The long-drawn-out Jared Cowen saga has finally come to a conclusion, with the desired result from the Maple Leafs’ perspective: The contested buyout has been allowed to proceed after an arbiter’s ruling.
The case, launched back in June, centred on whether Cowen was eligible for a buyout due to a hip injury. NHL buyout rules state that a player still recovering from an injury incurred during the regular season cannot be bought out in the offseason buyout window. After acquiring Cowen from Ottawa in the Dion Phaneuf trade last February, the Leafs allowed Cowen to practice before shutting him down as a precaution in order to ensure the buyout would go off without a hitch.
Cowen admitted upon arrival in Toronto that he was healthy and wanted to play – either with the Leafs or Marlies. Cowen’s agent suggested that “any doctor” would clear his client to play, but also that Cowen’s hip wasn’t at 100%. Cowen later had surgery on his hip at his own doctor’s recommendation after the Leafs sent him home for the season. He had been previously cleared to play in the AHL.
It was also reported at the time by Sportsnet’s Damien Cox that the Leafs granted Cowen’s camp permission to talk to other NHL teams in advance of the buyout window. What seemed to be an amicable agreement between the two sides didn’t turn out that way. Maybe Cowen’s camp sensed a lack of interest around the league and wanted to salvage as much of his 2016-17 salary as possible. Perhaps Cowen’s own doctor’s evaluation was that the hip injury was worse than initially believed and that he shouldn’t have been cleared to play in the first place. Maybe both of these things are true.
In any event, the ruling saves the Leafs the headache of having to dig into Long Term Injury Reserve relief this season, which would’ve potentially caused them some issues next season in the form of significant bonus overage penalties. It also ensures the Leafs remain at 48 Standard Player Contracts — extra flexibility that will come in handy when/if the Leafs sign a new backup goaltender.
It also ties a bow on the Phaneuf trade, which has gone exactly according to plan from the Leaf perspective. Cowen is off the roster and earning the Leafs a cap credit of $650,000 this season (that switches to a $750,000 cap hit next season). Current Marlies Colin Greening and Milan Michalek, meanwhile, are not on the NHL roster taking up spots from the talented younger players who have earned them. Both of their contracts expire at season’s end, at which point the Leafs are, in effect, totally out from under Dion Phaneuf’s $7 million cap hit (which lasts until 2021). The Leafs also added futures in the deal in the form of a second round draft choice in 2017 and prospect Tobias Lindberg.
As for Cowen, he’s lost about $3 million after this ruling — due to the 1/3rds rule on under-26 buyouts — and is in tough to find another opportunity at the NHL level, if he’s even able to play again with his hip injury.