More than ever before, NHL management involves getting out of bad contracts. Always better to move a contract a year early, than a year late.

When the full season lockout lifted, free agency was an event with the capacity to shift team’s trajectories and quickly push them up or down the ranks. For example, the Anaheim Ducks signed Scott Niedermayer, their Captain, when they won the Cup. The Blackhawks—and Red Wings—signed Marian Hossa, who was a key piece in their Cup quests. Other teams did not win the Cup, but the Philadelphia Flyers signing Peter Forsberg; the New York Rangers signing Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Brad Richards; the Flyers signing Daniel Briere, and even the Wild signing Ryan Suter and Zach Parise were all huge, franchise-changing moves.

When Brian Burke came to Toronto he famously said “July 1 will be our draft,”  yet he was unable to ever bring in a true top line talent via UFA (except, maybe, Francois Beauchemin). In large part, that was because there were hardly any big fish to even catch during Burke’s tenure. Free agency, while still important, is now more than ever about finding secondary players to fill out your top 6 or top 4 at the lower end, or your depth lines. This summer, for example, the top UFA C is Antoine Vermette, a nice two-way C on any team, but nowhere near a true 1C. Other top free agents, at the moment, include players such as Martin St. Louis and Johnny Boychuk. Good players, to be sure, but not exactly young players you can use as building blocks for years to come.

Teams now have the ability to lock up their own UFAs for an extra year that other teams in free agency can’t offer, and the league is quickly going the way of the NBA. What that means is that teams are retaining their own players and mid-level players are reaping the benefits in free agency, as the only strong options available. Part of the repercussions of that is that teams are getting locked into deals with players by overpaying them, and the next step is teams trading contracts, regardless of the player.

In the NBA, it is a common occurrence for teams to make trades that almost entirely revolve around salaries, contracts, and clearing space for the future. We are starting to see the same thing seep into the fabric of the NHL front offices.

No GM has embraced this and took advantage of it better than the Montreal Canadiens’ Marc Bergevin. In his tenure, he has traded the two remaining years of Erik Cole and his $4.5M salary for pending UFA Michael Ryder (and somehow got Dallas to tack on a third round pick, too!). In the summer he traded the remaining four years of Josh Gorges’ contract to the Buffalo Sabres for a second round pick in 2016. This year he moved Rene Bourque in-season and sent his $3.3M cap hit, which runs until next season, for Bryan Allen and his $3.5M hit that expires this summer. Bryan Allen is toiling in the AHL, while Bourque has 7 points in 22 games for the Ducks, but do you think Bergevin cares? It was a bad contract—and he knew it—so he bit the bullet, got rid of it and will hope to take advantage of that cap space in the summer. This past summer the Philadelphia Flyers got in on the action, trading a much better player in Scott Hartnell, for RJ Umberger—straight up—because he is signed for two less years.

Conversely, Mike Gillis didn’t understand the value of cap space and clearing a deal when he could have traded Roberto Luongo to the Leafs for Ben Scrivens and a 2nd. He wanted more, but the deal was never about getting the value in return; it was about the value of clearing the contract. Instead, he held onto Luongo, a gongshow occurred in Vancouver, and he ended up losing Cory Schneider and Luongo for Bo Horvat, Shawn Matthias, and Jacob Markstrom. Having cap space in and of itself is an asset, and any time you can clear a contract that isn’t worth it, provided you’re not getting a worse contract, you win at some point.

More than ever, the league is about drafting, developing, and retaining your own players. Manoeuvring the cap and managing your assets when they do develop is the biggest hurdle of all, as the Avalanche are finding out at the moment.

This is the way the league is going, and it is prevalent to a Leafs team that will possibly/probably want to move guys like David Clarkson, Dion Phaneuf, and Joffrey Lupul. As a lottery team right up against the cap, they can’t justify that dollar amount and it’s squeezing out good players because they can’t afford it. For Clarkson, in particular, the Leafs would have to take back a bad contract to move him a la Hartnell-for-Umberger, but at least the Flyers could easily find takers for Hartnell because he’s still a good player.

Below, not in relation to trading Clarkson, I have listed off bad contracts as a resource for the types of deals that can be exchanged:

