Perhaps the story of the NHL Trade Deadline, since it certainly wasn’t the quantity of trades or the numerous star players on the move, was the advent of the third-party salary cap broker in trades. Three different deals were made at the deadline that included three teams, with the third team strictly being used as a means to retain salary on the centerpiece player moving to a contender short on cap space. In each one, the third team retained the maximum 50% of salary after the seller had also retained 50%, leaving the buyer with just 25% of the player’s cap value. For their part, the third team received a draft pick from the buyer and were able to shed a minor league salary as well.
The Tampa Bay Lightning first used the Detroit Red Wings to broker the trade of defenseman David Savard from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Tampa had been expected to be quiet at the deadline given their miniscule cap space, but ended up getting one of the best defensemen on the rental market. Next, the Toronto Maple Leafs employed the San Jose Sharks as the middle-man for their acquisition of Nick Foligno, again from the Blue Jackets. Toronto had little cap flexibility and a long shopping list at the deadline and would not have been able to add Foligno without help. Finally, San Jose volunteered to be the third team again the deal that sent Mattias Janmark from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas has had the worst cap situation of any team in the league this season, restricted from making standard roster moves and several times forced into short-handed lineups. Yet, using this new three-team retention format they were able to add a top rental.
This all poses a question that at least a few other NHL clubs have been asking: should this be legal? The NHL has cracked down on salary cap circumvention in the past and there appear to be some who believe this is simply the newest version, allowing cap-strapped contenders to acquire players that they never could otherwise. However, according to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun on the latest edition of “Insider Trading“, this is one perceived problem that the league will not tackle. LeBrun reports that the league has been well are of this method of trade and were not fooled by the deals made at the deadline this year. After all, it was more than three years ago now when the Pittsburgh Penguins seemingly invented this formula – albeit in a more complete hockey trade – in the Derick Brassard deadline deal with Vegas and the Ottawa Senators. The Golden Knights then used the format to their advantage just last year, adding Robin Lehner from the Blackhawks via a cap-retention pitstop in Toronto. Clearly, there is a group of teams who have taken to this specific style of three-team trade, with Vegas and Toronto chief among them, and there are others who are not happy about it. As such, the NHL has already done its due diligence on the legality and will not take action.
Their reasoning? There simply is no cap circumvention occurring here. LeBrun relays that the league has no issue with a third team being used solely for cap retention, as hockey capital is being acquired by all parties. The Red Wings and Sharks received mid-round draft picks in exchange for their assistance and were even allowed to help balance the checkbook by sending out another contract. The NHL feels that this is a valid use of cap space as an asset to make a legitimate trade. So while it does create situations in which the rich get richer without otherwise having the cap space to do so, all parties are being reasonably compensated within the NHL rulebook. Teams may not like it, but that doesn’t make it illegal. And with the flat cap environment likely to continue for another year or two, this style of trade isn’t going away any time soon.