There will deservedly be a lot of coverage over the course of the next six weeks involving all sorts of trade rumors and possibilities as general managers work the phones in an effort to either position their team for a playoff run or plan for the future. All of that coverage is obviously merited, but there is a story getting a bit less air time that will play a major role in deciding who goes where in February and July: the salary cap.
The salary cap for the 2016-17 season has yet to be set, and the Canadian dollar’s dropping value has many around the league concerned; the Loonie is currently below 70 cents on the dollar for the first time in over ten years. This is bad news for a league with seven Canadian franchises that account for roughly 30 to 35 percent of hockey related revenue, according to The Globe and Mail. According to Steven Burtch of SportsNet, if the Canadian dollar remained at around 69 cents the salary cap would drop around $3.9 million next year, and that includes the escalator.
Dropping the salary cap by nearly $4 million would obviously not affect dealings when it comes to players who are pending UFA’s, but it would seriously complicate trading away or acquiring anyone with term remaining on their contract. According to General Fanager only 14 of 30 teams would remain cap complaint if $3.9 million was pared from the salary cap. In a league where every dollar is crunched not only for this season but also with an eye three or four years down the road this shows there could be more than a few general managers with some tough choices to make in the coming months.
I don’t think the cap will drop that much, but I do think it’s likely to drop by a few million. Despite that grim forecast the Sabres would be in better shape than most. While some teams are beginning to plan for the future without huge contributors (St. Louis, Tampa Bay, New York Rangers) due to cap constraints, Tim Murray currently has about $8.7 million of cap space to maneuver with, and has roughly $10.3 million coming off the books. There are some RFA’s that will get paid, most notably Rasmus Ristolainen, but other RFA’s such as Zemgus Girgensons, Jake McCabe, Johan Larsson, and Marcus Foligno are in line for modest raises and bridge contracts. If the cap were to remain the same that would still be a solid chunk of change available for Tim Murray to use at his discretion; if the cap dips a bit and squeezes those teams at or near the ceiling Murray could really go to work.
The Sabres’ second year GM has certainly proven that he is willing to pull the trigger when it comes to making deals, and despite moving several young players and picks in the deals with Winnipeg and Colorado, the cupboard is not bare. There are several young players under team control for the next several years; some of those same players that are restricted free agents could easily be used as a piece to acquire a difference maker up front or on the blueline.
There are also the obvious candidates that could be moved either as a piece of a hockey trade or for draft picks, When it comes to trading away players with term left one such player that would be tougher to move would be the Sabres’ Tyler Ennis, who the Sabres are apparently willing to listen to offers on. Ennis’ current deal is front loaded and was long thought to have a pretty cap friendly hit of $4.6 million, especially when the actual money owed dips to $3.65 million after this season. That feeling is eliminated with the tighter cap constraints.
Murray could also use his cap room to his advantage this July. The league has been trending toward younger players for a few years now, with proven veterans such as Brad Boyes and Lee Stempniak forced to head to training camps on PTO’s and earn themselves a contract. Murray waited out the market last summer to nab Cody Franson for a team friendly two year deal, and this summer should provide plenty of opportunities to get bargains. As Burtch also asserts, the potential drop in salary cap will not impact the star players. That was evident when Anze Kopitar finally locked up his big money deal, and it won’t affect the boatload of money Steven Stamkos is about to get. The players most affected would be the midlevel veterans.
A player like Jamie McGinn might find himself in an interesting situation due to this. McGinn currently makes just under $3 million, and his play this year likely merits a three year, $10.5 million type deal, but could he take a one year deal worth around $2.5 million due to the cap difficulties many teams would be in and hope on a bigger payday come the summer of 2017? This is where Murray may be able to capitalize. He has cap space to use, and offering that extra bit of cash or another year of term is something not many other teams will be able to do.
This season has shown marked improvement from the Sabres on the ice and provided glimpses into what is a very promising future; it has also shown that there is still work that needs to be done in order to turn the team into a true contender. While other teams are forced to make tough decisions over the next five months due to the cap, Murray could be able to exploit that and speed up the Sabres’ rebuild a bit more.