Let’s call it what it is – cheating without actually cheating. At least that’s the concern that seems to have risen from the NHL general mangers meetings in Boca Raton. According to TSN’s Senior Hockey Reporter Frank Seravalli, “at least two GMs would like answers surrounding a salary cap oddity.”
The Kane “Loophole”
The oddity involves the defending Stanley Cup champions – the Chicago Blackhawks and the league’s current leading scorer Patrick Kane. The issue stems from last season when the Hawks loaded up at the deadline with Kane on long-term injury reserve (LTIR).
“Last year, Kane fractured his collarbone on Feb. 24 and subsequently underwent surgery,” writes Seravalli. “His timeframe for return was approximately 12 weeks, or maybe sometime during the Western Conference final.
The catch is there is no salary cap during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Every team must be cap compliant through the end of the regular season, but the numbers can pretty much be thrown out the window after that day.”
Enter Blackhawks’ GM Stan Bowman and his creative mind. Bowman added three players (Vermette, Timonen and Desjardins) for the cost of Kane’s contract. The bonus? Kane returned to action just in time to join his teammates – old and new – on the ice for the start of the postseason. The loophole? The Blackhawks were now over the regular season salary cap, but it didn’t matter because there is technically no cap to worry about in the playoffs.
So what’s the problem?
The Issue at Hand
The problem is that it “creates a competitive imbalance” according to Seravalli. It allows teams to go into the playoffs knowing their cap could increase – technically speaking – with players coming off LTIR.
One GM who wanted it included on the agenda for the meetings was Anaheim Ducks’ Bob Murray. The Ducks lost to Chicago in the 2015 Western Conference Finals in seven games. Kane was instrumental in the series scoring seven points (3g-4a) in the series. Adding to that, Desjardins, Timonen and Vermette combined for a goal and four assists to help the Hawks soar past the Ducks.
— @HockeyDummies “TML” (@SButland) March 16, 2016
Now, in no way is that the only reason why Murray had something to say about the issue. The fact is, people are always looking for loopholes in the system. Bowman – and the Blackhawks – found just that a loophole. While it’s not technically cheating, it’s a bend in the rules that allows teams to take advantage of just that – the rules.
And while Bowman was willing to pounce on the opportunity, the St. Louis Blues’ Doug Armstrong has decided to refrain from any wiggling around the rules. On Feb. 21, his Blues lost Alex Steen to an upper-body injury which opened the door to a similar move prior to the NHL’s Trade Deadline.
“To me, it was black and white because (Steen) wants to come back,” said Armstrong in the piece by Seravalli. “We weren’t going to add a piece better than Alex Steen. If we’ve got eight or nine games left, and he can help us secure home-ice, I’ll take Alex Steen before anybody that got traded at that deadline.”
While it was a road that Armstrong wasn’t willing to take, his understanding of the exception seems to align with the Ducks’ Murray.
“It seems to be a counterbalance that you work 82 nights with one financial equation, (and) then on Game 1, there are no financial concerns,” he said in the TSN interview. “I’m not sure what the proper answer is.”
And so the discussion begins. What is the proper way of dealing with a grey area like this? After all, it’s not against the rules, but it does pose a problem to teams that aren’t willing to take advantage of loopholes like this.
Are There Possible Solutions?
The simplest solution would be for the cap to carry over. Force teams to stay compliant with league’s cap up until the Stanley Cup is rewarded. That way, there aren’t situations like the loophole that allowed the Hawks to ice Kane, Vermette, Desjardins and Timonen in the playoffs.
That being said, if teams aren’t able to make changes with players on LTIR leading up to the deadline, that could play a role in how teams finish the season. Some teams might miss the playoffs and others might see their fortunes reversed – playing postseason hockey come April.
Take the Hawks for example. Had they not made those moves to secure these three players would they have been in the position they were in heading into the playoffs? Maybe. But the Hawks went 12-8-1 following the Kane injury – most of which included the three players Bowman acquired for Kane’s $6.3-million salary.
So where does the league go from here? The changes obviously won’t be that simple. The fact is, with rules there are always loopholes. If the league finds a way to straighten out this bend in the rules, there will likely be another one found by someone that is supposed to follow the rules within the league.
For now, it’s simply a topic of discussion for the GMs and the NHL. At some point though, it will be a bigger issue for teams and their players. If, in fact, the league decides to change the rules, team’s will have to find a way to close the gap when dealing with long-term injuries. For now, bend the rules and take the strongest team possible into the playoffs. It certainly can’t hurt – and it’s definitely not against the rules.
Have some thoughts about this week’s column, let me know on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes or @Tape2TapeTHW.
Tape2Tape is a column looking at some of the biggest stories from around the world of hockey. Discussing different topics, it focuses on delivering some opinion to hockey’s biggest fans. Whether you agree or disagree, writer Andrew Forbes would love to hear what you have to say.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.