By DAVID SHOALTS
Saturday, December 1, 2018
TORONTO -- Anyone looking for someone to blame for the William Nylander contract standoff can look at the NHL players themselves.
Well, at least those NHL players who were active in 2004-05, the season lost to the owners' lockout, the one that resulted in the adoption of the hard salary cap commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners said they needed so badly. It was that group of players which capitulated to the owners in 2005, crying uncle after losing one year's pay to the lockout.
Incidentally, those players included Nylander's father Michael, seen by many as stage-managing his son's contract negotiations with Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas. The elder Nylander - a notoriously tough player to deal with on contracts - finished up the season leading into the lockout with the Boston Bruins, earning US$2.675-million.
There was still no word by early Friday evening of any progress in the contract talks as the NHL's deadline of 5 p.m. ET Saturday approached. Restricted free agents must be signed by Dec. 1 or they cannot play for the rest of the season.
Despite the absence of any optimism for a new contract - the only news were reports Dubas was checking back with some NHL teams to gauge how serious they were about a trade for Nylander's rights - Leafs head coach Mike Babcock remained upbeat in his daily media scrum. "In my heart and in my mind, I know he's gonna be on the team. That's how I gotta think," he said.
It was the surrender of Michael Nylander and his NHL Players' Association colleagues that allowed Bettman and the owners to establish the current system, which ties the hands of both the clubs and the players in these situations. These situations usually involve a player such as William Nylander, one who is not quite among the top two or three players on a team but is still one of the best half-dozen or so.
In these cases, clubs simply can't justify paying them the US$8-million-plus they are demanding on a long-term contract. The biggest money has to be reserved for the Auston Matthews and Mitch Marners of the hockey world with the next-best group of players settling for several million dollars less per year.
If Dubas agreed to give the Nylanders the US$8-million they were said to be seeking in a longterm contract a few months ago, it would easily be accommodated by the Leafs' current salary-cap room. According to CapFriendly.com, the Leafs have nearly US$17-million of room under the US$79.5-million payroll limit.
The Leafs, as the richest team in the NHL, could easily afford it.
However, the trouble is not today but next summer, when 12 players on the current roster become either restricted or unrestricted free agents.
The 12 players include Matthews and Marner, who are both showing on the ice they will have to be paid around the same as the US$11-million annual stipend paid to John Tavares, who became the highest-paid Leaf last summer. Bowing to Nylander's demands or even getting him to lower his salary demands to US$7-million means Dubas could have US$40-million of his salary cap tied up in four players. That is an untenable situation, even if next season's cap soars to more than US$80-million.
This is the worst effect of the salary-cap system. A team such as the Maple Leafs finally gets its development act together, builds a talented young roster after decades of incompetent regimes and then is kneecapped when the players get in position to demand big money. Even if you want to pay them, the system won't let you.
It is safe to say not many of the NHL players of 2004-05 thought through such scenarios when they realized the owners were not going to cave on the idea of a cap after one year of no hockey.
Most of the players were just thinking they were tired of going a year without pay and wanted it to be over.
That is not to say they weren't warned to prepare for a standoff as long as two years. Bob Goodenow, who was executive director of the NHLPA at the time, told the players he thought the owners were prepared to lock them out for at least a year, that if they wanted to avoid a salary cap they would probably have to contend with a lockout going into a second season and to save accordingly. Not enough of them listened or were prepared to fight that long.
But it is interesting to think of what might have happened with Nylander if his predecessors were willing to hang in there. Goodenow was adamantly opposed to a hard salary cap (Bettman argued it was the only way to save the owners from their own overspending and save some teams) and eventually paid for it with his job.
Goodenow wanted a luxurytax system similar to the one used by Major League Baseball.
Clubs could spend to an agreedupon payroll threshold and clubs that wanted to go above that were assessed a luxury tax according to a formula. Under Goodenow's proposal, the luxury-tax revenue would be distributed to the low-revenue teams, which would be able to increase their own payrolls. But most of the owners would not even consider the idea (the Leafs were noted moderates on the question). They wanted a hard cap tied to league revenue with a payroll limit even the poorest owners could afford. And the players weren't willing to resist beyond one season.
That's too bad in retrospect. If the luxury-tax system prevailed, then any resistance to Nylander's contract demands would simply be up to the Leafs. If they spent what they could afford, then a healthy sum would go to the NHL's charity cases (hello Ottawa Senators) and Leafs Nation would have a lot less to scream about on social media.
William Nylander of the Leafs controls the puck in an April game in Toronto. As of Friday evening, there was still no word of progress in contract talks with Nylander.
CLAUS ANDERSEN/GETTY IMAGES