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Q & A with Don Fishman

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
Although we're in the middle of hockey's offseason, there is a lot of work and planning going on behind the scenes in hockey operations departments around the NHL. We recently had a conversation with Don Fishman, the Capitals' Director of Legal Affairs/Hockey Administration, about some of the nuances of the new CBA that are coming to the fore this summer. The transcript of that conversation follows below.

Q: We are in uncharted territory as far as the CBA fully playing itself out in different areas. Are there any little nuances or things that are different now that teams have to pay more attention to?

A: I think by far the biggest difference is because of the salary cap, the offer that you need to make to a guy to qualify a player is a real number that you have to consider before you do it. If you have a player whose qualifying offer is a million dollars, and you have seven of those players, well that’s $7 million that you have to factor into your cap right from the get go. And if you are a team that is up against the cap, that’s a very real number. And that’s why, when you look at the deals that were done around draft day, almost all of them were guys who were high qualifying offer guys. Alex Tanguay [traded to Calgary by Colorado on draft day] was one of them. These were players where teams had to think twice: ‘Can we afford to sign this player at this price?’ In Tanguay’s case, the answer was probably no. Patrik Stefan [traded to Dallas by Atlanta on draft day] was another one. There are a number of other players who have high qualifying offers who I would expect to be moved.

Q: That makes some of those types of players available on the trade market. Would you expect to see some of them moved this summer?

A: I would think so. Because of the salary cap, a player’s asset value is a combination of him as a hockey player, but also his salary. You have to look at those two things side by side when you are evaluating a player. If a team feels that a player’s salary is too high, even though they feel he is a great player, then I think he is movable.

Q: In the past, the restricted free agents weren’t really “free” agents. It was like an oxymoron, and the term “free agent” was not really applicable because rarely would you see a team give an RFA an offer sheet. Do you expect that to change at all? Can you see teams dipping into that restricted free agent market?

A: I don’t know. That’s a better question for [vice president and general manager] George [McPhee], but it’s really not his style. I’d have to say that there are so many free agents available now, there are so many pure unrestricted free agents available because the age is going down to 27. You can probably find the guy in free agency and you don’t need to go to find a restricted free agent. That being said, the restricted free agents are generally a little younger. So if a qualifying offer is obscenely low on a player and he is a younger player, maybe that is the kind of player a team would make a tender offer on.

Q: What about European players? In the past it was July 15 when you had to get European players over here and signed. Has that changed at all?

A: Not really. It is still July 15 and August 15 with a penalty deadline. But the big change is what we learned a year ago; you only have the rights for European players for two years [after you draft them]. So that really changes the landscape. When is the right time to get this player under contract? Now it’s a tougher road, because now we only have two years to decide on that player.

Q: Getting back to Nicklas Backstrom specifically, you had until July 15 to sign him without penalty, and you mentioned there is a penalty to sign him thereafter. How is that computed?

A: We can pay a penalty and still have until August 15 to sign him. It’s a monetary amount the team pays to the IIHF to compensate a [European] team for losing a player, because in the European leagues they start a little bit earlier. So it’s a very real time thing; they’d prefer us to sign these players by July 15 if we want to bring them over. If we need to wait another month, then we are going to pay a penalty.

Q: What is the number of players you are allowed to have under contract at a given time?

A: Fifty. You are allowed to have 50 players under contract, and that doesn’t include players like Stephen Werner who was only signed for the “following” season. We had [Jamie] Hunt and [Matt] Stefanishion signed this year, and even though they did not play a game for us, their contracts counted because they were signed for the 2005-06 season. It also doesn’t include players who are in juniors, like we had with Jeff Schultz last year for us.

Q: Is that something that you need to monitor, probably at this time of year more than any?

A: You do, but if you think about it, you have your Washington roster and your Hershey roster. You really shouldn’t have more than 25 guys on either roster, and maybe a couple more in South Carolina. You start running into issues if you have a lot of guys assigned to European teams or maybe suspended. And that’s what we had last year. We had [Petr] Sykora, [Miroslav] Zalesak, [Andrew] Cassels and [Alexander] Semin; all players that were counting against our roster who weren’t with the organization by the midpoint of the year.

Q: Is there anything else relating to the CBA now that you guys are dealing with?

A: Well the time frames are a lot tighter this year. Qualifying offers went out June 26. Free agency started July 1, players only had until July 5 to file for arbitration and then July 20 was the date that arbitration starts and Aug. 4 is the date that arbitration ends. So the whole time frame is very compressed in terms of deals being made, players seeking other deals and then players finishing their own deals.

