening to everybody’s views on it again. I have an open mind, but I’m not real sure how I feel it should go.”

Poile, for one, seems to have come around. If a player makes $4 million and the team he’s being traded to only has to pay half his salary, they’re getting a discount.

“I didn’t see that that way, but now I do,” Poile said. “I do have some time for it.”

Rutherford said that a change of opinion from someone like Poile represents something of a sea change.

“We have a managers meeting again in a month and I’m sure it’s going to be brought up again,” Rutherford said. “If you’re telling me you heard David say that, he’s a pretty conservative guy. As we get closer to winding this CBA down, we all have open minds to different issues and that’s something I certainly have an open mind to this one.”

If you’re the Blue Jackets, it might not help you now, but maybe it could in time for next season.