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A Double-Edged Sword

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With the off-season less than 12 hours hence, the Blue Jackets will have one eye on this year, and the other on next year, as 2017 may dictate what happens in 2016. Read on.

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Ah, April.  The time when a Blue Jackets' fan's thoughts turn to trades, the draft and free agency, searching for that magic mix that will bring consistent success on the ice.  Despite the disappointments of this season, however, the cupboard of young, emerging talent is more fully stocked than ever.  That provides options, which is always good for a club looking to improve. This is particularly true where the salary cap might not move much -- if at all -- after this season.

However, as the Blue Jackets front office gathers to address the 2016 Entry Draft, free agency and trade prospects, their eyes . . . and minds . . .will be equally focused on June 2017.  Why?  One word:  Expansion.  It seems to be a consensus belief that at least one team will be added in Las Vegas, with a possible second club -- most likely in Quebec City.  Seattle is also in the discussion, but did not submit a formal bid due to arena issues.  Some believe that Quebec City will be deferred until Seattle is ready, making the conferences closer to equal, and allowing the situation in other markets (I.e. Arizona) to stabilize one way or the other.  Be that as it may, it seems overwhelmingly likely that there will be an Expansion Draft in 2017, and that's where the fun begins.

What We Know

While any formal announcement about expansion will not come until June, some details about how things will proceed have been released.  These include (in no particular order):

  • Each team can lose only one player per expansion team involved -- so Columbus has one or two players on the hot seat
  • Teams will be able to protect either 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and a goalie or 8 skaters of any position and a goalie
  • A team must expose at least 25% of its roster cap hit to the Expansion Draft (this presumably refers to the prior season, since 2017-18 rosters will not be set until long after the Expansion Draft occurs.
  • The Expansion Draft will occur shortly before the 2017 Entry Draft -- which will make June a busy month.
  • Players in their 1st or 2nd year of an ELC will be exempt
  • Expansion teams must reach the salary cap floor.

What We Don't Know

As  with most things, the devil is in the details, and there are a couple of  critical questions that remain outstanding, including:

  • At what point in time is a player's contract status/cap hit/NMC status determined?   The draft will occur in mid-June, while player contracts expire June 30th.  If a player is finishing his 2nd ELC year, is he exempt?  DItto for players with NTC/NMC clauses that might be kicking in, going away or changing from one to another.
  • Speaking of NTC/NMC clauses, no decision has yet been reached how they will be treated for purposes of the Expansion Draft.  There are three options, really -- allow the teams to decide whether to protect them, require the teams to protect them allow the players to decide whether they want to be protected.  Here's where the NHL has to decide how actively it wants to discourage/punish teams who have been too liberal in handing these clauses out.  However, as we shall see, that poses real problems with the 25% rule.

The Blue Jackets -- The Happy Path

In order to fully understand what the Blue Jackets' options are this year and next, we have to understand what the potential ramifications of the Expansion Draft process would be. The primary focus, not surprisingly, is on the contracts held by Scott Hartnell, David Clarkson and Fedor Tyutin -- though by 2017 others could be in play.   The Columbus players with NMC or NTC clauses of some form or another include Hartnell, Clarkson, Tyutin, Dubinsky and Foligno.  (Rene Bourque has an expiring contract with an NMC, but almost certainly will not be back, and certainly not with an NMC/NTC).

Let's look at the "happy path" first -- the one that causes the least severe headaches for Columbus.  This would involve a decision that NMC/NTC clauses may be protected or not, at the discretion of the team.

Under this scenario, the protected forwards would almost certainly include  Brandon SaadBrandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner and Alexander Wennberg,.  That's six, which means either that you protect Ryan Murray and Seth Jones and call it a day (under the eight skater election), or add a forward to the mix  -- either  Calvert, Karlsson or an unknown forward yet to be acquired.   In that case, you get to protect one more defenseman -- either Jack Johnson or David Savard, in all likelihood.  My personal preference would be JJ, as I think his game has flourished with the emergence of Jones an Murray and his cap hit is for a shorter duration.  Reasonable minds can differ.

While the Blue Jackets' cap next year is an unknown, as we sit here today, it sits at $69.4 million, per capfriendly.com.  Let's call it an even $70 million, meaning that Columbus would have to expose $17.5 million worth of cap hit to the Expansion Draft.  Hartnell and Clarkson account for $10 million, with Boll and Campbell bringing it up to $13.2 million. Either Jack Johnson, Davids Savard or Fedor Tyutin --  if still with the roster -- put the club over or on the brink of the number, and the unprotected one among Karlsson and Calvert. No sweat, no mess.

The Steeper Path

Now let's assume that the NHL says that players with NMC or NTC clauses must be protected, as a quasi-punishment to clubs handing these out like candy.   (The Blue Jackets have really handed out only three -- Dubinsky, Foligno and Tyutin. Hartnell and Clarkson were inherited).  Now the situation gets more perilous.

