[Ed note: Thanks to the commenters who caught the incorrect inclusion of Brett Ritchie on the RFA list. He's been added to the forward cap hit for next season.]
Jim Nill hasn't had unmitigated success in his term as Dallas Stars general manager so far. There are deals that didn't work out the way he'd probably hoped for Sergei Gonchar and even Ales Hemsky to this point, and of course there's the apparently never-ending quest for a competent backup goalie.
But one area Nill has managed masterfully is the team's salary cap. Despite having highest paid goaltenders in the NHL and a lineup of elite forwards, the Stars remain in the ideal salary cap situation even after the seven-year, $4.25 million per season deal Nill handed out to John Klingberg late last week.
Including Klingberg's signing, the Stars boast 18 expected NHL players under contract at this point for an overall cap hit of $56.129 million, or about $14 million below next season's expected cap.
Five of the unsigned players who spent significant time in the NHL this season are cost-controllable RFAs who combined for a cap hit of $3.689 million last year. Even assuming an average 75 percent raise for those players, that's only $6.5 million meaning, in a world where Nill only made moves to fill existing holes and the cap stays essentially the same, the Stars would have $7 million to spend on a backup goalie for a full 23 man roster.
Of course, Nill would probably like to make at least one upgrade somewhere, and the Stars are unlikely to carry eight defensemen as the above scenario would provide. So let's take a closer look at where the Stars stand cap-wise by position after Friday's signing, starting with the forwards:
|Player||Position||Cap Hit (in millions)|
This is 12 players - including all four of the Stars typical centers and all of the most productive pieces of the offense from last year - for a total of $34.969 million.
Just for fun, the Chicago Blackhawks will have a cap hit of $36.133 million for just their top five forwards next season.
Notable RFAs at the position include Curtis McKenzie, who should receive a qualifying offer of 105% of his current salary before possibly entering negotiations for longer contract extensions. McKenzie had a salary of $670,000 last season. He can be qualified for $704,000 and, theoretically, fill out the forward roster.
However, the Stars very well may want to make another minor personnel move, such as resigning Patrick Eaves or potentially another veteran forward who can play up and down the lineup. They are potentially losing Eaves and Shawn Horcoff to unrestricted free agency as well as the salary from Rich Peverley, who spent almost the entire season on LTIR.
On defense, the situation is even more crowded.
|Player||Shoots||Cap hit (in millions)|
On defense, this adds up to five players for a cap hit of $15.06 million.
The defense also has three RFAs who spend more than 30 games in Dallas this year. Jamie Oleksiak made $833,000 but had a significantly higher cap hit because of now-expired bonuses. Patrik Nemeth also had a slightly higher cap hit than salary, which was $810,000, and Jyrki Jokipakka came in at a salary of $728,000. The trio can be qualified for a combined $2.49 million.
And at goalie, the Stars have just Kari Lehtonen signed for a cap hit of $5.9 million (though notably, he will be passed by Spezza as the highest-salaried player on the team, and Seguin will join him at the $6 million in salary level).
Given how things stack up, it seems apparent that if the Stars are going to make moves to upgrade in some positions (most notably defense), they both have plenty of salary to play with but few personnel holes. That points to trades being a possible necessity if new players are brought in.
There are also some hardball options of signing some of the RFAs to two-way contracts and taking advantage of waiver exemptions to keep them in the AHL for the short term. Nill has shown he's willing to wait out players who he believes overvalue their own worth at this point in their careers, though it's hard to imagine any of the four RFAs on the Stars roster believe they have that sort of leverage this offseason.
Looking further down the road, the extensions for Jamie Benn and later Tyler Seguin loom large. They are on hugely cap-friendly contracts at the moment (for which the Stars should thank Joe Nieuwendyk and Peter Chiarelli) and will be in line for large raises.
That's where you can really see the brilliance of Nill. We've mentioned it several times before, but the Stars have built-in cap savings to be able to afford both players (albeit by opening up holes in different areas).
Hemsky's contract expires the same offseason as Benn's - the summer of 2017 - which means the Stars could give Benn a cap hit of $9.25 million and not incur any change to the cap. Spezza and Seguin have their contracts expire together in the summer of 2019, leaving $13.25 million in cap space for Seguin. Obviously, that leaves holes in the roles filled by Spezza and Hemsky, but it gives the Stars some wonderful flexibility when their two-headed dragon reaches UFA status.
As far as next season, the Stars remain in prime position. The cap is not expected to rise significantly this offseason because of the falling Canadian dollar, meaning places like Chicago, Vancouver and Philadelphia may be making personnel moves out of necessity. Even with raises for all the RFAs, Dallas has plenty of cap space to play with to make improvements, including possibly poaching a highly-paid guy from a cap strapped team.