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The Answerman addresses the salary cap

Globe and Mail Update

The Answerman returns to ponder all matters contractual, including this week's most discussed topic - the penalty for exceeding the NHL's salary cap, if a team were of a mind to do so.

Q: All summer long, I saw one team after another dole out generous, long-term contracts to the same players they went to war with less than 18 months before — mostly over money, as I recall. With all those dollars being tossed around, surely a handful of clubs will be hard-pressed to shoehorn their 23-man line-ups under the new $44 million salary cap, right?

A: No question about it and the poster boys for the new profligacy are the New Jersey Devils, one of the teams that operated most efficiently under the old CBA. Currently, the Devils have salary-cap commitments that already exceed the $44 million limit and still have a trio of key contributors (Brian Gionta, David Hale and Paul Martin) to get under contract.

Q: But how can they be over? Isn't a ceiling a ceiling?

A: It is and it isn't. There are a handful of exemptions, some relating to injuries, others to procedural matters. For example, the current CBA permits teams to exceed the salary cap by 10 per cent in the off-season. You can find that exclusion in the fine print of page 200 in your 454-page CBA document (a must read for insomniacs everywhere). The theory for allowing teams to go over the limit in the summer is to provide clubs with "sufficient time and flexibility to plan their rosters in the off-season)."

In other words, they can go exceed the cap for a short time to build their teams — as the Philadelphia Flyers did last summer when they signed Peter Forsberg as a free agent — just so long as they get under the cap by the time they start playing for keeps (Philly, last year, eventually dumped Jeremy Roenick and his salary on the L.A. Kings, to comply with the rules).

The official deadline to get under the limit is the final day of training camp which this year, falls on Oct. 3. At that point, all 30 teams must submit their opening-day rosters to the league.

Q: And what if the combined value of those contracts exceeds the $44 million ceiling?

A: Simple. The league kicks the roster back and invites the offending team to try again.

Q: So there is no defined penalty in the CBA for exceeding the cap?

A: Only that a team cannot play a game until such time as they comply with the rules. If they don't, they presumably forfeit.

Q: But no one would be silly enough to do that, right? Even if meant leaving a star player off the opening-night roster, you'd still have a better chance to win if you actually played the game, right?

A: Correct again - which is why the Devils, as Exhibit A under the new rules, are in such a pickle. They can cobble together a 23-man roster that fits under the cap easily enough. It just wouldn't necessarily include all the players they think could make a difference in winning. One way to save money under this system is to keep fewer players around in the NHL. If worse came to worse, you could simply assign one or two extra warm bodies to your minor-league affiliate. You'd still have to pay them their salaries; it just wouldn't count against the cap if they're not actually on your NHL roster.

Q: So how exactly did the Devils get themselves into this jam?

A: Partly, it was because they signed a trio of over-35 players last year (Dan McGillis, Alex Mogilny and Vladimir Malakhov) to big dollar contracts and found they couldn't play. The league didn't want teams signing veterans to so-called "retirement contracts" in the new CBA — a bane of the NBA's current existence - so it negotiated a clause in the agreement that the full value of contracts counts for players over the age of 35. It's complicated, but basically the system was designed to prevent a team from signing a player to a contract that far exceeds his useful shelf life and then having him "retire" in order to save the team salary-cap dollars down the road. The bottom line — the Devils are stuck, unless they can argue that any of the three have suffered a long-term injury (LTI), in which case the CBA does provide some salary-cap relief.

Q: Just about everybody figures the Devils will — or are — pleading that case right now.

A: Sure - and why wouldn't they? Mogilny has a long-term, well-documented hip problem that allegedly will prevent him from playing this season. Of course, it's one thing for the Devils' doctors to sign off on Mogilny's health and playing status; one would assume that it'll take an independent second opinion before the league ever grants New Jersey the exemption that it seeks.

Q: So what does it all mean, in the end?

A: It just means the NHL has a new complicated accounting system that replaces an old complicated accounting system — and as teams try to figure out its various nuances, some errors in judgment will inevitably be made. The Devils were wily, money-smart administrators under the old CBA; few within the industry can understand how they've negotiated themselves into such a corner in the new agreement.

New Jersey gave a lot of money and term to Martin Brodeur, Patrick Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and Colin White within the past nine months, suggesting those players will be mainstays of their team for years to come. Until the Devils can get their spending habits under control, however, they just may not recognize too many of the faces playing alongside them, at least not this October.

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