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Steve Yzerman and the versatility of contract clauses

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General Manager Steve Yzerman uses modified contract clauses to negotiate deals that allow the Tampa Bay Lightning to stay competitive in the salary cap era.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Much is made of Steve Yzerman’s proverbial wizardry - his ability to deftly manage a superstar roster while remaining under the salary cap. Many articles have been published describing his impressive drafting and tradings records, but few focus on what he does once he acquires talented players. Yzerman’s stealth weapon is his mastery of contract clauses.

At initial glance, it appears Yzerman hands out No Trade Clauses (NTC) and No Movement Clauses (NMC) like candy. Yes, he definitely gives out more than the average general manager, largely because contract safety is beneficial in salary negotiations and allows him to secure players for less than market value.

So what happens when these clauses catch up with him? You can’t expect to run a team with the inability to move 10 plus players - eventually someone is going to weigh you down, right? Well, not necessarily. Yzerman’s secret is his frequent use of modified trade clauses.

Without diving into too much detail, NMCs and NTCs do exactly what they imply - they prevent a player from being moved (either via trade or assignment to the minor leagues) or being traded. A modified clause provides exceptions to those rules - specifically, players submit a list of teams to which they can be traded.

Let’s take a quick glance at recent Lightning history to see how Yzerman has used this to his advantage: Valterri Filppula.

Filppula signed a five year, 25 million dollar contract in 2013 at a time when the Lightning needed capable, experienced centers. The first two years of his contract carried a NMC. The last three years carried a modified NTC in addition to the NMC.

CapFriendly.com

While two clauses may seem redundant, each serves a specific purpose - the NMC guarantees the player can’t be waived and reassigned to the minor leagues while the modified NTC allows Yzerman to trade the player to a specific number of teams (in this case, 16 teams of Filppula’s choosing).

The fact that Yzerman was able to flip Filppula at essentially no cost to the Lightning is the perfect example of how he makes this situations work in his favor.

So, just to recap - the Lightning needed to get rid of Filppula’s salary cap hit. Yzerman had a total of 16 teams that he could trade with and somehow managed to move the player for the paltry cost of a 7th round draft pick.

Even with one arm tied behind his back, he was able to come out on top. Let’s take a look at Yzerman’s most problematic current contract, Ryan Callahan (no matter how much you love him, his play unfortunately does not warrant his cap hit).

CapFriendly.com

Well well well, would you look at that? Another one of those NMC, modified-NTC. That’s awfully convenient. Even if it doesn’t work out quite as well as the Filppula move, Yzerman has given himself just enough space to navigate his way out of the contract if needed.

I’m fairly confident there are some internal analytics involved in determining how far into the contract the modified clause needs to appears in order to allow Yzerman the maximum salary leverage while also maintaining the necessary flexibility if/when a player’s production doesn’t match his contract value.

As many people have been quick to point out, Florida does not collect state income tax. Given that most of Tampa’s players sign at or below market value, a modified NTC gives them additional reassurance that they won’t have to move to a high state/provincial income tax team which could significantly impact their salary.

If you think these clauses are reserved for second and third-line talent, you are woefully mistaken. Almost all of Yzerman’s long term deals (with the exception of Steven Stamkos) are marked by modified clauses.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the contracts lasting 5+ years (except Stamkos).

Long-Term Contracts

Player Average Annual Value Contract Length in Years Contract Years with Modified NTC
Player Average Annual Value Contract Length in Years Contract Years with Modified NTC
Victor Hedman 7,875,000 8 (2017-2025) 6-8 (2022-2025)
Tyler Johnson 5,000,000 7 (2017-2024) 5-7 (2021-2024)
Alex Killorn 4,450,000 7 (2016-2023) 5-7 (2020-2023)
Nikita Kucherov 9,500,000 8 (2019-2027) 5-8 (2024-2027)
Ryan McDonagh 6,750,000 7 (2019-2026) 7 (2025-2026)
JT Miller 5,250,000 5 (2018-2023) 2-5 (2019-2023)
Ondrej Palat 5,300,000 5 (2017-2022) 5 (2021-2022)

The fact that Yzerman included three years of modified clauses in Victor Hedman’s contract is borderline larceny. The four trade-able years on Nikita Kucherov’s well-priced deal are also impressive.

I could easily envision Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn being moved in the same way that Filppula was traded.

The only contract that presents a true problem in my eyes is Ryan McDonagh, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Yzerman off-loads him in the inevitable Seattle expansion draft, just like he did with Jason Garrison to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Yzerman manages to offer limited contract control to his players in exchange for financial savings. It’s one of the more underrated ways he is able to maintain a contending team in the salary cap era.

Kudos, Stevie Y. You always find a way to make it work.