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Thursday, July 24, 2008
Will signing bought-out players pay off for some teams?

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

When bought-out players hit the market this June, potential "bargains" became available.

Among those with severance packages, so to speak, Todd Bertuzzi signed with Calgary, Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft went to Colorado, and Marc Denis agreed to a deal with his hometown Canadiens.

Darcy Tucker
After being bought out by the Maple Leafs, Darcy Tucker landed a new deal with the Avs.
Tucker was the most fortunate. He was bought out of the final three years of his Toronto deal (he'll get $6 million in six years from the Leafs), then agreed to a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Avalanche.

Bertuzzi is in line to get $2.66 million from Anaheim because he was bought out of the second year of his two-year deal, and his contract with the Flames is for $1.95 million and one season.

Ottawa goalie Ray Emery, ex-Columbus defenseman Duvie Westcott and former Florida center Jozef Stumpel were bought out and are ticketed to play in the Russia-based Kontinental League next season. (The league also has teams in Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan.)

Since the provisions changed in the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement, making buyouts both more feasible and theoretically necessary under the salary cap, the track records of players signed off that scrap heap has been mixed.

The X factor is how ruthless or passive the player and his agent are when negotiating the next deal, given the buyout money coming in. The emergence of Russian hockey as a financially viable alternative also has changed the picture.

The contrasts involving the goaltenders who fell out of favor: Denis' two-way deal with the Canadiens was a two-way street without much risk, but Emery will be getting about $2 million from Atlant Mytishchi next season.

By definition, the bought-out players have been judged to underachieve and not deliver sufficient bang for the bucks.

The first year under the new CBA, 2005, when the $39 million cap created sudden pressures despite 24 percent rollbacks, arguably is an anomaly in the big picture.

In July 2005, the Rangers bought out Bobby Holik, who had become the poster boy for outlandish free-agent deals because of his five-year, $45 million deal. (Admittedly, I drank the Garden Kool-Aid and thought it was a good move at the time.) Atlanta jumped at the chance to bring him in, and he's had three decent seasons with the Thrashers, although he's the type of player who is potentially far more valuable to good teams as a complementary element than he is as a difference-maker with teams trying to crawl up. But even with the downsized three-year, $12.75 million contract, Holik was overpriced for Atlanta. Now a one-year deal will pay him only $2.5 million in his return to the Devils.

The Red Wings, scrambling to get under the cap in that first season, bought out Derian Hatcher, Ray Whitney and Darren McCarty.

One of the backdrops was the reasonable belief that Hatcher's relatively lumbering style wouldn't be as effective in the "new," faster NHL. Hatcher started with a five-year, $30 million deal in Detroit, and he'll make $3.5 million in 2008-09, the final season of his subsequent four-year deal with the Flyers. Despite his injury-plagued 2007-08 season, he probably deserves to be considered a decent post-buyout acquisition.

McCarty, beset by various personal problems, was unproductive in Calgary before his cameo late last season in his return to Detroit.

Whitney would have received $2.66 million from the Red Wings under the rollback in 2005-06 if he hadn't been bought out. Now, at age 36, he is about to embark on his fourth season in Carolina. He was an important cog on several levels for the 2006 Stanley Cup champions, had 32 goals the next season, and was on only a slightly slower pace last season until he was sidelined for the final month with an ankle injury that eventually required surgery. The Hurricanes recognized his value, signing him to a new three-year deal a year ago, and he'll be making $3.55 million this coming season.

Also in 2005, the Flyers bought out Tony Amonte and John LeClair. LeClair hooked on with the Penguins with a two-year deal and scored 22 goals in 2005-06, but was waived early in his second season. His career was over. He was making "only" $1.5 million that season, a far cry from the the salary of his glory days, so the Penguins had taken a calculated gamble that didn't work out long-term. Amonte signed with Calgary for a relatively cheap $3.7 million for two seasons. With a combined 24 goals during his tenure there, he wasn't worth what the Flames paid him, and now he's out of the league.

In 2006, Toronto bought out Ed Belfour and didn't pick up his option a bit premature, given that he was decent in his single season with the Florida Panthers. His base salary was only $750,000, and he ended up making a total of about $1.3 million, including incentives, in a win-win deal for both him and the Panthers.

The Stars bought out Bill Guerin, who was in line to make nearly $7 million. The one-year deal he signed with St. Louis was for $2 million plus incentives, and he went to the Sharks late in the season before signing a two-year, $9 million contract with the Islanders a year ago. That was another win-win. Guerin reinforced his reputation, climbed back up the salary scale to about what he was worth after being (relatively) overpaid, and now is the Isles' captain.

Also in 2006, the Panthers bought out Sean Hill, who played and looked "old" -- older than he actually was -- under one-year deals with the Islanders and Wild the past two seasons.

Last year, Alexei Yashin went back to play in Russia after the Islanders bought the final four years of his contract. And Dallas Drake, who was due to make $1.1 million in his final season with St. Louis, was bought out, but he caught on with the Wings and went out as a role player on a Cup winner.

The lessons for now and the future?

Good buys do exist, as long as you're realistic in measuring potential bang for the buck, and even more so if the players and their agents consider the buyout money as both part of the deal and a safety net in attempts to solidify reputations or wind down in good situations.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."