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Sizing up the hot stove season

By Tom

With the trade and subsequent signing of Tomas Vokoun by Pittsburgh, it’s clear that the postseason “hot stove” season isn’t going to wait for the new Stanley Cup champs to celebrate.  So we’d best do some homework quickly.

Following is perhaps the most important three charts that you will read this offseason.  Why are they important? In this salary cap age, it’s all about money.  Salary money, to be exact.  How much is available, how a team invests it, how much flexibility it has to shore up weaknesses.  The teams that spend their salary money wisely generally win.  Those that don’t, don’t.

In that light, permit me to share three permutations of the exact same data.  It was culled today (and with each signing, trade, cut, etc., it will change) from CapGeek and massaged to meet our needs.  You can access each chart by selecting the tab at the bottom of the embedded spreadsheet.

The first chart tells us how much salary cap space each team has remaining to spend given a projected 2012-13 salary cap of $70.3 million.  I think it’s fairly well understood that with the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players Association due to expire on September 15, that number probably won’t stand.  However, it’s the best we have at this point.  Once you make the leap of faith and agree to use it for comparative purposes, however, you better understand who are the Columbus Blue Jackets’ main offseason competitors – especially in a free agency marketplace where you can’t overpay enough to get the talent you so badly need. In this case, that appears to be two-thirds of the National Hockey League.

The second chart tells us how many players that each team needs to sign to reach the 23-man roster allotment.  Why is this important?  Simple – it tells us how widely spread all that cap money needs to be.  It’s one thing to have, say, $15 million in cap space with only one player left to sign to hit the 23-man roster limit.  It’s another to have 15 players left for the same amount of money.  Interestingly, only three teams – Chicago (1), Los Angeles (3) and Philadelphia (3) – have more players locked down for 2012-13 than the Blue Jackets.

Lastly, the third chart suggests the average amount of cap money to be spent per remaining roster slot.  To paraphrase George Orwell, all charts are equal but some are more equal than others.  This one perhaps offers the keys to the kingdom – the average amount of salary cap money remaining on a per-roster slot basis. Sure, the money isn’t going to be divided up evenly.  A team will give different amounts to different players based upon need, scarcity and desperation.  But it’s a good indicator of which teams have the flexibility to be players in the offseason talent bazaar.

As it stands right now, I’d be wary of Detroit. Chicago only has one roster spot left to fill, so their impact could be dramatic but won’t be widespread. Carolina and Phoenix are both under fiscal constraints (read: budget teams) that likely won’t spend to the salary cap. Los Angeles probably is closer to being a budget team than it wants to admit, as the new $250 million television deal‘s first payment has been earmarked by the intelligentsia to pay a signing bonus to netminder Jonathan Quick (read: They didn’t have the cash to do it otherwise.).

Then, there’s Detroit.  You can look further down that third chart and rationalize plenty of reasons why the two-thirds of the league’s teams with more salary cap space than Columbus could cause headaches for the CBJ this offseason, but I’m putting my chips on the Red Wings as the team that the rest of the NHL – Columbus included – will need to deal with.  They have an owner who is OK with paying to win, a general manager who knows top talent, an incumbent roster that still has a lot of cache even with the retirement of legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and “Original Six” history oozing out of every crack in the rapidly-aging Joe Louis Arena.

The quality free agents are there, but they’re not necessarily plentiful.  It’s going to be a dogfight to get game-changing talent onto the roster.  Let’s hope that the Blue Jackets bring their A-game during hot stove season.  For while their current financial and roster situation puts them in a strong position, it’s not invulnerable.

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