In the spring of 2004 the NHL played its playoff tournament under the threat of a lockout. The league did not have a salary cap at that time and management was adamant that one was needed to contain player costs. Team owners threatened to cancel the upcoming season if the players did not accept one. The owners made good on the threat; there was no '04-'05 NHL season.
Interesting to this history is the behavior of the Boston Bruins. The B's won their division and finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference that year. They had a core of players who were due to enter free agency, several of whom were acquired for the playoff drive.
Rather than hand out several long-term contracts, Boston management gambled that the salary cap, when it eventually came, would be relatively low compared to the '03-'04 team average salary and the Bruins would have their choice of top free-agent talent. The tactic blew up on them when the new cap turned out to be higher than they expected, and the free agent pool was smaller. All of the Boston free agents the Bruins chose to ignore signed with other teams and the team stumbled. It missed the playoffs the first year play resumed and finished last in the division the following year.
We are in the early stages of CBA jockeying between the owners and the players' association. It is clear that 2010 will be an uncapped season. People are focusing on the top end, on whether teams like Daniel Snyder's Redskins, who are always active in free agency, will spend even more. I'm looking at the downside. An uncapped year means there is no limit, but also that there is no floor. Will we see teams in need of rebuilding or who are congenitally tight with player contracts pull a Bruins and let their payrolls plummet?
The current collective bargaining agreement establishes a floor at 75% of the salary cap. This means that every club must spend at least that much on players, in an effort to maintain competitive balance. You will always see bad teams in the league, but the CBA ensures you will not see any like baseball's Oakland A's or Kansas City Royals, teams with payrolls a small fraction of those carried by perennial contenders like the Yankees or Red Sox.
An uncapped year offers that chance. Would a team like Tampa Bay, who has the lowest payroll, decide to cut more big contacts and lower its player outlays even further, rather than trying to spend wildly in a free agent market that looks to be thin, given the increased ability of teams to retain potential free agents? What of a team like Cincinnati? The Bengals just made the playoffs but are notorious for being tight. Will they try to add through free agency, or go the other way and lop off some bad deals?
In fact, I'm wondering if we'll see a wholesale dumping of bad contracts? Robert Boland wrote in the National Football Post this week that the owners' initial proposal asks for an 18% rollback in player compensation. If the players were to capitulate tomorrow and agree, this would drop the cap to around $105-106 million.
That's not likely to happen. But a new CBA will come eventually, and if it does lower the cap percentage somewhat, it will put a lot of teams in the '04 Bruins' mindset. Management will have to calculate where they feel the cap would be, and if they could in fact meet that new target. If the owners are as hard-core as their NHL counterparts, I doubt we would see too many teams, if any, going crazy when free agency opens in March. If the objective is to lower overall player outlays, then every front office needs to play the same contracts game.
If nothing else, the weekend of March 5th should give us some idea of where the future negotiations will go. If several teams treat the cap as dead and immediately sign so-so players to blue chip deals, the players will feel little pressure to change their position. If you instead see lots of teams dumping lots of bad deals and one or two puncturing the former cap floor, the owners may indeed have leverage they have not demonstrated in past negotiations.