NHL Long-Term Deals (Potentially) for Trade

PlayerExpiresCap HitComments
Chris Phillips2016$2.5MThird pairing D-man turns 37 this year and is becoming a frequent healthy scratch. Decided to stay in Ottawa last time but might not have a choice any more if he wants to play regularly.
David Legwand2016$3MVeteran center was a favourite of old coach Paul MacLean but isn't getting the same treatment under Cameron. Makes $3.5M in actual dollars which will make him even hard to trade. Turns 35 this year but can still push for .5PPG production.
Rene Bourque2016$3.3MAlready dumped once and Anaheim is probably starting to see why. They've tried him with just about everybody and he has 7 points in 22 games with mediocre possession numbers. Depending on the cap crunch, good thing they have a tonne of young prospects.
Nic Grossman2016$3.5MCurrently injured, but a third pairing defenseman on the Flyers who have an extremely weak defense to put it nicely. So that tells you everything you need to know. A bottom pairing guy but more of a 6 than a 5, and extremely overpaid to do it.
Luke Schenn2016$3.6MIn the same boat as Grossman, except younger. Schenn was never able to develop his game after going to the Flyers and the 25 year old is enjoying the dollars while he can. Being right handed with size should ensure he toils in the league for a bit.
Tuomo Ruutu2016$3.8MWas decent when NJ got him last year with 8 points in 19 games, but only has 8 in 43 this season and turning 32 shortly. Making low end top 6 money-high end top 9 money and is nowhere near that.
David Jones2016$4MHe has 15 points in 34 games which is reasonable production, but his possession numbers are weak, he needs to be sheltered, and he blocks ice time for the younger players so they'd love to move him.
Brayden Coburn2016$4MA solid top four defenseman making reasonable money and only turning 30 this year with limited term left. Problem is, the rest of their contracts are so bad they might have to move him to clear space.
Nikita Nikitin2016$4.5MHas been a healthy scratch. On Edmonton. And he's a defenseman. Contract and player has been a disaster, and you'd only take him back in a pure salary dump to make dollars work.
Shane Doan2016$5.3MNot the player he once was for the money he is making, but can still play a second line role on a good team. Expiring big contracts have all sorts of value for cap opening purposes. Makes less than his cap hit too.
Cam Ward2016$6.3MBounced back a bit this year with a .911sv%, but making an above average goalie salary for and $6.8M in actual dollars next year. An expensive ticket you eat to get Carolina to take a deal with term.
Eric Staal2016$8.25MSimilar to Ward, it's an expensive deal you absorb to get Carolina to take a smaller deal with term. Staal can play, but it's not only is his cap hit $8.25M that's concerning; he's actually making $9.5M in real dollars next year.
Colin Greening2017$2.65MHas 1 point in 20 games this year, is turning 29, and signed for two more years. No team can afford that, but especially not a budget team like Ottawa. Expect him to go on waivers soon.
Viktor Stalberg2017$3MCurrently in the AHL, so not much to say. Hasn't worked out in Nashville under two coaches, so he's done there. Nashville would love to get rid of him, but what poor contract do they need to take back to do so?
Stephane Robidas2017$3MStruggled returning from injury, then got hurt and played hurt for two months. Tough to say how desperate the Leafs are to move him, but with two years left in the deal instead of one I'm sure they wouldn't mind doing so.
Andrew Ference2017$3.25MJonathan Willis covered this at Oilers Nation pretty well here. He's an overpaid third pairing defenseman that has some value, but also term.
Rob Scuderi2017$3.375MThe Pens have Letang, they want to bring back Ehrhoff, they have Despres, Maatta, and Bortuzzo who they seem to like. There are three kids in the AHL they think are NHLers. Doubt they move Scuderi now but they might want to dump that deal soon.
Ladislav Smid2017$3.5MAnother third pairing D-man making second pairing money (see the trend here?). He's not even playing 14min/game, they'd love to get rid of him.
Ales Hemsky2017$4MHasn't been great in Dallas, but the truth is that $4M is now low-end top 6 money, and 18 points in 43 falls roughly in that range. Hasn't meshed well in Dallas but the whole team has struggled. If they want a big money defenseman they'll have to send money the other way.
Brooks Laich2017$4.5MOnly 11 points in 31 games and looks like a borderline top 9 forward at times with flashes of his former self. They have to pay Johansson, Kuznetsov and Wilson before his deal expires at forward alone.
RJ Umberger2017$4.6MWas traded once in a cap move, but the Flyers need all the help they can get. Has 12 points in 41 games despite the team doing everything they can to get him going. A fourth liner making top 6 money.
Dennis Wideman2017$5.25M12 goals this year, playing over 23 minutes a night but gets crushed in the possession game on the second pairing. If someone wants the offense it's a deal they should give away.
Mark Streit2017$5.25M34 points in 48 games, positive possession numbers, playing over 22 minutes a night. It's actually still a pretty good contract, but like Coburn they need cap space badly so something has to give.
James Wisniewski2017$5.5MThe Blue Jackets might not know it yet, but all these contracts they are giving to mid-level players (Foligno, Dubinsky, etc) are going to catch up to them. When that happens eyes will turn to the big deals to older guys with little term left. He's a second pairing D-man.
Patrick Sharp2017$5.9MPatrick Sharp is still a really good, borderline elite player, but the Blackhawks are tight on cap space and need to pay Saad, Kruger and a few others, so here we are. An easy to move contract and the kind of move they've done before.
