The NBA and NFL lockouts might have caused sports fans to think that owners were finally putting their collective feet down when it comes to exorbitant player salaries, but the NHL and its annual "Free-Agent Frenzy" has chimed in to remind us that the trend of overpaying for mediocre talent is alive and well.
Beginning Friday at noon, free agents were allowed to sign new deals, and there was no shortage of teams willing to pay up for a variety of reasons. Philadelphia, who entered the day only $8 million under the NHL's hard salary cap ($64.3 million), aggressively stole former Penguins forwards Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot away from Pittsburgh for about $5 million, and were rumored to be conducting negotiations into the night with Brad Richards, the prized player of this year's free-agent class. On the other end of the salary cap spectrum, the Florida Panthers, whose payroll sat around $20 million prior to last Friday's draft, went on a spending spree that saw them acquire 10 players through signings and trades over the past week in an effort to both end the team's
10-year playoff drought and reach the league's salary "floor", $48.3 million.
In between those two teams, the rest of the league's front offices did not hesitate to throw around big-money contracts, with Friday's signings amounting to $216 million for over 50 players. The NHL's CBA includes both a hard cap and a cap floor (a minimum dollar amount which each team's payroll is not allowed to go below), both intended to keep the league's 30 teams on a level playing field and, theoretically, encourage parity. However, forcing teams to commit to a minimum payroll, particularly with a free-agent class as weak as the one in 2011, has resulted in general managers vastly overpaying for talent that is largely considered so-so.
Christian Ehrhoff racked up 94 points over the past 2 seasons largely due to the fact that the Vancouver power-play he helped conduct also included stars Daniel and Henrik Sedin. But that didn't stop the Buffalo Sabres from handing Ehrhoff a 10-year, $40 million contract. Buffalo's wallet didn't close there. Newly-signed LW Ville Leino hadn't scored more than 6 goals in a season before netting 19 this past year for Philadelphia while playing alongside Scott Hartnell and Daniel Briere (who combined for 58 goals), yet Sabres GM Darcy Regier handed Leino a 6-year, $27 million contract. I don't mean to harp on Buffalo's signings, as they are indicative of a larger-scale problem. Over-compensating free agents is a league-wide epidemic, and one team's refusal to participate in the madness would simply result in another being more than willing to pick up the slack. In fact, with the cap floor in place, 17 teams entered Friday needing to increase their payroll in order to satisfy the minimum $48.3 million requirement. Friday's free-agent spending binge may have been irresponsible on the part of some teams (I'm looking at you, Columbus), but in many cases it was necessary.
Fans who are agitated by their teams signing average players for premium prices should direct their anger at the system, not the executives forced to work in it. While a cap floor prevents the type of embarrassingly low payrolls seen in Major League Baseball, it also contributes to the kind of severe inflation that lead to the Blue Jackets giving "offensive defenseman" James Wisniewski (who had never amassed more than 30 points in his 8-year career until 2010-11) a 6-year, $33 million deal. It will be interesting to see if NHL team owners are able to generate enough revenue to support the bloated contracts that they handed out Friday and in recent years past. If they're not, the cap floor and the subsequent inflation caused by it will likely be a point of contention when the current CBA expires in September of 2012.
Rob Smith is a contributing writer for the Business of Sports Network. He can be reached on Twitter @RobSmithUSF or on his personal blog, http://smithersports.blogspot.com/