2011 NHL Free-Agent Frenzy: Teams Frantic To Reach Cap Floor May Bid Up Salaries
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Each year, NHL free agency has a different feel to it. Last year, most of the bigger free agents settled with their home clubs. Most NHL teams seemed to have cap problems. The ones that managed to scrape a few dollars together re-signed their own players. Very few got into or could afford to get into bidding wars for even key acquisitions.
The Philadelphia Flyers couldn't sign a new, good, free-agent goalie last year. The lack of one hurt them in the playoffs.
The Calgary Flames spent another year without a first-line center for Jarome Iginla. The Leafs were in the same situation with Phil Kessel, the Blue Jackets with Rick Nash. It seemed like bidding for available free agents was in decline.
This year, the Flyers and the Blue Jackets have addressed their very expensive needs already. They may be ready to spend more.
This year, the cap floor is $48 million and as the free-agent season begins, there are only four NHL teams with less than $10 million in useable cap space available.
Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers just traded the Chicago Blackhawks for Brian Campbell and his contract of $7.143 million a year for five more years. Despite that, according to capgeek.com, they have 12 roster spots to fill and almost $42 million in cap space. To reach the cap floor, they need to spend another $27 million on players.
Teams with all this space and the need to reach a cap floor may be inclined to compete for top-drawer talent rather than overpay say the third or fourth-best available UFA center (Tim Connoly, Michal Handzus?)
Teams without an abundance of cap room might find it hard or even impossible to compete with these teams currently at the bottom of the league in salary spending.
This is a look at the teams that might take advantage of their room and will be expected to spend a lot on free agents this year. It is also a quick look at the teams that will have to spend more on players just to accommodate the rules of their hard-won hard cap.
Brain Campbell Back with Dale Tallon
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The Panthers are an example of a team with a desperate need to add salary that has gotten out of the gate early. Tallon dropped another problem first-round draft pick in Rostislav Olesz on Chicago and picked up power-play quarterback Brian Campbell and his $7.143 million cap hit for five more years.
The Panthers currently have six forwards, five defensemen and a goalie signed for $23 million. They need to spend at least $25 million on another 11 players to hit the cap floor. They have over $41 million in cap space to use.
They have restricted free-agents Nicklas Bergfors, Shawn Mathias and Mike Santorelli that they are likely to sign. Probably Tomas Kopecky, Marty Reasoner and Ryan Carter are UFAs that get another look. None of these players are likely to be prohibitively expensive.
Evan Olberg or Colby Robak and perhaps even goaltending prospect Jacob Markstrom might get a shot this year in Florida.
The Panthers will be capable of making UFA goalie Tomas Vokoun a huge offer if they want to try to keep him. They could give him 20 percent of the cap for two or three years and not blink. Very few other teams in the league have that flexibility.
That doesn't seem like the kind of move Tallon would make but he has the room to do it. Vokoun makes the Panthers a much better team all by himself. He would be a quality veteran goalie in place who could help prospect Markstrom make the transition to the NHL.
Aside from Vokoun, the Panthers will need to add some big salaries to reach the cap floor. They could bid for Brad Richards. There are plenty of quality players that a Florida team that needs to spend money could sign or at least bid up the price on.
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The Winnipeg Jets have returned to the NHL with an ownership group that includes David Thomson, a man whose family is estimated to be worth $23 billion. Money won't be an issue for the new club in Winnipeg when it comes to spending on free agents.
Smart owners let the hockey people in their organization make those decisions, however. The former Atlanta Thrashers shouldn't be expected to start spending like drunken sailors on leave. Still, this is a team with $35.9 million dedicated to 15 players for next year. They have to spend at least $12.1 million on the last eight players. If they find the right players, they can certainly afford to spend considerably more.
Their biggest priority internally is to re-sign restricted free-agents Andrew Ladd and Zach Bogosian. After that is done, the sky could be the limit when it comes to adding offensive talent or a veteran defensive defenseman.
New York Islanders
Dipietro will need a veteran back-up
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The Islanders have been an interesting blend of profligacy and penuriousness over the last decade. They like to spend up to the cap minimum and not a penny more. They also seem to love to give out crazy long-term contracts to unproven or undependable players. They are still taking a $2.2 million cap hit for the Alexei Yashin buyout. They will be doing that for another four years.
The Islanders have 17 players under contract for $36.7 million. Even if they run with the league minimum salary, they need to spend $11.3 million on another six players.
