Jim Kelley
Thursday July 31st, 2008

It was just three summers ago that the Buffalo Sabres, bumping up against the first salary cap in National Hockey League history, took a pass on forward J. P. Dumont's $2.9 million arbitration award (which seems surreal in light of this summer's UFA signings) and left the 20-plus goal-scorer to the whims of the free-agent market.

The Sabres didn't want to do that, but they did need to get their payroll below $39 million even if it meant giving up a serviceable player for nothing in return. The Sabres' loss was a gain for both Dumont and the Nashville Predators, who signed him to a two-year deal for $4.5 million. This past winter, Dumont re-upped with the Preds for four more years and $16 million.

Tough nut for the Sabres, but that was the way it was supposed to work in the new-era world of the NHL. The idea was that, because of the cap, one team's player personnel riches would lead to a trickle-down for clubs that had, say, a need for a reliable two-way winger who can score reasonably well in a timely fashion and enough salary cap room to obtain him.

But a strange thing happened on the way to "cost certainty" and it's not just impacting the clubs that have trouble fitting in under the cap.

As the cap this summer zoomed to a stunning $56.7 million in a ridiculously scant three years, NHL teams have learned that the floor also rises.

With apologies to Ernest Hemingway, that floor -- the minimum amount a team must spend on payroll -- has reached the $40.7 million mark (no small irony to the Sabres of three seasons ago) and contributed to a great deal of cost uncertainty. That's a problem of another sort and one that's vexing for the NHL's large, small and in-between markets.

Take the Los Angeles Kings as exhibit A.

By most accounts, the Kings are in year 37or so of their latest rebuilding plan, and while the unabashed commitment to youth may have an upside regarding current general manager Dean Lombardi's shelf life in the Kingdom that hockey seems to have forgotten, it is not without a serious downside. We are on the cusp of August, a time when players start working out on their own, teams start anticipating training camps opening in September, and general managers start to look at their budgets.

The Kings are not in danger of having to shed players or payroll in an effort to get below the $56.7 million figure, but they are a goodly sum away from getting to the $40 million floor.

According to several websites who keep track of these things, the Kings have only 14 players under contract for about $27.7 million. Now, I was not a math major, but using my trusty Bill Gates-certified Windows Vista calculator (a component of the much-maligned operating system that does seem to work as advertised), that figure appears to be some $13 million under the mandatory bottom line.

To be fair, there are a couple of signings left to complete, but even if the restricted free agents come back into the fold and the Kings find a gem or two in the rubble of what is now the bargain bin in the free agent market, their payroll "deficit" is not likely to be overcome anytime soon. And since there's next to nothing coming in terms of possible walkaways from arbitration hearings that should be announced soon, the only option left is the trade market.

Normally the trade market would be something akin to salvation. I have an asset I can't afford. You have a need and room to accommodate it. But here's the newest wrinkle in a CBA that is now showing more wrinkles than Liz Taylor's Shar-Pei: Because the floor is so high, the team with cap room no longer has an advantage.

Again let's use the Kings, as an example.

Let's say the Kings came sniffing around one of the over-the-cap clubs that needs to shed payroll before the season gets underway. According to YouCouldBeWrong.com, a fictional website I pretend to use when I need to make educated guesses with an air of certainty, there are currently four teams -- Anaheim, Calgary, Chicago and Philadelphia -- who likely will have to shed some payroll to get under the ceiling.

Since "You Could Be Wrong "is also a phrase that former GM John Muckler almost always laid on me when he was looking to issue a non-denial denial to a story I was about to write and that he didn't want to confirm, lets also say the Kings, who are somewhat lacking in the experienced goaltending department, might be interested in obtaining Blackhawks netminder Nikolai Khabbibulin.

Khabibulin might not be at the top of his game right now, but he's got a Stanley Cup ring from 2004, thanks to an all-world effort for Tampa Bay, and he hasn't slipped all that far since. Sure his $6.75 million salary is a tad on the high side for where he sits in the goalie pecking order these days, but hey, the Kings need a vet and that $6.75 million would help close a gaping hole and, besides, it's only for one year, which is plenty enough time to determine if any of the L.A. goalies of the future are going to arrive anytime soon.

But here's the rub:

The Hawks aren't so far over the cap that they can't tweak elsewhere and still keep Khabibulin and the recently-acquired (and much lesser paid) Cristobal Huet for the start of the season and at least through to the trade deadline. Meanwhile, the Kings are so far below the floor that they are actually the distressed party here, not the Hawks.

So, in theory at least, the Hawks can put the proverbial gun to the Kings (rather than the other way around) and ask for something decent in return, like a low-priced, budding star still in the throes of his entry-level contract yet still a well- recognized talent that the Kings or any other sensible team would be loathe to give up.

Does the name Anze Kopitar ring a bell? How about Jack Johnson or Matt Greene?

And therein lies the problem for the Kings or any other well-under-the floor club.

To reach the mandated floor, they need to spend more, in some cases considerably more, money than they take in. To do that, they have to trade not just for useable players per-se, but for salaries that will get them to the new lower level. That usually means getting a high-salaried player, the kind that generally comes with liabilities such as fading performance for the dollar or an expiring contract and/or impending free agency, perhaps even a lifestyle issue. Risky in their own right, but now those same players also come with a demand for some cap-friendly and budding young talent to close the deal.

It didn't work that way in the not-that-long-ago-Dumont era, but that's the way it goes in the new NHL. Like cars and houses worth less than the loans still on them, the cap floor has created an upside down trade market.

It's an unreal market system that brings with it its own set of unreal problems, like having to spend more money to lose even more than you did the year before just to get to a mandated spending floor that is in excess of what the cap was just three seasons ago.

Who knew?

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