The protected forward list now looks much different, with Clarkson and Hartnell using two slots, followed by Dubinsky, Foligno, Saad and Jenner being the remaining locks at forward.  If Tyutin is still on the roster, he needs to be protected on defense, and presumably Murray and Jones are automatics as well.  That forces you into the 7 - 3 scenario, with a difficult choices between Wennberg and Atkinson.  Wennberg gets the nod due to youth and playing center ice.  Even if Tyutin is moved by then, the club is still forced to use the 7 - 3 scenario (assuming Murray and Jones are protected), otherwise both Atkinson and Wennberg are exposed.  Again, likely one of JJ and Savard use up the remaining slot.

Now comes the really difficult part -- reaching that $17.5 million of exposed cap hit.  If Wennberg is protected, Atkinson's $3.5 is exposed, another $3.2 goes for Boll and Campbell (as they are technically still under contract at the point of the Expansion Draft).  Calvert and Karlsson will add another $3.5 million or so, bringing the total to just over $10 million.  The unprotected one between Johnson and Savard gets the total to about $14.5 million.  Cody Goloubef and Dalton Prout get the total up to about $16.8 million, and the backup goalie puts you over the top.  Just like a Volkswagen -- ugly, but it gets you there.  However, lurking in the background is . . .

The Goalie Conundrum

The NHL is bound and determined to insure that an expansion club gets a credible roster, unlike the pool of aging cast-offs that Minnesota and Columbus had in front of them.  As evidence, look no further than the rule that a club can protect only one goalie.  This probably would not have seemed like an onerous deal at the beginning of the season for Columbus, but the emergence of young Joonas Korpisalo has to at least cause a moment's hesitation in the front office.

Korpisalo has emerged as a legitimate NHL goaltender -- and could be for years to come.  Sergei Bobrovsky has a Vezina Trophy on his shelf, is one of the hardest working players in the NHL -- at any position, and, well . . . he's Bob, with the hugs, applauding the fans and all of those other endearing traits.  He can dominate a game.  Unfortunately, this year was a tough one for Bob, with self-described confidence issues and another spate of injuries.  He also carries a $7.425 million cap hit, which by itself would account for more than 40% of the needed cap exposure. Is it even thinkable that Bob would be exposed?

Korpisalo enters the third year of his ELC next season, so is not going to fall within that exemption.  If there is no other exemption route for him, are the Blue Jackets prepared to let him go, and hope that Anton Forsberg, Oskar Dansk or one of the others will develop . . .rapidly?   It's all going to depend on the organizational view of where Bob stands.  Can he stay healthy.  Can he regain the mojo that makes him "Bob"?   Next year will be crunch time for this decision, and it is the prospect of the Expansion Draft that will drive the decision.

Alternate Paths

Of course, there are tons of variations on a theme that could come into play here.  Some will be determined by whether one or two expansion teams are involved.  If one, the club could decide to expose more guys -- i.e. both Savard and Johnson -- knowing they could lose only one.  Their combined cap hits make it easier to reach the exposure threshold, and dangling more expensive guys might distract the expansion club from one of the guys you really don't want to go, but can't protect.  If two expansion teams are involved, this becomes unacceptably risky.  The organization also has to keep in mind that some of its prospects will be creeping outside the ELC exemption window by the time of the Expansion Draft.  Dean Kukan and Michael Paliotta are among these.

It's not all bad news, either.  At the end of the day, the Blue Jackets will only lose one or two players, regardless of how many are exposed.  With the expansion team(s) needing to reach the floor, those contracts currently viewed as expensive would have a certain attraction for the new club.  The Expansion Draft will provide needed cap relief to a number of clubs -- not just the Blue Jackets, and that is a positive, particularly if the cap moves only $3 million or so, as is anticipated.

Certainly, there is room for creativity during the next twelve months, depending upon the NHL decisions.  If NTC/NMC players have to be protected, the Blue Jackets might have some incentive to move one or more of Hartnell and Tyutin this season, opening a protected spot and reducing the 25% level.  In that case, the Blue Jackets would have to also look hard at buying out David Clarkson's deal.  Widely considered an unlikely candidate for buyout, due to a high percentage of remaining dollars being attributed to signing bonus, the Blue Jackets could nonetheless gain $3.0 million in cap relief over the first two years, and another million over the remaining two years.  Beyond that, they would have a $500K hit for four more years -- relatively insignificant.  That opens up roster room, and with other moves and the increased cap space, gives the Blue Jackets some considerable room to work with this year.  If NMC/NTC guys don't need to be protected, the Blue Jackets could keep Clarkson on the roster next year, expose him to the Expansion Draft (leveraging his cap hit), and then buy him out during the buyout window that ends June 30.

The specifics are interesting, but the essential point is that this off-season will be largely dictated by the prospects for next off-season, and that the 2016-17 season will be one long audition  -- not only for roster spots, but for those slots on the protected list.  Stay tuned.