While it's not yet official as of this writing on January 9, 2013, it appears to be a safe bet that there will be a NHL season. The shortened season is expected to start on January 19 for 48 games followed by a full playoff. As exciting as this all will be, and as focused as most of us are on the hectic few months ahead, it might be even more challenging for general managers looking forward to 2013-14.
Yes, it's strange to consider next season when this season hasn't even started. Yes, it's odd to look ahead when so much can change within the one-week preseason in terms of players being called up, sent down, signed (e.g. surely Ryan O'Reilly will ink a deal, he is quite good) and traded. Yes, it may be foolhardy to see who's on the books for next season when the books for many will change by the trade deadline, even before unrestricted free agency begins. However, it is worth considering right now in the larger picture to understand the general needs for each team.
First of all, there is a confounding issue. With a shortened season, it is going to be difficult to get a full handle on how to judge a player. A shorter season means a smaller population size of games which is more susceptible to hot or cold streaks. Players who get hurt who would otherwise have enough time to recover and get back into the swing of things may not get that chance. The shorter length could mean more teams in the mix for playoff positioning than usual by the trade deadline. Even those teams adept at advanced analysis of players and their teams will have to account for what will be an unusual season. Despite all of that, every team will have to make the same tough decisions regarding their roster that they do every summer and they will have to find a way to factor in 2013's data.
However, not every team will be in the same situation. Based on what CapGeek has listed prior to training camp, the 30 NHL teams vary in terms of how many players will need a new deal. In order to illustrate how the summer would look, I took a quick tally of how many players are signed at each position for next season. Currently, 686 players are on NHL rosters and count against the salary cap. In total, 266 players will be coming off the collective books: 158 forwards, 79 defensemen, and 29 goalies. An average team will see 8.9 players coming off their cap, which means an average of 8.9 players will need to be signed or replaced from within.
That's not the case for every team, though. The Colorado Avalanche look to have the least amount of work to do for 2013-14, with 19 of their current 22 players committed to next season. Only the beloved Milan Hejduk, depth forward Chuck Kobasew, and defenseman Ryan O'Byrne will have their contracts expire. That's it. This doesn't even include Ryan O'Reilly on the roster. If the Avs pick him back up and give him at least a two-year deal, then that's one less forward slot Colorado has to fill in the summer. Given that they will have about $15 million in cap space, they can splash some cash to fill in one of those holes. If you like Colorado's roster right now, then you will get to see the majority of it next year as well. If you think they will improve in time, then they could be worth keeping an eye on in the West. On the other hand, if they suffer and require improvement from outside the organization, then it becomes a little more difficult to do so. Still, they don't have to be as active with only three players seeing their deals end. The New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks follow the Avs in terms of fewest players on expiring deals with five and six, respectively.
At the other extreme, expect the Winnipeg Jets to be rather active. They have 23 players up in the NHL according to CapGeek, but only nine of them are signed for next season. That's right, ninefive forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie. Jets fans may point to the fact that they have plenty of restricted free agents that they may end up keeping. As true as that is, that requires paying those players more. With Zach Bogosian, Alexander Burmistrov, Blake Wheeler, and Bryan Little among their RFA class of seven players, their projected cap space of roughly $31.1 million could dwindle very quickly from extensions. That's not even considering who will replace big money UFAs Ron Hainsey and Nik Antropov. In numbers alone, the Jets have an opportunity to restructure their team relatively quickly.
Based on the pre-preseason books, some teams will have greater needs at certain positions. Along with the Jets, the New Jersey Devils have only five forwards signed for 2013-14. Those forwards are Ilya Kovalchuk, Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, Krys Barch, and Stephen Giontaneedless to say, one of those players doesn't belong and I don't mean Gionta's contract becoming two-way next season. The Devils are already thin in terms of forward depth, so they have an opportunity to make some significant changes. Retaining or replacing Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, and David Clarkson won't be easy. Like the Jets, giving raises to RFAs Jacob Josefson and Adam Henrique will eat into their projected cap space of $31.9 million, so it's not like they can or will spend all that on new forwards. The Devils do have a glut of defensemen (eight on the roster, six under contract next season, and plenty of prospects) so a trade may be likely. We shall see how that could affect their future.
