Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sittin' at the end of the bar... Brooks Laich Edition

We might have harbored a thought that Brooks Laich would be re-signed by the Washington Capitals, but we thought that: a) he would have to give the home team a pretty deep discount relative to what other teams might pay on the unrestricted free agency market, and b) that the chances of that were pretty dim.

A lot we knew. Laich agreed to a six-year/$27 million contract that will keep him in Capitals red through the 2016-2017 season. He can now be considered among the “core” Capitals – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin. The “Young Guns” have become the “Five Card Studs.” If you add in John Carlson and Karl Alzner (Alzner still having to be signed), they might be “The Magnificent Seven.”

But for the moment, what does that do to the salary chart with the unrestricted free agent signing period due to begin at noon on Friday? Well, based on our take of who is signed and who encumbers a roster spot at the moment, it might look like this:

There would still be some signings to accommodate…

If Troy Brouwer should end up with, say, Brooks Laich’s old contract (a $2.067 million cap hit), the Caps would look to have three roster spots and about $8.9 million in cap room.

Add in Karl Alzner at about the same hit, and we’re down to two roster spots and about $6.8 million in cap room.

Boyd Gordon? Maybe he gets Matt Bradley’s old contract at a million per. Now it’s one roster spot and about $5.8 million.

Which brings us to three remaining question marks. First, whither Semyon Varlamov? Does he take the KHL money and run? Do the Caps pony up $3 million or so to keep him? Let’s pencil that in. Net of Braden Holtby’s reduction as he is assigned to Hershey, the Caps would have one roster spot and about $3.4 million in cap room. If Varlamov does not re-sign, the Caps are going to find themselves with considerable cap room to sign a veteran backup (if the idea is to give Holtby a lot of work in Hershey).

The second question mark is whether any roster players are going to be traded. The big ticket players that have been the subject of some discussion (the credibility of which we leave to you, dear reader) are Alexander Semin and Mike Green. One line of thinking would be that moving either of them for picks and/or prospects would free up cap space to pursue a high-end free agent (at this point, that population is probably down to one – Brad Richards; it’s a thin free agent class). Another line of thinking is that the Caps might move either of them to adjust the personality of the team, bringing back equal value (or as equal as they can obtain) but a different type of player. Supposedly lending credence to this view is the timing of the announcement of the Laich deal, coming after the trades of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter from Philadelphia. The logic here is that the Caps were pursuing either of these players, but having failed to complete a deal (Richards going to Los Angeles, Carter to Columbus), they could sign Laich to a $4.5 million cap hit.

We are not convinced as to the latter logic, because the arithmetic didn’t demand that the former (a trade) preclude the latter (Laich’s signing). Even with Laich back in the mix, the Caps are still more than $3 million under the cap after all our machinations. If Semin or Green was to be traded for a $5 million a year player, it would be more or less a wash in terms of salary cap burden. Not even if one is worried about locking up John Carlson after the 2011-2012 season (when he becomes a restricted free agent) does the arithmetic look all that bad. Dennis Wideman could come off the books at that point, Mike Knuble’s contract will have expired, as would Eric Fehr’s and Jason Chimera’s (although all would have to be replaced, but presumably at lower cost). The point being that the Caps would have flexibility under the cap in 2012-2013 so as not to unduly hamstring the 2011-2012 cap.

But we are left with the third question, and that is the future of Tom Poti. In its own way, the money associated with his contract is perhaps more important than the deal Laich just agreed to. Poti carries a $2.875 million cap hit over the next two seasons. He also played in only 21 games last season, none after January 12th due to recurring groin problems. Whether he returns to the ice at all is a question mark, and whether he does or does not poses different problems.

If Poti does return, but is either a diminished player or still subject to intermittent absence due to recurrence of injuries, it is a $2.875 million cap hit without perhaps the level of performance hoped for when that contract was signed. If he does not return to the ice, the cap relief provided (and reflected in our scribbling) presents the problem of trying to shore up the lack of depth on the blue line that would result. Having Mike Green, John Carlson, Dennis Wideman, Jeff Schultz, and (presumably) Karl Alzner is nice, but would John Erskine really be the permanent answer in that sixth spot on defense? And after that, who are those 7-8-9 defensemen that might see games for the Caps over the course of the season? That could mean a re-signing of Scott Hannan, but even if Hannan takes a pay cut from the $4.5 million cap hit he had on his previous deal, it seems unlikely it would come down by $1.6 million to play with the Caps.

In the end, it might be Poti’s situation more than Laich’s that governs the Caps strategy this summer, the logic here being that Laich was in the Caps plans, and Poti is and will remain an uncertainty. That the Caps would sign Laich to such a big number and long term suggests that they were focused on him not going to free agency and probably had him in their planning as a result. Poti is more of a wild card, a player for whom meaningful planning seems difficult at the moment, at least from the fan’s chair. It is really because of this uncertainty that we think another trade is in the works. The Caps might want to offload salary to make room for a Scott Hannan re-sign or to accommodate Poti’s cap hit with some flexibility remaining under the cap, because either the Hannan (or other defenseman) or Poti option does put pressure on the salary cap that the Caps would have to deal with.

Just goes to show, with this many moving parts, so many contracts, deals, and such that have to be managed over time, it ain’t easy being a general manager these days.


t said...

Agreed. A healthy Poti (I know, a huge assumption) makes the top six D pretty decent. I think Hannan makes it better. Three puck movers, three stay-at-home. With Erskine to give them a rest, and Orlov on an emergency basis...maybe. (If Lepisto is interested in a two-way contract, maybe him too?)

Now, can/will the Caps buy Poti out? Put him on LTIR? Play him in Hershey? See if someone like Florida who needs to hit the floor will take him?

exwhaler said...

As the Chris Drury buyout saga showed, a player can contest a buyout offer if they're injured. Drury eventually decided against that, but I'm not sure if Poti would do the same.

According to the most recent reports, Poti appears not to have made any progress and his career is up in the air. He could retire, which would remove the cap hit entirely, but then he would lose his new contract. Given that Poti probably didn't see his current situation coming, I wouldn't blame him showing up at training camp, proving he can't play, then going on LTIR for next season, collect his paycheck, then retiring. On LTIR, his cap hit would still count, but the Capitals would be able to go over the cap as according to his cap hit so long as Poti remains on LTIR.