For the past several seasons, the Habs have operated well below the Upper Limit of the salary cap but that won’t be the case in 2020-21. Instead, they’ll be tiptoeing around the cap ceiling all year long. Here’s how they can do it.
For simplicity’s sake for referencing numbers, let’s use CapFriendly’s current projections. They have Montreal with $383,691 in cap space and a 21-player roster. Not included on that roster is a fourth line centre which figures to be either Jake Evans, Ryan Poehling, or someone from free agency that has to settle for a bargain-priced contract. That takes them over the Upper Limit right there with the minimum salary being $700,000.
This is the part where almost everyone chimes in with waiving Jordan Weal. Doing so would save them $1.075 million in cap space with the remaining $325,000 remaining on the cap. (The calculation is $375,000 plus the minimum salary which remains at $700,000 for next season.) That would certainly get them back under but it puts them back into a position where they only have 12 forwards again and while Marc Bergevin has said he could see the Habs not carrying a max-sized roster of 23 players, carrying the minimum number of forwards isn’t without its risks.
We know a 13th forward costs at least $700,000 and that Montreal has six of those in Laval, four of which could represent realistic options for that spot in Alex Belzile, Joseph Blandisi, Laurent Dauphin, and Lukas Vejdemo. Alternatively, a free agent could be signed for that price tag as well. This isn’t the place to have that debate – that’s an article for another day.
So, back to the numbers. Adding Weal’s savings to the existing cap space puts the Habs at $1,458,691 and the 13th forward at the minimum brings it to $758,691. There’s still that fourth line centre to fill though. Evans has a cap hit of $750,000 and Poehling $925,000. Forget their ability to play that role and what’s best for their development; the biggest argument for Evans making the team over Poehling is simple – they can actually afford Evans while they’d have to make another series of roster moves that would ultimately deplete their depth further to keep Poehling or carry just 12 forwards for most of the year which is a bad idea.
Let’s put Evans onto the roster which then leaves Montreal with $8,691 in cap room. Even with the time value of accrued cap space, that’s not worth much of anything. If injuries strike…scratch that, when injuries strike in what’s likely to be a condensed schedule, they’re in trouble. There are cap-exempt recalls after dipping below 18 healthy skaters for a game (it’s called the Emergency Roster Exemption Recall, Article 50.10(e) of the last full CBA and it doesn’t sound as if it was removed) but relying on that isn’t an ideal situation. Also worth noting is that the maximum cap hit for a player in this circumstance is $800,000 (league minimum salary plus $100,000) so that takes out bringing back a player like Weal or Poehling. It adds a handful of other prospects to the mix but none that are really NHL-ready.
In past years, the Habs have frequently shuffled players to Laval even when they weren’t anywhere close to the cap ceiling. There were practical purposes for that as well; it wasn’t just them cheaping out. There’s offseason cap space to keep in mind which is based on how many days players on two-way deals were on an NHL roster and that same ratio is notable if one of those players is injured in camp as that sets their season-opening IR rate.
This time around, the importance will be much greater. As things stand, Montreal projects to have at least four players that can be shuffled to and from the minors in Evans, Alexander Romanov, Nick Suzuki, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Whoever their 13th forward is could also be in that mix depending on waivers. On non-game days (especially home games), the Habs can trim their roster to the minimum and send at least two players down. The net savings are only a few thousand per day per player (perhaps a bit more depending on how truncated the schedule is) but when you’re only looking at a few thousand in cap space to begin with, that’s huge. If Montreal stays relatively healthy, it might even be enough to help them afford a low-priced pickup closer to the trade deadline if they shift players back and forth frequently. If not, it could potentially take them out of using the Emergency Roster Exemption Recall which would still be important.
Of course, the bigger savings would come from Romanov, Suzuki, and Kotkaniemi going down but knowing these are the three untouchable building blocks based on Bergevin’s prior comments, it’ll be interesting to see if they opt to go that route. Romanov’s European Assignment Clause is there but if they were only sending him down for a day or two here and there, it’s unlikely it’d be triggered.
In the end, this could all be somewhat moot as the league could permit players to be on a taxi squad that don’t count against the cap if needed in an effort to reduce shuffling players to and from the minors. Failing that, there’s also the potential for expanded rosters which many teams couldn’t afford with their current cap situation. I’m not saying that’ll happen but it’ll undoubtedly be an option that’s considered as the league ponders its return.
For the last few years, cap space hasn’t meant much for the Habs. It’s safe to say that won’t be the case in 2020-21 as they’ll be very carefully navigating the Upper Limit with plenty of in-season shuffling that will mean a whole lot more than it has before.