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January 6, 2013
Zamboni Tracks
Free Money, Part One

by Ryan Wagman

With the end of the seemingly endless lockout finally here (with only fine print and ratifications remaining), talk has begun about the changes in the new CBA. One of the more eye-catching items is the ability for each team to buy out up to two players in order meet a cap ceiling of $64.3 for 2013-14. As has been reported, the buyout payments will not be charged against the team in question's cap number, but will be come out of the player's share of HRR.

So what is likely to happen? Who would each club pay off to walk away from? Using the full palette of hockeynomic tools available to me, I tackled that very question. Bearing in mind that many teams will not use the buyout for one reason or another—be it the lack of bad contracts on the books, or the lack of available funds with which to pay the player to go away, I studied the rosters of each franchise, looking at production, salary, and contract terms to look for the most likely cuts from each team. While some targets are fairly obvious, a few surprises also came to light.

First, let's look at the Western Conference.

Central Division

Chicago Blackhawks

Marian Hossa—While the dollars will drop precipitously over the final four years of his deal, a cap hit approaching $5.25 million through his age-41 season will be hard to stomach even though he was still a point-per-game player as of 2011-12. As one of the wealthier teams in the league, the Blackhawks can likely afford to cut Hossa if it means complying with the cap. In any case, Hawks fans are used to having the cap bite into their roster, as they were forced to trade away Stanley Cup contributors such as Kris Versteeg, Antti Niemi, and Dustin Byfuglien aftertheir magical run in 2009-10.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Jack Johnson—While it might hurt to walk away from the biggest remaining piece of last summer's big trade with Philadelphia, Johnson is one of the poorest puck possession players in hockey. The Blue Jackets need to start fresh, and five more expensive years of Johnson will not allow that. With highly-touted young blueliners including John Moore, David Savard, and the second overall selection in last year's draft, Ryan Murray, waiting in the wings, Johnson's role should be ably filled in the years to come.

Detroit Red Wings

While an argument could be made for walking away from the final eight years of Henrik Zetterberg's contract, the Wings may be better off walking away from Niklas Kronwall unless he proves able to fill more of Nicklas Lidstrom's skates than has has historically. Even now, with VUKOTA projecting him 8.4 GVT (over 82 games) as a 31-year-old, Kronwall is not earning his contract, as his $4.75 million cap hit gives him a GVS of -1.45.

Nashville Predators

As good as he is in the faceoff circle, I have a hard time believing that Paul Gaustad, already 30 years of age, will be worth keeping around for another three seasons at a cap hit of $3.25 million per annum. This opinion is validated as, even though he wins so many faceoffs, he has still not proven able to prevent the opposition from peppering the net behind him while he was on the ice.

St. Louis Blues

As is, the Blues are close to the rumored new cap number. If they find themselves in a bind with second contracts due to the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, and Patrik Berglund, the Blues may consider buying out veteran blueliner Barret Jackman from his ages 32-33 seasons. While good in his own zone, he does not drive the puck forward at an above average rate. If Ian Cole shows that he is better prepared to take over a full time stay-at-home blueliner role by the end of this year, the Blues may consider cutting ties with their 10-year veteran.

Northwest Division

Calgary Flames

Alex Tanguay—$3.5 million per year for a winger in his mid-30s with diminishing scoring and a poor possession game? No thanks. Although his still positive production skating alongside Jarome Iginla begs the question of whether it will be permissible to buy him out and then re-sign him to a lesser deal?

Colorado Avalanche

David Jones is an overpaid third liner making $4 million a season. He scores at a good rate for his usage which has hovered at around 14 even strength minutes per game for the past few seasons plus some second pairing power play duties, but otherwise he is a poor possession player being paid well above his combined output.

Edmonton Oilers

Saddled with a $5.5 million cap hit for two more years but with his contract requiring only $7 million in actual dollars to buy out, letting Shawn Horcoff go is almost a no-brainer. His play in tougher situations is commendable, but his offensive production has not been close to anything worth more than one-third his present cap hit.

Minnesota Wild

I'm not so cynical as to suggest that the Wild walk away from either of the freshly-inked duo of Zach Parise or Ryan Suter, and the cost in dollars of doing so prohibits such a thought—especially if the buyout is limited to the 2013-14 offseason. As such, the move to make is walking away from the last year in Dany Heatley's contract. Not nearly the producer he used to be, barring unexpectedly great chemistry with new teammate—and likely new linemate—Parise, it should be easy for the Wild to move on without him.

Vancouver Canucks

This can go one of two ways. If the Canucks fail to trade Roberto Luongo in the next few months, they are one of the few teams that can afford to buy out a contract with $39.6 million still to be paid out. However, if they can find a taker for Luongo, the Canucks do not lack for alternative buyout candidates. Most likely among them, in terms of dollars to production, is defenseman Keith Ballard. Two more years with a cap hit of $4.2 million should be easy to walk away from for a player who has yet to earn the trust of coach Alain Vigneault in two seasons with Vancouver. Winger David Booth, with two years at a hit of $4.25 million would also make for a nice target, especially if he fails to get his ESP/60 back into top-six territory, as it has fallen short in each of the past three seasons.

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks

Sheldon Souray is the default choice on the Ducks. Only one rostered player—Cam Fowler—is signed beyond 2014-15. The Ducks have $3.5 million tied up annually in Souray, Francois Beauchemin, and Bryan Allen through the 2014-15 season. As the oldest of the troika, Souray is favorite to be given a golden handshake—which for him would be the second time, as he was bought out by the Oilers in the summer of 2011, an act they are still paying for this year.

Dallas Stars

With only four players signed beyond 2014-15 (Loui Eriksson, Alex Goligoski, Trevor Daley, and Kari Lehtonen) and none at egregious numbers, the Stars would be excused for abstaining from the buyout provision. Consider this as being the natural consequence of GM Joe Nieuwendyk being forced to tread cautiously while the Stars sought new ownership over the past few seasons.

Los Angeles Kings

While both Jeff Carter and Mike Richards are signed to big money, long-term deals, marking both as excellent candidates to be vast overspends moving forward, they are both still young enough to provide sufficient value until the cap inexorably rises again. If anything, the Kings can save on the margins by buying out the contract of Jarret Stoll's final two years, at $3.25 million each. Not horrible outlay, but they could probably achieve similar value and save close to $2 million annually through using a younger player.

Phoenix Coyotes

With little money to spend one way or another, the Coyotes may not need to use a buyout, as they look set to fit under the new cap constraints already. Any sunk costs would have to be short-term and low. As such, their top candidate for the ax looks like Derek Morris, a diminishing asset who will be in his age-35 season in 2013-14. With plenty of young blueline prospects coming up the pipe for the Coyotes, Morris may be superfluous anyway. Turning a $2.75 million cap hit into a minimum salary spot would be a bonus.

San Jose Sharks

Needing to remove a significant amount of salary to reach the new ceiling, look for the Sharks to buyout the contract of aging defenseman Dan Boyle. With his GVT having dropped in each of his last three seasons—although still in double digits—his ability to control puck possession has also diminished. $6.667 off the cap will be more than welcome for a Sharks team, and could help spur them to significantly retool.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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