Two weeks ago, we touched on the feel-good story of the NHL preseason as Theo Fleury attempted to make his return to the ice for the Calgary Flames after battling substance abuse problems for a number of years. Unfortunately, this morning Theo's comeback trail came to an end as he was released by Calgary and then chose to retire instead of testing the free agent waters.
Fleury is 41, but it was well worth it from several standpoints for the Calgary Flames to invite him to camp and see what he could offer. While the former 104-point scorer had visibly aged since the last time he put on an NHL sweater, a number of other areas of his game brought back great memories of the 5'8 185-pound forward. Theo's intensity from the drop of the puck, playmaking abilities, and willingness to do anything and everything to help the Calgary Flames win games hardly went unnoticed in the preseason and is exactly what many of last years playoff duds were in need of. Yet if this was the case, why would the Flames not keep him?
Plain and simple, the 2009-10 season in the NHL is a numbers game more than any in recent memory. While Head Coach Darryl Sutter would have loved to have Theo on his roster come playoff time, this is a team (like many) with very little salary cap space remaining. If you followed the NHL closely last spring, you noticed that the Flames could not even dress a full roster down the stretch due to cap issues. According to CapGeek.com, Calgary has $1.422m in space remaining this season, but you can be sure they are going to give themselves a little flexibility this time around.
At 5'8, Fleury just wasn't cut out to play a checking line or specialty role in the current NHL as Claude Lemieux was able to do when he resurrected his career with the San Jose Sharks last season. With promising young talent in Rene Bourque, David Moss, and Curtis Glencross supplementing veterans stars like Jarome Iginla, Daymond Langkow, and Craig Conroy, there wasn't room for Fleury in the top six forwards on this Western Conference powerhouse.
On top of that, due to salary cap restrictions, teams aren't nearly as willing to bring on questionable talent to sit in the press box night in and night out until their services are needed. Much like the dynamics of the recent housing bubble, NHL GM's had been signing player contracts under the assumption that the salary cap upper limit would continue to rise on a yearly basis. A look at the brief history of the salary cap and the year-over-year increase under the most recent CBA tells the story:
Without the typical 13% increase in the upper limit, teams anchored down by long-term contracts signed during this period, unexpectedly entered this summer with very little cash to bring on free agents. Many unsigned second-tier players such as Nikolai Zherdev and Viktor Kozlov found the appeal of playing in the KHL and their home country of Russia to be a better fit than accepting hefty salary cuts to stay in the NHL.
2005-06: $39.0 million
2006-07: $44.0 million - YOY +12.8%
2007-08: $50.3 million - YOY +14.3%
2008-09: $56.7 million - YOY +12.7%
2009-10: $56.8 million - YOY +0.2%
Other players took Fleury's approach of signing unconditional tryout contracts which took on the feel of a working internship. A few such as Petr Sykora (Minnesota) and Daryl Sydor (St. Louis) have turned the opportunity into full NHL contracts, yet many still find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to securing a roster spot on opening day. Player Agent Allan Walsh expressed a similar sentiment on his twitter page today (@walsha):
A new trend in NHL - watch for clubs to keep only 20-21 players on roster to stay below upper limit. This means less NHL jobs for players and more 1 way contracts in the AHL.In addition to providing pro-rated cap space for later in the season, this strategy also allows teams to stash semi-talented prospects and veterans in the AHL despite one-way contracts until injuries or lineup changes necessitate a call up. In the NHL, players under one-way NHL deals need to clear waivers in order to be sent to the minors to clear cap room which is a risk that some teams have been forced to take. What's more, should they get the call up, these same players can also be claimed by other teams on re-entry waivers at half of their remaining salary.
What does this mean for the slew of veterans swinging in the free-agent winds? General Managers used to (and still do) bring in veterans on tryouts for the sake of making their pro camps that much more competitive and protect against that inevitable early injury. With less cash to go around, the list of unemployed with names such as Mark Parrish, Jason Allison, Kyle Calder, Jasen Cullimore, Dan Hinote, Mathieu Dandenault, Dan Cloutier, and Manny Legace is sure to grow as teams must submit their regular season roster by September 30th.
Many such as Theo will decide to hang up the skates as opposed to toiling in the minors until the big team comes calling. According to a press release, GM Sutter explained his "agreement with Theoren was that he had to be one of our top six wingers and there were never any intentions of assigning him to the American Hockey League." Others players may not agree with this strategy, but with no cap increase in sight, it’s going to become the way of life in the new NHL for dozens of aged veterans.
- Mike Colligan and Darren Coslov