A Review Of Common Strategies For Dodging The NHL’s Salary Cap

Photo: NHL

Since the salary cap was implemented as part of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement prior to the 2005-06 season, teams have taken advantage of loopholes to jettison a player who seemed overpaid relative to their perceived value. Many of these loopholes were utilized to avoid “buying out” the player entirely and being stuck with a dead cap space for years afterwards.

Several of these loopholes were closed as part of the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement signed prior to the 2012-13 season, but a few still remain. Each of these loopholes is described below.

Trade Player (and His Cap Hit) to a Small Market Team

As part of implementing the salary cap system, a maximum cap for each team was designated, but another provision was implemented as well. The system introduced a salary floor which was meant to induce teams to field a competitive team. Many times, a team has an aging player on a front-loaded deal whose salary is lower than his cap hit. The player in this case is often unable to play.

The solution is to trade him to a non-contending (or rebuilding) team where the players are not making high salaries, generally a small market team, such as past editions of the Arizona Coyotes, so that they can meet the salary cap floor without needing to spend much actual money.

Photo: Sports Illustrated

Examples include the Philadelphia Flyers trading Chris Pronger to the Arizona Coyotes in 2014, when he could no longer play due to a concussion and an eye injury, and the Chicago Blackhawks trading Marian Hossa to the Arizona Coyotes in 2018 after he could no longer play due to a skin disorder. (Note: the Detroit Red Wings traded Pavel Datsyuk to the Arizona Coyotes in 2016 when he “retired” to go to the KHL. The cap hit still remained for them because Datsyuk had signed his contract after his 35th birthday.)

NHL.Com — Marian Hossa Traded to Coyotes by Blachkawks
NHL.Com — Flyers Trade Contract of Chris Pronger
NHL.Com — Red Wings Trade Datysuk  draft pick to Coyotes

Send Player to “Robidas Island”

An underperforming player, usually because of an injury, would be placed on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR), or if it happened at the beginning of the season, placed on the “Injured – Non Roster” list, in order to make room for additional players.

Exile to Robidas Island was a running gag that the Toronto Maple Leafs blog, Editor In Leaf, had started back in 2015 when defenseman Stephane Robidas was placed on Injured Reserve due to knee issues. He was unable to play during the last two years of his contract, 2015-16 and 2016-17, and placed on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIP) for the entirety of those two seasons.

Prior to joining the Leafs, Robidas had broken his right leg twice. He had a right knee injury in training camp of 2015. The cumulative damage from his knee and his right leg resulted in him not being able to play again.

Since then, any player who was injured and disappeared from the Toronto Maple Leafs active roster would be referred to as “getting sent to Robidas Island. Robidas himself went on to become a Director of Player Development in the Maple Leaf’s organization.

Photo:  Graig Abel/National Hockey League/Getty Images

Other players from the Toronto Maple Leafs during that era who were sent to Robidas Island included Joffrey Lupul, who had twice failed preseason physicals due to a sports hernia condition prior to the 2016-17 season. During the 2015-16, they encouraged any injured veteran player, including Trevor Van Riemsdyk, to take as much time as needed to rehabilitate from injury.

Editor In Leaf: Toronto Maple Leafs – Robidas Island

Kane/Kucherov Loophole

The dodge places an expensive star player on Long Term Injured Reserve and doesn’t reactivate the player until the playoffs, as there is no salary cap in the playoffs. If this star is injured before the season and ultimately misses the entire season, they are able to keep more players and be cap compliant.

If the injury happens before the trade deadline, they can acquire additional players to aid in their playoff push. In both cases, the injured player returns for the past season and the team who is not constrained by the salary cap in the playoffs, has a much greater chance of winning the Stanley Cup or going deeper in the playoffs.

The Chicago Blackhawks did this back in 2015 when Patrick Kane had broken his collar bone and was expected to be out through the first round of the playoffs, but was back in time for the first round.  The Blackhawks went on to win the Stanley Cup.

The Tampa Bay Lightning did this during the 2020-21 season when it was announced before the season that their best player, Nikita Kucherov, would miss the entire season due to an injury sustained in the prior season’s playoffs. In addition, Steven Stamkos, their other main star, got injured. Hence, they were able to afford the salaries of their remaining core and complementary players. Both Kucherov and Stamkos returned in time for the first game of the playoffs and the Lightning won the Stanley Cup.

Photo: NHL

The Sporting News: GM’s Would Like Answers About Patrick Kane Loophole
USA Today: Lightning Benefit By Exploiting Cap Loophole With Kucherov
NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning Nikita Kucherov Out for Regular Season

Most teams would unlikely be able to exploit this particular loophole as they would have to be a good enough team to make the playoffs, despite a long-term absence of one of their major stars.