You have to believe they will spend some money on a free-agent goalie. The Islanders will need a goalie. They can't depend on Rick DiPietro and Al Montoya doing the job in nets.
If Nino Niederreiter and Calvin De Haan make the big squad, the Islanders could probably reach "their" cap limit without bidding on free agents. Spending a little above the minimum would let New York add some offensive and defensive skill that they sorely need.
Don't expect the Islanders, however, to spend any big percentage of the $27 million in cap room they have.
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The Buffalo Sabres are another organization with new ownership keen for a winner. The pickup of hard rock, shutdown defenseman Robyn Regehr for $4.02 million a year shows there is a willingness to spend in Buffalo.
The Sabres already have 15 players under contract for $51.8 million. They took on the $3 million Ales Kotalik contract in the Regehr deal but will likely bury him in the minors.
Buffalo has $12.5 million in cap space to spend on eight players or $15.5 million on nine if they get rid of Kotalik. They could still add a quality forward and perhaps one more defenseman to the team.
Tim Connolly is an unrestricted free agent. They may be ready to let someone else try to work with the skilled but often injured center.
The Sabres don't have the cap space of the other teams I've looked at here but they most certainly do have the will to spend money to improve the team.
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The Avalanche have 14 players on the big club for $29.5 million. They have nine players to sign and $18.5 million to sign with just to reach the cap floor. They have over $34 million in total cap space to work with.
This is a team that, despite picking up young star Erik Johnson, desperately needs help on defense. Since giving up on goalie Craig Anderson, they desperately need a goaltender. There has to be a better free-agent goalie available than Petr Budaj.
The Avalanche have a nice collection of young talent which may be able to play at the major league level this year. This leaves them more money to spend on veteran free agents to fill the gaps. This might be the moment for the team to spend a few extra dollars, make a strategic acquisition or two and try to take a step back towards the playoffs.
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The Carolina Hurricanes currently are spending approximately $31 million on 12 players. They need to buy another half a roster for $33-plus million. It's unlikely they will sign anyone else to as big a contract as center Eric Staal ($8.25 million) or goalie Cam Ward ($6.3 million) but they can afford to.
They are sure to sign Brandon Sutter. Zach Boychuk is likely to get a shot at the big leagues. Even after that, Carolina will likely have more than $30 million to sign nine players. Even if they only reach the cap floor, they'll have to spend $15 million more on salary.
That's not chump change. They will likely to try to sign some quality players, especially to improve the defense. You can't just stand still and make the playoffs out of the Southeast Division any more. Tampa Bay has moved past them already.
Toronto Maple Leafs
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The Toronto Maple Leafs have $18 million in cap space left with six players left to sign. This is an organization and a fanbase desperate for some instant success. It's surprising they weren't more involved in trying to trade for Jeff Carter or Mike Richards. You can be sure they will be trying to sign center Brad Richards so Phil Kessel will have a playmaking center to work with.
The Leafs are a team likely to spend closer to the cap attic than basement. It is probably too early for that kind of signing but they are going to try.
Right now, they have RFAs Luke Schenn, Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur to sign.
New York Rangers
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The New York Rangers are perennial over-spenders when the free agents go on the market. This year, they have a $42 million payroll dedicated to 14 players. It has been rumoured that captain Chris Drury will get bought out, leaving the Rangers with almost $27 million to spend on 10 players.
They still need to resign RFAs Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan. Newly acquired Tim Erixon may get a chance to play in New York. The Rangers have been reported as a possible destination for KHL winger Jaromir Jagr and coveted center Brad Richards. You have to believe Glen Sather will sign one overpriced free agent before the summer is done.
All That Extra Money
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According to capgeek.com, there are currently 15 teams who have spent less than the cap basement. Those teams will have to spend at least an additional $150.4 million on unsigned players. Phoenix, Carolina, Colorado and Florida will have to spend significant amounts of money just to reach the cap floor.
If each team in the NHL only spent $58 million, $6.4 million less than they are allowed to, that would amount to an additional $382.8 million spent on 203 players league-wide. That would be an average of $1.886 million per free agent for 203 free agents.
There are great piles of money that could be spent this year. Unfortunately for keeping salaries and team payrolls in check, there is a great amount of money teams have to spend on payroll in order to conform to the requirements of the collective bargaining agreement that the owners shut down the NHL for a year to get.