Patrick Marleau2017$6.667MOn pace for one of the worst seasons of his career points wise and turning 36 this year, so some will wonder if this is the beginning of the end. They have cap space, but they want to change their team and they need to clear space to do that.
Alexei Emelin2018$4.1MWonder if he'll be in the same boat that Gorges was in-- Played a lot and is a decent a Hab, but Bergevin trades his contract a year too early not a year too late. Emelin turns 29 this year.
Fedor Tyutin2018$4.5MJack Johnson, David Savard, and James Wisniewski all play more. Ryan Murray hasn't been healthy or else he would too. Columbus can't afford to pay a third pairing guy that money the way they are handing out long-term deals lately.
Vinny Lecavalier2018$4.5MBeen on the fourth line a lot this year, been a healthy scratch, the Flyers are in cap hell. They should have traded him after his 20G campaign last year for literally anything.
Ryan Clowe2018$4.85MTurns 33 this year and has been unable to stay healthy (although reasonably worth his contract when he has played). The Devils are in a similar boat as the Leafs-- mediocre team with too many long-term deals to show for it.
Stephen Weiss2018$4.9MWhen he got to Detroit he was hurt and didn't tell anyone, and his first season was a write-off. This year he finally got into action and looked good, then got hurt again. The Wings are full of young talent that they'd love to keep up, but a contract and roster spot like this hurt.
Joffrey Lupul2018$5.25MLeafs have cap problems, Lupul is productive but can't stay healthy. If someone else wants to deal with the injury problems then the Leafs might want to move on and use the saved cap space elsewhere. Also another pure offensive player on the team.
Matt Carle2018$5.5MDoubtful the Bolts move him anytime soon as he's a solid top 4 D on a contender, but he has term and dollars left and the Bolts will have young players to play soon. That's the cap squeeze that gets teams.
Tobias Enstrom2018$5.75MI don't think the Jets will move him, but the D has Trouba, Bogosian, and Byfuglien yet Enstrom makes more than all of them. They need some scoring help and he has term and dollars left, and is 31 soon.
Mikko Koivu2018$6.75MThe Wild are third last in the West and changes might be coming. They have a lot of young talent, and Koivu has had his head called for before because of poor playoffs. Now his production isnt that strong and the team is struggling. They might change direction.
Alex Semin2018$7MStarting to be a regular healthy scratch, he has 8 points in 26 games and is turning 31 this year. Still insanely talented, and he wouldn't be the first skilled player to shut it down on a poor team. The Canes can't afford this deal for what he's giving them.
Cody Hodgson2019$4.25MRemarkably has 7 points in 46 games at 25 and looks like he's basically just shut it down. Ted Nolan has tried everything he can here, but this looks like an unmotivated player that they just wouldn't have a reason to want around.
Brooks Orpik2019$5.5MLike the one right under it, this contract made the list the second it was signed. The Caps use him as a top four and give him tough match-ups, but he's turning 35 this year and is already a poor skater.
Dave Bolland2019$5.5MThis contract made the list the second it was signed. A third line center that struggles to stay healthy making top 6 money, and on a team with a ton of good young centers. At least Florida has cap space… For now.
Johan Franzen2020$3.9MThe cap hit isn't poor and he's still a solid player (and a tank), but he's signed until he's 40 and taking a key spot that a plethora of Wings prospects could take. He could help a lot of teams and he's easy to afford. It's the term that's a killer.
David Clarkson2020$5.25MEssentially a fourth liner making top 6 money for the forseeable future and his contract actually is backloaded. This is a deal you can only exchange for another listed poor deal.
Dan Girardi2020$5.5MRangers don't regret this deal at all right now as he leads the team in ice time per game, but defensive D tend to age poorly. It's also a front loaded deal. Classic Sather to sign the guy and move him later (Richards, Gomez, etc).
Andrew MacDonald2020$5MBeen a healthy scratch this year despite being paid as a top four defenseman on a poor defensive team. Like all the other Flyers, they are in cap hell and love to move any and everything with a remotely poor contract.
Mike Richards2020$5.75MPut on waivers and has won everything you can possibly win in hockey. Maybe he's done… Or maybe he just doesn't care anymore. That contract is an albotros either way.
Marian Hossa2021$5.23MAn awesome player, and one of the best two-way wingers of all-time, but the Hawks have been cut throat when it comes to trading away contracts so who knows.
Travis Zajac2021$5.75MStrong two-way center turns 30 this year and just doesn't produce enough to justify his money. The Devils need offense badly and they have a lot of bad contracts, so it's a matter of what they can actually move.
Dion Phaneuf2021$7MStill produces as a top 30 defenseman in the league, but his skating has fallen off a cliff and he's only turning 30 now. The Leafs are in cap trouble and might want to cut bait before it gets worse.
Dustin Brown2022$5.875MTurning 31 this year and is already under a .5PPG player, and it will probably only get worse. They wont trade their captain anytime soon, but they should want to get rid of that deal immediately.
Jordan Staal2023$6MHe's only turning 27 this year and is a strong two-way player, so despite his production woes, for $6M he's not awful considering he lines up reasonably well against any C in the league. But he's signed until 2023!!