Paying the Price

Recent acquisitions and departures mean Bryan Murray has to do some figuring to know how to get under the salary cap for next year, writes Allen Panzeri.

Allen Panzeri wrote this article on a napkin while taking Garrioch out to dinner. Great prelude to the piece though, it’s far better than my take that as is, this team is going to be awful next season writes Graeme Nichols.

By Allen Panzeri, The Ottawa Citizen March 8, 2009.

By Graeme Nichols, over a morning coffee.

Now that the trade deadline is past and Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray has his goaltender of the future in Pascal Leclaire, where does he go from here?

Murray has articulated his needs more than once: another top-six forward (such as a Mike Comrie) and a No. 1 defenceman with the offensive skills of a young Wade Redden.

Ok. Let’s be honest here Allen. Bryan never said that they needed a defenceman with Wade’s skill set. And if he did, I think some crazy fan would have gone all Lee Harvey Oswald on him by now. How quickly we pine the loss of our puck-moving defencemen in this City. Are our memories that short that we neglect to remember that even with Corvo, Meszhitos and Redden, the Senators were absolutely terrible last year?
Say, Jay Bouwmeester of the Florida Panthers. He’d be ideal.

No, Bouwmeester wouldn’t be ideal. He’s more of a realistic addition without stretching the boundaries of this ain’t going to fucking happen. Niklas Lidstrom, now he’d be ideal and he’s just slightly less likely to come here than Bouwmeester. (Keep reading, I’ll let you know why.)

There is, however, one significant obstacle standing between Murray and these players: money.

I smell bullshit. Actually Allen, even when the Senators had money to burn, landing or retaining free agents hasn’t been a forte for the organization. In case you hadn’t noticed, Ottawa’s cold; the team’s been the shits for over a year now; the fan base is fickle; the media’s filled with bitter writers who lost their love of the game years ago; and there’s more pressure on this club than on Garrioch’s asshole when he has to let one loose.

Seriously Allen, think about it: Vancouver apparently busted a nut trying to land Bouwmeester at the deadline. He’s a western Canadian boy and Vancouver is going to have money to throw around after losing Ohlund, Sundin, and the Sedins to UFA. The quicker we move on from this thought that Bouwmeester is going to miraculously fall into our laps, the better.

Whatever he decides to do this spring and summer, he’s going to have to be a careful financial manager. While the salary cap, which was $56.7 million this year, is not expected to be reduced, at least a lot, until the 2010-11 season, since the full effect of the recession on revenues won’t be evident until next season, teams are already setting their own internal salary caps to cope with the recession.

If Gary Bettman was smart, he would mandate to have the Cap Level reduced in preparation for the lost revenues of next season. At least then, players’ salaries would be rolled back and more teams could afford to compete without having to impose their own cap ceilings that will be significantly lower than of teams like Toronto that can afford to spend to the cap ceiling.

Unfortunately, the words Gary Bettman and pre-emptive measures have never meshed. Bettman’s 2010 reaction will be like the equivalent of inserting a diaphragm post-sex with Roberto Alomar.

Canadian teams have taken an especially hard hit with the drop in the Canadian dollar. All of a sudden their payrolls and travel costs have increased by 20 per cent (since salaries are paid in U.S. dollars).

Compounding the problem is that fewer fans are attending games, as people start to be careful about their discretionary spending, and major advertisers are cutting back or not spending at all.

Now if only Tim Horton’s would cut their spending on mundane Sidney Crosby commercials. Maybe this lack of spending is the reason Brian Burke wanted the Canadian WBC team to pay over $10K for a luxury suite?

The Senators, who get close to a full house most nights, are fortunate in that they have large and loyal fan support, but many teams in the U.S. do not enjoy that.

Ok. So if the Canadian teams are struggling because of a depreciated Canadian dollar and most American clubs are struggling because of some non-loyal fan bases, by your estimations, 90% of the NHL must be struggling here.

Hence, as was evident in many of the moves made at the trade deadline, few teams are willing to take on salary without handing salary off in return.

Wait, didn’t the Flames, Senators and Leafs all take on salary at the deadline? Aren’t these all Canadian teams? The same Canadian teams that are having a hard time right now with the value of the Canadian dollar? Contradictory much?

General managers are bracing for a drop in the cap that could be as much as 20 per cent for the 2010-11 season. The last thing they want to do is start throwing bodies overboard in the summer of 2010.

