Sunday, February 21, 2010

NHL Olympic Break Post 1: GMGM's Moves and Salary Cap Planning

It's the Olympic break as the picture on the right illustrates, but what about the NHL season and that avocation we call the Washington Capitals? As this season has continued, many of us Caps fans have watched with keen interest and wondered what Caps General manager George McPhee will do to retain and improve this high flying team's talent pool. The moves so far appear to have been a mix of well thought and deliberate as well as opportunistic re-signings.

For example, clearly the team wanted to get high flying, top talented LW/RW Alexander Semin signed to a contract extension for as long as possible before his status as a restricted free agent "expired." However, when the player and his agent wouldn't sign such a deal, McPhee and the Caps opted instead to sign him to a $6M, 1 year extension through the end of next season. While the move doesn't help end speculation about next season, it makes clear that the 25 year old's status and the teams desires and plans for him through the end of this season's playoffs and the start of next season. Ostensibly, one would assume it is Semin's intention to test the UFA market in July 2011 and get a litmus test on his value as a UFA before signing any long term deals anywhere. However, one never knows how these things play out. The point here being the $6M/1 year extension is what i would classify as an opportunistic re-signing. taking the team's statements at face value, it's not what they had intended but opportunistically, it was a deal they could do that helped keep things moving forward in a way both parties were willing to agree to and that at least in the short term works for them, so they did the deal.

With more forethought and deliberation, it appears the Caps took a look at their likely needs in several, less "flashy" areas over the next couple of years and concluded the smart thing to do was to sign 27 year old Center David Steckel to a fairly priced, reasonable length extension vice letting him out onto the UFA market this summer. In the end the Caps and Steckel agreed to a three year extension at an average salary of $1.1M/season. Examining the list of centers expected to be available as UFA this summer, I'd have to say this signing was a very smart move by both the team and the player. Steckel is the Caps "crunch time, go-to face off guy" these days, as he has quietly become one of the league's top face off men. He is also a key "special teams" guy on the PK unit. So if anyone thinks, in today's NHL "an enforcer" is who generally plays less than 8:30 a game no matter what is worth $1M; then what is the guy you want taking every critical defensive zone face off worth? Add to that that Steckel is also one of the Caps' best penalty killers, one of a handful of guys on the team to qualify as "ironmen" through the past two injury plagued NHL seasons, averages 12:47 TOI, and manages to stay +/- positive despite often being asked to shut down opposing team's high scorers, and it's possible you might consider $1.1M a bargain. The way I look at the list of likely soon to be available free agents, virtually any I consider potential "comps" either already make more than $1.1M or will clearly be likely to do so after this July, so I consider the Steckel extension/contract a really smart move by the Capitals.

I think looking at what needs to get done between now and the end of the season, you'd have to expect that the next thing GMGM is trying to get done is an extension for first line center Nicklas Backstrom. Rumors are that is indeed true but like the Semin deal, apparently Backstrom doesn't want to sign a deal with so long a contract term, he might obviate his options should his value increase between now and when he'd become an unrestricted free agent following the end of the 2014 regular season. Looking at comparable players in the league, one would have to assume that in the RFA market Backstrom will easily draw offer sheets with multi-year deals and salaries of $6-7+M/year. Especially if Nicklas continues to play the way he has so far this season. Backstrom is now fourth in the NHL in scoring with 76 points (26 goals and 50 assists) and has the 3rd best +/- rating right now so I estimate the 5 closest comparables to him are Eric Staal, Paul Stasny, Anze Kopitar, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, their average salary is $7.15M. That is a "doable" deal and along with Semin's 1 year extension means all the "young guns" remain Capitals through at least the end of the 2011 playoffs. Assuming the Caps and Backstrom agree to some sort of extension with an average salary in the $7M/range, as the next deal GMGM closes, then next season the Capitals Salary Cap payroll for 2010 - 2011 is at $45.5M, Once a deal with Backstrom is done or you know at least what it's going to cost you, if you were GMGM, what next?

I know the two things I don't think the Caps need right now, in spite of some cries around "bloggerdom" and comments to threads on many Caps blogs and that's 1) an enforcer or 2) a big "stopper" defenseman. Unless that big stopper has great hands and wheels which none of the rentals available or even most of the guys who aren't rentals have.

