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BUFFALO (LGS) — With the NHL Trading Deadline under two weeks away, the Buffalo Sabres' cap situation has become a hot-button topic among the team's media and fans. The Sabres would undoubtedly like to pick up an extra defenseman at the deadline as well as a physical, fourth-line forward. But with the Sabres tip-toeing on the brink of the NHL Upper Salary Cap Limit, is it even possible?
That's what I aimed to figure out.
The Basics of The Cap
Before we're able to figure out what kind of move the Sabres are able to make before the deadline, we need to figure out where they stand today.
While there are many intricacies in the NHL's new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Sabres' situation — thankfully — is a fairly straightforward one to decipher.
The first thing we need to know is that the NHL Upper Salary Cap Limit this season is $44 million. Because there are 187 days in the 2006-2007 regular season, a team is allowed to spend $235,294 each day in cap dollars.
Each player's cap figure is simply the average salary through the life of his contract. For example, Brian Campbell's cap hit for this season and next season is $1.5 million because he signed a two-year deal which pays him $1.25 million this season and $1.75 million next season.
Each team's cap figure can change on a daily basis, depending on a variety of reasons. If a team does not use all of its $235,294 daily cap allowance, they can bank the unused amount and use it later in the season. This unused amount is called the team's "payroll room." At no point in the season can a team ever go over its payroll room. This means a team's payroll room cannot be negative, even if the team plans on evening it out later in the season. Basically, you can't borrow money from the future.
Who Counts Toward The Cap?
In short, the every player on a NHL team's roster is counted toward the cap. That includes the team's 23-man active roster along with any other player who is under contract and with that NHL team — including injured players.
Furthermore, players who are on a team as of 5 p.m. on any particular day count toward their team's cap allowance for that day. A player will also count toward the daily cap allowance if they were assigned to the minors on that same day they either practiced, played or traveled with the team prior to 5 p.m.
Today, the Buffalo Sabres currently have 23 players counting toward their overall cap figure. As of this moment, the Sabres are spending $238,649 in cap dollars each day on those 23 players. But wait, didn't we say the maximum a team could spend was $235,294? Here's where it gets a bit tricky.
Long-Term Injuries (LTI) and How They Affect The Cap
This is one intricacy in the NHL's new CBA that does pertain to the Sabres. And reports on how it works vary from source to source.
If a player has an injury that causes him to miss at least 10 games or 24 days of the season, he can be put on long-term injured reserve. What this does is give the injured player's team additional cap room — only if needed — to replace him. So if a team has a season-long cap figure of $43 million and they place a player who has a cap hit of $3 million on LTI, that team's upper cap limit becomes $46 million, $1 million of which goes against the cap and the additional $2 million the team is allowed to exceed as per the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
As with all good things, there is a catch. Once the injured player is ready to return to the lineup, the team must come into compliance with the cap again before re-activating the injured player. This means the team's upper cap limit is lowered back to $44 million.
Also, if a team chooses not to replace the injured player, that extra cap allowance does NOT get banked.
With the Sabres a few thousand off the Upper Salary Cap Limit earlier this season, Buffalo could have exceeded the upper cap limit by up to $2.9 million — or $15,508 per day. However, since the Sabres believe Tim Connolly will return this regular season, they chose not to use that extra cap room because they would have had to either cut players from their roster to return under the $44 million cap limit before re-activating Connolly or shelved the centerman for the entire season altogether.
The newly developed Paul Gaustad situation is slightly different. Since the Sabres have ruled out Gaustad for the season, they can exceed the daily cap limit by an additional $3,810 each day. That figure is Gaustad's $713,000 cap hit divided by 187 days. Essentially, when Connolly comes back, Gaustad's allowance will be used up by having Daniel Paille in the lineup as the young winger wasn't part of the team's opening-day roster.
Late Breaking News — A Way Around The Rules?
I have been researching this topic for about a week, and just last night, WGR 550's Brad Riter dropped a bombshell. Riter spoke to NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. Daly told Riter that if Connolly remains unfit to play through the conclusion of the regular season and into the NHL Playoffs, he would be eligible to be taken off LTI and added to the active roster without any cap consequences if the centerman was able to return during the playoffs. This rule seems like it could be easily abused by teams.
If this is indeed true, which you have to believe it is since Daly's word is golden on these matters, the Sabres would be stupid not to use Connolly's injury allowance to pick up a few players and hold Connolly's return out until after the playoffs begin.
However, there does appear to be at least one catch. Daly told Riter Tuesday night that anyone abusing that rule would be penalized. A rather vague statement, I think. Why?
Well, if Connolly is legitimately hurt through the regular season and then he's able to recover during the playoffs, is that considered abusing the rules?
Darcy Regier briefly alluded to what the penalty would be this morning. If the Sabres "abused the rule" and brought back Connolly during the playoffs, the penalty would force the team to make at least one of the players on the roster ineligible for the remainder of the post-season. This is a sticky situation that it appears Regier didn't want to involve his team in.
"I've had a number of discussions with the league not because we're trying to circumvent anything," Regier said. "But the concern is if we're playing by the rules, everyone else better be playing by the rules, because there are a number of long-term injured reserve players out there."
Sabres' Figures To Date
Including today, the Sabres have spent $31,906,019 of their $44 million Upper Salary Cap Limit. The maximum a team — without anyone on long-term injured reserve — could have spent up to this point was $30,823,529. The Sabres are slightly over this amount because of the injury allowance they receive for Connolly.
If everything should stay status quo, the Sabres will spend an additional $12,648,407 in cap dollars before the end of the season. This will mean Buffalo will end up using $44,554,426 in salary cap dollars by season's end. They will be $276,051 over the Upper Salary Cap Limit, but they will be allowed this extra amount, again, because of the team's injury allowance.
With Gaustad definitively out for the season, the Sabres' daily cap limit is adjusted to $239,104. That means if and when Connolly does manage to return to the lineup, the Sabres would not have to move or cut any player from the current active roster as their total daily cap hit would be $238,649. That's the good news.
Now the bad news. Barring any kind of breaking development on circumventing the limit by returning Connolly during the playoffs, the Sabres will not be able to acquire a rent-a-player for a prospect or a draft pick because they'll have less than $1,000 in daily cap room. No player in the NHL makes that low of an amount.
What this means is if Darcy Regier and the Sabres want to better themselves at the deadline, they'll have to do so by trading out some of the meat in their active roster. Or as Regier said on WGR today, "dollar for dollar."
For example, St. Louis is reportedly asking for a first-round pick for defenseman Eric Brewer ($2.0 million cap hit). The Sabres wouldn't be able to make that deal because they would be over the cap once Connolly returns. The only way they can get Brewer for a first-rounder is if they trade a player like Dmitri Kalinin ($2.0 million cap hit) to another team for a draft pick and then send a first-rounder to St. Louis.
What about Biron you ask? No can do, at least in this situation. The Sabres wouldn't even be able to trade Biron because they wouldn't have enough cap room to call up Amerks' goaltender Adam Denis to back up Ryan Miller.
The Final Conclusion
The NHL Trading Deadline is less than two weeks away, but now you know what to expect. If the Sabres are serious about Connolly returning, the only trade Buffalo can make has to equal out in terms of cap figures. If they decide Connolly won't return, then they can acquire a player or players with cap hits of no more than $2.9 million.
Footnote: Where did we get all our numbers from? Download our Excel Worksheet above and see for yourself. Although all numbers listed in the spreadsheet are unofficial They are as close to the real thing as you can get.