Q: Has anything changed much in terms of arbitration?

A: The process hasn’t changed much. But teams can now take players to arbitration. A high-end player that is earning over $1.5 million, teams can take to arbitration. So that’s one factor that is a little different. But in terms of player-elected salary arbitration, there is nothing different.

The one thing that is interesting, though, is that under the new CBA the players as a whole get a certain percentage of the pie, 54% or a higher amount. If you think about arbitration now, the players as a whole are guaranteed a certain amount. So all arbitration is doing is shifting the amount from one player to another. In the old landscape under the old CBA, arbitration was arbitration. A player could get an increased salary and it wouldn’t be to the detriment of another player. Now that’s not the case. The players know the pot they’re going to get. This is just shifting money around at the cost of spending hours and hours and money on arbitration.

Q: So they are more or less taking money from each other’s pockets as opposed to taking it from the owners?

A: Exactly. Which is a pretty big difference. I think some of the larger agents might clue into that and realize that. For the individual player per se, obviously it means a lot to him how much he earns. But for the players as a whole, the arbitration process really isn’t a big winner any more.

Q: What about getting a guy to sign a multi-year contract versus a one-year deal? Obviously, the entry level deal is a three-year deal, and then after that quite often you see guys just get into a string of one-year deals. Sometimes though, they’ll go right from that multi-year entry level deal to a multi-year deal.

A: It’s a good question, but let’s think about it in two parts. For unrestricted free agents, obviously it’s pretty simple to understand. The longer deal is just guaranteed money for the guy as opposed to dipping back into the unrestricted free agent market again. However for restricted free agents, it sort of comes down to the sense of where the player is going both in his mind and in the team’s mind. If the team likes the player and feels that that player is going to progress and is willing to commit to some large salary amounts or maybe even increasing salary amounts to get the player under contract to avoid the risk of arbitration and the risk of going through negotiations, then it is in their interest to do it.

If a player on the other hand feels that the team’s valuation of him is not high enough, and the player believes he is going to have a breakout year or in two years is going to be quite the different player, then for that player it makes sense to do shorter deals and just do a one-year deal or a two-year deal and see where the market is in a year or two. It just comes down to how the player views himself versus how the team views the player. If the player and the team are on the same page, it makes sense to do a two- or three-year deal. If the player and the team are very different on how they view that player’s projection, that’s when you see one-year deals because the player might want to wait it out and test the market in another year.

Q: Talk a little bit about the changes in the AHL rule and how the change in the re-entry waiver rule is going to change how the league does business this season.

A: The re-entry waiver rule, which was a new rule last year, the rule itself will continue, but the amount will go up to $95,000. So let’s talk about the rule itself. The re-entry waiver rule really just puts a limitation on your ability to just stash players in the minors. If you put a player in the minors who is on a one-way NHL contract or on a minor league contract that pays him more than $95,000, you’re going to have to go through waivers to bring that player back up. Not only can another team claim him, but you can be hit with half his salary if he gets claimed. So it’s a very real limitation. You saw the Devils this year send [Alexander] Mogilny and [Dan] McGillis down to the minors. Those players were both on one-way contracts worth more than a million dollars. If they brought that player back up, not only can that player be claimed by another team, but the Devils still would have had to pay half that salary. And it counts towards the salary cap. So the rule itself really just limits your ability to stash players in the minors.

Increasing the dollar amount was something that was put in to help the true minor league player, the veteran minor league player, not guys like Mogilny.  The league is going to allow this player to earn $95,000 and not be subject to re-entry waivers. So you’ll see the salaries of some of these players go to $95,000 and you’ll see veteran minor league players have the ability to earn up to $150,000, unlimited really, in the minors.

Q: There were players throughout the AHL last year who were worthy of getting called up, but who didn’t get a call because of that rule.

A: That is the risk. If you are on a one-way contract in the National Hockey League, [and you are playing in the AHL], the team has to think twice before calling that player up. Because that player can be claimed, like we claimed Rico Fata, and the old team is stuck with half the player’s salary.

Q: Now, when you say that the old team is stuck with half the salary, it doesn’t increase their cap number at that point does it?

A: Yes, both. It increases their cap and cash number.

Q: So you could theoretically have a little gamesmanship. A team that’s right up against the cap could put a player on waivers, and a team in the division who really has no use for the player, but would claim him just to jack the other team’s cap number.

A: I guess they could. But remember, we really didn’t see that many players go through re-entry waivers at all. It’s not regular waivers; you’re constantly putting players on regular waivers. If it is the true re-entry waivers, you’re right. A team could force another team to take a cap hit.

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