Actually, a lowered salary cap ceiling shouldn’t be regarded as a death knell for the League. With any cap reduction comes an offsetting rollback of player salaries. The only real affect that the cap will have is on UFA who might have a more difficult time getting more jack on the open market than they had originally anticipated.

Murray will not have a difficult negotiating summer.

He has only two unrestricted free agents — Comrie and Chris Neil — and only four restricted free agents, the most significant being goalie Brian Elliott.

I thought the premise of this article was that money is an issue for the Senators if they want to afford Jay Bouwmeester? Wouldn’t that include signing Comrie, a guy who once held out on his home-town team, to a ridiculously reduced contract be difficult? Getting lost in the Comrie talk is the fact that if Murray can’t ink the Brick heir to a favorable deal and Mike walks, that trade could wind up looking bad. Really, really, really bad.

Plus, he has a solid core of 11 minor-league players or prospects already signed, five of whom have a chance to make the NHL team next season: Cody Bass, Ilya Zubov, Peter Regin, Zack Smith and Brian Lee.

Does anyone honestly expect any of these players up in Ottawa next season? This isn’t a rebuilding franchise, they’re re-tooling. Get it straight. Call me cynical but is there any reason why we shouldn’t expect these guys to be boxed in by veterans?

Being the oracle of bullshit that I am. I fully expect that Zubov won’t make the club and he will balk and go back to Russia or demand a trade. Also, Brian Lee will be dealt because of his slow development as a John Muckler draft pick.

The one player Murray would like to sign is Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson. However, fans should not fool themselves into thinking he’ll be the answer to the team’s defensive woes. Murray certainly isn’t.

You mean Erik Karlsson’s presence isn’t to turn around the defensive woes? Weird. I thought it was to improve the transition game from the backend.

Maybe in a few years Karlsson (and Denver University defenceman Patrick Wiercioch) will be the answer, but at 5-11 and 165, he’s still too small for the NHL. No one believes he’s going to grow into the Incredible Hulk over the summer. So while it’s comforting to think there might be a homegrown answer, it’s far smarter to be realistic.

Hence, it’s clear that if Murray is going to add someone like Comrie as his additional top-six forward and an offensive defenceman, he’s going to have to do some subtracting to afford it all.

Are you saying that people who thought unrealistically thought that Jesse Winchester would fit in on the top 2 lines at the beginning of the season are stupid? But what’s the problem with bringing Karlsson in? Murray’s already said that if Karlsson came over, the organization would overlook his defensive inefficiencies to add his savvy offensive prowess to the lineup. Isn’t this indicative enough to assume that Murray doesn’t have the money to afford a credible puck-mover?

Who goes?

– Does time finally run out on Christoph Schubert, who doesn’t quite fit as either a defenceman or a forward?

Fitting in the pressbox doesn’t count? Has there ever been a player here who’s received this much of a raw deal? If the Sens aren’t going to play him and no team is willing to give up assets for him, why hasn’t he been put on waivers yet? It’s not like he has any value as a healthy scratch. I really feel for Schubert, the last two years have really fucked with his development as an NHL regular. The Senators have absolutely failed this guy as an organization. The fact that he publicly hasn’t sought a trade is amazing. Frankly, I don’t blame the guy for putting guys through windows. Look at what he’s gone through.

– Does Alex Auld and his $1-million salary as a backup become expendable, since that’s a role Elliott could fill behind Pascal Leclaire next year?

Does it matter if Auld’s salary is pared? Elliott’s rookie deal almost pays him $1M anyways. Besides, Elliott’s a RFA and if he makes the roster, I’m assuming he’ll receive pay that’s on scale with what he’s making now. At most, the Senators would save $100K.

– Does Murray ante up $2 million or more for Neil or does he pass and hope that someone else, maybe Bass, can do the same job?

Fuck no and who needs hope? The only thing that Bass can’t replicate is Neil’s face. Who cares if he might not be Neil’s superior in the fighting department? Without an instigator rule, tough guys can’t go after guys taking liberties. Instead, they’re relegated to the circle-jerk of fighting another team’s tough guy. It’s a fight for the sake of a fight where wins and losses don’t even come into the equation.

– Does Murray even sign Comrie or hope that one of his young players, maybe Zubov or Regin, can be a top-six forward? Will Comrie, who’s making $4 million this year, even take the big shave the Senators are expecting he’ll take?

