You gotta love the new National Hockey League.
Where else would you get two teams, trying to position a transaction as an actual hockey deal, when everyone in their right mind knows that it’s a deft, contrived maneuver to circumvent the salary cap?
We’re talking, of course, about the New Jersey Devils-San Jose Sharks’ deal on Sunday night, in which the Devils unloaded the rights to Vladimir Malakhov and his $3.6 million salary-cap commitment, plus a conditional first-round pick, to the Sharks for forward Alexander Korolyuk and defenceman Jim Fahey.
Essentially, the Sharks sold off some $3.5 million of their unused cap space and in exchange, received a valuable first-round draft choice from the Devils.
Every other part of the deal was done mostly for cosmetic purposes, on the theory that if you throw enough names into a transaction, it eventually will pass muster at league headquarters in New York.
All those names, though, simply represent window-dressing. This was strictly about New Jersey’s desperation to get Malakhov’s contract off their books, in the hopes of getting far enough under the $44 million salary-cap ceiling to get some or all of their restricted free agents (Brian Gionta, Paul Martin and David Hale, plus a back-up goalie) under contract.
Technically, the Sharks now own Malakhov’s playing “rights” – even though he won’t ever play a game for them and he won’t cost them any real dollars either. It’s a paper transaction – and in exchange for doing the Devils that very large favor, San Jose gets their first-round choice in either the 2007 entry draft (if New Jersey makes the playoffs this season) or in 2008, if they miss.
Understand – the only condition in the deal is which year San Jose gets the first-round pick; the draft choice itself was the price of doing business.
What did the Devils get in return? In Korolyuk, they receive a player whose made it clear, time and time again, that he isn’t interested in playing in the NHL.
Not every Russian is as comfortable or as quickly settled in his new environment as the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin. Korolyuk never liked it in the U.S. and neither did his wife, and with salaries on the rise in the Russian Superleague, he’s just fine playing for Mike Krushelnyski in Vityaz, a second-year expansion team just outside of Moscow.
One day, the Devils may make an overture to Korolyuk to see if he’s changed his mind, but at the moment, they don’t need any extra warm bodies and they certainly don’t need any more diminutive snipers. That’s what Gionta is; and that’s what Gionta will give them. As soon as they get the word from the league that they have enough cap space to accommodate a new contract for him, he’ll sign on the bottom line and be back playing.
As for Fahey, he fits into the No. 7-8-9 defensive rotation for most teams. Because his contract is just above the NHL minimum, at $500,000, Fahey gives the Devils more organizational depth. But he wasn’t going to make the Sharks this fall, even after they opened up roster spots on defence in the trades that sent Brad Stuart to Boston and Tom Preissing to Ottawa during the past 12 months.
Remember this too: The league has seen variations of this sort of transaction before, just not this brazen.
Last year, for example, when the Philadelphia Flyers found themselves over the salary cap in the summer after signing Peter Forsberg (something they are permitted to do, as long as they are in compliance for the start of the season), they convinced the Los Angeles Kings to take Jeremy Roenick’s contract off their hands and sweetened the deal by including a third-round pick – to make the deal more attractive for the Kings.
Last week’s major trade that saw the Carolina Hurricanes move out top prospect Jack Johnson to the Kings would not have gone forward, unless L.A. was prepared to take Oleg Tverdovsky and his $2.5 million annual contract off their hands. Tverdovsky was simply a poor fit with Hurricanes’ coach Peter Laviolette – and his contract was eating up valuable cap space too, not a good scenario for a player who wasn’t going to play much, even on a team desperately short on the blue line.
So Devils’ general manager Lou Lamoriello, who negotiated himself into this corner, took the first step in getting his line-up card set for the start of the 2006-07 season.
Every team has until Tuesday at 3 p.m. Eastern to submit their rosters (and cap charges) for the upcoming season. Presumably, by then, the Devils will also get a ruling from the league on Alexander Mogilny’s status (and whether he qualifies for a long-term injury exemption as a result of his chronic hip condition).
If he does, then the Devils free up another $3.5 million in cap space to devote to their unsigned players – and get another step closer to actually icing the line-up that they want to start the season with, as opposed to the one they would have had to start the season with, thanks to their many and varied salary-cap goofs.