It might have taken until just moments before the Dallas Stars and Antoine Roussel were set to start their arbitration hearing, but the two sides came together to avoid the process at the last minute as Roussel signed a four-year deal with a cap hit of $2 million per season this morning.
That's great news from an on-ice perspective as Roussel will get to bring his unique brand of hockey to the third line for the forseeable future in Dallas. But the price was slightly higher than many expected, likely because the contract eats up a year of unrestricted free agency. What shape does that leave the Stars cap situation in?
According to CapGeek, the Stars have $63.633 million committed to 20 players, but that does not include Patrik Nemeth as the probable seventh defenseman. With his contract included, the likely opening-night roster without Brenden Dillon and Cody Eakin's cap hits included breaks down as follows:
13 forwards - $42.525 million ($3.27 million average salary)
6 defensemen - $15.066 million ($2.51 million average salary)
2 goalies - $6.825 million ($3.413 million average salary)
Combined, that's a cap hit of $64.397 million for 21 players, leaving $4.6 million to sign both Eakin and Dillon.
There is also some flexibility built into the roster and some question marks as well. The most obvious is the status of Rich Peverley, whose salary is counted in the above totals but whose playing status is obviously still up in the air.
If he is able to play, he fills an important, and likely top six, role for the very reasonable cap hit of $3.25 million. If he cannot play, or if he cannot play for at least the first 10 games and 24 days, that $3.25 million will likely be moved to LTIR. The way that would affect the Stars cap is fairly complicated and depends on exactly how the Stars manage the day-to-day cap hits around the end of training camp and opening night. For full details, check out CapGeek. The important part is, though, it would give them essentially all the flexibility they needed for the portion of time he remains on LTIR, though moves may have to be made if he is able to rejoin the team at a later date.
Other smaller moves could happen for added flexibility as well. While Anders Lindback is the probable option for backup goalie to start the season with a cap hit of $925,000, he will face a challenge from Jussi Rynnas in training camp. If Rynnas, who had a strong season in Europe last year, wins the competition, his cap hit is $562,500, adding a little more than $300,000 in space.
On the forward side of things, Colton Sceviour or Patrick Eaves, for argument's sake as they have the two smallest salaries, could theoretically be sent to the minors for the first few weeks of the season or until injuries inevitably strike (Eaves especially, as I'm not sure the Stars are as worried about someone picking him up on waivers). That would still leave the Stars with 13 forwards but add another $650,000 in cap space.
And then, of course, there are straight up trades. The Stars have a fair number of players they could theoretically move to create large amounts of cap space either before or after the Peverley situation becomes more clear.
Given all that, the Stars are still in a good place with the cap and still on pace to meet their internal budget. At the moment, they have $58.885 million in real money committed to 21 players and Rome's buyout plus a possible $1.2 million in performance bonuses for Valeri Nichushkin. [Ed. note: Math is hard, so this number has been revised after some manual addition.]
So that brings us back to Dillon and Eakin and how their contracts might fit into the Stars' salary cap picture.
Of the three restricted free agents from the NHL roster, Roussel had by far the most leverage with both arbitration rights and unrestricted free agency coming up in three years because of his age. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bruins franchise and with another year in the Canucks' system, he turns 25 in November and would have been an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2017.
Given that, the Stars paid a bit of a premium price for his potential first year of unrestricted free agency, a similar strategy as they employed with Jamie Benn. Neither Dillon nor Eakin are likely in comparable places, as both are a year younger than Roussel and without the comparable arbitration rights. That puts them at unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.
The Stars will probably push hard for two year deals for both players, but even a three-year bridge deal won't take them to the cusp of unrestricted free agency. Players in their positions, especially defensemen, don't generally get high money deals.
Take Sami Vatanen, the young Anaheim Ducks defenseman who signed just hours after Roussel. With 56 games over two seasons (most of them played last year), eight career goals and 23 career points, he signed a two-year deal for an average cap hit of $1.26 million.
For comparison, Dillon has 129 career games but essentially the same number of points (9-16-25). He'll probably make more than Vatanen, but at the same time, I don't think he comes in as high as others. If I had to guess, I'd say the $2-$2.25 million range is where the Stars are looking for him, perhaps even the same contract Colin Wilson signed with the Predators a few offseasons ago, a deal with a cap hit of $2 million over three years that came after two consecutive 15-goal, 30-point seasons from the young defenseman.
And while it's not necessarily a popular idea, given the depth of defensemen they have in Cedar Park, the Stars may very well be able to wait him out a bit as well if they aren't happy with the numbers.
Eakin's slot is a little tougher to get a handle on, especially because he played essentially a second-line role last year but will be a third-line guy this season. Comparables range anywhere from $2 million to $2.5 million, though the Stars will likely argue he belongs at the lower end of that range because of his likely usage this season.
Someone like Marcus Johansson, who bounced between the top six and third line with the Washington Capitals last season, carries a cap hit of $2 million at a similar point in his career. Nick Bonino, who scored 22 goals and 50 points last season with the Ducks, signed an RFA extension after being traded to the Canucks this offseason for three years at a cap hit of $1.9 million, a deal that eats up two years of unrestricted free agency. But there are others in the $1.5 million to $2.5 million range as well.
When you crunch all these numbers, the Stars still look very likely to come in both under the cap and on budget in terms of overall salary to start the season, and they have small but important bits of flexibility as well.
The Roussel contract might have come in slightly higher than expected, but given the shrewd cap management the team has employed until this point, it's far from a back breaker. And from the bigger picture perspective, it's so very nice to be talking about the salary cap and how to work around it once again.