For Bryan Murray’s sake, Comrie better take a big shave to remain in town. Also, expecting a prospect to play top 6 minutes is a stretch. I mean, Zubov’s been called up and has never shown he can produce while playing on a line with McAmmond and Donovan. How can we expect him to be an offensive dynamo when he can’t produce with those two?

At the moment, the Senators are committed to 18 NHL salaries for a total of $55.38 million (that is, 18 players who, under normal circumstances, you’d expect to be on a NHL roster).

That is not the number these salaries will represent as a salary-cap hit. That’s probably in the mid-$40 million range (as one example: Daniel Alfredsson will make $9.1 million next year, but his salary-cap hit for the next four years is $5.2 million annually).

Great, so why even mention actual salaries in the first place? It’s a moot point. I’m guessing it’s not so you can tell your friends that Dany Heatley’s taking a paycut from this year’s $10M salary. I’ll just assume it’s filler to get you closer to your desired word count.

However, juggling everything to fit comfortably under the salary cap is becoming increasingly difficult.

For an example of how careful a general manager has to be, take a look at Murray’s trade-deadline deals. It’s not exactly a wash, because he did add some salary, but he was hardly a spendthrift.

Leclaire, who is making $3 million this year, was still carrying a cap-hit of about $800,000 for the rest of the year. But almost $600,000 went to the Columbus Blue Jackets with Antoine Vermette, who is scheduled to make $3 million next season.

As well, when the Toronto Maple Leafs claimed Martin Gerber off waivers, they took on half of his remaining salary for this year, around $800,000.

Comrie brought a cap hit of $1.18 million and Chris Campoli brought a cap hit of $177,000 from the Islanders.

But a cap hit of $245,000 for Dean McAmmond went the other way.

Campoli will earn only $675,000 next season, a modest amount in this world.

Next season, though, Leclaire’s cap hit will rise, since his salary for the next two years will be $3.6 million and $4.8 million.

Hold on a second, I’m going to pull out my copy of the NHL’s CBA. (Flipping through the pages.) Ah yes, here’s what I was looking for:

Article 50.5(d)(ii)(A): “Averaged Amount.” For any multi-year SPC, for the purposes of calculating the Club’s Averaged Club Salary in any League Year, the Averaged Amount of such SPC shall be used. That is, the Player Salary and Bonuses for all League Years shall be “averaged” ovre the length of the entire term of the SPC, using the stated amount, by dividing the aggregate stated amount of all Player Salary and Bonuses to be paid during the term of the SPC by the number of League Years in the SPC.

For a man who earlier figured out that Alfie’s cap hit wasn’t $9.1M, I’m astounded that you couldn’t figure out that Pascal Leclaire’s cap hit can’t go up based on the parameters of the CBA.

Also, Filip Kuba’s new three-year, $11.1-million contract will add $700,000 annually to the team’s cap, but it doesn’t kick in until next year.

That’s the price of doing business.

Very enlightening for those in Ottawa who are unsure of what Bryan Murray actually does on deadline day. He moves contracts on and off the books. And all this time, I thought it was a holiday used to parlay Muckler’s acquisitions into other assets.

When all the salary-cap math is done for next year, Murray will probably have about $10 million or so of wiggle room to sign a forward, a defenceman, his restricted free agents, his unrestricted free agents (if he hasn’t already signed Comrie), and Karlsson.

Good luck — and that’s assuming owner Eugene Melnyk allows Murray to spend to the cap limit.

Funny, I was always under the impression that Melnyk said that his GM(s) would always be able to spend to the cap ceiling? Why would I think that? Because that’s what he vowed to do!

All of this underlines the importance of having capable role players to fill out the roster, the third- and fourth-line players who earn from $500,000 to $1 million.

Whether you like them or not, Murray is fond of saying, you have to have them on your team or you’ll never fit under the salary cap.

So much so that Murray went out and spent $1.3M for Jarkko Ruutu.

To manage a NHL today, a GM needs to study a three-dimensional model of his roster.

What the roster looks like next year is not the only factor. It’s the way it’s going to look over the next several years.

Thanks for neglecting to mention what the third dimension is. You’ve left us all hanging and wondering what it is that you’re talking about.

How effectively Murray and his staff handle their chores will determine if the Senators return to the playoffs next year.

So, if the Senators organization wants to return to the playoffs, it’s completely dependant upon what Bryan Murray does? That’s epic, mind blowing shit and I feel better for reading it.