As the Free Agent Signing Dust Begins to Settle Who Still Has Cap Room?
That is a question that may play a big role in what happens over the next week or two with the remaining unsigned Washington Capital free agents. As of this morning the Caps still had not re-signed 4 Restricted Free Agents: Center Brooks Laich, Center Boyd Gordon, Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, and Right Wing Eric Fehr as well as two key unsigned trade deadline pickups that are now Unrestricted Free Agents: Center Sergei Federov and Left Wing Matt Cooke. Will the Caps be able to keep all six of these players and virtually hold together their entire team from last season (less Goalies Olie Kolzig and Cristobel Huet)? A lot of that answer now depends on the fact the Caps have just over $6.3M of Salary Cap space left for next season and some other teams in the league have a lot of Cap space and a lot of needs. Who will the Caps potentially compete with for their most desired remaining free agents?
There are 13 NHL teams who have significant ability to continue to be active without making major shuffles with their existing rosters. The teams with significant salary cap space can be easily seen at the website "HockeyBuzz.com" - as of this morning they are: 1) LA Kings have $27.1M of salary cap space and an 08/09 roster with just 18 signed players; 2) Atlanta - over $25M of Cap Space and just 18 players on their 08/09 roster; 3) Columbus has $17.7M of cap Space and 21 roster slots filled; 4) Vancouver has $17.2M of salary cap space and 19 filled roster slots; 5) Colorado has over $16M of cap room and only has 16 roster slots filled; 6) the New York Islanders have $15.9 of cap room and 19 on their roster; 7) Phoenix has $15M of space and a roster with 20 players; 8) Nashville has $14.2M of space and 19 signed players; 9) Buffalo has just under $14M of cap space and 18 players on their roster; 10) Ottawa has $12.3M and 19 on their roster; 11) Minnesota has $11.4 of room and 19 signed; 12) Florida has $11.3 M of space but a pretty full roster; 13) Carolina has a pretty full roster but still has ~9.5M of cap room. So what do these teams need and what might they likely do?
- Starting with the LA Kings: the Kings have 5 unsigned RFA skaters and an unsigned goalie RFA, they could use help everywhere look for the Kings to start by matching whatever offer sheet RFA Center Jarret Stoll gets. The Kings really could use a solid number 1 goalie but the market is thin this year so unless they make a run at Atlanta RFA Kari Lehtonen or take a gamble on Ray Emery they will likely wait and see how things work out given the otherwise now thin market for tenders. All in all the Kings seem committed to a long term vision of building their team through the draft but they do have the room to try and pick up someone like Sergei Federov who could help them a lot and fit their timetables for growing their own young team members or they could make reasonable offer sheets to either Boyd Gordon, Shaone Morrisonn or Brooks Laich that push them past the level Caps GM George McPhee (GMGM) would consider prudent to match. Elsewhere around the league there are some similar situations but if the Kings go shopping it's probable they will make reasonable offers for solid guys like Matt Cooke even though their needs are great.
- The Atlanta Thrashers have a lot of salary Cap room and needs in several areas. The first thing the Thrashers are likely to do with their Cap room you ask match any reasonable offer sheet that 24 year old RFA Goalie Kari Lehtonen gets. Next Atlanta needs at two more top 6 defenseman, they could put a solid offer sheet in front of a number of RFA D-men including Florida's Jay Boumeister, Shaone Morrison, or others. In all there are at least 20 UFA D-Men and 7-10 RFA defensemen that could help the bluebirds and right now Atlanta only has 5 defenseman on their roster with solid NHL experience. The situation at D might not be as dire given Atlanta's draft but they need to at least have some insurace at the position. They have to make some deals here and will before looking to see what they can do to replace Marian Hossa and take some more offensive pressure off the talented and prolific Ilya Kovalchuk. Atlanta is a place known to be a friendly environ for European players and there are already six Eurpeans on the roster including Kovalchuk and on other Russian - left wing Slava Kozlov; also they could stand to upgrade their depth at the Center position, so it's also not impossible to see them making a fair 2 or even 3 year offer to Sergei Federov, given the amount of Cap room they have for the next couple of seasons, though they would more likely be looking for a two year deal given a) Federov's age and b) the fact Kovalchuk becomes a UFA in 2010.
