Even as we slip deeper into the bowels of apathy and regret that have marked 2012 for most NHL fans, there are reasons to think about the future.
For some, that's going to be the showcase of the 2013 World Junior Classic, and I have no doubt that Mike will be happy to share his joy about Boone Jenner's impressive return to Team Canada, Joonas Korpisalo's clutch goaltending for the Finns today in their comeback against the Swiss, and Mike Reilly's exciting performance in Team USA's beatdown of Slovakia. (I also wouldn't be shocked if you hear the name "Drouin" a few times.)
Me, though, I'm in the mood to play a bit of "Follow The Money."
Assuming that the NHLPA is going to negotiate off the latest NHL proposal, there's a pretty good chance we're going to see the salary cap drop dramatically after this season. Perhaps they'll manage to get it levered up by a few million from the current $60 million cap proposed by the league, but I'm going to operate off that theory for now.
On paper, it sounds like something that could be quite good - after all, Columbus is already under the cap, with a payroll (per, as you'd expect, Capgeek) of $57,600,476. The organization isn't staring down the barrel of needing to lose one or two players (Tampa, Edmonton, Toronto) or three or four (Minnesota, Boston) to get themselves in shape over the offseason.
But having "a little room" right now isn't necessarily a good thing, either, because there's a difference between "right now" and "next season."
Problem 1: The Keepers
Despite the lockout, the Blue Jackets have seen their prospect pool take some big leaps thanks to guys like JAM, Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, and Boone Jenner making the best of their situation. We've also seen guys like Sergei Bobrovsky and Artem Anisimov blossom in the KHL. In terms of development and confidence, it's fantastic to see how they've risen to the occasion.
Where the Maalox bottle comes out is their contracts.
When looking at the "hot" prospects, Atkinson, Bobrovsky, and Anisimov are all going to be looking at RFA status. A step behind them stand John Moore, Matt Calvert, Cody Goloubef, and Tomas Kubalik. Another tier down? Ryan Russell, David Savard, and Cody Bass. (Has anyone else wondered if one of the secret ingredients to the Falcon's success is 2/3 of the team being on a contract year...?)
Obviously, not all of these players will be starting the year with the Blue Jackets, but they will need new contracts, and in the case of guys like Cam and Bob especially, they will be looking at raises. (Bob may not get Steve Mason money, but he's arguably been one of the top three or four goalies in the KHL this season, and he's tied for 2nd in the league in shutouts. If he plays well in a shortened NHL season, he will get paid.)
Some of the increase in salary is likely to be set by the market, but the GMs who are going to be making deals this offseason are the same ones who got the NHL into their current set of problems, so let's not expect a lot of tasteful restraint.
The headaches don't get easier when you consider the UFAs. Vinny Prospal may decide to take a front office job, but if not, he's likely to be looking for another $2-2.5 million dollar contract. Mark Letestu carved out a pretty decent spot as a tweener, but could Boone Jenner or Matt Calvert fill his role? What will Adrian Aucoin look to do? Get into coaching? Take a pay cut?
Oh, yes, and then there's C-Mac.
If there's anyone who is hoping for an NHL season, it has to be Curtis McElhinney. He's gone from injured throw in to the guy who leads the AHL in shutouts and wins. Much like Bob, he's got every reason to expect a pay raise if he hits the market, and given Columbus' state of goalie chaos, he's got reason to think he could play his way into a starting role with a little luck and a bit of hustle. At 29, he should be in prime condition for the next few years, and he might just be putting it all together.
Finally, let's consider the possibility of Columbus landing another top three pick, especially if the season SHOULD be lost. On the one hand, it means another stud prospect, but on the other, it also means he'll need to get paid, and given the likely structure of the contract, I'd expect a cap hit between 2.5-3.5 million after bonuses unless there's a major reworking of entry level deals.
Problem 2: Off The Books?
Speaking of goalie chaos, the end of this season does provide an opportunity: A painless divorce from Steve Mason.
As much as we'd like to see "Mase" triumphantly regain his Calder form and lead the Jackets into the postseason, there are reams of evidence to suggest that Mason's relationship with Columbus is toxic. Fans don't trust him, the organization has gotten burned relying on him, and the locker room doesn't appear to have much faith in him. By allowing him to explore the market as an RFA, it gives each side a clean break without the stigma of buyouts or "amnesty" deals. Other players who could see the same treatment include Theo Ruth, Nick Holden, and Nick Drazenovic, though you could make an equal argument that they'd get retained for AHL duty. It's equally hard to see Colton Gillies back, but on the other hand qualifying him wouldn't really demand a great deal of extra cash.
Allen York is another question mark - he's shown some flashes of excellence in his play, but he's also shown some major flaws, and Columbus has guys like Dansk, Korpisalo, and Oulette in the pipeline who could surpass him.
Even in situation where Mason, Letestu, Prospal, and Aucoin all came off the NHL books, that's only opening $8.25 million or so in cap space. Raises / retention for Cam, AA, Bob, C-Mac and / or York will take bites out of that quite quickly. There's also the matter of guys like Tim Erixon and Ryan Murray finding space on the NHL roster.
Columbus won't be the only team looking to lock up or shuffle their talent, however...
Problem 3: Play The Market?
With amnesty buyouts and teams looking to get under the cap, we're going to see a VERY unusual free agency season, and there's a good chance we'll see a lot of mobility. Players will go on the block conventionally, but I'd also expect a quite lucrative trade market - particularly since Columbus has three first round picks to leverage.
The players who may be available as free agents or offered up by clubs who need to clear cap space could present some interesting temptations. Ryane Clowe? Milan Lucic? Mason Raymond? Max Talbot? Michael Frolik? All possible.
On the other hand, even after a shortened season, we may not really know what we have here in Columbus. More than a third of the club's projected NHL lineup has been shuffled in or out, and it's hard to say how they'll gel with an abbreviated camp and pressure cooker season. Guys like John Davidson and Scott Howson will be in a very strange position. They'll barely get to play with the toys before having to decide what to keep.
Problem 4: Speaking of...
Then there's the amnesty question. If it works as currently proposed, the club would be able to buy out one contract, with no impact to the cap. Since, as we've noted, Steve Mason's deal is up at the end of this year anyway, it doesn't make sense to spend it there.
At this point your top five players in terms of cap hit are:
- James Wisniewski - $5.5 through 2016-17
- R.J. Umberger - $4.6 through 2016-17
- Fedor Tyutin - $4.5 through 2017-18
- Jack Johnson - $4.35 through 2017-18
- Brandon Dubinsky - $4.2 through 2014-15
Buying out any of these guys saves some money, but leaves an immediate hole in the roster. About the only scenario I could see working out would be to potentially buy out one of the longer term deals and then giving a shorter but still market value deal. Tyutin, in particular, might be a good fit for this, but even then I'm not sure it's a big benefit, and even then the goal isn't saving money so much as it is managing term.
There are still far too many "What Ifs?", especially "What if we actually sign the damn CBA soon?", to really paint a full picture, but you can start considering some of the interesting questions a lower cap would present.
If there's one thing I am comfortable predicting, it is that Columbus is going to get even younger over the next year or two. The wealth of talent on entry level or "second" contracts is probably going to push a lot of guys for the their roster spots, and I wouldn't be shocked at all to see the Blue Jackets give the nod to the young guns, particularly when there are players like Prospal and Aucoin who might be willing to step into the press box or behind the bench as part of the deal.