The Myth of the Unmovable NHL Contract
The limitations of the salary cap and no-movement clauses were thought to make the trading of expensive, long-term NHL contracts almost impossible. But in recent years, general managers found clever ways to deal with seemingly unmovable contracts.
A prime example is the seven-year, $36.75 million contract winger David Clarkson signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 5, 2013. Critics derided the idea of the Leafs committing so much for so long to Clarkson, a gritty 29-year-old winger with just one decent offensive season under his belt.
The term and salary breakdown (including $7 million in actual salary in years four and five) were cited as factors making Clarkson’s contract difficult to trade or buy out. Toss in the no-movement and modified no-trade clauses and the Leafs appeared to be stuck with this contract for years if Clarkson failed to play up to expectations.
Clarkson subsequently struggled through his first two seasons in Toronto, hampered by injury and his own skill limitations. However, then-Leafs general manager Dave Nonis pulled off the seemingly impossible at the 2014 trade deadline, shipping Clarkson to the Columbus Blue Jackets for winger Nathan Horton.
On the same day the Leafs signed Clarkson, the Blue Jackets inked Horton to seven-year, $37.1 million deal. Unlike Clarkson, Horton was a proven offensive talent with six straight 40-plus point seasons on his resume. He’d also helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and reach the Final two years later.
Unfortunately, a back injury derailed Horton’s career. However, he didn’t formally retire. While the Jackets would get cap relief if needed by placing him on long-term injury reserve, they still had to pay out his annual salary over the remaining term of his contract.
Rather than carry a player who was all but retired due to injury, Jackets management felt it worthwhile to move his contract for a forward with a comparable salary who could still contribute to the roster. The Leafs, meanwhile, were quite willing to carry the dead cap space of someone who would never skate for them simply to get Clarkson’s contract off their books.
In a cruel twist, however, Clarkson eventually suffered his own career-ending back injury. The Jackets were seemingly no better off than when they were carrying Horton on their books.
But fate intervened in the form of the 2017 NHL expansion draft. Clarkson agreed to waive his no-trade clause, allowing the Jackets to ship his contract, along with two draft picks, to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
The move cost the Jackets their first-round pick (twenty-fourth overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft and their second-round selection in 2019. Already stocked with good young talent, however, this proved a small price to pay to shed the final three seasons of Clarkson’s deal.
Golden Knights GM George McPhee is under no illusion that Clarkson might stage a comeback. He has the available cap space to carry the remaining term of the sidelined winger’s contract and saw an opportunity to use it to his advantage to build up his infant club’s depth for the future.
Clarkson and Horton aren’t the only inactive players whose contracts were traded in recent years. On June 27, 2015, the Philadelphia Flyers shipped defensemen Chris Pronger and Nicklas Grossmann to the Arizona Coyotes for center Sam Gagner. Pronger’s Hall of Fame career was prematurely ended by head trauma suffered during a game in October 2011.
The Flyers freed up some much-needed salary-cap space. The Coyotes, meanwhile, moved a player who no longer fit into their plans for 2015-16 and added a serviceable player in Grossmann to their talent-thin blueline.
Several days later, on July 1, 2015, the Boston Bruins shipped center Marc Savard’s contract and winger Reilly Smith to the Florida Panthers for forward Jimmy Hayes.
Like Pronger, Savard’s playing days were cut short by concussion in 2011. At the time of the trade, his contract still had two years remaining with an annual cap hit of just over $4 million. The Bruins had been placing him annually on LTIR, but like the Flyers with Pronger, found an opportunity to shed that contract in a larger deal. Nearly a year later, the Panthers dealt Savard’s contract to the New Jersey Devils (along with a 2018 second-round draft pick) for two minor leaguers.
In 2016, long-time Detroit Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk announced his NHL retirement to finish his playing career in Russia. Because he was on a plus-35 contract, the Wings wouldn’t get any relief from his $7.5 million annual cap hit for 2016-17.
Like the Flyers a year earlier, the Wings found a solution to their potential salary-cap headache with the Coyotes. During the opening round of the 2016 NHL Draft, they shipped Datysuk’s contract and their first-round pick (sixteenth overall) in to Arizona for the twentieth and fifty-third picks plus forward Joe Vitale.
Once again, the Coyotes had the cap space to take on that final season of Datsyuk’s deal, providing the Wings with some valuable cap space. They also landed themselves a quality prospect, using the first-round pick they got from Detroit to select defenseman Jakob Chychrun.
Not every supposedly difficult-to-move contract involves sidelined or retired players.
On July 1, 2015, the Leafs traded Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Nick Spaling, Kasperi Kapanen, Scott Harrington and the Pens first-and third-round picks in the 2016 NHL draft. At the time, Kessel was entering the second season of his eight-year, $64 million contract, which also carried no-movement and modified no-trade clauses.
The Leafs had to retain $1.2 million of Kessel’s $8 million annual salary-cap hit to make the deal work. The ability for teams to retain a portion of a player’s annual average salary in the current collective bargaining agreement made it possible for this deal to go through. It’s doubtful this trade would’ve taken place under the previous CBA when salary retention wasn’t allowed.
It’s what also helped the Vancouver Canucks trade goaltender Roberto Luongo to the Florida Panthers on March 5, 2014. The Canucks agreed to pick up 15 percent ($800,000 annually) of Luongo’s annual salary-cap hit over the remaining eight years of his 12-year contract.
Granted, Luongo’s desire to be dealt and the Panthers willingness to bring him back to Florida were the major factors in getting this deal done. Still, the salary retention factor certainly helped propel things along.
Sometimes, a team’s need to address a significant roster issue can still result in a trade of a player carrying an expensive cap hit.
On June 17, the Arizona Coyotes shipped goaltender Mike Smith to the Calgary Flames in exchange for Chad Johnson, Brandon Hickey and a conditional draft pick. Smith, 35, has two seasons remaining on his contract with an annual cap hit of over $5.6 million.
Despite Smith’s age, salary and recent injury history, the Flames were desperate enough for a starting goaltender that they’re willing to take a chance on him. What also helped, of course, was the Coyotes’ willingness to pick up over $1.4 million annually of his remaining cap hit (stick tap to “ProScout”).
On June 23, the Edmonton Oilers sent right wing Jordan Eberle to the New York Islanders for winger Ryan Strome. Though Eberle’s production declined in recent years and he carries a $6 million annual cap hit for the next two seasons, the Isles felt he’d be an upgrade over the disappointing (but more affordable) Strome.
And on June 30, the Minnesota Wild packaged veteran winger Jason Pominville and defenseman Marco Scandella to the Buffalo Sabres for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno.
Pominville, 34, has two seasons remaining on his contract worth an annual cap hit of $5.6 million. His best seasons are behind him, but the Sabres were willing to bring him back to Buffalo to provide some veteran experience and leadership to their rebuilding roster.
The principals in each of these three trades – Smith, Eberle and Pominville – each had only two seasons remaining on their respective deals. That undoubtedly made their new teams willing to swallow their pricey annual average salaries.
Expensive long-term deals are still difficult to move, especially those with no-trade clauses. Finding a trade partner with sufficient salary-cap space to comfortably absorb a costly annual cap hit is a difficult test for any NHL general manager.
Still, under the right conditions, a seemingly unmovable NHL contract can be traded.