Marc Savard Trade: Nice in Theory, Unlikely in Execution

Marc Savard Trade: Nice in Theory, Unlikely in Execution
Cat Silverman

On Hockey Night in Canada this weekend, Elliotte Friedman made an interesting suggestion regarding the Boston Bruins and Marc Savard.

It boiled down to this: in wake of the successful deal between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets, which freed up cap space for the Leafs through the acquisition of long-term injured reserve player Nathan Horton and gave the Columbus Blue Jackets a healthy body in David Clarkson, Friedman suggested that the Boston Bruins may look at trying to do the same with former center Marc Savard.

In 2009, the Bruins signed Savard to what — at the time — seemed like a steal of a contract extension. Covering the next seven years of his career, the extension paid him an annual cap hit of $4.2 million; as one of the last remaining front-loaded deals signed prior to the 2013 CBA, Savard made $7 million in each of his first two seasons, then gradually earned less every year. By the final two years of his contract — the 2015-2016 season and the 2016-2017 season — Savard’s cap hit would still be $4.2 million, but his actual salary would be $525,000 per year. As a player who was making $5 million each season with a matching $5 million cap hit prior to the extension, SB Nation’s Stanley Cup of Chowder reasoned that this both lowered the team’s annual cap hit with Savard and kept an integral part of the team’s core intact over time.

Obviously, though, Savard hasn’t played in an NHL game since the 2010-2011 season. He’s been on long-term injured reserve with post-concussion syndrome ever since; like Horton and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, he’ll never play for the team again.

Obviously, it’s unrealistic to presume another team would make a swap like Toronto and Columbus did. That was a unique deal, and quite a different situation for Columbus, who can’t afford to pay a player with Horton’s salary to not actually play. The team doesn’t make enough in profits to, in essence, burn over $5 million every season — but for Toronto, taking on Horton frees up a bit of cap space every year and gets the Clarkson contract off the books. As a team that’s already paying over $50 million to people who don’t play or work for the Maple Leafs anymore, Toronto has the spare change needed to take on a player like Horton. In return, the Blue Jackets — who aren’t a team that will hit the cap ceiling in the near future anyway — could afford to take on Clarkson, simply because he served as another healthy body on the roster.

What Friedman proposed, though, was that a team that needs to get to the cap floor next season — which means one of the rebuilding franchises, most likely Arizona — offer the Bruins a draft pick in exchange for enough cap hit to reach the salary cap minimum.

When the idea was first proposed, the most glaring flaw in that logic seemed to be that four million per season for a player who is guaranteed to never actually play is more money than the teams struggling to hit the cap floor are able to pay. Looking at Arizona, the team was already hit hard by the payout to Mike Ribeiro for his buyout this summer — adding in salary for another player who never actually dresses with the team is financial suicide for a budding ownership group.

Of course, in reality, whatever team agreed to do this — again, the most obvious option was the Arizona Coyotes, who are never a cap team to begin with and are also in the midst of a rebuild — would only be paying Savard $525,000 over each of the next two seasons. Considering these are teams that will likely boast bottom tier payrolls due to all the young talent on the roster, that’s barely pocket change — even for a poor franchise. The New Jersey Devils are another solid option from a strictly financial standpoint, as are the Carolina Hurricanes and possibly even the Ottawa Senators. While all three have notoriously shaky finances, there’s no question that a $525,000 annual payout is barely a drop in the hat in the grand scheme of a professional sports franchise. A number of other teams — the Nashville Predators, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Toronto Maple Leafs would all need to re-sign every one of their free agents to hit the cap floor next season — fall in this category as well.

Looking past the obvious tanking implications and ethical arguments that can be made both for and against this concept, though, it still doesn’t seem all that likely.

The Arizona Coyotes have already helped a team out when they retained half of Keith Yandle’s salary in their trade with the New York Rangers. In theory, the talent they brought in — John Moore and Anthony Duclair — should be able to at least compensate for the loss of offense in Arizona next season, and by retaining some salary they both helped the Rangers navigate under the salary cap and kept them from falling too low with the low salaries of Moore and Duclair. This helped out with the acquisition of Klas Dahlbeck as a contributor for the franchise, as well, since he’s proven he can carry strong minutes but doesn’t make a very hefty salary. If they brought in Savard as well, that — plus the leftover cap hit from the Ribeiro buyout and the Yandle salary retention — would give the team nearly $9 million in money ‘towards the cap’ that doesn’t actually go to anyone on their NHL roster.

Once again, avoiding any ethical discussion of whether that’s tanking too hard or not, that leaves the Coyotes with about $43 million to reach the cap floor, presuming the cap floor graduates at the same rate as the cap ceiling and the estimated increase of ~$2 million is correct. Nearly $6 million of that will already go to Mike Smith, with another $5.3 million going to captain Shane Doan. That leaves $33 million to be distributed among the twenty other players that will make the Coyotes starting roster, which is so comically low that any roster making that combined salary would put the on-ice product in Buffalo to shame. It wouldn’t just be tanking — it might actually be impossible.

That leaves a handful of other teams who may want the virtually painless cap hit, but they each have their own problems that make that hard.

The Ottawa Senators have already been criticized for operating so close to the salary floor; much like the reaction Arizona would likely get from fans for such blatant cap circumvention, the Atlantic Division franchise wouldn’t do much to earn them many happy fans by doing that. Same with the Carolina Hurricanes, who have seen their attendance fall below the Coyotes numbers by a landslide — and even if Devils fans were okay with the idea, general manager Lou Lamoriello has implied that he thinks he’s icing a playoff roster one too many times for anyone to truly believe he’d feel a need to find a loophole to reach the cap floor. The Toronto Maple Leafs would be ill advised to take up another roster space with a player who will never see NHL ice again, the Nashville Predators are likely to see their salary go up a bit next season just from players like Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Gabriel Bourque all hitting RFA status — not to mention any raise they might offer Mike Ribeiro, Anton Volchenkov, Mike Fisher, or Matt Cullen, who all hit free agency and will likely demand to see their salaries go up as well. As the only legitimate cup contender in the salary floor conversation at the moment, the Predators seem like the least likely choice to go this route.

Add in the idea that the teams most likely to do this are probably rebuilding — which makes dealing away a pick seem like a poor move — and it’s a clever idea from a financial standpoint, but not all that applicable to the NHL as it currently looks today.

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Cat Silverman

Catherine is the first American in a long line of Canadians, making her the black sheep before she even decided she wasn’t going to be a Leafs fan. Her cousins may never forgive her for the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, but they’re at least glad she’s a rink rat, too. She’s a pretty terrible goalie, but she’s got a good grasp on the game from her seat on the bench.

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