NHL officials love to say that the league has a lot of parity in it but that's not necessarily true.
There's a lot of forced parity, of course, because three-point games necessarily inflate teams' totals at the end of the season, and sometimes even help bad teams make the playoffs when they absolutely should not do so in a just universe. But real parity? Look at the last several Cup winners and try to tell anyone with a straight face that this is a league where anyone can win.
There also probably isn't a whole lot the league itself can do to engender any kind of actual parity that ensures the Haves of the past few years can, in some way, be caught up by the Have Nots. Fortunately, though, the global economy might unwittingly intervene on behalf of everyone who isn't Chicago and Los Angeles.
Gary Bettman this week told the Board of Governors that he expects the salary cap for next season to come in at around $73 million. That's up $4 million from the current $69 million, and should give a lot of teams more added flexibility than they current have right now. And a lot of teams need it.
Currently, CapGeek has six teams (Colorado, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington) carrying literally no cap space whatsoever right now, when things like bonuses and so on are factored in at the end of the season. Some might even go over that number and face a penalty like the Bruins are doing this year. Two more teams (Los Angeles and Toronto) are within about $12,000 of that same level, and three more still (St. Louis, the Rangers, and Tampa) are less than a million short of that number.
No one has more than Philly's roughly $67.2 million committed for next year, but all these teams have guys to re-sign and changes to make. Thus, the likelihood that a number of teams are going to need every inch of that extra wiggle room against the cap is likely to be quite high.
But here's the problem with Bettman's projection as it stands right now: It's based on two things over which the NHL has no control whatsoever.
The first he admits straight out, “Our best guess, and it's got some variation in it, that if the Canadian dollar stays where it is now for the rest of the season, which is about 88 [US] cents, the cap for next season would be approximately $73 million.”
Holding at 88 cents on the U.S. dollar wouldn't be terrible (it would still be a huge downgrade from a few years ago when the value was close to even), but even the CIBC — a major bank in Canada that keeps close tabs on this stuff — doesn't seem to think that's going to happen. It could be lower than 85 cents by the middle of next year (i.e. the end of the playoffs). That may not sound like a huge decline from current levels, but it's going to be the lowest seen since the depths of the recent recession.
That, in turn, could bring the cap down to a lower level than Bettman is anticipating all by itself, which would spell trouble for the teams in the upper echelon of spending.
Moreover, though, it seems Bettman's estimate takes into account the fact that he's anticipating the NHLPA will use its cap inflator option to squeeze more money out of the league. And according to James Mirtle, that's no sure bet because that, in turn, would increase the amount of money players have to put into escrow. Says Mirtle:
Have heard from several NHL players very unhappy with escrow levels (16%). A vote on the salary cap inflator may not be a guaranteed yes.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) December 10, 2014
I imagine the PA will push for it, but if there's no inflator, the cap isn't rising to $73-million. It'll be stalled closer to $70-million.
— James Mirtle (@mirtle) December 10, 2014
That's right, we're looking at the very real possibility of the cap only going up $1 million next season, an increase of just 1.45 percent. If that happens — and again, it really might — things could get awful uncomfortable awful fast for the teams that are already cruising within a few million dollars of $70 million without having made a single transaction.
The team that comes to mind first and foremost here is the Chicago Blackhawks, who were already going to be facing some tough decisions.
Thanks to those pricy “The Cap Is Going Up!” extensions for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, they have $65 million committed to just 15 players next season. They're also going to have to replace or re-sign UFAs in Brad Richards, Johnny Oduya, and Michal Rozsival. The Oduya extension is the tricky one there, because they basically have to lock him down but are going to have to spend a lot of money to do it. At what point does his contract alone price the team into serious cap trouble?
Then there are the RFA contracts to Marcus Kruger and Brandon Saad that need to be signed as well. Saad's isn't going to come cheap either.
Or what about Boston? With nearly $56.5 committed to just 14 players for next year, they need to re-sign the following RFAs: Reilly Smith, Torey Krug, and Dougie Hamilton. They also need to re-up UFA Carl Soderberg, then find an entire fourth line and third pairing, plus a backup goalie. Tough to make that work for just $13.5 million.
You can go on like this for a while. The Kings need to extend or replace Justin Williams, and sign Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, among others, to new RFA deals. Pittsburgh has nearly $54.4 million committed to just 13 players, only four of which are defensemen. Toronto has about $16.5 million to extend Jonathan Bernier, Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, and most of their impressive bottom-six.
The price of having good or even great rosters is high, and most teams operate under the impression that the cap is going to go up more or less consistently from one year to the next. When it doesn't, or when they run themselves into trouble navigating the not-that-complicated-but-here-we-are-anyway world of bonuses and so on, bad things happen to them.
For instance, Boston and Chicago both traded good defensemen to the Islanders this fall because they just couldn't make all the numbers line up right in their ledgers. New York needed blue line help and waited in the weeds until they could plunder it at pennies on the dollar from teams desperate to make something happen so they could limbo under the cap's upper limit.
And if it so happens that the cap doesn't go up as much as projected — because the Canadian Dollar faded more than anticipated or the PA didn't elect to use the cap inflator, or hell, both — then it seems as though there could be a feeding frenzy of teams with cap room and serious roster concerns trying to rip what they need from well-off, overstuffed contenders. And probably succeeding.
This is going to be something that has to be monitored pretty closely going forward, at least by fans of teams that are likely to be affected by it. Might be wise to hold off on ordering any customized jerseys for a while, at any rate.
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