Sunday, July 8, 2007

Sather's Game: Musical Chairs or the Old Rabbit Out of the Hat Trick?

As this is my first post, I will start with a brief introduction. I’ve been a “die hard” Ranger fan long before Bruce Willis borrowed the term for his movie titles. I’m old enough to have seen Rod Gilbert on TV playing in a Rangers’ uniform, but too young to remember any of the details. The pinnacle, of course, was in 1994, but unfortunately that great triumph is fading more and more into history, so let’s move on the present.

Although today has been a slow one around the NHL and for the Rangers, the month of July so far has been a roller coaster ride for the Rangers with no end in sight. Obviously, the most exciting part of the ride has been the free-agent acquisitions of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. Despite the hefty price tags, partially due to the precedent set earlier in the day by Philadelphia with the Briere signing, these were great acquisitions by the Rangers. They added speed, offense and defensive skills, good face-off men, leadership, character, Stanley Cup championship experience, and much more. It was tough to see Michael Nylander leave, but Scott Gomez is a great playmaker himself and a better two-way player - not to mention being seven years younger.

These two great acquisitions, however, did not come without an enormous cost, which in a sense, the Rangers will be paying off all year long. I'm talking, of course, about the deadly tight-rope walk that Glen Sather will be doing all season with the salary cap.

Before getting into the details of whom the Rangers still need to sign and for how much, it is important to take a quick look at a salary cap itself. Having looked at the salary cap rules from every angle, the simplest way to summarize it is that it is very complicated. For openers, there are different rules for the off-season than for the regular season. In the off-season, right up until opening night, a team can exceed the upper cap limit by 10%. However, many signed players, whose contracts you might never expect to count against the cap, actually do – either partially or completely. Once the season starts, teams must be below the upper cap limit, which is recalculated on a daily basis. If a team stays below the upper cap limit during the season, they can actually accrue additional cap space that can be used later in the season.

One of the more common misconceptions is that the cap value for a year is equal to the salary paid for that year. This is incorrect - the cap value for each year in a contract is the total value of the contract divided by the number of years of the contract. Therefore, neither front loading nor back loading a contract does anything to affect the cap value for each year. Another common misconception is that the bonus part of a bonus-laden contract given to a player over 35 years old does not have any cap implications. This also is not true - any bonus money that is earned by the player in the current year counts against the team's upper cap limit for the current year, but allows the team to exceed the cap by up to 7.5% for the year. However, the amount that the upper cap limit is exceeded in the current year due to this bonus, will be subtracted from team's upper cap limit for the following year - regardless of whether the player has retired. This just scratches the surface of the cap rules. For more detailed information go to: http://www.nhlscap.com/ .

Now back to the Rangers’ situation. If you ask 10 different experts on exactly where the Rangers currently stand in terms of their cap space, you will get 10 different answers. So we might as well go with Larry Brooks’ number from today, which is that the Rangers have $9 million left to sign Henrik Lundquist, Sean Avery, Marcel Hossa, and Brendan Shanahan. It’s not clear whether this number accounts for the extra two or three players needed to round out a 23 man roster, or even the $1 million or so “wiggle room” needed during the season to deal with unforeseen events. Regardless, it is clear that Rangers have left themselves with little to no chance of keeping all their players by opening night. Unless Sather can “pull a rabbit out of his hat”, at least one player (in addition to Kasparaitis), whose cap value this year is over $2 million, will have to go via trade or demotion to Hartford - or in the case of Brendan Shanahan may not be signed at all.

In order to get resolution and/or regroup for further negotiations, Avery’s, Hossa’s and Lundquist’s cases have been filed for arbitration. In Lundquist’s case it was the team that filed, partially in order to ward off any potential RFA poachers. Lundquist’s salary for this year would seem to hold the key. If he makes the $5 million or so that he is requesting, and probably deserves, it will be impossible to keep everyone. If, as Larry Brooks suggests, the Rangers actually do take Lundquist to arbitration, they will be looking for a salary in line with Cam Ward’s and Ryan Miller’s $2 million to $2.5 million. Should this happen, they might just squeeze under the cap with Avery getting about $2 million, Hossa getting about $1 million, and Shanahan getting about $2 million in base plus bonuses.

However, arbitration is a very risky business, and pissing off Avery and Lundquist could end up backfiring in the nastiest of ways. There are many possibilities, including settling all three contracts before arbitration. In the event that the Rangers can't ultimately fit under the cap, speculation is that the most likely candidates to go would be Marek Malik, Paul Mara, or Matt Cullen. This would probably be settled in training camp, depending on the readiness of their young defensemen and centers.

Needless to say, with this mess so unsettled, you can almost certainly forget about Sheldon Souray. The Rangers would practically have to move mountains in order to sign him. With the pros and cons, as well as the plus/minus involved with Souray, it's probably just as well. By the same token you can probably forget about any other free-agent signings. There's just nothing left with which to sign them.

In other Ranger news this week, to show that not every thing is in stagnation, the Rangers did manage to sign Peter Prucha to a 2 year $3.2 million deal. There is also speculation, although I haven't seen confirmation, that the Rangers signed highly touted Russian prospect Artem Anisimov to a 3 year $2.55 million deal. Despite rumors that the Rangers are going to buy out Alexei Cherepanov’s Omsk contract, so that he can play for the Rangers this year, I highly doubt that this is going to happen. By his own admission, Cherepanov is not physically ready for the daily rigors of the NHL - he needs a year to strengthen up. It would be great if he could get acclimated to playing in North America by playing this year in Hartford, which is where I think he would end up if the Rangers do miraculously get him out of Omsk this year.

The Rangers Prospects Camp recently concluded with a number of youngsters who were impressive enough to get a good look from the coaches at the Rangers upcoming training camp this year. The Prospects Camp was a difficult environment to judge exactly where each prospect stands, especially Cherepanov, who wasn't even able to play with his own equipment. There were even two Japanese cultural exchange-type players at the camp, but don't worry, they do not count against the salary cap this year. It is rumored that the only thing they were counting was how many hot dogs 6 time defending champion, Takeru Kobayashi, would eat on Nathan’s July 4th Contest (for the record - 63 in a second-place effort).

The one thing that was clear to those who observed the Prospects Camp – Marc Staal is looking more and more like the stud we all thought he would be, and it seems very likely that he will make the team this year.

I will continue to keep you posted as all these stories unfold. And fear not, future posts will not be this verbose. It's been a busy couple of weeks, and we had a lot of catching up to do.

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