Friday, June 29, 2007

Making the Most of NHL Salary Cap Space

Less than two days remain until free agency begins, and the bidding wars and head-to-head games of salary cap chicken look to feature prominently this year. As teams slowly adjust to the salary-cap structure, watch out for those suspicious deals. While some may be the perfect set-up, others could spell trouble for the entire league.

Rick DiPietro began this past season by signing only the second longest NHL contract in history, a blockbuster 15-year, 67.5 million dollar deal that will see him raking in 4.5 million annually. Some may balk at the huge investment, but when a team sees true value, long contracts are not as harsh as they may seem. Nobody would laugh at the 21-year deal Gretzky signed with the Oilers, but nobody would try to compare the two either.

The fact remains that DiPietro is a solid investment in the crease, one likely only to get better with time. While nobody would want to pay 4.5 million for a 40-year old goaltender well past his prime, DiPietro won't be that man, and won't disappoint the Islanders.

Look at the flip side now. After the first couple cap years, DiPietro's contract clocked in at just over 10% of the Islanders cap. This year the cap is expected to rise to at least 48 million, with some wild estimates predicting up to 52 million could be possible. This would lower his chunk to just over or under 9%. With Gary Bettman intent on increasing the appeal of the NHL and always mindful of the possibility of expansion - possibly even into areas hungry to accept a team such as Winnipeg and Hamilton - the cap could rise higher and higher in years to come.

Do the math. If the cap reached even 60 million, which is quite possible, the Islanders could have sunk their netminding share of their cap to only 7.5%. In this season's terms, that would account for only 3.3 million, and by the time the cap reaches 60 million, 3.3 million likely won't buy you the Backstroms, Vokouns, Millers, and Lundqvists of the league anymore, since each new contract signed sets a new benchmark for the rest. By then, the 7.5 million Roberto Luongo will receive at the end of his contract won't seem like much, just as the 5.2 million New Jersey hopes to be handing out to Martin Brodeur in 11/12 will seem rather paltry by then.

Look closely, and while the 87.5 million over 10-years for Yashin bares a harsh rash on the mind, you will find many other long-term investments with big potential to keep star players locked up for an ever-shrinking piece of the salary cap pie. Pavel Datsyuk, Daniel Alfredsson, Martin St. Louis: they could all still be putting up great numbers and pushing their teams to great heights through the ends of their contracts, and by then become great bargain deals that leave room for the free agent signings and trade deadline deals that can make a Stanley Cup Champion.

Good things come to those who wait. We shall wait and see.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dull Draft Paves Way for Exciting Free Agency

Despite all the teams with reams of first round picks (Edmonton, St Louis), it was a pretty dull draft weekend this year for fans hoping for the excitement felt at the big impact trade deadline this year. Only modest pick packages exchanged hands to bring steady goaltending to Florida from Nashville in the form of Tomas Vokoun, and creating a one-two starter battle in Toronto as Vesa Toskala joins hockey's most venerable franchise, along with forward Mark Bell, from San Jose. The only other trades involved teams looking to move up in the draft, or to gain a better foothold in the 2008 draft, which looks to be more heavily loaded than this venture.

All of this leads us into an exciting free agency. While I will continue to watch for deal-making prior to the July 1st deadline, and hope to see many big plays immediately prior to or following Hockey Country's birthday, it is not what I expect to see. There are many teams with plenty of cap space to land big-impact forwards, solid defensemen, or a top-notch netminder, look for a slower pace in July. Teams will be patient, weighing the best options for their team. Some will look to set a new salary bar in signing a marquee free agent. Some teams will play it more sneakily, attempting to outbid other teams for their RFAs, a very tempting move to juice up a roster with players from a cap-tight team. Other teams will keep trying to craft the perfect trades that didn't happen over the draft weekend, with many teams looking to offload players to free up cap space.

Regardless if your team comes out a winner or a gutted wreck heading into the new season, the shocks and tumbles of this year's free agency will provide the perfect punctuation to the off-season.