Consider that next season by the time you pay for the current top six forwards (Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Knuble, Laich, and Jason Chimera) next season you are looking at a likely Cap Hit that totals ~29M or roughly 50% of the available Cap Space. Of the remaining $30M, $8.5M goes to Mike Green and Tom Poti leaving $21.5M of space for 15 players and things start to get tight pretty quickly. Tight enough that using any of it for an enforcer is both unwise and virtually impossible. Tight enough that unless you move Poti and don't make any attempt to re-sign Pothier or someone like him, re-engineering the defense around someone like Pronger, even if he were available is also basically impossible. Simply put this team is currently set-up in a way different from what has been done in the past. The closest thing to the way the Caps' roster is designed is the Detroit Red Wings. However, the Caps are basically the Red Wings with a twist - in other words as you might expect each team is constructed the way the are based on their core these days, preserving the core and then using the rest of the available salary cap space to fashion a complimentary team around the core is what it's all about. The Caps core is Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, and Green. The next layer is Laich, Poti, Knuble and you'd be surprised to know but from a cap space/managment perspective - Chimera. This is not to say others like Steckel, Varlamov, Theodore, Bradley, Fleischmann, Fehr, and Neuvirth don't matter it's just to say that from a salary cap management perspective, they are easier to handle and more straight-forward to think about.

So considering all of the above, the next guy I go and sign to an extension is ... and I never thought I'd be the guy saying this as short a time ago as last season ... Jeff Schultz. That's right, Jeff Schultz. Schultz, a 23 year old Calgary native, is having in quiet fashion, what amounts to a breakout season. In 55 games this season, he's averaging 15: 52 TOI and his defensive numbers are generally much better than many, many defensemen paid considerably more than his 2009 - 2010 salary of $715K. Schultz is clearly a guy that if you are GMGM you want to get nailed down before tackling the other defensemen on the the roster who will be Free Agents at the end of this season: 26 year old Shoane Morrisonn (UFA) and 32 year old Brian Pothier (UFA). Additionally since he's just 23 years old, the Caps should be able to offer him a 4 year contract that doesn't involve a premium since that's when he'd otherwise be UFA elgible. I believe the Caps should be able to get Schultz signed for 3 or 4 seasons at an average salary of ~$2M/season, which if he continues to develop on the trajectory he's on will be a bargain.

After signing Backstrom and Schultz, the question you have to ask yourself is are you comfortable with either John Carlson, Karl Alzner and John Erskine as the rest of your blue line corps next season. In other words a regular blue line consisting of: Green, Poti, Schultz, Alzner, Carlson, and Erskine. If you have concerns then you need to decide whether the right solution is to reach a deal with 26 year old Shoane Morrisonn or 32 year old Brian Pothier. Any deal with Morrisonn is probably a multi-year deal; Pothier may agree to a shorter deal and his numbers so far this season have been better. However, Morrisonn is a bigger, more physical presence in the line-up. In the end, which of these two you close the deal with becomes a function of which will take a salary of ~2M/year for the shortest term. However, if it's my call, as much as I really like and root for Brian Pothier, based on the numbers and his injuries these past two seasons, I try and resign Shoane Morrisonn for a $4M deal over the next two seasons, and I let Pothier go to the free agent pool and see what he can get. If I sign Sha-Mo and things work out with both Carlson and Alzner next season, I see what I can get for John Erskine on the trade market.

After I have my blue line settled I then go and see how I reach extension deals with RFAs Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleaischmann, and Boyd Gordon (in that order.) It's likely those three deals won't all get done before season's end nor would I look to rush them. I'd also wait and see how the rest of the season and the playoffs go beofre figuring out what I want to and can do about re-signing vetran center Brendan Morrisson. My goal between now and the end of the season is to ensure the team's core is settled as well as locked and loaded for the playoffs. All without rushing in where smart people tread caustously. That's why right now I just don't see any "rentals" that I think markedly improve the team in a way that doesn't involve paying more than it's worth, though if one did pop up I sure wouldn't refuse to talk about it and I don't think George McPhee will either.

How about the Olympic games today though? Russia vs. Czech Republic and USA vs. Canada. I'll watch the replays as we'll be at the Inn at Little Washington celebrating our 22nd Anniversary.

So, those are my musings, how about you? If you were GMGM what would you be looking to do...

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