While New Jersey is loaded in defensemen, St. Louis may find themselves short on a few. They only have two signed through 2013-14, the solid defensive defenseman stylings of Barret Jackman and Roman Polak. Yet their situation isn't so dire, as the four coming off the books are all restricted free agents and I presume they will all be qualified. Of course, they will stand to get paid real well, so St. Louis has to be mindful of how much they deserve. Buffalo's got a bigger problem, though. Believe it or not, they have nine blueliners on the roster right now with only three have deals that go beyond this season. They aren't alone in terms of who is left on the books right now. Three other teams only have three defenders signed through next season: Los Angeles, Winnipeg, and the Islanders. Buffalo has the largest difference among them, and what's more, four of them are UFAs: Robyn Regehr, Craig Leopold, Adam Pardy, and Alexander Sulzer. Throw in two more RFAs on the blue line as well as the fact they need to at least sign/bring up a goalie and two forwards, and the Sabres will need to creatively stretch out about $14.6 million in cap space.
At least the Sabres will have Ryan Miller ably stopping pucks for them in 2013-14. Most of the league will have to consider goaltending, as only eight NHL teams have two of them signed long term. Four NHL teams will really have to figure something out, as they have no goalies signed for 2013-14: Washington, Phoenix, Columbus, and Boston. Washington will enjoy getting by with the cheapest tandem in the league this season but they will have to decide what to do with impending RFAs Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. Phoenix's Mike Smith and Jason Labarbera will be UFAs; Smith is particularly interesting given his 93% save percentage last season. How well he avoids regression could determine his value in general, much less to Phoenix. Columbus will finally get away from Steve Mason and they will certainly have the cap space to change their situation there. Boston has the most difficult spot as all three of their goalies leave their cap. Tuukka Rask is an RFA coming off a $3.5 million salary (keeping him would require a raise of sorts), and they will have a little under $7 million in cap space to bring in two keepers plus add another forward and defenseman at minimum to their roster. Good luck, Bruins!
Of course, the Bruins aren't the only team that will be right up against the $64.3 million cap in 2013-14 with roster spots to fill. Montreal has the least amount of cap space, with about $4.1 million. Keep in mind that P.K. Subban remains out of contract and I'm sure Montreal would very much like to keep him. He will not come cheap, and that could really eliminate much of that space. With four forwards, two other defensemen, and a goalie also seeing their deals end, even sticking with minimum salary deals would cut it really closenever mind whatever Subban could add. Expect the Canadiens to get full value out of their compliance buyout as well as making some other moves.
Other cap-tight teams at the moment are Chicago, with only $4.8 million to add at least a goalie and a forward (remember, Rostislav Olesz now counts against their cap); Tampa Bay, with only 15 signed for next season and $6.7 million to replace/re-sign them with; Philadelphia, who will have about $6.8 million to add at least three forwards and a goalie; and the New York Rangers, with a bit more than $6.8 million. The Rangers will only have five players come off the books, so they don't need to stretch out their space too much, except that one of them is impending RFA defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who will command and demand a significant raise. On an unrelated note, Wade Redden counts on their cap, so we could see him once again in the NHL.
I understand this is all early and a lot is going to change even in the coming week. Teams will have to meet roster requirements, some players will need to be signed, and deals will be made in order to address a need of some sort. However, these moves are not just going to be made for this shortened season. They will affect how teams will look for next season and it could change how teams want to build their roster. The majority of the teams in this league will do so, either through extending RFAs, signing new UFAs, bringing up players from the minors on other deals, or moving expiring contracts for those with longer deals. The season may be shorter, but the offseason and roster flux won't beand it will vary wildly from team to team based on the sheer number of bodies for each position alone. It gets even more complicated when a player's importance (TOI%, quality of competition, production), contract status (UFA, RFA, RFA coming off an ELC), and other factors (injury history, age) are considered.
This will make using statsbasic or advancedtrickier. All right, if you or I get proven wrong, it's not that big of a deal. But if you're a general manager, and it directly affects the team and your job, it's very much a big deal. Since many of the statistical metrics to analyze players that are publicly available are affected by how many games of data are available, it's tempting to not put a lot of stock into the results. Results could very well be skewed from a good or bad run of games, injuries cutting player performance short, and players possibly starting off slow with a short training camp for preparation. However, the executives making these decisions with public or private information won't have that luxury. Decisions will be made in order for these teams to address the big gaps in their roster.
It will be even more important for general managers and their staff to properly interpret how a player performs in a short 2013 season. Where the gaps are in the upcoming roster will drive in part who they try to acquire in the short term and what they look to do in the offseason. The season hasn't started yet, but you can bet that teams are hard at work making plans on how to address what their team will look like for not just this season, but next season as well.