- Let's come back to Columbus since in addition to everything else you have to consider some other factors and take a look at Vancouver next. The Canucks have one primary need - more offensive production. They lost UFA Markus Naslund to the NY Rangers and are now taking a run at Mats Sundin, making him an offer that would reportedly make him the highest paid forward in the NHL - and the guy is thinking about it!?!? In the meantime, they are making some nice, lower key moves to shore up the rest of their roster like signing veteran defensman Nolan Baumgartner; they are making significant progress in building their team and getting back into the playoffs. They also needed a back-up goalie to all-star Roberto Luongo so they re-signed backup Curtis Sanford. While Vancouver has the ability to make a run at some of the Capitals unsigned free agents, based on their needs and other recent moves they will likely look elsewhere to fill them.
- The Colorado Avalanche have $16M of cap room but also need to fill 7 roster slots. The Avs got some of their current salary cap room when the Capitals picked up goaltender Jose Theodore and they back-filled that loss by signing Andrew Raycroft, that swap out created over $4M of their current cap room. However, there are obvious differences between Theodore and Raycroft that the Avalanche has to make up for elsewhere in their roster. Another big question mark for the Avs is whether longtime Avalanche star Joe Sakic will be back in Denver next season. Colorado has been pushing to improve the defensive aspects of their offense and they need to either re-sign Sakic or pick up a suitable replacement. With 7 roster slots to fill the Avalanche have an average of $2.28M per position available but also need to do some proactive planning so they can try and improve their goal tending situation during next year's 2009 free agency period, so while the Avs will be active in the remainder of the off-season, they won't likely do anything crazy. When and if the Avalanche extend offer sheets or attempt UFA signings, they will not likely be of the type that will land them on this or any other list of crazy deals.
- What do the New York Islanders who have 4 open roster slots and just shy of $16M of cap room need? First off the Isles have five unsigned RFAs and they are likely to re-sign at least four, if not all five of them - those moves will eat up at least 4 and more likely close to 8M of their cap room. Another interesting thing to note is the Islander's once "crazy deal" with #1 goaltender Rick DiPietro now is looking very smart. DiPietro's $4.5M cap hit salary is a bargain for a solid #1 goalie and helps the boys in Nassau County by giving them the room to "consider the possibilities." Unfortunately like the Washington Capitals deal with Jaromir Jagr, the Islanders decision to buy out Alexi Yelshin's contract eats up an average between 2 and 4.7M of that flexibility between this year and the 2014-2015 season. With the loss of forward Miroslav Satan to the Penguins in this year's free agent flurry, the Isles will also likely look to add one or two experienced forward who can light up the red light. The Islanders have already shown a strong desire to improve their team with the UFA signing of Mark Streit. Given their familiarity with the Capitals, as Eastern Conference rivals, it's not unimaginable to think Isles GM Garth Snow is considering making a few offers to any of the Capitals free agents or the Ranger's Brendan Stranahan and Martin Straka, of the Caps free agents Matt Cooke's style of play would also fit well with the Isles needs now that they have parted ways with Chris Simon. What the Islanders need most is a new arena, but since that's not currently in play look for them to use at least some of their Cap room in the free agent market between now and when Camp starts, they want to get back to the playoffs now and that will mean they'll do more than just look to upgrade their backup goalie, still remaining on Snow's to do list, and the pick up of Streit, they completed on Tuesday.
- What will Wayne Gretzky do next out in Sun City? Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes have been actively engaged in working to improve their team since early last season when they picked up goaltender Ilja Bryzgalov from Anaheim early in last season and picking up Center Olli Jokenen from the Florida Panthers just prior to this years entry draft. Looking at the team they've assembled reveals a pretty formidable roster and the likely next things that would help would be to upgrade their #3 through #6 defenseman. The free agent market still has a fair amount of talent available in this area (top 2 defensemen are quickly being picked off but Phoenix has Ed Jovanoski and Derek Morris in those slots), so even though they've already been active in this area with the signing of David Hale, Phoenix could continue to look to use some of their ~$15M of available salary cap in this area.
