Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke's hard-line stance against heavily front-loaded deals continued this year in free agency, and he said Wednesday he believes that's what cost his team a chance at signing Brad Richards.
Those on the player agent and union side, however, argued vociferously that nine-year, $60-million (U.S.) deals like the one Richards inked with the New York Rangers are legal under the league's collective agreement and part of doing business in the NHL.
The issue remains one of the most contentious in the league and will almost certainly be a major topic of deliberation when negotiations toward a new collective agreement begin next year.
"We lost out on the Brad Richards sweepstakes for two reasons," said Burke, who is believed to have offered the player a six-year, $42-million deal. "One, we didn't offer as much money as other teams and more importantly we didn't structure the contract like other teams did.
"These deals that are front-loaded and have small amounts at the back end, in my opinion, are designed to circumvent the salary cap."
Front-loaded, long-term contracts have been controversial since the introduction of the salary cap in 2005 but weren't officially contested by the league until Ilya Kovalchuk signed a 17-year, $102-million contract with the New Jersey Devils last summer.
The deal resulted in an arbitration hearing over whether the contract circumvented the salary cap, and Burke spoke on behalf of the league against the deal.
The Devils went on to lose the hearing and were fined $3-million and a first- and third-round draft pick.
The NHL and players' union, meanwhile, adopted a complex set of regulations to govern deals longer than five years, limiting the impact that adding extra, low-salaried years to deals can have.
One prominent agent said Wednesday that those rules clearly define what is now allowed in a long-term contract, which invalidates Burke's continued stand against the deals.
In addition to the Rangers, the Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings offered Richards similarly structured contracts on July 1.
The Sabres also signed defenceman Christian Ehrhoff to a contract along those lines, giving him $18-million in the first two years of a 10-year, $40-million deal.
"No one is forcing a GM to offer these deals, but several are willing to offer them to get the player and improve their club," the agent said. "It's great to stand on principle but at what point does your responsibility to ownership, your players and the fans outweigh whether you like one contract structure over another?
"For anyone to say the structure of some elite free-agent contracts amounts to a cap circumvention is disingenuous. A GM may not like the structure, a GM may refuse to offer a front-loaded contract and that's fine. Ultimately, the GM won't get the player.
"But all the contracts signed since July 1 have been registered by the league and fit within the existing rules."
As the GM of the richest team in the NHL, Burke would presumably benefit from becoming part of the trend, as many of the league's teams are unable to pay that much up front for a player like Richards.
Burke, however, said he remains adamant that's an advantage he will never use.
"I won't do them, I never have, I'm not going to," he said. "That's not a contract structure we're interested in."
Leafs sign Dupuis
The Toronto Maple Leafs signed free agent Philippe Dupuis on Wednesday afternoon, giving the former Colorado Avalanche centre a one-year, two-way deal for $650,000 (U.S.).
Dupuis, 26, is expected to compete for Toronto's fourth-line centre role after Tim Brent signed with the Carolina Hurricanes on July 1.