Saturday, July 11, 2009

Chris Pronger Contract - Brilliance or Folly?

It is sometimes stunning what kind of errors can be made by NHL front offices. In 2001, the New Jersey Devils forgot to send contracts to Brian Rafalski and John Madden, making them both unrestricted free agents. This off-season, the Blackhawks sent qualifying offers through the mail to several key players, a violation of protocol that forced their hand into signing both Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker to long-term contracts. That stupidity was followed up by perhaps a greater one, as we'll see.

Chris Pronger signed a 7 year, 35 million dollar extension with the Philadelphia Flyers this past week. At first, we thought this typical grand guignol Flyers behavior - the horror show put on the ice by Pronger would soon rival the horror show off the ice as Chris Pronger and his contract aged. A famous clause in the CBA, 50.2.a.iv, states the following: 'All Player Salary and Bonuses earned in a League Year by a Player who is in the second or later year of a multi-year SPC which was signed when the player was 35 or older (as of June 30 prior to the League Year in which the SPC is to be effective), regardless of whether, or where, the player is playing...'. Lou Lamoriello was famously forced to give up a 1st round draft pick to move Vladimir Malakhov's dead money off his cap. Chris Pronger is right now 34 years of age, but he turns 35 on October 10th, therefore this clause is invoked, as the contract he signed does not go into effect until July 1, 2010.

However, as we looked at with the Detroit Red Wings a few whiffens past, the Flyers frontloaded this deal. The contract is structured such that Pronger gets paid (in millions) - 7.6, 7.6, 7.2, 7, 4, .525, .525. Essentially, he's going to play for the Flyers for five years, and then he's going to be a burden on the Flyers' salary cap for 2 seasons, costing them 5 million dollars to not play for them. Dumb, typical Flyers move, like signing a 92 year old Kjell Samuelsson type stuff - just no appreciation for the future.

Then, we reconsidered. Imagine this scenario - Chris Pronger is 40 years old, his wife tires of the Pat's vs. Geno's debate, he begins to have remorse about everyone he's maimed, and so he 'retires' - then the Flyers trade his cap hit to some team in the year 2015. While we cannot predict what the economic climate of the US and Canada will be that far in advance, we can predict that somewhere, some NHL owner will have gotten himself in too deep in buying a franchise, and will be desperate to cut costs somewhere. Enter Chris Pronger's contract - it counts for $5 million on the cap, but Pronger won't have to be paid a red cent. It's the perfect asset for a perpetually broke team struggling to reach the salary floor, which is set around $39 million this season, and will likely be closer to $45 million 5 years hence. Therefore, the Flyers win in two ways - one, Pronger's cap hit is lower than it would be for a player making $7 million, and two, they get to fob off this Pronger contract as a legitimate asset once his playing career is over. It's brilliant and forward-thinking.

The next day, we learn this:

"According to the NHL, the [Pronger contract will count against the cap regardless of whether he retires]. The seven-year, $35 million extension Pronger agreed to on Tuesday doesn't commence until after June 30, 2010. Pronger will be 35 at that point and any remaining salary will remain on the cap.

The Flyers disagree and interpret the CBA language governing the "over 35" clause differently."

There's no other possible way to interpret that language than how it is interpreted above. If Slavoj Zizek, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Saul Kripke sat around in a room debating that passage, they'd come up with the same meaning. In other words, the Flyers goofed - they forgot that it didn't matter when the player was signed, it mattered when his contract went into effect. This rule was to put in place to safeguard against this very scenario - a team signing an aging player for a front-loaded contract with years on it that neither side intended on honoring. Now it looks like the Flyers, rather than anticipating Pronger being an asset, anticipate him being a liability, and it may cost them a valued asset to expunge this error.

The lesson is: do not overestimate people's capacity for creativity and reasonable thinking. A lot of times what looks like an oversight is in fact an oversight. We like imagining the look on Holmgren's face as some obscure bean counter situation in the lowest dungeon of the Wachovia Center unfurls the parchment upon which the CBA is inscribed to the relevant passage, both eager to impress the great Overlord and afraid of the result as he reads aloud 50.2.a.iv. That scene surely beats the one we are trying to forestall ourselves from imagining - Chris Pronger holding the Stanley Cup as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers.

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