Lightning and Devils Use Gagne and Kovalchuk to Show Different Approaches to Cap

Philadelphia Flyers left wing Simon Gagne (R) and Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook fight for the puck during the third period of game three of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final in Philadelphia on June 2, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch Photo via Newscom

It’s pretty perfect that Ilya Kovalchuk was signed to a massive contract by the Devils on the same day the Lightning traded for Simon Gagne.

It shows the two styles of managing in the NHL.

On the one hand, you have the Devils going for the expensive, long-term contract. In Kovalchuk’s case, it’s 17 years, $102 million, with a cap hit of just $6 million per season.

With the signing of Kovalchuk, the Devils now need to dump salary, meaning the Devils will probably go at least another season without a top line center.

The Devils will proably send the next few seasons dumping salary to fit Kovalchuk under the cap, depending, of course, upon what the next CBA brings the NHL.

When a team goes for the huge contract, the usual price for acquiring a big player, is that existing salary needs to go to fit the contract. And salary usually correlates to talent.

So the Devils, by signing Kovalchuk, have gotten stronger, but by having to dump salary, they’re going to get weaker. And given that the entire league knows just how much the Devils need to dump, they probably won’t get much back for whoever they wind up trading away.

This isn’t a big deal if Kovalchuk plays as the Devils expect and is able to pretty much dominate on his own. But if Kovalchuk needs any kind of lift, any kind of complementary player on his line that the Devils don’t already have under contract, it’s going to be tough to bring that player in.

The flip side of managing in the NHL is Gagne’s trade to Tampa.

The Flyers wanted cap space, presumably to sign a number one goalie (although no one will be surprised if the Flyers don’t upgrade their goalie position, since it seems to be something the team rates just above dental work and colonoscopies).

The Flyers got back defenseman Matt Walker, an unexceptional defenseman, for Gagne.

But the Lightning? They got an intriguing player. Gagne is fierce when he’s healthy, but his health has been an issue. But assuming he can stay healthy, can you imagine Gagne with Steve Stamkos?

Think about how well Stamkos played with Steve Downie last season. Downie is hardly an offensive presence, but his ability to create space for Stamkos paid off for both players. Now, add another big body to help create even more space for Stamkos. But a big body that can score consistently, like Gagne can.

Suddenly, the Lightning not only have two scary-as-anything scoring lines, but they also have the ability to spread some of that scoring down to a third line, if new coach Guy Boucher is so inclined.

If Gagne stays healthy and performs as well as he did in the playoffs, he’s also going to take a lot of pressure off of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, helping them see better match-ups. And if he’s put on a line with those two? That could certainly work also.

Teams like the Lightning, that stay under the cap, have the ability to get players like Gagne for virtually nothing. Plus, if we fast forward to the trade deadline, even more players of Gagne-like quality (with the risk that implies) will be available.

Because as teams like the Devils become capped out and unable to retain quality players, teams like the Lightning have the ability to swoop in and grab the cap victims.

It’s not simply a matter of the Devils having made a bad move yesterday, while the Lightning made a good one.

Instead, the issue is the Devils lost a whole lot of roster flexibility while the Lightning kept their options open.

If the Devils don’t need roster flexibility or options over the course of the season, it’s a moot point. But if the Devils do need to add some pieces, it’s going to be a tough road for them.

If the Lightning find themselves needing to add some pieces, the only question is going to be which team’s cap to pick over.