- Nashville is another team to skip over because they have a whole lot of factors other than just salary cap management and hockey operations needs, so it's off to Buffalo. The Sabres continue to work on reloading after being the first victims of their own success in self-growing talent from their draft picks. Looking at today's Sabres it's easy to forget that they would have absolutely no (as in zero, zip, nada) cap room if they had retained Chris Drury and Danny Briere AND they would still have 3 roster slots to fill. Examining the last couple of years in Buffalo is the real place to get a lesson in the meaning of the new/post CBA NHL. As far as what the Sabres are still looking for, GM Darcy Reiger says it's a quality blueliner, he's been very open about his desire and eve talked about it at a press conference on Wednesday. Other than that look for the Sabres to use their $14M of salary cap space to hold on to their three forwards who are RFAs. Basically, the Sabres are looking to replace and upgrade 19 season NHL veteran Finn Teppo Numminen. That said the list of available veteran defenseman as of this morning doesn't yield an intuitively obvious available selection - the best choices are two former Rangers Darius Kasperitis and Marek Malik. Perhaps Reiger is hoping to sign an offer sheet with Jay Bouwmeester of the Florida Panthers but I'd still expect the Panthers to match any offer that would even push the levels of prudence.
- Over in the Canadian Capital, Senator's GM Bryan Murray has been a flurry of activity since being ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Pittsburgh. Since then the Senators have brought in Craig Hartsburg as their new coach and made moves that amount to a major reshape of their roster. The Senators have waived and are buying out Goalie Ray Emery, they let #1 defenseman Wade Redden go to the New York Rangers in free agency earlier this week and they've made some other moves to retool and reload. The Senators have a) re-signed forward Chris Kelly; b) signed UFA Goalie Alex Auld as their backup netminder; c) signed UFA forward and pest Jarkko Ruutu; and d) re-signed UFA forward Shean Donovan. Overall, these move have rationalized their roster and left them with the ability to go after a couple more players who fit with their forward plans for the next two or three years with their ~13M of cap room since their core of Alfredsson, Spezza, Heatley, and Fisher are under contract until at least the end of the 2011-2012 season; however anticipate them holding on to some of their flexibility to potentially change out number 1 goalies when Martin Gerber becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this next season. If the Senators were to go after any of the Caps free agents, now that they have signed Ruutu that would most likely be a putting a good but sane offer sheet in front of either Brooks Laich or even Boyd Gordon though ShaMo is also a clear possibility as the current number 5 defenseman under contract for them is former WashingtonCapital/Hershey Bear Lawrence Nycholat.
- The Minnesota Wild and their 18,000+ fans at every game have made a few smart moves so far this off season so they have $11.4M of Cap Room to fill their 4 open roster slots and they've signed five players this past week as well as well as taking a run at signing Marian Hossa. The Wild only have two unsigned RFAs at this point and are solid both "between the pipes" and "at the blue line" so could make a run at a couple of offensive minded RFAs with offer sheets but with $11.4M of Cap room this year, and looking at the need to re-sign Marian Gaborik as a UFA next year, any RFA offer sheets the Wild make will proabably be sane enough for the RFA's current team to match. In the case of the Caps RFA's while Brooks Laich might be a good fit for the Wild it's hard to imagine them offering him more than say $2.5M or a term longer than a couple of years and something like that GMGM would likely both be able to and want to match.
- Florida has $11.3M of Cap room, two unsigned restricted free agents and a fairly full roster. Expect the re-signing of Jay Bouwmeester to use $6M +/- $500K of the available salary cap; then the Panthers will likely match any reasonable offer sheet that Right Wing Anthony Stewart might get if he doesn't just take his qualifying offer, as you would expect from a guy who is a 2003 first round pick with only 2 NHL goals and 46 games of NHL experience. What the Panthers do with the remaining $5M of salary cap space is anybody's guess - they've done a good job of retooling after dealing Olli Jokenen to Phoenix picking up two more solid defensemen in that deal and UFA forward Corey Stillman. One thing they could do is try and extend an offer sheet to Brooks Laich - his numbers and style of play compliment their needs - but given their small amount of cap room after matching any Bouwmeester offer sheet probably wouldn't enable them to offer anything that GMGM and the Caps wouldn't gladly match.
