Alexei Yashin may not mean much to Minnesota Wild fans. An electric scorer in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the Eastern Conference, he commanded a pretty hefty contract when he signed with the New York Islanders in 2001.
Unfortunately for all involved, the contract was bought out four years before it expired. Unlike back-loaded deals that were outlawed after the 2012 lockout, this buyout paid Yashin just over $2 million in real money for eight years. In the third and fourth years of his buyout, the cap hit charged to the Islanders was nearly double his actual salary.
The structure of the buyout is largely similar to each of those handed to former Wild cornerstones Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Each had four years left on their contracts and will be paid for eight years after the buyout was consummated. The bad news for the Wild is that they made each of Parise and Suter's contracts front-loaded in real money.
Parise and Suter will each be paid $833,333 per year for the next eight years because the buyout is worth two-thirds of the real money they each had remaining, which was $10 million across the final four years of their contracts.
The major difference in front-loading the contract in real money is the cap penalty the Wild face in the remaining parts of the contract. Notably, Years 2, 3, and 4 have a devastating hit on Minnesota's bottom line.
What if the team hadn't signed the pair to convoluted contracts that became illegal a year later? Although Yashin had salary dips in the final two years of his deal, it was more evenly spread out over the years. Moreover, what if the Parise/Suter situation was more like Yashin's cap hit but spread out flatter over the last few years?
Take the same situation from Yashin's contract, in this case with Parise and Suter's average cap hit across the 13 years of the contract filling in as the real money of the deal. In this scenario, each would have been paid exactly $7,538,462 each year for 13 years. Maintaining that premise, the buyout would have been enacted with the team requiring to pay each player two-thirds of the remaining money; in this hypothetical, would be exactly $19,901,539.68. Spread over eight years, that equates to $2,487,692.46.
While this is an extreme hypothetical that wouldn't happen realistically in the NHL when many contracts have slight salary discrepancies over the course of a deal, the circumstance shows how hamstrung the Wild find themselves right now.
The benefit? There are no seasons of nearly $15 million in cap space going to players who aren't on the roster. The downside? Being roughly $5 million tighter against the cap for eight years. Buyouts are not pretty, even in our pie-in-the-sky hypothetical.
Theoretically, with the NHL's new TV deal with Turner and ESPN, the league should grow in the national sports landscape once again. That means, sooner than later, the cap — which will be flat for the next few years due to COVID-19 impacts on the league's revenues — will be going up. Furthermore, if the cap goes up, a stagnant buyout figure becomes more insignificant as time goes on and the cap rises.
In Years 6, 7, and 8, $5 million won't look the same as it does at the beginning of the term.
Beyond just the percentage of the salary cap, player contracts would have the ability to grow and be less strapped in the middle of the term. Essentially, playing with $15 million less than every other team in the league for two years will hamper the team's ability to be competitive. If it were spread out, less thought would need to go into how Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov's extensions will affect their supporting cast.
More will become apparent as those contracts become official. But with long-term, big-money deals, the team will have more ability to add and complement each of the core players with more stable cap space. The Wild have tremendous flexibility this offseason, but it will be hard for them to land players who aren't affordable, inexperienced, or both in the next three years.
In three years, the team could end up needing to fill nearly 10 roster spots with less than $20 million in cap space. That isn't a recipe for a deep supporting cast. If the situation were just $5 million committed to buyouts during those years, they could find ways to be far more competitive on the ice and for players needed to go alongside the prime years of the new core. In three years, Fiala, Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Jordan Greenway will all be 27. In that same time, Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy will nearly be the same age those players are now.
relying on your team
General manager Bill Guerin has made a move that almost no one saw coming. He didn't sign the original deals, but it will affect his employment nonetheless. He will have to take a team into a competitive window playing with far less money than every other team in the NHL. If he could have spread the cost out over time, it would have made his job tremendously easier.
Instead, he will have to rely on an influx of youth to supplement the roster during those lean years.
"Those years will be tough," Guerin told the assembled media recently. "Have to do a very good job of drafting players, a very good job of developing players, and injecting some younger, cheaper players into our lineup."
Guerin is putting a lot of pressure on Judd Brackett, the recently hired director of amateur scouting. Minnesota will need to rely on his talent in identifying exceptional players to fill out the roster, especially in Years 3 and 4 of the buyouts.
The Wild don't have the luxury of this being a more normal contract, with money spread out evenly across the length of the deal. Instead, they'll have to do some serious work to enter a Stanley Cup-contending window with fewer resources than almost every other team in the NHL.