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Amnesty Buyouts: And why they’re not worth the hype

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Amnesty

By now, the routine has gotten a little old.  After several lockouts, mainly over money (and specifically the amount players are getting), we should all be used to seeing the owners make the said lockouts pointless, practically as soon as the new deal is ratified.  In 2004, we saw the owners circumvent their own cap with lengthy front-loaded deals, designed to lower the annual cap hit, while still shelling out top dollar.  This, like the previous cap-free system, still favored the teams with spending power.

Enter lockout #2 – Also known as the anti-frontloaded contract lockout (okay, maybe it wasn’t actually known as that… but it could have been).  The owners won again; a limit was placed on the length of contracts, and they got the amnesty clause to buy their way out of some of their post-2004 blunders.   The owners of course promptly reacted to their victory by giving out deals like these ones:

Alex Semin: 5 years.  Cap hit: 7.00

Lubomir Visnovsky: 2 years.  Cap hit: 4.75

Jimmy Howard: 6 years.  Cap hit: 5.291

Corey Perry: 8 years. Cap hit: 8.625

Sergei Gonchar: 2 years.  Cap hit: 5

Evgeni Malkin: 8 years.  Cap hit: 9.50

Mark Streit: 4 years. Cap hit: 5.25

(all cap info from capgeek.com)

Now, I bring these up, not because they are necessarily bad contracts (that remains to be seen), but because they are comparable in cost to pre-lockout contracts, at least in the actual cost.  But in terms of Cap hit… these deals are a lot harder to swallow.  Take Semin’s deal for example.  It currently makes him one of the highest paid forwards in the league in cap hit.   Howard’s deal puts him right up there with the long-term d’oh deals signed by Bryzgalov and Luongo.  Perry’s will place him right at the top near the likes of Crosby and Malkin, despite showing signs of being a one hit wonder in the Hart trophy department.  While Visnovsky, Streit, and Gonchar’s deals are pretty steep hits for aging offensive defensemen.

The precedent has clearly been set for higher cap hits, which begs the question; is the amnesty the owners fought so hard for really going to shake things up much?  Sure, it’ll be used on guys like Gomez and Redden, who were likely to spend the remainder of their careers with their contracts buried in the minors anyways, but what about all the dream scenarios fans have been concocting?  What about the serviceable players, with a not-so-ghastly cap hit, that we would still all like to see gone from our teams?  Guys like Franzen, Luongo, Leino and Campbell.   Or what about long-term deals for the guys who are still producing, but at likely diminishing returns?  Like Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Hossa, Lecavalier, Briere and Richards.  Are these guys really worth buying out anymore?

Consider Kenny Holland’s comment when asked if he would use the amnesty buyout on sometimes-5-goal-a-game scorer and sometimes-no-goals-in-20-games goat Johan Franzen:  “How many 30 goal scorers are there?”   He brings to mind two solid points.  The first is that the UFA talent pool is dry because of the nature of the CBA and won’t likely change much in the next couple of seasons, inviting overpayments and driving up player salaries.   You have to give up a lot to steal a RFA, contract lengths are still long enough to keep most good players locked up, and the additional year a player can sign with their current club basically ensures that a lot of the top talent will be signing prior to free agency (like Getzlaf and Perry).  The rest of the talent will be snatched up pretty quickly by whoever is dumb (or perhaps desperate) enough to pay the ridiculously high price tag (see: Philadelphia and Streit).   So, besides going through a voluntary rebuild… why buy out someone who you’re unlikely to replace via free agency for a cheaper price?  The second point is that Franzen’s cap hit is actually still pretty good for what he delivers.  At 3.95, Franzen’s cap hit is lower than guys like Jiri Hudler, Brenden Morrow, Nik Antropov, Drew Stafford, Ville Leino, Ray Whitney, Erik Cole, David Booth, and Travis Zajac.  Sure, Franzen’s contact lasts until he’s old (like Gordie Howe taking a shift for the Detroit Vipers old), but that’s a problem for later, not now.  Franzen would likely command between 4.5 and 5.5 on the open market (teammate Val Filppula is said to be asking for 5 million, despite a weaker resume).   Even if Wings fans are frustrated watching Frazen taking nights off, his cap hit makes him a keeper in this climate; or at the very least someone to trade and not buyout.

This looks to be true with a lot of the potential buyouts league wide.  These contracts that owners were desperate to be rid of now suddenly have tantalizing cap hits, couple that with the ballooning cost of star players and the lack of quality free agents, and it sets the stage for a lot of conservative decision making (on the buying out end… unfortunately it’s probably setting the stage for even poorer signing and trading decisions).  Even the amnesty poster boy Luongo is now a question mark after the flip-flopping the Canucks did all season long (and the equally iffy returns they got from both net minders).   And the team that seems most poised to use the buyout, the Flyers, don’t have a backup plan… unless they’re seriously considering using Steve Mason as a full-time net minder.  As nutty as Philly’s decision making has been lately, going into a season with Steve Mason as your number one just seems downright insane.

Ultimately, after all the hype over the amnesty clause, and all the potential chaos it could unleash, I can’t get over the feeling that it’s going to be a rarely used flop.   I hope I’m wrong, but this summer could be a snooze.

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