They are the opposite of bargains. Their salaries often draw fan ire. Their play is not always "worth" the cash they make, yet they oddly perform a service beyond the ice. They are the NHL's salary cap mules.
That's the term my friend J.P. coined to describe NHL players whose bloated contracts are kept not because their play justifies the pay, but because that contract helps the team reach the salary cap floor.
Eric Nystrom of the Dallas Stars is the classic example. The Stars acquired him specifically to stay in compliance with cap floor requirements, after the New York Rangers' demotion of ex-Star Sean Avery threatened to drop the Stars below the league-mandated lower limit. The Stars needed Nystrom's full $1.4 million cap hit so badly that they declined to claim him from the Minnesota Wild on re-entry waivers, when they could have had him at half price.
Brian Rolston of the New York Islanders is another cap mule carrying his team to cap compliance this season. The aging forward with the bad Lou Lamoriello-signed contract cleared waivers multiple times in 2010-11 when the New Jersey Devils tried to rid themselves of his $5.06 million cap hit. But this past summer, with the Islanders in need of a forward and having trouble finding the right short-term addition, they swapped Trent Hunter and his two years left at $2 million per year for Rolston and his lone remaining year at $5 million. (The Devils, at the opposite end of the payroll spectrum, quickly bought Hunter out.)
That's real money. But the best examples of NHL cap mules are the young players on entry level contracts, the kind of contracts that usually carry a base salary around $900,000 in actual cash but whose potential (but usually unreached) performance bonuses can push the cap hit to double, triple, even quadruple that base salary.
Some cap mules are underpaid young stars. Some are overpaid veterans. Some are retired players long ago bought out. Each of the five teams at the low end of the NHL salary scale has at least one player whose departure would put the team below the cap floor.
Here's a look at those teams and the cap mules who keep them within the CBA rules.
All cap figures via CapGeek.com as of Dec. 13, 2011
Estimated Cap Spending: $49.24 million
Major Entry Level Contracts (cap hit including bonuses): Colin Wilson ($1.725 million), Blake Geoffrion ($1.063 million)
Buyouts: J.P. Dumont ($1.33 million), Brett Lebda ($516,667)
Mules: Shea Weber ($7.5 million)
Weber isn't actually a mule in the floor-propping sense, but his $7.5 million salary -- an arbitration-mandated $3 million jump over his previous salary -- consumes a huge chunk of the budget team's payroll. Without him and in fact without his raise over the summer, the Predators would be far below the cap floor. He probably deserves to be the Predator's highest paid player, but at $7.5 million even this star carries a scent of mule.
New York Islanders
Estimated Cap Spending: $50.03 million
Major Entry Level Contracts (cap hit including bonuses): John Tavares ($3.75 million), Nino Niederreiter ($2.795 million)
Buyouts: Alexei Yashin ($2.204 million), (Brendan Witt, $833,333)
Mules: Rolston ($5.06 million), Rick DiPietro ($4.5 million)
The Islanders are filled with cap mules of every variety. They have a young star in Tavares who is highly unlikely to reach all his bonuses. They have young Niederreiter who shouldn't make even half of his cap hit. And they have the costliest of mules: Rolston would make his money even if demoted; DiPietro commands top dollar (and for nine more years) despite chronic injuries; and Yashin and Witt cost real money as their buyouts continue. But its Rolston whose acquisition for Hunter over the summer takes them from below to above the cap floor.
Estimated Cap Spending: $50.47 million
Major Entry Level Contracts (cap hit including bonuses): Gabriel Landeskog ($3.575 million), Matt Duchene ($3.2 million)
Buyouts: Tom Preissing ($916,667)
Mules: Paul Stastny ($6.6 million)
Like Weber, the talented Stastny isn't so much a true mule as he is a player with a salary far above his teammates. But he's probably overpaid at $6.6 million, and if the Avs ever dealt him they would need a huge portion of his $6.6 million cap hit to come back in the trade to make sure they stayed above the floor.
Meanwhile, Landeskog and Duchene represent the best kind of mule: Talented kids with big cap hits but who are unlikely to cash in all the bonuses those cap hits represent.
Estimated Cap Spending: $51.79 million
Major Entry Level Contracts (cap hit including bonuses): Jamie Benn ($821,667), Philip Larsen ($850,000)
Mules: Sheldon Souray ($1.65 million) Nystrom ($1.4 million), Ghost of Sean Avery ($1.94 million when he's in the NHL)
Nystrom is the obvious mule simply because that's why he was acquired, but Souray represented a short-term, low-risk cap mule gamble this summer after spending the previous year as a high-dollar resident of purgatory when the Edmonton Oilers banished him to the AHL. The Stars are otherwise refreshingly without cap mules, as even their top youngsters are not on contracts with major inflated bonuses.
Estimated Cap Spending: $51.09 million
Major Entry Level Contracts (cap hit including bonuses): Jeff Skinner ($1.4 million)
Mules: Jaroslav Spacek ($3.833 million), Eric Staal ($8.25 million)
This past summer Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford signed Tomas Kaberle to a free agent contract he soon regretted. The three year deal with the $4.5 million average annual value represented a major expenditure for the budget Hurricanes -- and was the difference in putting them above the floor.
Which caused a problem of its own: Ridding themselves of Kaberle wasn't as simple as putting him on waivers. They needed to find a trade where salary came back the other way. Enter Jaroslav Spacek, in the final year of a contract with the Montreal Canadiens and carrying a $3.833 million cap hit. Rutherford found a trade partner, and a more desirable mule (from his perspective) in the process.
Meanwhile, like Weber and Stastny, Eric Staal isn't quite a true "mule," but his $8.25 million annual cap hit through 2015-16 is hefty enough to give one pause when looking at a team on a budget.
And that gets to the other side of cap muling: Except when a player has potential bonuses they are unlikely to reach, big cap hits aren't just crutches to reach the floor -- they represent real burdens to the league's budget-toeing, cap floor teams. Fans tend to frame a player like Rolston as "only here to help them reach the floor," but in reality any GM would much prefer every real dollar -- and Rolston gets five million of them -- be spent on as good a player as possible. Rolston represented an upgrade over Hunter, but was he 2.5 times as valuable? Not likely. Simply, the $5 million cash for one year still owed Rolston fit better than the $4 million still owed Hunter spread over two.
Every team, especially budget teams, wants a better player than Rolston for their $5 million. The problem is, those players are awfully hard to land, and they usually have their pick of teams. And the teams they pick usually aren't the teams who need a cap mule just to reach the salary floor.