The Franchise Player Rule
Do I have a flawless solution? No, but I have an idea that lays down the foundation for a rule that could really improve the current system. I took my idea from the NFL's franchise tag, which allows an NFL team each season to place the tag on a player in the last year of their contract, which basically converts their status from a UFA to an RFA.
This is my proposal for the NHL version of the rule:
Each team will have the opportunity to tag a single player on the team as a 'franchise player.' A franchise player's salary does not count towards the salary cap. A franchise player can only become a restricted free agent. The benefit for the player that is tagged is bonuses. The Franchise player will be eligible for preset bonuses based on team performance. For example, winning the division will pay a larger bonus than simply making the playoffs. Only the franchise player is eligible for the bonus. Once a franchise player is traded or bought out, the tag does not carry with them to the next team.
So how does this help the NHL. Well for one, it keeps teams together. Take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. They have teams with players that could make history together and be remembered forever. But unfortunately, because of the salary cap, a couple of years down the road, these teams may have to be dismantled to comply. With this rule, the Blackhawks could decide to tag Jonathan Toews and then not have to worry about trading their other young stars away.
I understand that may be a contradiction to why the salary cap was put there in the first place, but the way I see it is that the salary cap was put in place to stop unrestricted free agency from spiraling out of control. It serves its purpose as teams can no longer load up on all the top free agents. In addition to that, players that would have been asking for $5 million a season are now signing for $2-3 million a season. So it does serve its purpose in that sense. But to me, it doesn't make any sense for teams to have to choose between two star players that they developed themselves.
Does this rule mean that franchise players are stuck with their teams when their contracts expire? Player's won't be stuck because they can still go to their GM's and inform them ahead of time that they would like to move on. Take a look at Atlanta for example. It was pretty clear that Kovalchuk wasn't going to re-sign with them, but if Kovalchuk was tagged as a franchise player, the Thrashers would have been able to keep him on their team for their playoff push. Then in the summer they would have retained his rights and would have been able to trade him to another team without having to worry about losing him for nothing. To me that makes more sense because being forced to trade your best player while trying to make the playoffs makes this league a bit of a joke.