- Carolina has 2 unsigned RFAs a fairly full roster and $9.5M of cap space - they could are solid in the net and at the blue line but some of their own free agent losses mean they probably wouldn't mind having some more offensive punch in their arsenal. For Washington Capital fans that means the only worry is Brooks Laich, also since GMGM has made it clear Matt Cooke isn't within the Capitals affordability curve this season and the Hurricanes have both the payroll room and roster space, don't be surprised if they make a sane offer to Laich and also a fair offer that puts Matt Cooke, or one of several other guys like him, in Hurricane Red to start the season.
- Now time to look at two teams that are likely harder to anticipate and figure out - Columbus and Nashville. First Columbus, current payroll room $17.7M and two open roster spots. In addition to the basic on ice hockey factors, the ownership is in some transition, though the team is stable and firmly rooted in Columbus, as the team founder and original majority owner John H. McConnell passed away this year and his son John P. McConnell has a legacy to uphold. The Blue Jackets have already been quite active this free agent season signing defenseman Mike Commodore on July 1st, and winger Kristian Huselius on July 2nd. In addition to these two high profile signings expect the Jackets to match anything but a totally insane offer sheet to RFA goaltender Pascal Leclaire who is coming off a breakout season, it wouldn't take a gambler to bet that will cost them between $3.5 and $4.5M of their $17.7M cap room given the current set of available #1 goalies and the number of teams who ought to be looking for a #1 tender. That would leave Columbus with $13.2M to match any offer sheets their remaining three RFAs might get. Given the Blue Jackets are a small market team, and assuming the prior moves are made, that takes them to a actual total payroll of ~$49M so the only other probable action would be to wait a while and see if there are some bargains to be had in late July and August after a few more teams "cap out" in the next couple of days.
- All the above brings us to last but not least - Nashville - given all the churning with regard to ownership, etc. the Predetors appear committed to working hard to "stand pat" and hold a stable roster. In a very smart move they re-signed Goalie Dan Ellis to a sensible 2 year contract. Now they are well positioned to preserve their roster's talented young players by matching anything but insane offer sheets. Then regardless of what type of "Payton Place" drama happens with the ownership of this team they will be well positioned to see who might help them that needs a job in late July and August. Of course what this means is that I feel any analysis of the data is pointless with these guys right now since there's all sorts of distractions and these guys have a pretty sound on ice product as is. It is interesting to note that while researching this piece I looked over lots of data on the web as well including each team's web site, looking at all the other teams in this post's sites its easy to see lots of team releases about their free agent signings, their draft, and their upcoming prospects camp - at Nashville's site the five news stories currently are - "Preds Visit Safety Day at Ft. Cambell"; "Local Youth Got Skills at Nationals"; "Magical Appearance at Dancer Auditions"; "Preds Acquire Ryan Jones, '09 Second Round Pick from Minnesota"; and "Predators Around Town" - notice anything different than at most sites? That said most Predator fans are quite pleased with the Ellis signing and the current state of their team from looking at their message boards.
Tarik reported last evening that for the Caps other than working to hold their RFAs and sign Sergei Federov, GMGM says the Caps won't be looking at the free agent market at all until August when all the dust settles. Per Tarik: "*McPhee also said he doesn't envision making another free agent signing. At least not right away."
Things look pretty good for the Caps, Development Camp starts at Kettler on Monday and I'm going to try and stop and watch some of it before heading out of town on Tuesday, if I do I'll try and take some pics and post them. Additional articles with some more analysis are probably in the offing though I fully expect after posting this article numerous events will occur in the next couple of days that show well why I get paid to analyze things other than Hockey and i don't get paid to analyze and comment on the NHL. In any case - the more I look at recent events the more I think the Caps are going in the right direction and making the best possible moves.
Can't wait till next season. LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!