The New Jersey Devils played Monday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins with only 15 skaters as they lacked salary cap room to dress a full roster. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh won the game 3-1. The news today is that the NHLPA is investigating the issue. The cynical side of me thinks their investigation will be similar to OJ Simpson’s investigation to find “the real killer”. The NHLPA wants to be involved because players who are in the minors who would be called up to fill out the Devils roster would benefit from getting NHL playing time and salaries. The problem is that the NHLPA has been so marginalized by NHL ownership that it isn’t clear what they can do at this point. Probably that is what is being investigated. Does the NHLPA have enough power to do anything at all? It isn’t obvious that they do.
It’s very early in the NHL season. It is far too early to celebrate when your team is off to a fast start and it is far too early to panic when your team is off to a slow start. The team that has had the most remarkable start, either good or bad is probably the Anaheim Ducks. In three games played so far, Anaheim has three losses. They have only scored two goals so far this season, which gives them the worst goals scored per game in the league. They have allowed 13 goals, which is third worst in the league. That gives them the worst team +/- of -11 in the league. Anaheim’s best game to date was a 4-1 loss to Nashville, where they were outshot 49-37.
There are Anaheim fans panicking, but it’s far too early for this. Every team has a few weak games over the course of a season. It looks more important than it is when there are no strong games played as well, since it is the beginning of the season.
When the New Jersey Devils play against Pittsburgh on Monday, they are likely to not have a full roster. The Devils have been pushing up against salary cap limits since they signed Ilya Kovalchuk. There had been rumors that they were going to make a trade or be forced to send some NHL regulars to the minors in order to stay below the salary cap. Thus far it has been unnecessary because Bryce Salvador and Anssi Salmela are on the long term injured reserve. This gives the Devils a $3.5 million cushion above the $59.4 NHL salary cap, in which they are using all but about $80,000. Hence they do not have any room to add anyone to their roster above and beyond the 12 forward, seven defencemen and two goalies who are on their current roster and not on LTIR.
The biggest hockey related story in the summer was probably Ilya Kovalchuk’s signing with the New Jersey Devils, contract rejection and re-signing which was grudgingly accepted after some CBA amendments. The moral of that story is that front-loaded contracts have to be less obviously set up to circumvent the salary cap. New Jersey wound up with fines and a loss of draft picks for their front-loaded Kovalchuk contract.
Other teams want to avoid this and we see that the Boston bruins treaded very gently in this direction in their seven year contract extension that Zdeno Chara just signed.
We are a couple days into the new NHL season and there are already five teams that are on pace to exceed the salary cap this season. They are the Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks. All of them knew that they would have salary cap issues after their rosters took form this summer and planned to use injuries to solve them instead of having to make player moves that are hard to reverse (either trades which are irreversible or sending players to the minors who will require waivers and re-entry waivers to get back into NHL spots).
Each of these teams made an effort to get as close to the salary cap as possible when neglecting their injured players because as soon as a player is placed on long term injured reserve, they are able to exceed the salary cap by up to the salary cap hit of the injured player if his replacement places them over the salary cap. Thus if there is an injured player with a $3 million salary cap hit, the goal is to make your team salary cap (excluding that player) as close to the $59.4 million cap. Then you can exceed the cap by as much of the injured player’s $3 million salary as possible for as long as he stays hurt.
The number of talented NHL players who are not on NHL rosters at opening day is rising. This is partly because of the KHL and partly because of the salary cap. The KHL gives players with NHL talent a place to play outside of the NHL where they will still make significant salaries. The salary cap has left players with NHL talent unsigned - in some cases they had failed trials with NHL teams in training camps and in other cases the player is left without a place to play. It also has some players with clear NHL talent buried in the minors for various salary cap reasons. I think it is informative to look at the best talent available outside the NHL and compare an all star team of that to some of the NHL teams to see if it could compete in the NHL. It is important to note that a few years ago (before the 2004/05 lockout), there was essentially no NHL calibre talent stuck outside the NHL. This is a new trend and not one that is good for the hockey fan. It pulls some portion of top hockey talent outside of the league where they cannot see it and it gets replaced by weaker players.
Here is the current out of the NHL all star team (a strong preference has been taken for players who are proven NHL talent instead of unknowns who have spent their whole careers in Europe - since it is clearer that the former NHL talent can succeed in the NHL):
Marc-Andre Fleury won the Stanley Cup as the Pittsburgh Penguins starting goalie in 2009. He was named to the 2010 Canadian Olympic Team (though he did not get any playing time). Fleury was the first pick overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. The upcoming season will be his seventh in the NHL. In light of the Stanley Cup and Olympic credentials, many people assume that Fleury has lived up to his expectations that existed when he first hit the NHL. I disagree with this point.
In my Atlantic Division preview, I said In goal, the Penguins will play Marc-Andre Fleury most nights. This former first overall draft pick has been unable to live up to his potential. He turns 26 this year and is running out of chances, but a big year is still not entirely impossible.
I will be appearing on “The War Room” on NHL on XM radio’s NHL Home Ice channel, which you can listen to on, XM 204, Sirius 208, or online, at or about 11:30 AM Eastern Time tomorrow (Tuesday) morning to discuss the upcoming season.
Please tune in (to see how many times I can say Corsi in a minute).
Updated with MP3’s of the radio appearance:
In 2007, I thought the NHL got their pre-season suspension policy right. Steve Downie was given a 20 game suspension for a dirty hit on Den McAmmond that occurred in pre-season. Downie was a prospect at this time who was trying to make a name for himself by his reckless play. Downie charged about 40 feet and left his feet to make a hit on McAmmond’s head that injured McAmmond. The NHL threw the book at him because he was a player who was not expected to crack an NHL roster. It turns out that he would have had a much shorter suspension if he was an established NHL player. We have clearly seen that this year based on several suspendable events that all involved NHL regulars.
Most recently, Mike Cammalleri of the Montreal Canadiens received a one game suspension for a slash on Nino Niederreiter of the New York Islanders. Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers was not suspended at all for his spear on Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators.
One of the more interesting teams this season will be the Chicago Blackhawks. After winning the Stanley Cup, they were forced to offload a good portion of their depth to stay under the salary cap. Gone from last year’s team are Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Brent Sopel, Dustin Byfuglien, Antti Niemi, Cristobal Huet, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager and Andrew Ladd. That is a lot of depth. Nevertheless, Chicago has kept together a very talented young core including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Troy Brouwer at forward. Each of those five scored twenty or more goals last season. The only West Conference team with more returning 20 goal scorers is the Vancouver Canucks (San Jose also has five twenty goal men).
On defence, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson are arguably the best top four that any NHL team can offer. In goal, Marty Turco is probably no worse than Antti Niemi. He wasn’t any worse in the regular season last year.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
Why are you reading it? ???