The NHL ended its customary three-day Christmas break on Sunday. Just two days prior, the Toronto Maple Leafs faithful were nestled all snug in their beds, with visions of Steven Stamkos—the NHL’s brightest new star—skating in their heads. This Christmas cheer was certainly justified, given Stamkos’ latest twitter fauxpas.
The holiday expectation was likely grounded in Stamkos’ current contract situation, in which his no-movement clause (NMC) has given him undeniable leverage over his current team (the Tampa Bay Lightning) and granted him exclusive control to dictate where he will be skating during the next stanza of his career. And there is every reason to believe that he will bring his talents to big-market Toronto. He is, after all, a native son of Unionville, Ontario (a mere 30 km from Maple Leaf Gardens). Anticipating the prodigal son to return, Leafs fans applied the forecheck when Tama Bay visited Toronto earlier in December:
— Erik Erlendsson (@erlendssonTBO) December 15, 2015
Unfortunately, fans of mid-market NHL franchises will not sleep as soundly as their brethren on the north bank of Lake Ontario up and until the March 2nd trade deadline. This is largely due to NMC’s and other No Trade Clauses (NTCs) steering the contracts of virtually all of the NHL’s current stars.
No Movement/No Trade Clauses
The NMC is unique to the NHL and becoming increasingly popular in contracts of the game’s elite. It is explicitly provided for under Section 11.8 of the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The NMC is much more restrictive than a standard “no-trade” clause, as it hamstrings ownership by disabling it from moving a player by practically any means—including trade, loan, waiver, or assignment. Most NMC’s are tied together with a No Trade Clause (NTC), which often include a list of teams that a player agrees that he can (and/or cannot) be traded to.
It is important to note that the CBA merely provides a mechanism through which players (and their agents) may negotiate contract terms. NMCs and NTCs are not guaranteed by the CBA. Article 11.8 does, however, provide parameters for player qualification. Players do not qualify for negotiation of NMC/NTCs until they have accrued seven season or are 27 years of age or older (called Group 3 Unrestricted Free Agent status under Article 10.1(a) of the CBA).
The restrictions would appear at first glance to be a victory for the NHL as it hopes to move young talent among franchises—something the league sorely needs given its popularity relevant to the three other major American sports.
That said, a closer look at the language of a different section (11.8(a)) of the CBA indicates that players may negotiate NMC/NTC clauses into their contracts prior to obtaining Group 3 status under Article 10.1(a) so long as the NMC/NTC doesn’t kick in until they are in group 3. Young stars will undoubtedly be looking for a contract (and a home) to fit their long term agenda. This is unfortunate for a league starving for additional star power to spread across its fledgling, small-market franchises.
Though NMCs are the NHL’s baby, NTCs stretch beyond the frozen pond. The MLB, NFL and NBA all have players with NTCs. What sets the NHL apart from other leagues, however, is the popularity of these clause. There are currently 180 NHL players with NMC/NTCs. This equates to approximately 1/3 (!) of each roster. To put in perspective—only six current NBA players have NTCs.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Players are currently (and will be, for the foreseeable future) walking all over management. [/pullquote]
The sheer magnitude of players with NMC/NTCs has two significant (dire?) results: (1) there is little turnover at the top end of big-market franchise rosters; and (2) smaller market teams are forced to offer them out just to compete.
More perspective: Playoff teams from both the Eastern and Western conferences in 2010 were virtually identical to those in 2015, with very few newcomers during the five year period between. By the end of last season, Commissioner Gary Bettman wasted no time coining reigning champion Chicago (3 cups during that period) a “dynasty”—something a league searching for competitive balance would surely like to avoid. Cue the Chelsea Dagger.
The problems with these clauses transcend the burgeoning competitive imbalance. They also don’t make sense for owners looking for that extra piece to take the leap. Players negotiate NMC/NTCs into deals for reduction in direct salary compensation—but owners only appear to save about $1 million to $2 million per deal. Owners simply aren’t realizing the benefit of the cap space they are negotiating at the end of the day, and are finding it much more difficult to find the missing piece.
Players are currently (and will be, for the foreseeable future) walking all over management. Times have changed from the days when Phil Esposito, and other league stars, would casually suggest trade preferences to team management (When told he would be traded, Esposito is famous for telling GM Harry Sindin “Anywhere but New York”). Current league stars have far more focused wish lists—and at this rate, the NHL is on pace fill league rosters with a bunch of stubborn hotheads—something the league would like to avoid.
Regardless, owners continue to crave star power to fill the seats, and continue to cave in to these contract demands. Stamkos can all but purchase his one-way ticket to The 6ix. It’s his choice, one he successfully negotiated. Once there, however, Toronto management (and fans) can only hunker down and pray for Lord Stanley’s long-awaited return. They’ll have no options, however, if things go south—given the near certainty that Stamkos will work a NMC/NTC into his next deal. They’ve seen this movie before.