The natural reaction to the prospect of watching the Nashville Predators play out the string on this regular season is to speculate about how quickly they might be able to bounce back into their familiar playoff-caliber form. While highly-drafted prospects can bring an injection of talent, they often take time to mature into reliable NHL players, so free agency is often looked at as the more immediate means of addressing the team's weak spots.
Recently Mark Howard has been talking up that path forward on 104.5's Wake Up Zone, arguing that a combination of ample supply (players receiving buyouts this summer from teams struggling to get under the lowering salary cap) and meager demand (not many shoppers out there) will combine to give the Predators a number of affordable, quality options to improve their roster.
Is that realistic, however? Given the existing contracts in place and the declining salary cap environment, are the Predators actually likely to make significant additions via free agency this summer? Let's take a look...
First off, as I've mentioned before, the fact that Martin Erat asked for a trade out of town after hearing from David Poile that a youth movement was in the works is pretty good reason all on its own to discount the likelihood of a free agent spending spree.
Let's review the contract situation for next season, using data from CapGeek & NHLNumbers:
|Player||12/13 Cap Hit||12/13 Salary||13/14 Salary||13/14 Cap Hit|
For those scoring at home, that's 15 contracts for a total of $48.3 million in actual salary for 2013-2014, before handing out substantial new deals to Roman Josi & Patric Hornqvist, as well as rounding out the roster with about 6 more players.
While there is some relief with Erat's contract gone ($3.75M next season) and the buyouts for J.P. Dumont & Brett Lebda coming off the books (another $1.8M), those are more than outweighed by the number of contracts which include raises for players next season. Mike Fisher, Paul Gaustad, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, and Kevin Klein will make about $6.5 million more (combined) than they did this season. Yup, that's right - the Predators will pay their penalty killing & faceoff specialist $4 million next year (by comparison, Scott Nichol & Jerred Smithson never topped $1 million during their time in Nashville).
|2013-2014 NHL Salary Range|
|$44 million||$54.15 million||$64.3 million|
For the Predators, actual salary is probably important than Cap Hit, for two reasons. First, of course, is the ability of the team to manage its bottom line. Secondly, the NHL's revenue sharing program includes major incentives for recipient teams like the Predators to keep their Actual Club Salary below the mid-point of the Cap/Floor range, and the Summary of Terms (PDF) which outlines how the new CBA will work contains no changes to that aspect of revenue sharing.
What that means is that if the team wants to go above the $54.15 million mark, that comes at the additional cost of losing out on an (unspecified) portion of revenue sharing. I, for one, am comfortable with the Predators staying below that line - this is still a developing hockey market, and it's entirely reasonable for them to live within their means and take advantage of the revenue sharing system. If the owners decide to spend above that level and fund the ensuing losses out of their own pocket, that's great for local fans in the short run, but I can't help but wonder about what that would mean for the stability of the franchise long-term.
Summer 2013 Options
In light of this situation, I see the following options for the team this summer:
- As Erat indicated, go with the youth movement and forget about big-name free agents. Pencil in Filip Forsberg (and perhaps this summer's 1st round pick) for a significant role up front, Victor Bartley for a major job on the blueline, and a low-cost backup for Pekka Rinne. Current RFA's would either have to return on the cheap or be replaced by further Milwaukee promotions. While extremely unlikely to lead to an immediate rebound, this may be the most prudent option for the long-term development of a new core group of players to lead the team forward.
- Clear out salary space by exercising the option to buy out a contract or two. The challenge there is not only financial (2/3rds of the remaining contract value for players over 26, 1/3rd for the young 'uns) but from a talent perspective, you'd have to replace that player. Many have talked about the idea of buying out a veteran like David Legwand, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a suitable replacement while coming out ahead financially.
- Shed some of the higher salaries via trade (in exchange for picks/prospects instead of significant salary coming back), and use the freed-up budget space to go shopping in free agency. Another option with the trade market is to have the other team retain a portion of a player's salary, which is part of the new CBA.
For my money (granted, that ain't much), I'd go with Option #1, to find out which of the kids in the system can play and which ones can't. The difficult job there is bringing about a reset of fan expectations. Going with a youth movement isn't likely to lead the team to a deep playoff run in 2014 (it would be an achievement just to make the post-season), but it may provide the best path to re-establishing the Predators as contenders for many years down the road.