When the NHL released its mid-October CBA offer to the public, everyone got a glimpse as to how the league was prepared to help teams manage the salary cap this season when it drops dramatically.
In that offer, the upper limit of the salary cap was $59.9 million, but a transition rule allowed teams to exceed it for only one season, permitting spending up to $70.2 million. That clause would prevent teams from having to dump major salaries in the short period of time between the CBA finalization and the start of the season.
But some team execs were left to wonder whether that's a robust enough transition rule. As one said during a recent phone conversation -- that transition rule is fine for this season, but what about next year?
The salary cap would still be in the low-$60 million range next year, and the ability to exceed it would disappear.
Some news Wednesday night from the New York Post's Larry Brooks shed light onto another transition rule that might help address that problem. Brooks tweeted that"amnesty buyouts are on table." Throughout these negotiations, the league has shown little to no appetite to include amnesty or buyouts as part of the next CBA. Early on in talks, one NHL source left little wiggle room on amnesty when I asked about it.
His response: "No amnesty."
So if it re-emerges as an option, it would have to be a push from the players, who certainly would be in favor of it. And it's not just players on board with amnesty. Front-office executives also wouldn't mind the additional flexibility amnesty would provide.
"I would almost think you have to do something to get compliance," said one GM. "You have to do something."
And what's the best route to compliance?
"That's the great thing," said another GM. "Right now, everything is negotiable."
There's been a lot of talk on the players' side about the "make whole" provision that ensures most of their current contracts are honored. But the transition rules being debated as the CBA negotiations get more serious this week are the GMs' version of the make-whole provision.
Many of the rosters currently constructed are the result of long-term planning under a system that could soon be obsolete. We don't know what the cap number is going to be. We don't even know for sure how salaries will be counted against the cap.
The new CBA may end up unraveling years of planning and preparation of some teams.
"It depends on the system and if it's a total reset," said one front-office executive.
Since they're the reigning champions, let's take a look at the Kings. This team was built with patience through the draft and then later completed with high-profile and expensive veteran additions. The Kings won the Stanley Cup this past season, and what's exciting for fans in L.A. is that the roster is basically intact again for a run at a repeat. The core there is young enough to contend for the foreseeable future with the Kings' Stanley Cup window wide-open right now ... assuming nothing dramatically changes the system.
The Kings have cap room to spare this season if teams are allowed to approach $70 million, but the careful long-term planning of that front office may take a hit in the following season if that number dives down to $60 million. It gets especially dicey if long-term contracts are calculated against the cap differently. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have reasonable cap hits under $6 million, but that number jumps if actual salary is used to calculate cap hit.
Jonathan Quick's cap hit jumps to $5.8 million next season from $1.7 million this year, and his actual salary is $7 million.
And, oh yeah, captain Dustin Brown and his camp can start negotiating a contract extension this summer with his reasonable $3.5 million annual deal expiring in 2013-14. Needless to say, he's in line for a big raise.
It would all be completely manageable under the old system. But that system is gone.
There are teams more than happy to wait and try to exploit those that may have to cut salary in the coming years, which is why some franchises aren't exactly pushing for aggressive transition rules.
"All transition rules are going to have their pros and cons depending on where you are in the spectrum of the league," said a GM.
Following the last lockout, teams were allowed a compliance buyout that applied only to the period preceding the 2005-06 regular season, with the bought-out players' salary not counted against the cap. It's a great deal for the players, who get paid in full on their previous deal and can go get a new one. It's how a guy like Bobby Holik was hardly impacted financially last lockout despite missing a full year's salary. It's possible that's how it's handled again this time around, but it doesn't carry the same impact if teams are allowed to exceed the cap this season. It's probably not enough.
What is needed by some teams is a compliance buyout period that extends into next summer and beyond. Since this lockout is proceeding eerily in step with the NBA's last year, it makes real sense to adopt the NBA's amnesty policy.
In the NBA, teams have a five-year window in which they can waive one player without that player's salary counting against the salary cap. So far, 15 NBA teams have taken advantage of that provision with others saving that option for a future year.
Adopting a similar plan would give general managers more flexibility in adjusting to the new CBA in future years rather than having to rush a decision before this season. It certainly makes sense, and with a lower salary cap on the horizon, it is almost a necessity. That said, the NHL probably still needs more convincing.
"There has to be a mechanism in place," concluded a GM. "I don't care what it is."