In the past week, the Caps have signed four free agents and acquired another roster player by trade. They're not over the salary cap yet, but they likely will be before too long. There is a 10% "cushion" that permits a team to go over the salary cap during the offseason, but once the season starts, the NHL won't let a team play any games if it's above the salary cap . So how can the Capitals get under the salary cap by opening night?
There have been a lot of Capgeek rosters flying the last couple of days, but I think this one is a good starting point. It includes only (a) the Young Guns plus Johansson, Alzner, Carlson, and Neuvirth, (b) players who have been acquired or have signed new contracts in the last 12 months, minus Tom Poti, and (c) John Erskine.
CAPGEEK.COM CAP CALCULATOR
Alexander Ovechkin ($9.538m) / Nicklas Backstrom ($6.700m) / Mike Knuble ($2.000m)
Troy Brouwer ($0.000m) / Marcus Johansson ($0.900m) / Alexander Semin ($6.700m)
Third Line W ($0.000m) / Brooks Laich ($4.500m) / Joel Ward ($3.000m)
Matt Hendricks ($0.825m) / Jeff Halpern ($0.825m) / Fourth Line W ($0.000m)
Depth Forward ($0.000m)
BUYOUTS: Tyler Sloan ($0.233m)
CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS (follow @capgeek on Twitter)
(these totals are compiled without the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $64,300,000; CAP PAYROLL: $55,655,128; BONUSES: $0
CAP SPACE (21-man roster): $8,644,872
Barring a big trade of one of the Young Guns, I think it is safe to say that the Caps will enter the season with these players on the roster. I left Poti out because I believe the Hamrlik signing is a clear indication that Poti is not in the plans for next year. As you can see, there are five roster positions with $0 associated with them right now: no contract information was entered for Alzner or Brouwer, and three forward positions are unfilled.
Alzner and Brouwer have to be the top priorities. I believe they can be signed for a combined total of more than $5 Million and less than $6 Million. Much will depend on what they actually sign for, but I believe they can be brought in under $5.5 Million. One way or another, the Caps will have somewhere between about $2.5 Million and $3.5 Million to spend on those three forward positions. The Caps don't have to carry a depth forward, but they probably have to leave enough open cap space to carry a depth forward at all times. If someone goes down with a short-term injury, there will be no LTIR space available to add another player. You need that roster flexibility to at least add a league-minimum player.
The Caps have the following forwards under contract who they can use to fill those three positions:
Eric Fehr, ($2.200m) (currently injured, though he may be ready for the start of the season
Jason Chimera ($1.875m)
Chris Bourque ($1.000m) (salary info per TSN free agent tracker. I haven't seen it confirmed)
Mattias Sjogren ($0.900m)
Matthieu Perreault (~$0.790m) (I'm guessing at his qualifying offer)
Cody Eakin ($0.637m)
DJ King ($0.637m)
Ryan Potulny ($0.525m)
Jay Beagle ($0.512m)
Keith Aucoin ($0.512m)
Kyle Greentree ($0.512m)
Fehr and Chimera are, of course, the best players on the list, and if money was no issue I'd expect them both to make the team. I think Jay Beagle has the inside track on a roster spot because he's at the minimum salary. I think Eakin's low salary makes him an attractive candidate for a roster spot if he can play well enough to earn it. And I threw in the three "AAAA players," Aucoin, Greentree, and Potulny, to show what else the Caps have available to them at or near the league minimum. Those three players represent 27 emergency man-games available to the Caps in a pinch before those players must pass through waivers. Boyd Kane is another Hershey forward who could fill in, though the Caps would have to sign him -- his contract is currently with Hershey. The Caps didn't need to play their AHL veteran forwards much last year (and of course Potulny wasn't with the organization), but think of them as the forward equivalents of Brian Fahey and Sean Collins. Meanwhile, the relatively high salaries of Bourque (if TSN is right), Perreault and Sjogren make it harder to fit those players under the cap.
If Alzner and Brouwer come in at around $5 Million, leaving about $3.5 Million in cap space, then you can carry one of the $2 Million men (Fehr or Chimera) along with a couple of low-salary guys. For example, Fehr, Eakin and Beagle cost a combined $3.349 Million. Fehr, Beagle and Sjogren are a combined $3.612, which might just barely squeak in under the line. But it's hard to see any way for the Caps to keep both Fehr and Chimera on the roster. Their salaries are a combined $4.075 Million, and I just don't see any way for the Caps to sign Alzner and Brouwer to small enough deals to make that possible. And even if they did, that would leave no financial flexibility at all to add a player when someone gets hurt.
If Alzner and Brouwer are any higher, then the difference between the forwards' salaries begins to make a big difference. Chimera is $325,000 cheaper than Fehr, which may help Chimera win the 3rd line spot instead of Fehr, even though I think Fehr is better. Eakin is $263,000 less than Sjogren, which may help him make the team even though Sjogren has professional experience.
And if Alzner and Brouwer are more like $6 Million, leaving about $2.5 Million in cap space, then Fehr and Chimera may both have to go. Sjogren, Eakin and Beagle make a combined $2.04 Million. Given the rest of the talent on the team, you can make a passable roster with those players (or Bourque, Aucoin, Greentree or Potulny) filling in.
No matter which players make the team, there should be no problem moving any healthy player who did not make the team. Poti, Chimera, and Fehr do not have no-trade or no-movement clauses. The team could trade any of them, if it could find a taker. The team can waive them and then move them to Hershey or another team as necessary. It's true that one of them might be picked up by another team on waivers (I expect Fehr would be), and it would be a shame to lose any of them for zero compensation, but the team is going to have to do whatever is necessary to get under the cap.
One additional consideration is that the team can "bank" any money it saves against the cap for use later in the season. That's not true if the team is above the cap due to a player being on LTIR, which is why I expect the team to try to move Poti as soon as possible once he is cleared to play, and the same thing goes for Fehr if he's not in the team's plans. You can't waive a player who is on IR, which is why the Caps will want a clean bill of health for those players as soon as medically appropriate. If the Caps can save some money on the cap, then they can afford a more expensive player later in the year. Or, if they carry just 12 forwards early in the year, they might clear enough cap space that it makes sense to carry a depth forward full time for the later portion of the year. This consideration benefits players like Eakin and Sjogren who are not waiver eligible and can therefore move between Hershey and Washington at will. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the Caps save cap space by running with 12 forwards early in the season except when they need someone, and using the space they save to bring up Sjogren or Eakin as the 13th forward later in the season and for the playoff run.
The bottom line is that it looks like Tom Poti will be gone, along with at least one of Eric Fehr or Jason Chimera. But once the Caps make those moves, they can get under the cap. It'll be tight all year, but there are some decent and cheap options in Hershey that make things easier. The Caps might still trade away a player with a big salary, but they don't need to do that for cap reasons. They can make it under the cap without losing anyone other than Poti, Fehr, and/or Chimera.