Thursday, December 11, 2014

Good cap, bad cap

One of the key news items from this week’s NHL Board of Governors meetings was some clarity around next year’s salary cap. While the official number won’t be finalized until later in the season, commissioner Gary Bettman offered up a projection of $73 million.

That represents an increase over this year’s $69 million cap. It’s a lower number than had once been expected, back when the league was riding high off the new Canadian TV deal and there were suggestions that the cap could grow significantly going forward. But it’s higher than some of the more recent projections, which pointed to the dropping Canadian dollar as a sign that the cap could grow much more slowly.

So basically, the news falls somewhere in the middle for the teams that spend to the cap ceiling or aspire to get there soon. And it also gives us as good an excuse as any to take a deeper look into some of those teams. Who’s in good shape over the next few years? And who’s got some tough choices coming up?

Today we’ll look at five teams on each side of the fence. One of those groups was a lot easier to put together than the other; if I had to split the whole league, I’d say that at least two-thirds would fall firmly into the “bad” category, and you’ll find that even our good teams typically come with a few caveats. That’s life in a salary cap league. We’ll base our evaluation on the answers to various questions: How much salary do they already have committed, for next year and beyond, and for how many roster spots? Are there any players who are locked up long term that seem to represent exceptionally good or bad value? Which key players are coming up for renewal soon, and will the team have enough space to get those deals done? And which highly paid but less productive players are coming off the cap soon, freeing up space?

One key point: We’re looking at the cap ceiling here, and not every team can spend that much. Many teams are on internal budgets, so their cap space relative to the upper limit doesn’t really matter. Teams like the Senators or Coyotes have all the cap space in the world, but they can’t spend it, so they don’t get credit for having lots of room they’ll never use. That’s why this list ends up being heavy on the big-market teams — they’re the ones who are most affected by the ceiling.

(Another note: All dollar figures in this post are the players’ annual average value, which is to say their cap hit. For the purpose of this exercise, we don’t care what their actual salary is. And as I’m sure goes without saying, all the numbers come from the indispensable

This isn’t meant to be a complete list, in the sense that the 20 teams we don’t get to aren’t all stuck in some sort of fuzzy middle, but these 10 teams are the ones that stand out today.

Got your calculators out? Let’s get started.

Good: Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are currently right up against the cap, with some breathing room available due to Mattias Ohlund’s LTIR exemption. But given that they’re one of the best teams in the league, you can handle that.

Down the road, they’re in decent shape, with one crucial caveat we’ll get to in the next paragraph. They have plenty of young talent, and already locked up Calder finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat on matching $3.33 million deals through 2017. Ben Bishop gets a raise to $5.95 million next year, but that seems like fair value the way he’s playing, and Victor Hedman’s $4 million through 2017 looks like one of the best deals in the entire league right now. There are a few question marks (Ryan Callahan at $5.8 million through 2020 stands out), but for the most part this is a very good team that has managed its cap situation reasonably well.

Now we get to the caveat: Steven Stamkos. The Lightning’s franchise player is schedule to hit unrestricted free agency in 2016. He’ll re-sign before then — every superstar re-signs before free agency — but he’ll probably become the highest-paid player in the league in the process. That will complicate things, especially since the team doesn’t really have any major salaries coming off the books that year. Steve Yzerman will find a way to get it done; it’s just a question of how many pieces he has to move to make room.

Bad: Chicago Blackhawks

Over the first decade of the salary cap era, the Blackhawks have become the poster child for how the rules can punish good teams. When they won the Cup in 2010, they had to immediately start shipping out key players to get back to a manageable number. They had to do it again after another championship in 2013. Those moves kept the ship afloat for a few more years. It may not stay that way much longer.

They certainly have the core locked up. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane recently signed matching $10.5 million deals that kick in next year and run through 2023. That represents the highest cap hit in the league, at least for now, but will probably look like fair value relatively soon. Duncan Keith gets $5.5 million on a deal that turns through 2023; that’s great value, but scary terms for a guy who’s already 31.

And then there’s Marian Hossa. He gets $5.275 million through 2021, thanks to one of those back-diving deals that the new CBA outlawed. He’d be 42 when his deal expires, so the odds of him playing effectively through to the end of it are close to zero. That means the Hawks are going to have a diminishing asset on their hands awfully soon, and will probably get hit with a cap recapture penalty at some point.

That all adds up to roughly $32 million locked into just four players for the next six years. Add in $5.9 million for Patrick Sharp, $5.8 million for Brent Seabrook, and $6 million more for Corey Crawford, and this is an awfully top-heavy team. They’ve been pretty good at surrounding their stars with decent depth, and the rising cap will relieve a bit of that pressure as they go. But spending big money on players who’ll eventually be out of their prime — or already are, in Hossa’s case — won’t leave much margin for error.

So yes, the Blackhawks are almost certainly going to have to pay a price down the line. Would they trade any of those Cups for it? Not a chance.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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