Strategies No longer Legal

The above moves can still be done. But prior to the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed during the 2012-13 season, there were other ways that teams would dodge the salary cap that are no longer allowed.  Those moves are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Sign Player To Front Loaded Long Term Contract

A typical strategy of general managers was to entice players to sign contracts for a lower annual salary, but for a longer term. Many times, the strategy was to give a market value salary for a player’s prime years but a relatively low salary during the last years, often at an age where the player is no longer likely to be playing in the NHL.

The idea at the time was that the player would retire before the end of the contract, which would result in contract termination and the end of the cap hit. However, the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed before the 2012-13 season changed the contract rules so that no adjacent year could exceed the first year by more than 35% and the lowest salaried years could not be more than 50% lower than the first two years of the contract.

Photo: NHL

In addition, cap recapture penalties were instituted for any contract whose last years were significantly lower than their prime years, a rule that would be retroactively applied to contracts signed before the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2012-13.  Hence, players whose contracts were active but were physically unable to play would not officially retire, but would be placed on long-term injured reserve for as long as their contract remained active.

This applied to Marian Hossa, David Clarkson, Nathan Horton, Chris Pronger, and several other players. After the 2012-13 season, many times teams would trade players who no longer could play that had a high cap hit to non-contending, small market teams, so that the receiving team could increase its cap hit without needing to outlay the equivalent dollar amount.

Forbes: Roberto Luongo Actually Did Vandouver a Favor by Retiring
Grantland: Were Any Long Term NHL Contracts a Good Idea

A team could remove unwanted player from their roster by waiving them and sending them to their AHL affiliate. The team would still pay the salary but the cap hit would not count against their salary cap. This could be referred to as “reddonizing” a player. Alternatively, they could waive him and either send him to another team’s minor league affiliate or even lend him to an overseas league.  That could be referred to as “nylanderizing” a player.

Reddenizing a Player

This move was to send a player to their minor league team in order to remove the cap hit. The term was in honor of Wade Redden who had signed a six year contract with the New York Rangers in July 2008. However, his play continued to decline. Before the 2010-11 season, the Rangers placed Redden on waivers.

After clearing waivers, he was sent to their AHL team in Hartford and spent the entire 2011-12 season in Hartford. He was bought-out with one of the two buyouts allowed by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, so that he would not count against the salary cap.

Photo: Sports Illustrated

Nylanderize a Player

This move was to loan a player to a foreign league, or to send a player to another team’s minor league system. The term was in honor of the moves the Washington Capitals executed with center Michael Nylander, who was not quite the same player since his shoulder surgery during the 2007-08 season. The Capitals had signed Nylander to a four-year contract before the 2007-08 season. He injured his shoulder midway through his first season with the Capitals and needed rotator cuff surgery.

Nylander returned for the 2008-09 season, but was perceived as not “fitting in” with the team’s system. Thus, he was assigned to the Detroit Red Wings AHL team in Grand Rapids for the 2009-10 season. Ultimately he ended up finishing the season in the Finnish league. A similar fate awaited him for 2011-12. He was sent to the Rochester Americans (AHL affiliate of the Florida Panthers) but was also assigned to the Swedish League.

Photo: Sports Illustrated

Strategies Used

The Orpik Workaround

This move was to trade a player with a high cap hit to another team where the new player’s team buys him out and then the original team signs him up to a new contract with a lower cap hit. This term is in honor of Brooks Orpik, who, after the 2017-18 season, the Washington Capitals traded Brooks Orpik and backup goalie to the Colorado Avalanche for a second round draft pick. The Avalanche then bought-out Orpik. Orpik then returned to the Caps for a lower cap hit.  The NHL did investigate the situation but found no wrong doing.

Photo: Nick Wass/AP

NBC Sports: Caps Cleared of Any Wrongdoing After NHL Investigates Brooks Orpik Trade and Buyout

Strategies Today

Without the option of placing players with “bad” contracts on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR), sending players to the minors, or loan to a foreign league to get rid of a cap hit, the main strategy for teams wanting to get rid of an expensive player who they consider a liability, is to include a “sweetener” in the deal as an incentive. The “sweetener” is usually a prospect or an early draft pick (first or second rounder). The team “accepting” the expensive player is generally a rebuilding team who has plenty of cap space.

Sporting News: NHL Facing Scariest Salary Cap Recapture Situations
Updating the NHL Contract Calculator For New Salary Variability Rules

By Diane Doyle

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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4 Responses to A Review Of Common Strategies For Dodging The NHL’s Salary Cap

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  3. Anonymous says:

    I still don’t understand how buyouts help team’s salary cap situation. If the team buys out a player, does the cap hit go away? How is the buyout amount calculated? There must be some sort of a discount for future payments?

    • Diane Doyle says:

      The buyouts basically spread out the cap hit over a longer period of time. I don’t know the formula and it depends on the age of the player. But, as a rule, often it is half the salary amount extended over twice the period. But that also depends on signing bonus and other factors too. But the Amnesty Buyouts (after the last Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed in 2013), those buyouts did not count against the Cap. Just money.

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