From Chicago to New Jersey, salary cap creates headaches for talented teams with big payrolls

By Ira Podell, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Salary cap headaches for talented, expensive teams

NEW YORK — When the Chicago Blackhawks raise the banner to honor their first Stanley Cup championship since 1961, Dustin Byfuglien won’t be there to soak in the moment and celebrate with his teammates.

The Blackhawks aren’t his teammates anymore.

On Saturday night, the man who scored the decisive goal in five of the Blackhawks’ 16 postseason wins will be in Florida, wearing the uniform of the Atlanta Thrashers — a team that finished 10th in the Eastern Conference.

The Blackhawks knew while making their long-awaited run to the title that win or lose, the chase would come at a cost.

And it did.

Byfuglien, along with several other key players, had to be sent away or let go in the days following the championship because they couldn’t all fit under the salary cap.

Sure the Blackhawks still have top forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and because of that duo the club remains a contender to win it all again. But secondary players such as Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Colin Fraser, and Andrew Ladd — who all made their mark in the victory — are gone.

With a team salary cap number of $59.4 million for this season, only so many players can stick around. That meant that even goalie Antti Niemi, who earned all 16 wins in the playoffs with a 2.65 goals-against average, had to be let go after he was awarded a $2.75 million salary in arbitration. He earned $826,875 in his first full NHL season.

The raise was too much for the Blackhawks to take, so Niemi is with the San Jose Sharks — the only team in the Western Conference that finished with more points than Chicago. The Sharks were eliminated by Niemi and the Blackhawks in a conference finals sweep.

There hasn’t been a repeat NHL champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Now entering the sixth season of the league’s salary cap era, dynasty-type teams might become even more of a distant memory.

“We’re not in favor of or opposed to dynasty teams,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “What the Blackhawks did, very successfully, is they made a conscious decision last season to make a series of moves to get themselves in a position to be extraordinarily competitive. But they understood when they made those moves there were cap consequences.

“The benefit of the system we have is all teams can be competitive, can afford to be competitive. That to us is the most important thing because obviously there are going to be differences as to how well run teams are and how successful they are in putting their teams together.”

Chicago waited nearly 50 years for the Cup to return. Surely the Windy City and Blackhawks fans don’t want to hear how good it is for the other 29 NHL cities to have a good chance to win at their expense.

“Our fans, no matter what team they root for, know their team has a shot to make the playoffs and maybe win it all which is perhaps why in the last five seasons all but two clubs have made the playoffs,” Bettman said.

The Blackhawks got over the hurt of seeing teammates leave and they say they are more than ready to take another shot at what is often called the toughest trophy to win.

“You get that hunger again pumping through your blood,” said Duncan Keith, last season’s Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenseman. “We want to win every year. That’s the goal in our organization. Detroit would be the best example. Over the last 10 years, they’ve been a solid team and you could make a legitimate case that they would be Cup contenders every year. That’s what we want to be like. We don’t want to be a one-year team and that’s it.”

It’s not just the Blackhawks who found themselves in a salary-cap nightmare. Just look at the New Jersey Devils, who spent a good chunk of the summer trying to keep star forward Ilya Kovalchuk.

After a third straight first-round playoff exit, the Devils couldn’t afford to let Kovalchuk get away in free agency. New Jersey traded several pieces to Atlanta to pry him away midseason and wanted him to stay. Lengthy negotiations produced a landmark 17-year, $102 million deal that right away revealed salary cap relief.

The NHL noticed that, too, and rejected the contract that would’ve paid Kovalchuk only $550,000 in each of the final six years — saying the deal was constructed to circumvent the salary cap. The Devils and Kovalchuk’s camp reworked it and came out with a legal 15-year contract worth $100 million.

Not only did it leave the Devils $3 million over the cap for the season, and with hard decisions to make, New Jersey was then stripped of a third-round draft pick this year and a first-rounder in one of the next four seasons, and was fined $3 million by the NHL.

The only consolation was that the fine won’t be charged against the cap.

“I think it’s a little harsh,” said Devils star forward Zach Parise, whose contract is up after this season. “When you get smacked with a penalty and you lose draft picks, you lose a first-round pick, that’s big.

New Jersey temporarily got under the cap before Wednesday’s deadline by placing defenseman Bryce Salvador (concussion) on long-term injured reserve and designating defenseman Anssi Salmela (knee) as an injured, non-roster player.

The Devils are carrying only 20 players on the roster that allows for 23, and will need to make more decisions down the road. Familiar names such as captain Jamie Langenbrunner, Dainius Zubrus, Colin White, and Travis Zajac, could be on the move because of their contracts.

“It’s a tough situation,” Zajac said. “You’ve got friends on the team that could get traded. It’s a business like anything else, and it’s going to happen.

“I can’t worry about that.”

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